A New Renaissance, by Prof. Edgar Morin, France

A deterioration in quality for the sake of quantity is the hallmark of our civilisation crisis, since we live in a world dominated by a technological, economic and scientific logic. Only that which is quantifiable is perceived as real, everything else is dismissed, from political thinking in particular. Unfortunately, neither love nor suffering, nor pleasure, enthusiasm or poetry are quantifiable.

Our tools of thought, our ideologies, have proved to be failures: our technological, economic and scientific development, with its specific effects, is a phenomenon unique in history. But borderline situations have occurred in the past. When a given system finds itself saturated with problems it can no longer resolve, it has two possibilities: either general regression or a change of system.

The example of regression is illustrated by that of the Roman Empire. As we know today, it was not the invading hordes that caused the downfall of the Roman Empire, but the fact that Rome proved incapable of changing and of resolving its economic problems. By contrast, the emergence of historic societies in the Middle East some ten thousand years ago, when small nomadic tribes progressed from being hunters and gatherers to taking up agriculture and settling in village communities, is an example of how an overly categorised or dispersed organisational system was successfully overcome to solve the problems posed by a large concentration of populations. Indeed, because globalisation is out of control, it is accompanied by many instances of regression. But it is a possibility that could be desirable.

Obviously, globalisation has a very destructive aspect: it generates anonymity, reduces individual cultures to a common denominator and standardises identities. However, it is also a unique opportunity to promote communication and understanding between the peoples of the planet’s various cultures and encourages their blending. This new chapter will come about only once we become fully aware of the fact that we are citizens of the planet first and foremost, and then Europeans, Frenchmen, Africans, Americans ... the planet is our homeland, a fact that does not deny the individual homelands of others. The awareness of our global destiny as a community is the prerequisite for change that would allow us to act as co-pilot for the planet, where our problems have become inextricably intertwined. If not, we would experience a fate similar to that of ‘balkanisation’, a violent and defensive retaliation against specific ethnic or religious identities, which is the opposite of this process of unification and solidarity throughout the planet.

Pertinent knowledge exists only if one is capable of placing one’s information within a context, globalising it and situating it within an overall framework. Our thought system, which permeates education from primary schools to universities, is a system that breaks down reality and renders our minds incapable of linking up the knowledge we are made to pigeonhole into disciplines.

This hyper-specialisation of knowledge, which consists of carving out a single aspect from reality, can have considerable human and practical consequences in the case, for example, of infrastructure policies, which all too often neglect the social and human dimension. It also contributes towards dispossessing citizens of the right to take political decisions and transfers that privilege to experts.

The reforming of thought teaches us to tackle complexity with the aid of concepts capable of re-establishing the links between the different types of knowledge now available to us. Such a reform is crucial in the planetary age where it has become impossible, and artificial, to isolate an important problem at the national level.

This reform of our way of thinking, which itself requires a reforming of education, is not happening anywhere even though it is needed everywhere.

In the 17th century, the philosopher Pascal already understood how everything is linked, realising that “all things aid and are aided, cause and are caused.” He even had an understanding of retroaction, which was admirable for his time: “… and everything being linked by an invisible link that binds the parts most distant from one another, I hold it to be impossible to know the parts without knowing the whole, just as it is impossible to know the whole without knowing the parts”. That is the crux of the matter, the direction of learning in which education ought to be heading.

But, unfortunately, we have followed the model of Descartes, his contemporary, who for his part advocated breaking down reality and problems into constituent parts. And yet, the whole produces qualities that are not extant in the individual parts. The whole is never just the sum of its parts but always something more. It is essential to be able to consider the unity of the many and the multiplicity of the unit. We tend too much to overlook the unity of mankind when we see the diversity of cultures and customs and to dismiss the diversity when we see the unity. The real problem is being able to see one in the other; after all, the nature of mankind lies precisely in this potential for diversity, which cannot call into question the unity of mankind from an anatomical, genetic, cerebral, intellectual and affective point of view.

It is easy to see, then, that the general and the particular are not conflicting since the general itself is singular. The human race is singular compared with other species yet it produces multiple singularities. Our universe itself is singular yet produces diversity. One must always be able to think of the unit and the multiple; if not, minds incapable of considering the unity of the many and the multiplicity of the unit will inevitably promote a unity that standardises and multiplicities that withdraw into themselves.

I believe we need to open ourselves up to exchange. Just as Asia opened itself up to Western technology, we need to embrace the contributions of Asian, Buddhist and Hindu civilisations in particular, for the part they have played in the relation between oneself and one’s inner self, between one’s spirit, soul and body, aspects which our productivist and activist civilisation have totally neglected. We have much to learn from other cultures. Just as the Renaissance came about after mediaeval Europe returned to its Greek sources, we now need to find a new Renaissance by drawing from the many sources of the universe.

Edgar Morin is a philosopher, writer and director of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique.



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