CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1Technics designates the set of means that are necessary in order to obtain a given goal. It is a knowhow that aims at a precise result. Sometimes, these means are materialized in tools—so technics also designates the set of technical “objects.” But since the seventeenth century, this general definition has been inflected by another meaning. Technics has become the image of reason in reality, and the incarnation of our power over it. Consequently, it has entered into all fields of life. Firstly, as Adam Smith shows, technical development is the immediate reflection of the economic and rational theory of the division of labor. Technics implicitly comprises a certain vision of society, forms of economic development (Taylorism, for example), and thus inevitably has political and ideological stakes. Latterly, owing to its exponential development at the beginning of the twentieth century, technics has given rise to its own mythology. Since then, as well as knowhow, the tool, reason, or a certain mode of work, it has also represented a process of spontaneous development, as if it had gradually become the cause of its own growth. The myth of the power of machines over individuals, which we find today in science fiction films and novels, shows that technical development has not surpassed culture or anthropology, but has surpassed the conscious limits that man sought to impose upon it. Technics does indeed designate something real, but not any precise, easily identifiable reality. It is not a concept but a certain structure of our relation to reality, implying at once practical and theoretical knowledge, objects, ideological values and beliefs. Today, technics is not one possible mode of experience or of relation to the world; it is the fundamental mode. Having become a way of life, a style of being, an unconscious manner of thinking and of relating ourselves to the world, to things, and to others, it consequently supposes an inquiry into its ethics.

2Yet this inquiry finds itself plunged into an immediate paradox: How can we delimit, or even call into question the value of technics if it is the basis for our way of being and thinking today? In the name of which values and which mode of life could we interrogate technics if our judgment rests upon the very values conveyed by it? This ethical inquiry is caught in our contemporary perspective on technics. We no longer understand it as one possible mode of relation to reality, but as the only mode of being that is capable of facing up to the supposed exigencies of reality. The principal obstacle to the creation of an ethics of technics resides in this illusory transformation of a style into a necessity.

3The fact that technics today outstrips the mastery we would impose on it leads ethical reflection back into metaphysical territory. [1] We see technical development as an irreversible phenomenon, rooted in reality, which means that our culture has no choice but to adapt itself. But how can we be so certain that technics is not a contingent phenomenon? Are our consciousness and our thought so powerful that they can determine absolutely what belongs to the necessity of things? The return to metaphysics in thinking about the ethics of technics doubtless represents one of the most flagrant contemporary manifestations of subjectivism. Our conception of subjectivity as first consciousness remains so predominant that we are still convinced that we can reduce reality to the disciplined judgments of rational consciousness.

4However, the fact that technics surpasses the consciousness of man does not necessarily mean that the process it incarnates is beyond human experience. The prerequisite for the foundation of an ethics of technics would then consist in leaving behind the paradigm of adaptation and reestablishing the technical phenomenon as contingent within history. So long as technics is perceived, wrongly, as responding to a necessary manifestation of reality, any development of an ethics will be in vain. It is therefore necessary, in a first stage, to understand the process that has gradually led us to believe that technics is not merely a form of relation to the world but a necessary adaptation to reality itself. From this latter point of view, we shall see that Heidegger’s thinking of technics plays a fundamental role, because it constitutes at once the most lucid denunciation and the most profound raison d’être of the technical illusion.

5The Heideggerian approach will allow us to detect the implicit prejudices of the technical illusion. But it is not enough to be conscious of illusion in order to escape it. If we do not simultaneously attain an unprecedented conceptualization that allows us to demonstrate the gap between the creations of consciousness and reality, then our critique will remain a dead end. An ethics of technics calls for the elaboration of a new theory of experience and subjectivity. For this reason, I will appeal to a notion from Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy which seems to convey both a critical and a creative dimension regarding this point: that of “institution.” The detailed study of “institution” will allow us to undo the symbolic links that technics establishes in our relation to reality, and to open them up to new forms of reflection.


7Heidegger’s text on the question of technics is without doubt one of the most well-known reflections on the subject. Yet it presents a great ambiguity which, to our knowledge, has not been emphasized previously. This text opens up the possibility of an ethics of technics, and closes it again in the same movement. It opens it up by revealing the illusion inherent in the technical style, and closes it again by creating one of the most powerful obstacles to this ethics: the affirmation that technics is a phenomenon inscribed in the necessity of reality. Let us review these two aspects.

8How does Heidegger’s critique reveal the illusory foundation of our relation to technics? Technics, Heidegger writes, is a relationship to the world defined by the relation of means and ends, that is to say, an instrumental relationship. [2] We consider reality as a “stock” of energy destined to realize our projects. From an anthropological point of view, Heidegger’s vision of technics can be understood as an extension of the Cartesian conception of subjectivity, which sees in man the possibility of making himself master and possessor of nature. As such, this anthropological aspect would lead us astray from the reality of technics, and distance us from any comprehension of it. Heidegger denounces our illusory belief in the absolute power of human volition and free will. He does not think that we could limit technical development on the pretext that we have suddenly decided to take it in hand and orient it toward spiritual ends. [3] Even though everything suggests that technical development tends to escape the limits we would impose upon it, that mechanization and automation constantly grow despite our awareness of them, we still continue to believe that we might remain masters of this phenomenon. The illusion lies in this mastery. In a certain sense, Heidegger shows that our ethical thinking about technics is still technics since, like technics, it incarnates a will to mastery of reality through knowledge. We wish to limit the excesses of technics, yet our reflection, our values, and our convictions remain subordinated to a conception of the subject governed by the ideal of technics. This critique is extremely pertinent because it brings to light the paradox with which an ethical approach to technics is still confronted, even today: How can we think an ethics of technics if we remain prisoners of the mode of thinking that technics itself imposes upon us? Heidegger’s critique of subjectivity through technics reveals the aporia that our very will confronts in creating an ethics of technics.

9Having said this, at the moment he opens up this perspective, Heidegger seems to plunge straight back into the illusion he has just denounced. He detects an insufficiency in his anthropological study: our instrumental relation to the world does not yet bear witness, according to him, to the very essence of technics, [4] which is not merely a cultural phenomenon whose sources must be understood, but a necessary unveiling of reality as such. At the moment when he understands technics as an instrumentum, in other words as a certain way of doing something with reality, understanding it, or experiencing it, he argues that this doing is not contingent, but is inscribed in the necessity of reality. He sees in technics a particular form of causality, and consequently of force, which drives the unveiling of the power proper to reality: “enframing.” Technical development ultimately surpasses our ethical resolutions because it is intrinsic to reality. The only possible attitude faced with “enframing” would then be some kind of adaptation. It seems, however, that with this metaphysical analysis Heidegger himself also concedes a form of subjectivism, one not so distant from the will to mastery that he has just denounced. Whereas he has just emphasized the impossibility of reducing technical phenomena to the categories of consciousness, he now claims to describe the essence of such a phenomenon. Does this not amount to renewing the prejudice of a subject capable of overseeing reality through thought? Don’t the concept of “enframing” and the metaphysical hypothesis that accompanies it extend the illusion of a subjective omnipotence? To think an ethics of technics implies that we escape the categories that it imposes on us; but we cannot succeed in doing so if we declare it irremediably inscribed in reality. To see technics as a necessity amounts to thinking within the categories of technics, thinking that we are sufficiently master of reality to claim to know what is intrinsically bound up in it. In the Heideggerian argument, the impossible reduction of technics to that which our consciousness sees in it suffices to justify the metaphysical nature and the real necessity of technics. This aspect of the argument reveals two different ethical problems:

101. The metaphysical approach to technics creates a major obstacle to any ethical thought. So long as we claim to know that technics is necessary, we cannot attempt, we cannot create, any other form of relation to reality. The limits that we try to impose efface themselves, since they will never have sufficient force to counter a phenomenon perceived as inevitable. Technics is a style of life which claims to discern the entirety of reality through knowledge; or at least one which functions according to this ideal. Once we claim to know that technics is a necessary phenomenon, that nothing today can stop its development, that we can construct no limits to its expansion, we extend the technical illusion and continue to reduce reality to our imagination of it. A possible limitation of technics can only come about through the foundation of another style of relation to reality. In a first stage, this implies the acknowledgement of our ignorance as to whether technical development is or is not reversible. In other words, we must reinstate the contingency of the technical style.

112. Let us add that the perception of technics as a necessary phenomenon prevents not only the creation of an ethics of technics, but also harbors potentially totalitarian aspects. Once we claim to be dealing with a necessary phenomenon, rooted in reality or in nature, from that point on any means are justified if they seem to be the only way to curb it. One might well wonder about the persistence of a certain metaphysical dogma in Heidegger and on the problematic consequences that it might have from a political point of view. Moreover, we may observe that, in certain thinkers who succeeded him, the recourse to a metaphysical dogma in the ethical thinking of technics is not without political consequences. For this reason, in particular, we cannot agree with the ethical thought of Hans Jonas. The “ethics of responsibility” rests on a supposedly objective foundation: that of the facts of being, such as it is and such as it must remain. According to Jonas, any ethical reflection on technics must set out from this fact, and the threat that technical development poses to being. Not knowing whether technical progress will engender a mere transformation or a progressive destruction of reality and of man, we must develop a “heuristics of fear”: taking into account the possible adverse effects of technical development and not wagering on future progress if there is a risk of its bringing about greater ills. The problem with this method is that it rests on a preliminary metaphysics that claims to grasp the very nature of being and to deduce ethical principles on that basis. In other words, in the image of Heidegger, Jonas thinks about the ethics of technics on the basis of a reflection that perpetuates the fundamental presupposition of the technical style: that of the reduction of reality to what we think of it. The persistence of this metaphysical dogma in his thought has given rise to numerous questions as to the nature of the political system Jonas wishes to put in place. Moreover, Jonas himself has confessed that the political aspect of his theory remains its weakest link. [5] Although freedom occupies an important place in his thought, the imperative of responsibility still calls for a form of authoritarianism, on the subject of which he remains rather vague. The urgent application of the imperative of responsibility would have aspects that are hardly compatible with the foundations of democracy, and the existence of a “well-intentioned, well-informed tyranny” may prove necessary. [6] We hold no ill will toward Jonas, and he has defended himself against any totalitarian interpretation of his writings. [7] Having said this, although one might agree with Jonas’s heuristics of fear and refuse to leave open the chance of a risk of ecological destruction engendered by technics, one might also not accept the risk of the tyranny to which the literal application of the principle of responsibility might give rise.

12What can we conclude from Heidegger’s approach? The ethical thinking of technics must distance itself from the traditional definition of subjectivity as free will and mastery of nature. On this point we find Heidegger’s critique of technics justified. It reveals that our illusions about technics are the result of excess confidence in a certain conception of subjectivity. And in this way it calls for another way of thinking about the subject. Nevertheless, the critique of technics as critique of a certain conception of subjectivity must not lead us back into metaphysics—in other words, into a thought that claims to describe reality independently of experience. To claim that technics is a matter of necessity reinforces the technical illusion itself and prevents the critical approach from being fully realized. To establish the conditions of possibility of an ethics of technics thus implies that we distance ourselves from dualist conceptions that explain our relation to reality in terms of the subject’s relationship to a given. We must think the subjectivity of experience without reducing it to a representation, rational consciousness, or a capacity for mastery. And, indissociably from this, we must consider technics no longer as a necessary phenomenon that demands we adapt to it, but as a style of relation to reality that is open to a certain influence from our subjective projects of innovation. In short, the ethics of technics supposes an approach which would no longer confuse consciousness and experience.

13The notion of “institution,” developed by Merleau-Ponty in his course at the Collège de France in 1954, opens up a new perspective from this point of view. What is explicitly at stake with this concept is to find “a solution to the difficulties found in the philosophy of consciousness.” [8] These “difficulties” are themselves linked to dualist approaches—realism and idealism—which describe the experience of reality through the relation of the subject to a given object. The beginning of the 1954 course presents “institution” from the outset as a refutation of empiricist and phenomenological conceptions of experience: “The empiricism of successive ‘sensations’ or ‘Abschattungen’ and the idealism that rectifies it falsify experience.” [9] For Merleau-Ponty, these traditions of thought remain imbued with subjectivism. Even Husserlian thought, which tries to free itself from the spontaneous illusions of consciousness, ends up rediscovering the phantasm of an omnipotent subjectivity. Therefore, a new conception of experience is to be elaborated through the concept of “institution.” [10]

14“Institution,” however, is doubtless one of the most complex notions in the French writer’s thought. In the notes for the 1954 course, important definitions sometimes emerge in a somewhat dogmatic manner. The genesis of the new conceptual categories proposed by Merleau-Ponty is neither self-evident nor explicit. What is more, the 1954 course consists essentially in applying the notion of “institution” to different fields of lived experience: psychology, art, action, literature, sentiment, history, philosophy, the human sciences, etc. Hence the whole affair takes on a descriptive aspect which prevents the novelty of the notion from coming across clearly. Let us not forget that these are course notes; Merleau-Ponty’s oral exposition would probably have given a more nuanced account of these various aspects. Be this as it may, in order to understand the contribution of “institution” to our reflection on technics, we must reconstitute the problematic stakes of its genesis in Merleau-Ponty’s thought. To what extent, then, does the following definition open up a new field of reflection on experience? In what way might it constitute a preliminary terrain for an ethics?


Institution in the strong sense [is] this symbolic matrix that results in the openness of a field, of a future according to certain dimensions, and from this result we have the possibility of a common adventure and of a history as consciousness. [11]

16The following pages concentrate on three essential aspects of this definition so as to understand how the theory of experience they open subverts our relationship to technics: history, symbolism, and dimension.

17Merleau-Ponty does not believe that experience can be thought as the relation of a subject “in general” to an object “in general.” In his eyes, experience is always expressed within a history and a culture, in other words within a certain symbolic dimension, where the definition of subject and object originates. History is thus conceived as the incessant evolution of man’s consciousness as it is incarnated in a certain corporeal and practical experience of reality. A passage from Adventures of the Dialectic describes this movement well:


In order to understand the logic and the shifts of history, its meaning and what, within it, resists meaning, they still had to conceptualize the sphere proper to history, the institution, which develops neither according to causal laws, like a second nature, but always in dependence on its meaning, nor according to eternal ideas, but rather by bringing more or less under its laws events which, as far as it is concerned, are fortuitous and by letting itself be changed by their suggestions. Torn by all the contingencies, repaired by involuntary actions of men who are caught in it and want to live, the web deserves the name of neither spirit nor matter but, more exactly, that of history. This order of “things” which teaches “relationships between persons,” sensitive to all the heavy conditions which bind it to the order of nature, open to all that personal life can invent, is, in modern language, the sphere of symbolism… [12]

19“Institution” is defined by a movement for which causal determinism and idealism cannot account. It creates history through meaning, yet without abolishing contingency. Becoming remains in the hands of men, but it cannot be reduced to the finalities they pursue. As Merleau-Ponty writes, the “institution” is at once “sensitive” to the already-instituted order, and open to all that a subjective singularity can invent. There is a movement of creative borrowing here that the late Husserl’s thought had brought to light in the notion of Stiftung, and which inspired Merleau-Ponty’s “institution.” In The Origin of Geometry, Stiftung designates the movement of the creation of mathematical idealities, a movement whereby new ideas come forth on the basis of originary acquisitions which are implicitly present but not thematized. [13] Scientific research consists of interrogating the content of knowledge in order to rediscover its origin within it, the implicit self-evidences on which it rests and which, once reactivated, can be the source of new findings. For Husserl, the perennial nature of this historical movement of the sciences is essentially incarnated in the symbolic dimension of writing. [14] When words are inscribed in a discourse, their meaning relates both to what they explicitly express and to the traces of earlier meanings conserved within them. Hence two different relations with writing are possible: either a simple passive comprehension of what is explicitly written, in which case knowledge is perpetuated without being renewed; or else an active comprehension, scrutinizing the traces of other possible meanings, like a sort of renewed surprise at the lost origin of a science. [15] Knowledge is transformed in this movement, since the self-evidence that founded it is modified. Merleau-Ponty takes up the general structure of the Stiftung, but gives it a wider purport. The symbolic structure of the institution surpasses the problem of geometry alone. It incarnates a field of signification within which subjectivity, objects, values, and all of culture take on a certain style of being. “The institution is real and never finished,” [16] as Merleau-Ponty states. It retains a certain share of contingency, where subject and object do not have an absolute stability. Just like the relation to writing, the relation to an instituted style can be passive or active: one can inscribe oneself in it and perpetuate its history, or else one can interrogate the self-evidences that found it and thus transform the becoming of a culture.

20If this conception of experience as an advent of history should prove legitimate, it would be most fruitful for our ethical reflection. It would show, for example, that the paradigm of adaptation, which belongs to the technical style, survived because of our passive relation to its symbolic structure. Not having interrogated the self-evidences that found it, we would have contented ourselves with extending a style of relationship with the world that has today taken on the appearance of necessity. Our greatest certainties as to the irreversibility of certain phenomena would be rooted in nothing more than the passivity of our relationship to the world. In reality, where technics imposes a fixed given, which constrains our relation to reality, there would be an experience in movement. The given would only exist relative to a certain symbolic dimension, which could have been other, and which remains open to novelty. The paradigm of adaptation would in fact be the element of a style whose origin we have repressed. So the question is precisely: Is Merleau-Ponty’s approach to experience pertinent and legitimate? The conception of experience as history and as movement relies on being rooted in a form of symbolism. What exactly does the latter signify? What does it represent? In the name of what do we affirm its primacy for experience?

21In fact “institution” is defined as a “primordial symbolism” or as a “symbolic matrix.” [17] Why would this theory be any more legitimate than one that presupposes a given or an original consciousness? In reality, symbolism is the extension of a theory of experience whose foundations were posited in Merleau-Ponty’s first works. Koji Hirose has remarked that the term “institution” already appeared in Merleau-Ponty’s first writings, with a meaning close to that of the 1954 course. [18] More generally speaking, “institution” brings a precise conceptualization to certain approaches that are only sketched out in The Structure of Behavior and Phenomenology of Perception. Through the study of behaviors, Merleau-Ponty shows that it is impossible to explain their signifying dimension and their adaptation to the environment on the basis of a psychological reflex mechanism. It is necessary to presuppose the existence of a form of intentionality, albeit one that is poorly defined at that stage. This intentionality does indeed relate to the individual who lives the experience, but, as the end of the work makes clear, it cannot be reduced to a “Kantian object before consciousness.” [19] A kind of gap opens up between lived experience and conscious representation.

22We find this hiatus between consciousness and experience once more in the Phenomenology of Perception. The expression of experience comes up against an unsayable, a sort of “there is something prior,” an ungraspable reality that appears only in expression yet which seems to precede it. “Reality is to be described, and neither constructed or constituted. This means,” writes Merleau-Ponty, “that I cannot assimilate perception to syntheses that belong to the order of judgment, acts, or predication.” [20] One can no longer believe that it suffices to discipline judgment or to clarify the limits of reason in order to escape the lacunae of representation: rational representation itself seems to be derived from an ineffable primordial dimension. The discovery of this point of resistance does not however lead to the establishing of a given outside of experience. It is experience as such that surpasses the limits of representational consciousness. As T.F. Geraets argues, Merleau-Ponty’s thinking is directed toward a new transcendental philosophy in which transcendence is experience itself. [21]

23The gap between consciousness and experience is explained by the implication of the body. In Husserl’s later thought, the French author finds the means to elaborate the new form of intentionality that had begun to emerge in The Structure of Behavior. Merleau-Ponty takes up the concept of “operative intentionality,” [22] which characterizes an intentional mode preceding the acts of consciousness, and transposes it into the body. Experience is no longer solely a representation but a “sensing,” which constitutes “the intentional fabric that the work of knowledge will seek to decompose.” [23] For its part, consciousness becomes “being toward the thing through the intermediary of the body.” [24] The introduction of the intentionality of the body into experience transforms our relationship to reality. Paradoxically, it seems that reality must implicate a form of illusion in order to be realized. In perception, for example, my perspective on the object is always partial, since I have but one point of view on it. I am conscious that the table before me would be perceived differently from another place, and that the perspective of a person on the other side of the room is different from my own. The partial resistance of the object to my sensorial grasp ensures its dimension of alterity: it is because it cannot be reduced to what I see of it that it is other than me. But indissociably, I am conscious of lacunae in my perception because I “know” that the object goes beyond it, that it has an absolute, in-itself unity, which cannot be reduced to what I perceive of it. Now, how can I have such knowledge, since experience does not give it to me? How can I be certain of the real unity of the object? Isn’t this knowledge an unconscious construction? This at least is Merleau-Ponty’s hypothesis. The object is perceived as a “given” because experience anticipates, in imaginary fashion, the “in-itself” of the thing. The French philosopher employs the expression “presumptive unity” [25] to designate the invisible and immediate constitution of the unity of the object before our eyes. Thus experience is inhabited by a “silent thesis” of unity, [26] an implicit work of the imaginary which contributes toward defining the nature of the perceived. That which apparently gives itself, in reality comes forth occasioned by a certain imaginary dimension of experience. The theory of the intentionality of the body and the illusion that it inscribes within the experience of reality, confirm the gap between experience and our conscious representations: what is perceived is a broader dimension than representation.

24All the same, Merleau-Ponty’s study limits itself here to perception, and does not give us a general theory of experience. What is more, this approach still lacks any new conceptualization of its own. As I remarked above, the French writer remains caught in certain conceptual categories which lead his theory of experience back into a form of subjectivism. Take, for example, the notion of the “tacit cogito,” which reestablishes a sort of primordial consciousness within experience. This point has been noted many times by commentators, and was even the object of a self-critique by Merleau-Ponty in his later works. [27] For this reason, I will leave this point without further elaboration. Yet some new notions still need to be developed to describe experience.

25This is precisely the role that falls to the “institution,” and more particularly to the notion of symbolism. To exit realism and idealism implies no longer presupposing the existence of a given or a consciousness prior to experience. The given is not absolutely stable since its unity remains relative to a certain imaginary and symbolic position of the subject. And this position itself gives a certain consistency to subjectivity because of the object to which it is related. Paraphrasing Paul Claudel, Merleau-Ponty speaks of a “co-naissance” [both co-birth and knowledge] of subject and object in experience, [28] a sort of interdependency of the institutor and the instituted, of activity and passivity. [29] The primacy of symbolism in experience is thus not simply introduced dogmatically in 1954. It is brought in to give a conceptual body to the distinction between consciousness and experience sketched out by Merleau-Ponty in his earlier works.

26“Institution,” as symbolic experience, subverts our technical relation to the world. Heideggerian enframing has only an apparent necessity. The interdependency of subject and object in experience prevents any instrumental relation to reality. The “absolutization” of the means-end relationship, which ends up making us believe that we ourselves have become the object of a mysterious unfolding of reality, is no longer legitimate: it results from the projection of the absolute power of consciousness into a supposed reality. “Institution” invites us to question the primacy of the instrumental relationship to reality. Not to contest its status from the outset, but to understand the implicit self-evidences on which it depends. It restores a certain surprise in relation to the finalities that we pursue. This aspect is essential for our reflection. In the framework of a technical relation to reality, ethical questioning of action proves very limited. By definition, a technics does not call into question the end that it wishes to attain; or if it does, it becomes another technics. The only possible field of questioning concerning action is reduced to that of means seeking an end that remains perpetually the same. We then ask ourselves how to arrive at our ends as rapidly, surely, and simply as possible…. Speed, security, effectiveness, viability, and simplicity are examples of the field of values inherent to the style of technics. We would have nothing to say against these values were they to define today just one institution among others in the history of men. But the problem is that they have taken on a disquieting supremacy, and we no longer perceive that they are inscribed within a certain style. Concentrating essentially on the improvement of knowledge and practices so as to arrive at our ends, we forget the contingency of the latter. The finalities that we pursue headlong do not surprise us any longer, their legitimacy is no longer in question, and we are so much persuaded of their necessity that we think them inscribed within reality. Given this, the field of values evoked above becomes irreducible since it takes on the appearance of a discourse called forth by reality itself. What other value constructed through human experience could then come to counter the values of technics? The battle is already lost, our active role in experience is gradually effaced and any true ethical project disappears along with it. On the contrary, the conception of experience as primordial symbolism demonstrates that reality does not offer itself up to us in the form of an “object.” It is not a tool that we can manipulate at our convenience, nor a transcendent force imposing its diktat upon us. The fact that the positions of subject and object are not defined a priori, that the expression of reality remains relative to a certain imaginary dimension, all of these aspects introduce some play into experience, open up a sort of fault line where the freedom of creation remains possible. The means-end relationship of technics is no longer obligatory; it defines a certain mode of action, a symbolic “institution” where subject and object are not fixed by some eternal determination. The necessity of technics rests on an imaginary dimension that one can interrogate, or even transform, in such a way as to create other values. But what is a dimension, and what is the dimension that governs technical style?

27The initial definition of “institution” insisted on the existence of “dimensions” that structure experience. Even if there are some passages alluding to this subject in some research in the 1950s, we must wait for the later writings, such as Eye and Mind and The Visible and the Invisible to understand exactly what Merleau-Ponty means by “dimension.” I propose to outline this concept here so as to give “institution” its full critical import for the phenomena of technics. This will allow us, in particular, to discern more precisely the “matter” with which an ethical thinking of technics has to work.

28For Merleau-Ponty, a “dimension” is above all a system of references [30] in relation to which we structure our values, our culture, and our style. This system of references is nevertheless unconscious. We do not see it, we see according to it.


The institution is […] the establishment of a system of distribution of values or of significations, a system which is practiced like the phonematic system of a language (principles of discrimination), but which is not acquired notionally […]. [31]

30“Dimensions” are a system of references which is “practiced” without being acquired “notionally.” In the same way that each spontaneous act of speech conforms to the syntax of the language without consciousness having a prior representation of the grammatical rules being employed, every experience conforms unconsciously to a “system of reference” which orders it significantly. Here we rediscover the gap between consciousness and experience from which “institution” emerges. We must not however be deceived by the term “system,” which here leaves a somewhat abstract aftertaste. The “dimension” must not be confused with the Kantian structure of the a priori. Not only does it arise with and within experience; it depends as much on the body as on reason. Although it may be incarnated in concepts or ideas, it can also correspond to an affect, a sensation, a perception, a memory or a trauma…. Merleau-Ponty does not determine the nature of the “dimension” because it depends on the singularity of the experience in question and on the individual who lives it.

31But if the nature of a “dimension” is not determinable a priori, how can we describe the structure that it incarnates? Merleau-Ponty speaks sometimes of a “level” in relation to which experience is understood. Thus, for example, geometrical depth perspective was the “dimension” around which Renaissance paintings were articulated. But this aspect still allows us to suppose that the “dimension” can be reduced to the construction of thought. But it can also belong to the body, to “sensoriality” itself. The example of the color yellow in a working note of November 1959, entitled “The ‘Senses’—Dimensionality—Being” allows us to clarify this aspect:


Sensoriality: for example, a color, yellow; it surpasses itself of itself: as soon as it becomes the color of the illumination, the dominant color of the field, it ceases to be such or such a color, it has therefore of itselt an ontological function, it becomes apt to represent all things […] With one sole movement it imposes itself as particular and ceases to be visible as particular. The “World” is this whole where each “part,” when one takes it for itself, suddenly opens unlimited dimensions—becomes a total part.
Now, this particularity of the color of the yellow, and this universality, are not a contradiction, are together sensoriality itself; it is by the same virtue that the color, the yellow, at the same time gives itself as a certain being and as a dimension, the expression of every possible being […]…. becomes total part.
The alleged contradiction between the yellow as some thing and the yellow as the title of a world: this is not a contradiction, for it is precisely within its particularity as yellow and through it that the yellow becomes a universe or an element. [32]

33The yellow color of a light may be a perception; but it may also be that which allows me to perceive. The yellow incarnates either a color or a “dimension” according to which experience unfolds. If it is a “dimension,” then it acquires an “ontological function,” writes Merleau-Ponty. It becomes at once a perspective and a “raison d’être” of the objects of experience. The latter reveal themselves through a style that they owe as much to their own materiality as to the dimension which animates them. As Renaud Barbaras writes, the concept of dimension signifies that:


the thing is not individual but a principle of equivalence or of unity for the totality of the world. In other words, freighted with this ontological thickness, “oversaturated,” the thing of the world is always decentred in relation to itself, more than a “unity,” and thus susceptible to articulating itself to all others. [33]

35“Dimension” defines the anchoring point of the body in the world, a blind point of consciousness, but one on the basis of which the matter of experience is given to sense and to consciousness. It is not a pure projection of the individual on a given reality, because there is no given prior to the existence of this anchoring point. It incarnates an “element” of experience, as Merleau-Ponty writes at the end of the preceding quotation, in other words, “a sort of incarnate principle that brings a style of being wherever there is a fragment of being.” [34] “Dimension” animates experience by opening it onto that of another individual or another object, establishes links, creates relations and meaning. It makes experience be through the style it gives to it. And the style, in turn, gives rise to a consciousness and an object. There is no being independently of a certain manner of being. Or, as Merleau-Ponty puts it in a working note for The Visible and the Invisible, “Being is what requires creation from us for us to experience it.” [35]

36If technics is not a necessity but an “institution,” it also rests on a “dimension,” on an underlying level on the basis of which our values and our cultures take on—precisely—their value. Might it be possible to express this “dimension,” to give it at least a verbal body accessible to consciousness, so that our ethical thought would no longer develop according to it but on it? Might one detect in our manner of acting and of relating ourselves to the world a recurrent, structural phenomena, which founds our values and our culture? On this subject, one of Merleau-Ponty’s remarks can attract our attention. One of the consequences of the notion of “institution,” according to him, resides in a new comprehension of “doing”:


Not pure efficiency, which is the obsession of spectator consciousness, and assumes end+fiat. Doing takes place in the same world as seeing: it is my substance (gestures, speech) which is directed toward fissures of the landscape, towards the to-be-done (just as a movement takes up the frozen movements of things). Doing knows that it is in the eyes of others, that it too is symbolic activity: it is not therefore the positing of an end and choice, but an operation according to a style […]. [36]

38The absolutization of the means-end relationship in our conception of action is linked to “a spectator consciousness,” writes Merleau-Ponty, in other words, to the traditional vision of subjectivity. But “doing” cannot be reduced to this: it is open and in movement, like the “institution,” and constitutes an “operation according to a style.” Although linked to the singularity of an individual, “doing” does not necessarily correspond to what this latter “knows.” The distinction that “institution” and style introduce between consciousness and experience disjoin that which technics cannot dissociate: knowing and doing. This is not merely a question of words. The predominance of the technical style means that we have faith in the indissociability of knowing and doing, and that this implicit belief governs our comprehension of reality. Knowhow is one of the “dimensions” on the basis of which we define our values and our culture. There no longer exists any valid “doing” that is dissociable from an a priori knowledge of consciousness, or even from a highly specialized knowledge. The development of technocracy in the twentieth century would suffice to demonstrate this. But every domain of life now finds itself invested by a specific knowledge that tries to abolish the contingency of affects and subjectivity in our relation to reality. The technics of “management” and communication govern our professional relations, but also our sentimental attachments, since, if we are to believe certain Internet sites, there are techniques for dating or for making friends. Success and happiness would also be the result of a most precise technics of life for which NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) is attempting to establish the characteristics through psychological schemas of behavior…. The value of an action seems to be determined and ensured by the rational representation that consciousness makes of it. Reciprocally, one might easily show that it is more and more difficult today to legitimate the value of knowledge independently of its immediate application in “doing.”

39But if “doing” relies uniquely on knowledge, all reflection on human action—in other words any ethical thought—consists in interrogating this knowledge so as to “augment” it. To act better would be to “know better,” in other words to know more. How else could knowledge evolve positively if not through growth? So that ethical reflection finds itself subordinated to the development of established bodies of knowledge. One may well affirm the predominance of certain values over the development of technics, but they will remain derisory in relation to the will to knowledge. It is therefore only by restoring the contingency of the link between knowledge and doing that the style of our relation to the world can be changed, and technics become once again just one possible mode of doing, judged as a function of other values. To rediscover our surprise at technical ends supposes that we question the dimension of knowhow once again, for example by exploring ways of acting that do not depend on established knowledge but relate more to experimentation. In the same way that Husserl speaks of a return inquiry that we must address to science when we wish to transform it, we must make a return inquiry as to the “dimension” of knowhow to understand the reason why we have gradually come to accept its necessity. On the basis of this return inquiry we can no doubt trace out new ways and new values. Defining these ways and values precisely will require a great deal of research, beyond the framework of this exposition centered on the prerequisites for an ethics of technics.


41The use Merleau-Ponty makes of the notion of “institution,” when he applies it to art, to literature, or to history, shows that it is not solely a question of a concept responding to phenomenological tradition, but rather of an operative notion that is accompanied by a new interpretation of experience. Therefore it makes perfect sense to bring the notion out of its context to apply it to other domains—that of technics in particular. I would even argue that it has a primordial importance in relation to the ethics of technics. Reflection on “institution” allows us to undo the subjectivist illusion. It demonstrates the contingency of the technical phenomena and places the human subject back at the heart of its cultural constructions, without for all that returning to an omnipotence of consciousness. “Institution” allows us to reestablish the contingency of the technical style, and to perceive the equivocal foundation of the values that it conveys. Efficiency, viability, security, and rapidity, for example, are intrinsically linked to a type of relation to reality wherein the categories of the subject and the object are considered to be primary. And yet their primacy is contingent, as is their definition. The symbolic conception of the “institution” allows them to be questioned once again. It allows us to verbalize the implicit dimensions that structure our relationship to the world, to make them enter into the symbolic universe of language, and thus to restore their equivocity. In this way they invite us to discuss and question them. In a word, they restore a certain surprise, in particular a surprise in relation to ends. They reopen the space of ethical reflection that the technical style had arbitrarily limited to the means-end relationship and to the field of knowhow. By breaking our instrumental relationship to reality, they demonstrate its contingency, disjoining symbolically that which technics cannot separate. There is a relation to knowledge and to doing that distinguishes knowledge from mere pragmatic application, and doing from mastery by consciousness. Thus, ethical reflection is no longer conditioned by the false supremacy of technical values, and the field of action rediscovers a freedom beyond the finalities apparently imposed upon it.


  • [1]
    I understand metaphysics here as any philosophical doctrine or thought which, in order to explain reality, makes reference to something beyond human experience.
  • [2]
    Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” in Martin Heidegger, David Farrell Krell (ed.), Basic Writings (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), 312 [“La question de la technique,” in Essais et Conférences (Paris: Gallimard, 1958), 10].
  • [3]
    Ibid., 313 [11].
  • [4]
    Ibid., 315 [12].
  • [5]
    Hans Jonas, The Imperative of Responsibility (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 34 [Le Principe responsabilité (Paris: Cerf, 1990), 53].
  • [6]
    Ibid., 147 [200].
  • [7]
    Hans Jonas, Évolution et liberté (Paris: Payot et Rivage, 2000), 150. “In reality, I should like to say that, in extreme situations, there is no place for the complex decision-making processes of democracy, and this is why we must act to ensure that such situations cannot come about.”
  • [8]
    Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Institution and Passivity: Course Notes from the Collège de France (1954–1955), trans. Leonard Lawlor and Heath Massey (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2010), 76 [L’Institution. La Passivité. Notes de cours au Collège de France (1954–1955) (Paris: Belin, 2003), 123].
  • [9]
    Ibid., 17 [33].
  • [10]
    “One thus understands by institution here those events in an experience which endow the experience with endurable dimensions, in relation to which a whole series of other experiences will make sense, will form a thinkable sequence or a history…” Ibid., x [124].
  • [11]
    Ibid., 13 [45].
  • [12]
    Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Adventures of the Dialectic, trans. Joseph Bien (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1973), 64–65 [Les Aventures de la dialectique (Paris: Gallimard, 1955), 93–94].
  • [13]
    “[I]t is not only a mobile forward process from one set of acquisitions to another but a continuous synthesis in which all acquisitions maintain their validity, all make up a totality such that, at every present stage, the total acquisition is, so to speak, the total premise for the acquisitions of the new level.” Edmund Husserl, “The Origin of Geometry,” in J. Derrida, Edmund Husserl’s Origin of Geometry: An Introduction, trans. John P. Leavey (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), 159 [L’Origine de la géometrie (Paris: PUF, 1962), 176].
  • [14]
    Ibid., 164 [187]: “Accordingly, then, the writing-down effects a transformation of the original mode of being of the meaning-structure, [e.g.,] within the geometrical sphere of self-evidence, of the geometrical structure which is put into words. It becomes sedimented, so to speak. But the reader can make it self-evident again, can reactivate the self-evidence.”
  • [15]
  • [16]
    Merleau-Ponty Institution and Passivity [L’Institution, 61].
  • [17]
    See the definition of institution given at the beginning of this exposition. Ibid, 76 [123].
  • [18]
    Koji Hirose, Problématique de l’institution dans la dernière philosophie de Merleau-Ponty. Doctoral thesis, University of Paris I, 1993. Despite its fine quality, this work remains, to my knowledge, unpublished in France at this time.
  • [19]
    Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Structure of Behavior, trans. Alden L. Fisher (Boston: Beacon Press, 1963), 224 (translation modified) [La Structure du comportement (Paris: PUF), 241].
  • [20]
    Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (London and New York: Routledge, 2013), lxxiii–lxxiv [Phénoménologie de la perception (Paris: Gallimard, 1945), iv] (Emphasis ours).
  • [21]
    This is the thesis of Geraet’s book: Theodore. F. Geraets, Vers une nouvelle philosophie transcendentale (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1971).
  • [22]
    Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, lxxxii [Phénoménologie de la perception, 13].
  • [23]
    Ibid., 53 [65].
  • [24]
    Ibid., 140 [161].
  • [25]
    Ibid., 228 [254].
  • [26]
    “Perception opens onto things. This means that perception is oriented—as if toward its own end—toward a truth in itself in which the reason for all appearances is found. Perception’s silent thesis is that experience, at each moment, can be coordinated with the experience of the preceding moment and with that of the following one, that my perspective can be coordinated with the perspectives of other consciousnesses—that all contradictions can be removed, that monadic and intersubjective experience is a single continuous text—and that what is indeterminate for me at this moment could become determinate for a more complete knowledge, which is seemingly realized in advance in the thing, or rather which is the thing itself” Ibid., 54 [66].
  • [27]
    Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible: Followed by Working Notes, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1969), 175–176 [Le Visible et l’Invisible (Paris: Gallimard, 1964), 224].
  • [28]
    Concerning the reference to co-naissance and the influence of Claudel, the reader is referred to the fine analysis of Emmanuel de Saint Aubert on this point: Emmanuel de Saint Aubert, Du lien des êtres aux éléments de l’être (Paris: Vrin, 2004), 234.
  • [29]
    Merleau-Ponty, Institution and Passivity, 76 [123].
  • [30]
    Ibid., [38]: “Institution means establishment in an experience (or in a constructed apparatus) of dimensions (in the general, Cartesian, sense: a system of reference) in relation to which a whole series of other experiences will have sense and will make a sequel, a history.”
  • [31]
    Ibid., [60].
  • [32]
    Merleau-Ponty Visible and Invisible, 217–218 [Visible et invisible, 271].
  • [33]
    Renaud Barbaras, Le Tournant de l’expérience, recherches sur la philosophie de Merleau-Ponty (Paris: Vrin, 1998), 279–280.
  • [34]
    Merleau-Ponty, Visible and Invisible, 139 [Visible et invisible, 184].
  • [35]
    Ibid., 197 [251].
  • [36]
    Merleau-Ponty, Institution and Passivity 6–7 [L’Institution, 35].

This article seeks first of all to understand the difficulty involved in elaborating an ethics of technical development. To do so, I analyze the concept of “technics” to demonstrate that it incarnates a certain type of relationship to the world, one based on a confusion between consciousness and experience. This confusion constitutes a major obstacle to any ethical reflection. I therefore show how the concept of “institution,” developed by Merleau-Ponty in the 1950s, allows us to avoid the illusions inherent in the technical style, and posit the fundamental elements of ethical thinking on this subject.


Cet article tente tout d’abord de comprendre la difficulté à laquelle est soumise l’élaboration d’une éthique du développement technique. Pour cela, on analyse le concept de technique afin de montrer qu’il incarne aujourd’hui un certain style de rapport au monde reposant sur la confusion de la conscience et de l’expérience. Or cette confusion constitue un obstacle majeur à toute réflexion éthique véritable. On montre alors comment le concept d’« institution », élaboré par Merleau-Ponty dans les années 1950, permet de déjouer les illusions inhérentes au style technique et de poser les fondements d’une pensée éthique à ce sujet.

Guillaume Carron
High School of Jean-Paul Sartre de Bron
Uploaded on on 03/02/2015
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