Gilbert Simondon, “philosopher of information”?

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Translation by AB – October 25, 2020

Gilbert Simondon (1924-1989), a great French philosopher and thinker of technique and technology, has been (re)discovered by digital theorists since 2010, particularly in the United States. However, has he been well understood, having been promoted by some of them as the “first philosopher of information“? Indeed, this sacrament seems to us in many ways problematic and reveals great difficulties in philosophically grasping the concept of “information” and in interpreting Simondon’s work on the subject. We will examine this question after having exposed some elements of Simondonian philosophy. The text will be completed by two brief postscripts, one concerning ethics in Simondon’s work, the other proposing four avenues of exploration.

Simondon’s “project”

At the time of Gilbert Simondon’s first works, at the end of the 1950s, the world was experiencing a kind of scientific and epistemological epilogue of the Second World War. Cybernetics, computer science, and mathematical theories of communication were unfolding their innumerable ramifications in the economic and social fabric. Industries were reborn and technical objects proliferated. But at the same time, because of this movement, there was a great tension between the world of humans and the world of machines, and more broadly between culture and technology. Simondon’s philosophical project brought this hiatus to the very spot. It was a question of legitimizing in law the place of technology among cultural phenomena, in the same way as art or religion.

Of course, all thought, especially in the post-war period, had taken hold of the technical phenomenon – how could it be ignored? – but the great majority of philosophers knew almost nothing about the internal running of objects or the dynamics of the technical phenomena they were philosophizing about (this is still true today). It is first of all to this “repair” of skills that Simondon proceeded: according to him, a technical object is not worthy by its uses, which everyone understands, but by its functioning, which before him interested almost nobody. First of all, it was necessary to succeed in this philosophical recovery from the objects themselves, and therefore to know, in the greatest possible detail, physics, chemistry, electronics, cybernetics… and their history. It was necessary to proceed to the dismantling of the combustion engine, the Guimbal turbine or the electronic tube in order to access the true traces of man in these machines, as well as what we could call their “essence”.

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From this project, a complete philosophy emerged. We propose a three-part compendium of it, necessary to address the central issue of “information”.

Abstract of Simondonian philosophy #1: “individuation

To consider technology as a cultural phenomenon, it is first necessary that its objects, the technical objects, integrate the society of philosophical objects. They must therefore join the same ontological plane, and it is from this robust plane that all of Simondon’s thought unfolds. Let us specify that the term “technical object” covers without restriction everything man has made: bows and arrows, table, chair, plane, engine, transistor, etc. One may be surprised by so many respects accorded to these objects: can one make the ontology of a hammer? Yet they are methodologically necessary because it is first necessary to proceed with this “promotion” of the technical object in order to relegate its uses to the background, to investigate its relations to the world and to think about it simply in its being.

Once allowed to possess an essence, a kind of chain reaction occurs throughout the ontological plane. Other things already having this status (humans in particular) find themselves out of phase and have to account for compatibility with the technical object. The singularity of the technical contaminates everything else, and this kind of equation appears to be the one to be solved:

Technical objects + Incumbent ontologies → ?

But its resolution is not so simple and it is at the price of a certain complexity, relying on a great philosophical, scientific and technical knowledge that Simondon was able to elaborate his “solution”.

So, what is the very characteristic of technique? It mainly lies in the fact that objects are improved, not in the sense that their functions progress but in the sense that their operation becomes more efficient (number of elements, weight, energy consumption…). Simondon has proposed numerous examples of this phenomenon of passage from what he calls the “abstract” to the “concrete“, from the original blueprint to a more natural design of the object, acquired by its gradual integration into the operating environment, in the genetic sense of its successive versions. But if man is the instigator and the engineer of this evolution, the object nevertheless carries within it its potentialities of evolution (physico-chemical laws, etc.). This is Simondon’s basic observation, which we formulate as follows: it is the evolutionary process itself that constitutes the “essence” of the technical object.

Back to the ontological plane, Simondon invites us to think about the genetics of the technical being, i.e. ontogenesis. The equation is thus solved:

Technical objects + Incumbent ontologies → Ontogenesis

By contamination of the ontological plane, the being of everything, from the technical object to the living organism and even to societies, is identified, not a priori, but at every moment. What Simondon calls an “individual” is determined by a principle of “individuation” that progressively characterizes its own natural and “concrete” place in the world. Thus1:

Simondon is the philosopher of the individual […] His very purpose is to formulate an ontology of reality that is an ontogenesis of individuals, which amounts to substituting the problem of the individual for the question of being […] it is a question for him of effecting a true reversal of the ontological privilege granted by classical metaphysics to being over becoming, to the result over operation, to the individual over individuation, and of making it the condition of all complete knowledge of reality.

There is no individual but, at all times, individuations. It is “the individuation that carries the ontological load” and “what is a postulate in the search for the principle of individuation is that individuation has a principle“. There is no longer any need to seek the first principle of being, prior to its becoming, the object of an always incomplete investigation. It is there, now, in its individuation which is totally knowable although never completed. As there is no constituted individual to be known, there is no more distinction to be made between subject and object, between observer and observed. There are only individuations in relation by composition. This is why Simondon is also a thinker for the digital and information world: man, and the technical object would be individuations in a compositional relationship and thus, in a way, considered as equals. We will come back to this essential point later, but it is not always properly interpreted in “information philosophy”…

Abstract of Simondonian philosophy #2: “metastability

In order to tackle the central question of information, it is necessary to pass, even summarily, through that of the dynamics of individuation. As we have pointed out, Gilbert Simondon was very familiar with the physical, chemical and electrical principles that govern the functioning of technical objects. His philosophical vocabulary and the mental images that can be formed are very often in analogy with these principles, and more particularly those governing thermodynamic systems. This produces a singular philosophical language, imbued with scientific connotations, sometimes ambivalent.

The individual is thus a “phase” of being. A phase is not a moment of being in a temporal succession but rather a possible state, the domain of possibilities constituting what Simondon calls the “pre-individual“. The pre-individual is the charge that permanently potentiates the individuation process by equipping the individual with a “metastable” state, therefore neither stable, which would endorse the completion of the individuation process (inert or dead), nor obviously unstable and therefore without ontological principle. The following diagram suggests that there is an “inside” and an “outside” of the being, that the individual results from a process of individuation while he is the middle of it:

The individual is an in-between, an instant between anterior and posterior potentialities, a place for individuation. At the same time, he remains charged by the pre-individual with all the potentialities at once. One “sees” better thus that individuation corresponds “to the appearance of phases in the being which are phases of the being“.

Abstract of Simondonian philosophy #3: “transduction”

How does individuation occur? What are its dynamics?

Individuation consists in the resolution of a certain tension between the individual and his environment, both of which are then affected and recomposed (because they are metastable). This resolution is propagated by “transduction”, a term borrowed from Jean Piaget who used it to designate the reasoning of the young child by immediate analogy (two events or objects are merged into a single pattern because they are perceived simultaneously). For Simondon, transduction is defined as (we emphasize) “a physical, biological, mental, social operation by which an activity propagates from one place to another within a domain, basing this propagation on a structuring of the domain operated from place to place” (the canonical image used by Simondon is that of the phenomenon of crystallization). Thus2:

Transduction refers to the operation by which two or more immeasurable orders of reality resonate and become commensurable by the invention of a dimension that articulates them and by the passage to an order richer in structures.

The dynamics of individuation thus proceeds by resolving an incompatibility between two realities (which Simondon calls in French a “disparation3) that are not in relation, but simply in contact. There is obviously no reason why things in the world should a priori be compatible with each other. It is transduction that resolves the contingent simultaneity of their differences, of their “disparations”. What remains identical before, during and after this contact, what resists and defines their being, is their individuation.

We thus see unfolding the vision of a world made up of essences in contact, contingent to each other and therefore forced to enter in resonance, ontogenetically differentiated by a process of individuation that we can summarize as follows: “my” transformations in contact with the world – the others, the society, the technical objects – reveal “my” being. The technical object can naturally fall into this category since, through transduction with users, designers, the political and social environment, etc., it individualizes itself and thus shows, in a way, what it really is. It becomes “concrete” (naturalized) in contact with this external environment, which it in turn modifies.

Simondon and the question of information

If Gilbert Simondon is grabbed by today’s digital thinkers, it is first of all because he was linked to the cybernetic current around the 1960s. However, it is unlikely that everything we have just mentioned was mainly inspired by cybernetics, since most of the examples he gave came from all kinds of technologies: engines, electronic tubes, crystallography, mechanics, etc. Nevertheless, Norbert Wiener’s cybernetics and the mathematical theory of communication elaborated by Claude Shannon just after the war certainly played a significant role in the regulation of his philosophical work. Here again, it is necessary to explain a little.

Shannon saw information as content, a meaningless structure to be transported from point A to point B. The mathematical theory of communication establishes how to recover this structure, almost intact, at point B despite the encoding, errors and limitations of transmission. Shannon thus solved an engineering problem of transporting information, which is intrinsically a structured object. Cyberneticians, however, very quickly realized that the “point of view” of the transmitting and receiving systems had to be considered and that there is no information without a system. In an article to which we will return later, Andrew Iliadis mentions the psychologist and linguist Charles E. Osgood, who considered information in the sense of mathematical theory but, at the same time, noted that communication sequences brings4

the communicator repeatedly to what may be called “choice-points”—points where the next skill sequence is not highly predictable from the objective communicative product itself. The dependence of “I’d better not wash the car” upon “looks like rain today,” the content, of the message, reflects determinants within the semantic system which effectively “load” the transitional probabilities at these choice-points.

Norbert Wiener, the founding father of cybernetics, with whom Simondon had been able to exchange ideas, also nuanced the theory of communication in his own way by positing, as Iliadis notes, that:

[…] it is not the quantity of information sent that is important for action, but rather the quantity of information which can penetrate into a communication and storage apparatus sufficiently to serve as the trigger for action.

In short, information is semantic, and is worth the load of meaning that is resolved in the receiving system by an action / reaction. This conception of information obviously fits well with the Simondonian philosophy, which extends it, dephases it, amplifies it and gives it the full thickness of its ontogenetic vision. We thus find in Simondon the idea that the receiving system, which alone can qualify the energy received as information, is modified or individualized not in force, that is to say by a quantity of energy received equivalent to that expended for its phase change, but by “amplification” of the information, a small quantity of energy received through an opening. It is metastability, the pre-individual charge, which allows this phase change from an informational germ that only makes sense for the receiver insofar as this germ catalyzes an individuation operation in him. Here is the main anchoring of the concept of information in the Simondonian philosophy5:

The fact that information is truly information is the same as the fact that something is individualizing […] It is what passes from one problem to another, which can radiate from one domain of individuation to another domain of individuation.

Like cyberneticians, Simondon specifies that “information cannot be defined outside of this act of transformative incidence and the operation of reception6 but he generalizes the concept to all acts of incidence:

To be or not to be information does not depend only on the internal characters of a structure; information is not a thing, but the operation of a thing arriving in a system and producing a transformation there […] Any reality that does not entirely possess in itself the determination of the course of its becoming is virtually a receiver.

He finally specifies in another work that the information is7:

The tension between two disparate realities; it is the meaning that will arise when an operation of individualization will discover the dimension according to which two disparate realities can become a system; information is therefore a beginning of individuation, a requirement of individuation, it is never given; there is no unity and identity of information, because information is not a term; it supposes the tension of a system of being; it can only be inherent to a problematic.

A thing becomes information at the moment when it drags the receiver into a movement of individuation: it is “inseparable from the event8. The information is thus an “in-formation”. The thing emitted by a transmitter is not information until it has in-formed a receiver, that is to say, initiated an operation of individualization by which it will resolve a tension of “disparation” conveyed by this thing, a problem inherent to this thing for him.

What becomes of this very tricky vision of information (Simondon goes over it several times, tirelessly searching for the right words) in the so-called “philosophy of information“?

Simondon, « philosopher of information »?

In our article From the infosphere to a gaseous ethics, we presented this “philosophy of information” developed by the Roman philosopher Luciano Floridi. Here we want to examine why and how Gilbert Simondon is summoned by these philosophers of information and what he comes to do in this curious case whose basic premise is: everything is information.

The masters of the time being the digital powers that organize our “digital natural environment“, they have here a welcome philosophical outline for their projects. We can obviously start with this: everything is an “informational agent”, whether it is computer systems, things, plants or humans. Nothing has been thought about from their differences, but on the contrary, from this principle, which poses an ontological equivalence between humans and artefacts. The human is thus reduced to being only an informational agent in the digital environment, the “infosphere”, like everything else captured by this environment and of which the digital image is the only possible being (one could almost call this a “professional bias”…).

The need for a serious philosophy may have been at the origin of the sudden (re)discovery of Simondon’s work, but there are above all these three points of contact: Simondon’s link with cybernetics, his developments around the concept of information and finally, and perhaps above all, his philosophy of technical/cultural “equivalence” of which we have said a few words. Digital theorists have a rich conceptual harvest to make, in particular Andrew Iliadis, an American professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, who presents himself as follows9:

My work focuses on the social implications of data science with specific interests in semantic computing (things like metadata, web schemas, knowledge graphs, applied ontologies) and embodied computing (things like wearables, embeddables, ingestibles, implantables).
Iliadis carries the banner of the “philosophy of information” and the works of Luciano Floridi. His article (quoted above) begins with “The French philosopher Gilbert Simondon was the first true philosopher of information”. It’s straightforward to say the least! Iliadis therefore proposes a reading of Simondon impregnated with certain conceptual arrangements, anchored on a disembodied vision of the individual that this other article describes quite well10:
[…] the user-as-individual in this case might no longer be understood as a discrete agent making intersubjective choices with autonomous intentionality. Rather, they would be taken more impersonally as an ‘it’: an individuating process-organism involved in the ‘local resolution of disparation, as the invention of a compatibility between heterogeneous domains and demands’.

The Simondonian vocabulary is very present but the human is obviously assimilated to an organism / process, solving in passing, as we have seen above, this ontological equation:

Humans + Information systems → Informational agents

The basis of Iliadis’ remarks is a proposal to “transfer” Simondonian notions through strict equality:

Informational agent = Individual

This being supposed, Iliadis indicates some ways of applying the Simondonian philosophy to the digital domain. Here is one of them:

A Simondonian informational ontology allows us to finally put aside the subject-object deadlock and instead consider the human that is present in the technological object, and vice versa, as an ensemble.

There is, it seems to us, a reading of Simondon somewhat forced by that of the world as infosphere, where it is less a question of articulating delicate individuations than of hybridizing humans and communicating artifacts. The “presence of the human in the technical object” must be understood in the strict sense and not, like Simondon, in the philosophical sense. The “vice versa” means: implants and prostheses. Hybridization was not thought of by Simondon and certainly requires a new philosophical analysis (The mirrors of the “I”). A test of Simondon’s concepts can however be envisaged.

The main problem with Simondon’s convocation is the eternal confusion between map and territory. The elements of the map, the informational agents, are ontologized instead of the authentic individuals. In this miniature world, everything resembles what Simondon says (individuation, disparation, phases, transduction…) first because Simondon’s vocabulary is technically inspired and second because information is, indeed, although only in the real world, inseparable from the crucial concept of individuation. Simondonian philosophy, applied to the map, provides vocabulary but loses its philosophical substance to be nothing more than method and technique (this is not quite nothing either). It gives for example this:

Had he lived long enough to witness the flood of new approaches to information along with their attendant technological advances – big data, computational ontology, cloud storage – Simondon would have found solace in the fact that much of what he had to say on the interoperability and indeterminacy of information’s ontological significance came true.

He would probably not have “found solace” but he would have sought, no longer to humanize technology as in his initial project, but rather to re-humanize a digitized culture by complementing his philosophical reflection with this new question: what are the traces of technology in man?

According to us, Gilbert Simondon was not a philosopher of information, as some American exegetes suggest. He was above all, as Ludovic Duhem rightly pointed out, a “philosopher of the individual“.

Postscript #1: a few words about Simondon and ethics

It seems useful, since information philosophy aims at a kind of “information ethic”, to say a few words about ethics in Simondon’s work.

The French philosopher Vincent Bontems notes the incredible opening of Simondon’s famous thesis entitled “On the mode of existence of technical objects” where “we find this striking affirmation that in technical reality there is a human reality, that it is the task of philosophy to show this, that this task is analogous to the one it played for the abolition of slavery and the affirmation of the value of the human person“. Nothing less! The observation is the following: if we are alienated by the machines, it is because we have conceived of machines as “slaves” in the service of productivity. To free ourselves from our own alienation by the machines and live harmoniously with them, we must therefore begin by liberating them. This requires that they first integrate the realm of meanings – the fulfillment of Simondonian philosophy – so that we can establish an ethical relationship with them, for example, in their maintenance, recycling, storage or manipulation.

Simondon maintained this ethic with all “individuals”, either humans or non-humans. Vincent Bontems tells:

One of Gilbert Simondon’s sons once told me that he was someone who did not tolerate being mowed before the grass had had time to mature, to reproduce, which is really analogous to a certain “ethics of hunting”.

Obviously, the “ethics of hunting” will not speak to everyone, but we understand the point. Simondon’s ontogenetic vision could still be translated as follows: it is necessary to respect and protect the “individuation” in the place of the individual, which reveals the phases of being and deploys it in all its dimensions. This requirement is therefore also valid for our objects.

Postscript #2: questions for tomorrow

Here are four avenues to explore, either by ourselves or by others.

1. What dialogue should be established with autopoiesis?

As far as the living is concerned, Simondon is in our opinion a kind of link between the cybernetic doctrine and the autopoietic current of Maturana and Varela (Francisco Varela, the Heterodox followed by The Mirrors of the “I”). The principle of “structural coupling” in particular is very evocative of Simondon’s theories. What technical and philosophical dialogue can be established between the autopoietic theory and the philosophy of individuation?

2. Can a truly metastable artifact be made?

Since metastability is a condition for access to individuation, it is reasonable to ask what would characterize an artificial system sufficiently metastable to be born “concrete” and to have a significant “potential to be”.

3. Back to encyclopedism?

We miss Simondon, not so much for his philosophy elaborated for an era of reparation as for his philosophical method, which he himself describes as an “encyclopedic” method11:

Encyclopedism supposes that such communication [between elements of knowledge] is in law possible between all elements of all species of knowledge.

Those who penetrate Gilbert Simondon’s texts cannot but be seized by their intense abundance, the variety of examples borrowed from the living, the inert, the technical, the incessant echo that spreads between all the fields of knowledge. He claims this encyclopedism as a method to describe the world accurately, but it is also reflexively that he sees the world as an encyclopedia in which each element is “entitled” to communicate with each other. The examples are sometimes striking:

The mine carts communicate with the environment, sometimes muddy, sometimes stony, through the wooden rails and beams of Agricola described in De Re Metallica …

There is no being without testing other beings, differences, and therefore without communication. It is this form of encyclopedism that makes it possible to establish authentic connections between different fields of knowledge and to renew ideas. But who would still be able to do this today?

Finally, one wonders whether the concepts themselves should not be the subject of genetic analysis, since their relationships, crossbreeding and contacts produce effects of meaning similar to those described by Simondon for individuals.

4. Is a philosophy of the “difference” of the living still possible?

Any ontological project carries with it the risk of “crushing” singularities and differences. At heart, it seems that Gilbert Simondon’s project sought to show us how technical objects, like us, like any other living being, were charged with meaning. It is also the project of the philosophers of information with this “compacting” ontologization of information. But Simondon, on the other hand, always distinguished the living from the inert and took care to point out the fundamental differences. Is there still a possible philosophy for thinking about this difference or are we still called upon to confuse ourselves with our technical productions, however intelligent they may be, for the greater benefit of transhumanist thought?

1. Ludovic Duhem / Appareil [En ligne], 2 | 2008 – September 16, 2008 – « L’idée d’« individu pur » dans la pensée de Simondon »
2. Wikipédia – Transduction (Simondon)
3. We don’t know if this invented word has ever been translated in English. “Disparation” is this action referring to being “disparate”.
4. Andrew Iliadis / communication +1. 2. 10.7275/R59884XW – 2013 – Informational Ontology: The Meaning of Gilbert Simondon’ s Concept of Individuation
5. Gilbert Simondon / Paris, Jérôme Millon, 2005; réédition révisée, 2013 – L’individuation à la lumière des notions de formes et d’information
6. Gilbert Simondon / puf – 2010 – Communication et Information (cours et conférences)
7. Gilbert Simondon – L’individu et sa genèse physico-biologique
8. Jean-Yves Château / Presses Universitaires de France – 2015 – Présentation : Communication et information dans l’œuvre de Gilbert Simondon
10. Neal Thomas / Culture Digitally – November 19, 2014 – Choice or disparation? Theorizing the social in social media systems
11. Ibid 6

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