A Nous la Liberte

The Technological Society

by Jacques Ellul, Translated from the French by John Wilkinson, with an Introduction by Robert K. Merton
Knopf, 449 pp., $10.95

Ou va le travail humain?

by George Friedmann
Gallimard, (revised edition), 450 pp., 23 F

Machinisme et Bien-Etre

by Jean Fourastié
Editions de Minuit, 251 pp., 15 F

Introduction a la modernite

by Henri Lefebvre
Editions de Minuit, 373 pp., 24.50 F

The French Bureaucratic System

by Michel Crozier
University of Chicago, 413 pp., $5.00

La nouvelle classe ouvriere

by Serge Mallet
Editions du Seuil, 266 pp., 12 F

If there is an important difference between French and Anglo-American sociological thought, it lies mainly in the greater prestige of social philosophy, as distinct from sociology properly so called. For example, the leading figure in post-war French sociology has been Professor George Gurvitch whose work remains curiously neglected in the United States. No one can dispute his claim to be regarded as an empiricist, but he is also the author of philosophical studies on Hegel, Marx, and Sartre, and his recently republished treatise on sociological method (La Vocation Actuelle de la Sociologie) carries the authority of a scholar who has mastered the corpus of modern philosophic thought, yet can be as rigidly empirical as any “Anglo-Saxon”: no follower of Talcott Parsons would find his methods strange, although the vocabulary is that of Durkheim and his school. Much the same could be said of M. Georges Friedmann’s study of the social consequences of mechanization in such books as The Anatomy of Work, Industrial Society (paperback editions have just been issued by the Free Press of Glencoe) or the well-known publications of Raymond Aron.

Against these and other sociologists with philosophical inclinations, there are the French philosophers themselves. The distinction may seem tenuous, but will hold if one resolves to describe as a philosopher any writer for whom the findings of the empirical sciences serve merely as an occasion for the display of critical or interpretative thought. M. Henri Lefebvre and M. Kostas Axelos are certainly important writers in this sense. Both employ dialectic for the purpose of giving a critical estimate of modern society, where the term “criticism” stands not for partisan polemics, but for complete detachment from all party standpoints, including the socialist or communist one: in fact the decomposition of the revolutionary movement is one of their favorite themes. Their neo-Marxism has affinities with non-socialist forms of Kulturkritik, including the writings of the left-wing Catholic group around Esprit. It accommodates Freud, Pascal, Nietzsche, the Romantics and—in the case of M. Axelos—even Heidegger. Thoroughly eclectic, it is at the same time very French in its attachment to a discursive style which deliberately eschews systematization and methodical rigor. There is a return to the national tradition founded by the great essayists of the seventeenth century.

One does not quite know where, in this context, M. Jacques Ellul’s Technological Society is to be placed. Indisputably French, he is at the same time strongly influenced by Anglo-American examples. Philosophical, and indeed essayistic, in tone, this study of modern technology (originally published in French in 1954, and now translated into English) nonetheless aims at the kind of critical comprehension of the machine and its effects which in post-war France was pioneered by Professor Friedmann. A comparison with the latter’s work seems to impose itself, but there is the awkward fact that M. Ellul himself is as much a Christian philosopher—and as such a critic of modern society—as a sociologist in the strict sense of the term. Does …

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Letters

Technological Society March 11, 1965