This Way, Please!
Review of Edgar Morin’s, La Voie. Pour l’avenir de l’humanité
Michel Nguyen The
In his last book and essay La Voie (The Way, January 2011), Edgar Morin shows us the way, for the future of humanity (as suggested by the subtitle). He makes it clear that he is talking about the Way with a capital letter, as in French the words in titles do not have to be capitalized this clearly shows how ambitious the book is. It deals with most of the aspects of today’s human crisis: politics, civilization, democracy, demography, indigenous peoples, water, economy, inequalities and poverty, bureaucratization, justice, thinking, education, medicine and health, urbanization, agriculture, food, consumption, work, life, family, the feminine condition, and ages of life. Edgar Morin makes a diagnosis in all of these areas and suggests many reforms mostly on a political levels, but also to some extent on the civic and individual levels.
Who is this book for and what is the purpose of the book
Paradoxically, the book is written on the political level, but it is not specifically written for political people. Rather, it is written for the general public, be they political people, intellectuals, engaged people, and laymen. This can well be compared with “Le pacte écologique” (The Ecological Pact, 2007) from Nicolas Hulot which begins with an open letter to the next President of France.
It is a synthesis of all ideas that Edgar Morin has defended all his life. It can be understood as a political, philosophical, and human act aimed at the general public. It is an invitation to think about all the issues together. Everyone can have an overview of a new vision of politics in general at the civilization and human levels. An ecologically minded person can have an overview of the issues of economics and education and how they have an influence on ecology. An intellectual can learn about practical initiatives virtually unknown in France. Even an expert in economics can have an overview of other aspects of economics which he is not aware of.
This book may be thought of also only as a draft of what the Way should be about. Edgar Morin explicitly invites readers to point out gaps and inaccuracies in his book. He introduces his book only as a first version that should be followed by a second volume written by a committee.
Aim of this review
As this review is aimed at international integrally-minded readers, this review will put this book in the context of France, both historically and sociologically. It will put this book in perspective not only with Edgar Morin’s life and work, but also more generally with the transdisciplinary and integral communities in France and in the world.
Gramps Is in the Resistance! French resistance as a third way between Nazism and Stalinism
As Edgar Morin puts it himself, this book was written out of “infinite solidarity”. This means the book should be first received as a message from an exemplary man to our hearts. Born in 1921, Edgar Morin was taken in by the maelstrom of the Second World War. Not only did he enter the French resistance, but he also entered the communist party at the age of 20 because of its political ideas. As a resister he made a point not to fight Germans in general, but only Nazism. As a communist he always differentiated his ideology from that of Stalinism. Actually, in the introduction of the book, Edgar Morin presents his enrolment in the French resistance as a third way between Nazism and Stalinism.
Though Edgar Morin speaks very little of himself in the book but in the short preface, this past of resistance is quite important as the book appeared in France at the same time as “Une si vive résistance” (Such a fierce resistance, January 2011) from 89-year-old banker Claude Alphandéry, who developed the social and solidarity economy in France, and the best-selling three-euro short book “Indignez-vous !” from 93-year-old diplomat Stéphane Hessel (more than 950,000 copies of this last book has been sold). As for “La Voie”, it can be found in the top-selling shelves of bookstore chains, though one cannot find it in the bookshop sections of supermarkets. The authors are often invited together in conferences or TV and radio shows, and when not, they make reference to each other. Edgar Morin wrote the preface to Alphandéry’s book. Stéphane Hessel says that people who liked his book and need philosophy and ideas for action should get Edgar Morin’s book. The pun “Les papys font de la résistance” in reference to the French comic cult movie “Papy fait de la résistance” (“Gramps Is in the Resistance”, 1983) is often made in articles, radio and TV shows about these three people, asserting that old people today still lead the way for young people. Edgar Morin’s conferences are always full of people among whom the young ones are clearly eager to listen to the voice of philosophy.
One can all the more appreciate the reference to a movie when one knows that this movie starred famous actors, even in secondary roles, and that Edgar Morin started his career in the sociology of movies. He wrote a book about movie stars, namely “Les Stars” (The Stars, 1957). As Edgar Morin often says, we as spectators are often able to understand the complexity of people and situations in movies, but forget about this complexity in real life situations.
This indignation still meets some resistance today. The show starring Stéphane Hessel, Claude Alphandéry and Edgar Morin that was supposed to take place on France Inter on January 16th 2011 and that many people were eager to hear was cancelled two days before for unclear reasons. In the same vein, a conference of Hessel on January 18th was cancelled on January 10th because of Jewish lobbies opposition to Hessel’s pro-Palestinian stance. This is reminiscent of how Jewish lobbies such as Avocats sans frontières and France-Israël harassed the nevertheless Jew Edgar Morin, when he co-wrote the article “Israël-Palestine: le cancer” in Le Monde from June 4th 2002, stating that one people, namely the Jews, who have been subject to massacres, do not have the right to become in its turn a perpetrator.
Edgar Morin, a unique voice in France
In French, “voie” is homonymous with “voix” meaning “voice”. When one says “La voie/voix d’Edgar Morin” aloud, it refers simultaneously to Edgar Morin’s “way” and his “voice”. Edgar Morin’s voice has a lot of power and influence because he is a public intellectual who always has tried to write texts that are simple to understand. They remain hard to read for the man in the street, but at least they convey very important ideas.
Edgar Morin might well be the only French transdisciplinary thinker who is neither a scientist nor a full time philosopher of sciences. He had to find ways to acquire a scientific knowledge that is impressive. As a French resister he has a lot of credibility. He has a lot of knowledge of classical philosophy, of literature, and especially in history and politics where he also has a lot of insight. Other French transdisciplinary thinkers would find it very difficult to answer with accuracy, pertinence and in a useful way questions from a politically oriented journalist.
In the field of philosophy of sciences, as he had to learn and understand sciences from scratch. Edgar Morin also developed a few ideas of his own. He was one of the first to speak about the notion of amortality when it was only a highly hypothetical prospect for biologists. The typology of causalities he developed in his Method with a scientific basis proved to be prominent in the writing of the purely political book “Penser l’Europe” (Thinking Europe, 1990).
First reactions to the book
Edgar Morin’s book has already met a tremendous success given the reactions that can be found in the public, on TV and radio shows, in reviews that can be found on the Internet and in journals. It is always an honour to welcome Morin in conferences in every circle, and his mere presence attracts a lot of people. There has been very little feedback about the book from intellectual and political people as yet. Many top-selling lists place “La Voie” in the top ten, while Stéphane Hessel’s book “Indignez-vous !” aforementioned is invariably the first.
Genetics of the book
In many ways, “La Voie” can be seen as a compendium of Edgar Morin’s work. He has written so many books and articles that it is impossible to mention even all the important ones. Nevertheless, one can see the political side of Edgar Morin in “Penser l’Europe” (Thinking Europe, 1990) and “Politique de civilisation” (Politics of civilisation, 1997). The ecological side can be seen in “Terre-Patrie” (Homeland Earth, 1993, written in collaboration with Brigitte Kern) and “L’An I de l’ère écologique : la Terre dépend de l’homme qui dépend de la Terre” (Year One of the Ecological Era: Earth depends on man who depends on Earth, 2007). The educational aspect can be seen in “Les Sept Savoirs nécessaires à l’éducation du future” (Seven complex lessons in education for the future, 2000). The call for a transdisciplinary approach to knowledge can be found in the four first volumes of “La méthode” (The Method) and the subjects of humanity and ethics are dealt with respectively in the fifth and sixth volumes of The Method. Spiritual aspects can be seen in “L’homme et la mort” (Man and Death, 1951) and “Amour, poésie, sagesse” (Love, poetry, wisdom, 1997). The planetary aspect can be seen in “Terre-Patrie” mentioned above and in “Pour sortir du xxe siècle” (To get out of the 21st century, 1984) and “Vers l’abîme” (Towards the abyss, 2007).
It is interesting to see that all those themes were already present in the early works of Edgar Morin. In “Journal de Californie” (Journal of California, 1970), Edgar Morin was aware of the ecological issues before the Club of Rome report was published. Nevertheless at that time, an economical crisis did not seem likely. One main concern of Edgar Morin was about racism. This has changed a lot in so far as the economic crisis started in the USA and as today’s President of the United States is a man of colour. The expression “spaceship Earth” used in the blub of “La Voie” was already present in the blurb of “Journal de Californie”.
There are many biographies of Edgar Morin, but “Mon chemin” (My Path, 2008) is quite symmetric with “La Voie”, both in title and in contents. Edgar Morin scarcely speaks of himself in the impersonal book “La Voie”, while “Mon chemin” is really a set of interviews about Edgar Morin’s life. “La Voie” deals with an impersonal future, while “Mon chemin” deals with a personal past.
Short previews of the book can be found on the Internet, especially on the website of “Dialogues en humanité” (http://dialoguesenhumanite.org/331-la-voie-edgar-morin). A similar preview version in the form of an article, already entitled “La Voie”, can be found in the book “Prospective d’un monde en mutation” (Forecasting of a mutating world, 2009) edited by Carine Dartiguepeyrou, which contains articles of members of friends of the Club of Budapest France, the association that organizes the events of the Integral University of Paris.
An important event that is not mentioned in the book was the summer university that took place in Poitiers from 27th to 30th September 2010 on the very topic “changer de voie” (“changing paths”, http://telem.fr/UIE10/uie2010). Five different circles dealt each with one of the following themes: the political challenge; challenge of a policy of humanity; the ethical challenge: relation ethics/politics; ecological challenge; water and biodiversity; the challenge of the nourishing Earth; the challenge of knowledge; and the challenge of complexity. Edgar Morin had a leading role as he concluded the event after the syntheses of the circles. This event shows that Edgar Morin does not work on his own and probably had this kind of committees in mind when he wrote at the beginning of “La Voie” that it needed a second volume written by a committee.
The book remains a one-author book, though Edgar Morin had wanted to write it with Marta de Azeivedo Irving from Brasil. Two chapters were written by sociologist Sabah Abouessalam and a lot of documentary material was provided by Karima Abouessalam.
Organization of the book
The book is organized into four parts: the policies of mankind; reforms of thinking and education; reforms of society; and reforms of life. They are of unequal size: the first section has 12 chapters, the second 3, the third 6, and the last 7 chapters. Many chapters, be they in the first part or in the following ones, begin with a description of the situation and a list of reforms. The first part contains at the same time general and more precise themes and loosely the pattern of a general theme followed by a subtheme. The first three chapters on politics (political thought, politics of humanity, and politics of civilization) are followed by a chapter on democracy. Chapter 5 on demography is followed by a chapter on indigenous peoples. Chapter 7 deals with the ecological way and is followed by chapter 8 which deals with water. Chapter 9 on the economical way is followed by a chapter on inequalities and poverty.
The issues are intertwined, so a similar subject can be dealt with in different chapters: in part 3, chapter 1 on medicine and health, he speaks about reforming the content of medical studies (177-178), which should contain courses on psychosociology and sociology, on civilizations and complexity. A corresponding paragraph makes the link with the reform on education in part 2. Examples of communities such as Auroville are given in different chapters, namely p.207 in chapter 2 on “Ville et habitat” (town and settlement) of part 2, and p.272 in chapter 1 on the way of the reform of life of part 4. In “l’indiscipliné” (The undisciplined, 2009), we learn p.464 that Bernard Paillard had tried in 1969 within the UNESCO to study Auroville as sociologists but a lack of financing did not make this project possible.
In a holographic way, a few chapters are richer than others and encapsulate the issues of the others. The chapter on the ecological way deals with capitalism, housing, water, and the policy of civilization. The chapter on agriculture and country deals with demography, urbanism, global governance, globalization and de-globalization, and education on food and consumption. These resonate with many other chapters of the book.
A critical and synthetizing mind
On each subject, Edgar Morin tries to identify what is good and what is not. He calls for a symbiotic way between the occidental society (critical mind, human rights, etc.) and traditional societies (inclusion in the Cosmos, and social and community relationships). He even wrote a whole chapter on indigenous peoples. In the chapter on medicine and health, there is a great emphasis on alternative medicine, both in the occidental and oriental or traditional societies. Edgar Morin even tells us (179) that he resorted to the Mezières method, an alternative physical therapy. He is fascinated by shamans who have psychic and spiritual powers and believes that they should be taken more seriously by occidental people.
As for the economic advocates for development and the ecological mainstream for sustainable development, as far as Edgar Morin is concerned, the very notion of development should be questioned, even when sustainable. Edgar Morin balances the idea of development with the notion of envelopment, which implies returning to more interior values, having an interior life, putting more love and understanding in our relationships with other people.
Simplicity and rigor
Edgar Morin is known to fight for self-critics and even wrote a book about it. Nevertheless there can be generalities that forget the complexity and singularity of situations. He is also known to try to write in a very clear way so that everyone can understand him. In a book of this scope, it is necessary not to focus on details and leave the big picture behind. Otherwise, even if it might be clear in Edgar Morin’s mind, a few ideas may not be understood. When he says that the economy is not controlled and regulated, it is in fact from a global and almost biological point of view. A professional economist would tend to disagree, in so far as there are many controls and regulations everywhere, especially fiscal ones. As a matter of fact, many liquidity problems may result from too much regulation. An enthusiastic anticapitalist idealist would agree with Edgar Morin. He would agree with the sentence but would only partially understand it. Yes, in the end, greed is not regulated, but in the details regulations can prevent investors from putting money in projects where some risk is unavoidable.
There are issues where Edgar Morin did not investigate deeply enough and this can be interpreted as a lack of rigour. In the chapter on the ecological way, (86-87) Edgar Morin advocates for renewable energies and mentions several of them (water, wind, solar, photovoltaic, geothermic, and tidal energies). He says that they should be combined, but he does not take into account the life cycle of these technologies. In a footnote (87) he mentions a project of a photovoltaic factory in Paris. Many specialists think that photovoltaics in France is mere greenwashing, given the weak energy return and greenhouse gases emissions, as well as the amounts of rare metals needed and the cost of transport, maintenance, and waste disposal. Besides, in the end, the notion of renewable energy is still a dream and there is no known renewable energy today. Like sustainable development, the notion of renewable energy should also be questioned.
Edgar Morin in the transdisciplinary world
The situation and role of Edgar Morin in the transdisciplinary world is more complex. Through his articles and books, and his involvement in associations such as MCX-APC and groups such as Le Groupe des Dix, Edgar Morin had been in touch with basically all the transdisciplinarity oriented minds in France. He is also very active and recognized in foreign countries, especially in Brazil. Edgar Morin is very involved in CIRET in so far as he is an active member of the association and he and Basarab Nicolescu were the cowriters with Lima de Freitas of the manifesto of transdisciplinarity of the CIRET. In his Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity, Basarab Nicolescu defines the three pillars of transdisciplinarity as being levels of Reality, the logic of the included middle, and complexity. He clearly acknowledges Edgar Morin’s influence with the word complexity and an implicit acknowledgement of the two other pillars.
Now indeed Edgar Morin does use the three pillars, but dialogics is in fact a flattened version of the logic of the included middle, as Morin maintains the distinction without giving it a name and explicitly giving it room enough in another level of Reality. The use of level of Reality is implicit and Edgar Morin does not try to generate new levels of Reality. An example of this is that as far as he is concerned, the gods are mere creations of the human mind. He grants gods, ideas and imagination a form of existence and reality which might even supersede the material reality and have some control of men, but only conditionally to the existence of the men that produce them. In this respect, Edgar Morin belongs more to the systemic thinkers who do include a form of sacredness and spirituality in their systems through ethics, poetry and culture, but who have not fully adopted the transdisciplinary ideology.
The expression “logic of the included middle” is no better in so far as it is in reaction to the first two principles it is supposed to transcend. Nicolescu often makes the distinction between the third term which is simultaneous to the first two terms, and the Hegelian synthesis, representative of the first entropic term, which is supposed to subsume the contradiction at a later time. Nicolescu also makes the distinction between the notion of levels of Reality, representative of the third term, and the notion of levels of organization, representative of the negentropic second term. But then he does not rearticulate the three logics in one concept. Like the three matters of Lupasco, he puts more stress on the third term and finally on transcendance, which is a biased point of view not in keeping with the transdisciplinary ideology.
These discussions would deserve further development and more nuancing, but another hidden idea in Lupascian logic is that it presents a natural side and a cultural side, which are supposed to be isomorphic. Even if again this can become conceptually quite messy and fuzzy, there is a philosophical ambition to uncover some logics binding together man and nature, science and religion. One can find traces of similar ideas in Edgar Morin’s work, especially in the Method, but in “La Voie” there are only very pragmatic ideas about reforming our knowledge. Our relationship with the Earth should change our way of living and inhabiting it, but not our vision of Earth. The reform of knowledge insists on reliability but tells nothing of the awe of science and of the philosophical, poetic, and mystical aspects of science.
Edgar Morin and (French) transdisciplinarity in the integral world
The situation of Edgar Morin in the integral world is simpler to analyze. Even though Basarab Nicolescu is part of the Integral Review and is also often cited in the Integral Leadership Review, a huge difference between transdisciplinarity and the integral approaches as they are sociologically practiced concerns the fields of personal development, spirituality, and the evolution of man and mankind. There is a spiritual gradient between systemics, Edgar Morin, transdisciplinarity, and the integral approaches. Though Edgar Morin advocates for personal development and meditation in “La Voie”, these topics are only casually mentioned in a few sentences and very little emphasis is put on them, which can also be seen in Edgar Morin’s life and works. There is no philosophical study or practice of personal development or meditation from Edgar Morin or Basarab Nicolescu.
Transdisciplinarity is also self-limited in discarding New Age ideas in so far as it remains human-centered and does not ask what would be the point of view of stones, plants, animals, Earth, and other possible beings. The movie Avatar showed a planet able to think. The idea that Earth could think is a hypothesis that could be considered outside esoteric doctrines and studied by scientists, but it is not discussed. The planetary crisis and planetary consciousness are of no concern for the planet herself, except in Bolivia where people fight for Earth rights. Journalists only occasionally animate the Earth for rhetoric purposes, though it already means a lot from a psychoanalytical point of view. The following paragraph (“La Voie”, 85) is very representative of this:
“La prise de conscience de cette communauté de destin terrestre doit devenir l’événement clé du xxie siècle : nous nous devons sentir solidaires de cette planète dont la vie conditionne la nôtre. Il faut sauver le soldat Terre ! Il nous faut sauver notre Pachamama, notre Terre mère ! Pour devenir pleinement citoyens de la Terre, nous devons impérativement changer notre façon de l’habiter !”
…which could translate as
“Realizing our common Earthian destiny must become the key event of the 21st century: we must feel solidarity with this planet whose life conditions ours. We must save Warrior Earth! We must save our Pachamama, our Mother Earth! Imperatively, to become fully citizens of Earth, we must change our way of inhabiting it!”
Here the essay’s style changes to a style that is between manifesto and poetry. Earth is seen successively as an object, namely a planet, but embedded with life. Then it/he/she is seen as a male figure and a female figure. In the last sentence, it is again seen as an object, as a place where we live. Morin never really quits the anthropocentric reference. Earth is seen as a mother in a poetic or biologic way, in relation to us, but not possibly as a living being at the human level, even only as a hypothesis. Morin speaks for ecocentrism but as seen from an anthropocentric point of view, or put more simply, an anthropocentric ecocentrism. It can be seen as a limited and limiting philosophical and spiritual point of view, but it also is an example of how far one can go with an anthropocentric ethic, and a way to sociologically be successful and appeal to a larger public. This is not a conscious strategy from Edgar Morin so far as he defines himself as a neo-atheist. Pachamama is the Bolivian word to say “Mother Earth”, but there is no mention that Bolivians come so far as to elaborate a declaration of Earth rights.
Many systemic thinkers in France are Christian and may have a strong spiritual orientation, but generally they do not practice meditation a lot and are not interested in nonduality as an embodiment of enlightenment. In principle, Lupasco’s logic should allow him to make a bridge between science and spirituality, and a few confidential texts use it to study Buddhist concepts. But in practice it is difficult to judge how promising further development might be, all the more since Lupasco’s books are out of print, and Lupasco is virtually unknown, hard to read, and scarcely translated.
Another area generally left out by French transdisciplinarity is the idea of the evolution of man, apart from Teilhard de Chardin’s followers. The ideas of ethics and the approach self-criticism developed by Edgar Morin, are displayed as general and universal. There is no idea of gradiations of ethics and of values or of differentiated readerships for his books. This explains the emphasis on politics. In the same vein, Basarab Nicolescu advocates transdisciplinarity for everyone and Henri Laborit promotes creativity for everyone. Despite a call for diversity, almost all transdisciplinary thinkers have their own idea of what the meaning of life should be. It is less true for people in personal development who use different typologies of personalities, like the enneagramm.
French disciplinary and transdisciplinary work outside the so-called transdisciplinary realm
Even if the so-called transdisciplinary communities form a small world, there is a lot of important and good work done in disciplinary groups who do not market themselves as transdisciplinary, although they are very transdisciplinary in nature. Many disciplines develop cutting edge concepts that may potentially be just as universally applicable as the known transdisciplinary ones. Besides, innovation in action or in concepts does not always have to dwell on self-reflexive transdisciplinary meditations.
Transdisciplinary and integral actors speak a lot about quantum mechanics, but only see it from the outside. They are blinded by superstrings and nonduality—be it logical or spiritual—and do not look into the details of the different internal revolutions encountered by quantum mechanics since its inception.
Even the idea of reliability as developed by Edgar Morin that is at the core of transdisciplinarity in many ways did not go as far as the ontology of relations developed by French philosopher Gilbert Simondon (1924-1989), who was a contemporary of Edgar Morin. Simondon’s philosophy gave birth to paradoxically more substantial concepts of identity and individuation, especially through a co-construction of individuals and their environments, rather than through mere dialogics between unity and diversity, interior and exterior. This Simondonian idea is present in the trinitary concept of individual/society/species developed by Edgar Morin (individuals, societies, and species mutually define each other) but Edgar Morin did not systematically develop it in the technological or scientific realms such as physics, biology, art, and psychosociology.
Gilbert Simondon is cited by the philosopher Bernard Stiegler, the prospectivist Thierry Gaudin, and a couple of academic working groups in different areas of philosophy who are rediscovering him outside the sociological groups labelled as integral or transdisciplinary.
Edgar Morin and death
Death played an important part in Edgar Morin’s life. His mother was in a very weak condition and tried to abort when she was pregnant, but Edgar resisted. Her hidden death when he was nine would traumatize him. No wonder he wrote a book about man and death (“L’homme et la mort”, 1951) where he explored the theme of death in almost every culture and civilization. In this book, the atheist Edgar Morin writes that immortality is a regression of philosophy. This is a different view from many integral people and cultural creatives who believe in karma. The six-periodic spiral dynamics asserts that it is possible to return to a holistic view of the world and a sense of belonging in the universe that is in fact different from the archaic magic tier. As far as Edgar Morin is concerned, the astral and causal bodies are only beliefs, part of the culture of a few civilizations. He does not seem to have a Newton’s trunk. The evolution of Edgar Morin is different from Ervin Laszlo, for example, who becomes more and more aggressively spiritual and tries to find scientific support for the existence of akashic fields. Echoing his first big essay, the last chapter before the conclusion of “La Voie” deals with death and is explicitly aimed at non-religious people. Morin says that we will all die, our sun will die, our universe will die, and that death should have a more explicit part in our society.
Along similar non-religious lines, the French philosopher Patrick Viveret who co-wrote a book with Edgar Morin and who is often mentioned in “La Voie”, argues against the notion of sustainability by citing the fact that we will all die. This shows that our main concern should not be a question of survival, but of having meaningful lives.
Edgar Morin has a simple and linear view of life and death, which is fine, but it would have been very interesting for him to try to adopt the view of other people, even as an hypothesis, and use his concepts of recursive loop, hologrammatics, emergence, complexity, to rethink the concept of death beyond the different accounts he gave in 1951.
A techno-biased post-conclusion
In the post-conclusion of “La Voie”, Edgar Morin gives glimpses of what the future of mankind has in store, in the areas of the nature of mankind itself, its relation to cosmos, the nature of knowledge. Although he acknowledges the possible existence of parallel dimensions, of extraterrestrials and of an increase of cognitive powers of the man, he does not make any link with an evolution of man towards more wisdom or more ethics. He only mentions colonization of planets anda merging of man and technology reminiscent of transhumanism and Kurzweil’s singularity. Regarding the increase of knowledge, Edgar Morin focuses a lot on physical aspects like the nature of space and time, but not on the very nature of life and man. An article in the French journal Libération is expresses happiness that Edgar Morin’s book does not contain any New Age babbling, but even without spiritual beliefs it would have been possible to put forward that man is not only a child in the areas of technology and knowledge, but also in the areas of love, wisdom, and morality. Edgar Morin wrote several books stating that we are only at the stone age of ecology but this is not quite put forward in the end of “La Voie”.
What to put in a volume 2
A natural idea to pursue beyond Edgar Morin’s work would be to create a benchmark of initiatives. The book “Des abeilles et des hommes” (Bees and men, 2010), from Thanh Nghiem, was written with this view in mind.
We should write “do’s and don’ts”. In The Choice: Evolution or Extinction? by Ervin Laszlo, there is a chapter entitled “A Short Catalogue of Obsolete Beliefs and Misguided Practices”. Beyond “do’s and don’ts”, one should put them in perspective. A “do” in one context might be a “don’t” in another. As a specialist in permaculture would say, there are no bad lands, only bad farmers.
Even the very idea of creating a benchmark of “do’s and don’ts” has its limits in so far as many important projects in their infancy are not supposed to be known by everyone. New ideas must be experimented with before being widespread. Ideas that may be commercially exploited must first seek a framework that protects them. A lot of underground work needs to be done at all scales, from crisis areas to the backstage of the highest levels of political decisions or of fundamental research.
Edgar Morin chose the stance not to avoid controversy. Most of the reforms are obvious ones, at least for the people who have the courage to internalize that humanity is courting disaster. A consequence is that these reforms, as they are presented, are below the depth to which they should be conducted. As an example, in the chapter about economy, as far as money is concerned, he only talks about local currencies. There is no discussion of the notion of money, no mention of all types of monetary alternatives, of principles of accounting, of indicators, of ways to dynamize or create economies with alternative principles. Nevertheless, here in France, in working groups on these topics, we do use Morin’s principles through a set of 13 paradigms compiled by Jean-Louis Le Moigne from Edgar Morin’s conferences.
A volume 2 could be bolder in stating the reforms to make, and in particular highlight friction points which require technical modelling and experimenting, philosophical and ethical discussions.
Should this book be used as a blueprint?
Edgar Morin himself is perfectly aware of gaps in his book and ask readers to point them out. He also asks for a second volume to be written by a committee. In an interview Edgar Morin pointed out that he forgot to talk about childhood.
It is clear that Edgar Morin is representative of a few systemic and transdisciplinary circles in France and possibly abroad, and that these circles could use his work as a blueprint. On a general and practical basis, the book has obvious limitations in layout and contents. We have seen that the different parts of the book are quite unbalanced, and the previous article also entitled “La Voie” may have a more workable and straightforward layout. As far as content is concerned, the book does not exhaust all the topics developed in Edgar Morin’s work, it is not representative of all the integral developments in France or in the world. Besides, a basic model like Wilber’s eight zone quadrants analysis shows that even if Edgar Morin’s work spans the four quadrants, there is an emphasis on holons seen from the outside, so that despite Morin’s notion of envelopment, the book would not fit people who are spiritually oriented.
Trying to take into account all the integral and transdisciplinary approaches (in the style of Jennifer Gidley) is a very important work, but such a synthesis should also exist in different variants according to people’s personalities, contexts, and goals. Stating conceptual and practical integral traps and impossibilities should also be seen as important.
Edgar Morin and leadership
Edgar Morin did not write extensively on leadership, but his work has been used by many practitioners of leadership. He mentions the concept of organizational learning of Peter Senge (“La Voie”, 130), as well as personal development. Many leadership writers in the vein of Peter Senge use systemics as a pillar of their methodology. The three notions of dialogics, recursivity and hologrammatics are easy to use for the leaders who need tools to manage complexity. The notion of metamorphosis with the caterpillar transforming into butterfly is often used in reference to Edgar Morin.
In “La Voie”, Edgar Morin did not want to pose as a leader. He did not try to play the big thinker: he uses the world “dialogics” because it is very representative of dealing with opposites, but he does not use openly the recursive and hologrammatic principles. He does not pretend to exhaust the themes he deals with, either in content or in concept. He tries to open doors. Nevertheless, this very course of action, the very title of the book, are the acts of a leader.
In an interview, Edgar Morin says that given his age this book may be a last will and testament. In conferences, he appeals to young people to change the world: it is not his role anymore. But he also explains that former resisters like him, Stéphane Hessel and Claude Alphandéry, have an important role because they are still fighting for change, but without the illusions of youth.
Edgar Morin did not want to be a leader in any specific area and did not even choose to be the biggest transdisciplinary thinker in the world. He is just one man in love with the world, as he stated once, trying to avoid disaster for mankind. Not advocating for transdisciplinarity as a religion or considering the integral attitude as a level of conscience prevents him from being elitist and to address a large audience.
Besides leadership methodologies or evolutionary literacy, what may be missing in “La Voie” is the carrot and the stick. What is the catastrophe we want to avoid—a few scenarios would deserve to be thought and described with details—and what vision can we put forward for mankind?
Edgar Morin is a very generous man who has during his whole life been showing us the way. As a systemic atheist with a mystical poetical facet, he does not seek or sell enlightenment, but leads at the same time a life of service with no ulterior motive. His is the life of a man who still marvels at the mystery of man and of the universe. His deep knowledge of sociology, history, and politics makes him unique among the transdisciplinary French thinkers. “La Voie” is not only a synthesis of today’s different crises but also a political act to make people understand how linked the crises are and that all the dimensions of the human crises should be addressed at the same time.
Edgar Morin is aware of the limitations of his book, and considers it more as an invitation to further his work. Many ideas that may seem unclear or limited can be better understood by reading Edgar Morin’s previous books. Edgar Morin has drawn boundaries around his work that are more or less representative of the so-called systemic and transdisciplinary communities in France, but there exist other integral and so-called disciplinary but nevertheless transdisciplinary working groups in France that are not covered by his work, and that international people should also take into account.
It is important to stress that pioneering advances already exist that use Edgar Morin’s previous works, even though these advances are not mentioned as such in “La Voie”. The book is only partially representative of the influence this thinker already has in the world. Hence. The Way is only one partial way to enter Edgar Morin’s world.
There are limitations that Edgar Morin was not, or did not want to be, aware of. Beyond these practical and necessary limitations, if one considers the book as a philosophical and political gesture, it is indeed showing us the way.
Appendix: How writing this review changed my view of Edgar Morin
(which really makes it a re-view)
Edgar Morin and I are going on different paths. I met him a dozen times in conferences. I was one or two meters from him once at UNESCO while he was talking with his wife Edwige, wondering if they should stay because one of them seemed very tired. I peed with him (nothing to brag about, but fun to tell). I even met him once (on August 3rd 2010) at the exit of a metro: he was going to visit his daughter and I was going to visit a gallery of paintings made by a bioenergetist. We never talked more than a few minutes, so he probably does not know who I am. I did try to reach him in the second part of the 90’s when I was a student: once by email probably to an account managed by some assistant—though the email was in the name of Edgar Morin I do not think he had a personal email at that time—and once by snail mail through the APC (Association pour la Pensée Complexe, or Association for Complex Thinking). I introduced myself as a young student very interested by transdisciplinarity and I asked whether I could play a role in his association. Someone had told me that he answered every letter addressed to him. I guess he never received mine. On the opposite side, Basarab Nicolescu and Michel Saloff Coste monitored my progress regularly.
When Brian van der Horst asked me to do a review from his book, the only book that I had read from Edgar Morin was the method volume 1. I had flipped through other books and articles from him but I had never been convinced by what appeared to me as verbiage. In some ways, I even considered him as a kind of enemy or at least a hindrance, because when you try to talk about transdisciplinarity to the layman in France, the only chance you have to convey anything is possibly through Edgar Morin. And the problem was that to my mind Edgar Morin only used simplified concepts from other marginal thinkers who were more powerful. For me it did not make sense to use rehashed and simplified concepts instead of going to the sources. Besides, he did not seem very open minded to me. He only comes in a rush in conferences to do his part, and then goes away without listening to others, except for conferences of which he is an organizer.
Edgar Morin remains a leading actor of the transdisciplinary cause, and is loved by many people in the communities following this ideal. Now I was facing the challenge of writing something respectful and constructive. Not being an Edgar Morin’s fan appeared to me as an asset, if I proved able to seize the opportunity to take the time to understand the character from the inside and possibly revise my judgment about him. That would be a very healthy exercise of decentering from my prejudice. I had already done such a decentering exercise with Ken Wilber. Ken Wilber’s fans adviseus to read A Brief History of Everything, but when I read it, I thought that it was only soup, like Edgar Morin. It is only when I read Spectrum of Consciousness that I realised that Ken Wilber had a powerful mind. Maybe then Edgar Morin might be as powerful as Wilber at some point? Expanding the review to Edgar Morin’s work was killing two birds with the same stone, because I felt I did not learn that much from “La Voie”, but I thought that it would be interesting to compare this with his previous works and that this task would provide me with material to write about.
Questions that haunted my research were: Who is this guy? What makes him tick? What does he really think? Why are there so many people loving him and using (or at least mentioning) his concepts? What makes him singular?
What dawned on me by way of an answer is his deep concern for mankind, which makes him an ally. Edgar Morin wrote so many things about so many different subjects that, if you really want to know what he thinks about a given subject, you can find the answer. Nevertheless, he has a tendency to duck issues and you sometimes have to read several texts before finding the answer.
Edgar Morin is many things, a movie goer, a reader, a traveller, a lover, but he truly is a writer who writes many notes while reading, who uses writing as a catharsis. Many manuscripts and drafts of novels or essays of his remain unpublished and some were lost during moves. If you want to judge him by what he writes, you must first acknowledge that you will find many different texts of unequal content and quality, and many different kinds of food for thought: stories, examples, universal concepts, ideas of different ranges.
Despite his efforts to develop concepts and methods, there is an abounding explosion of his writing and thoughts. What is missing is a discipline, an ecology of writing and of thought, which prevents him to go as deeply as it was possible, even when contemporary or past thinkers did so, and even when they were often within his reach. A little self-critic shows that this very review also lacks a definite framework, partially because I am no Edgar Morin expert, but this review bets that, instead of writing a strict methodical review of a book, creativity was more profitable with off topic thoughts offered as avenues for further research.
About the Author
Michel Nguyen The is an alumni from the École Normale Supérieure de Lyon and holds a PhD in computer science from the École Polytechnique. He currently works in financial mathematics. He is a member of several associations having a transdisciplinary essence (Afscet, Groupe Béna, Club of Budapest Paris).