Emmanuel Mounier: On Bodies & the Abstracting Power of Machines

Emmanuel Mounier: On Bodies & the Abstracting Power of Machines September 27, 2016
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In a tutorial in political philosophy class at Campion College Australia last week, students were introduced to passages from Personalism by Emmanuel Mounier, one of the founding figures of that movement called French Personalism. This was the early twentieth-century intellectual faction which nourished the thought of Jacques Maritain, Nikolai Berdayev and, decades later, Paul Riceour and Karol Wojtyla. Mounier’s book, written in the 1930s, could be speaking to our current postmodern and postsecular age.

This is particularly the case in a chapter entitled “Bodily Existence”. The most salient for the class were the ones concerning the body (and its relation to subjectivity, time, space and even eternity) and the abstracting power of machines.

On the body, Mounier writes…

I am a person from my most elementary existence upward, and my embodied existence, far from de-personalising me, is a factor essentaial to my personal status. My body is not one object among others, nor even the nearest object – for how then, could it be with my experience as a subject? In fact the two experiences are not separate: I exist subjectively, I exist bodily are one and the same experience. I cannot think without being and i cannot be without my body, which is my exposition – to myself to the world, to everyone else: by its means alone can I escape from the solitude of a thinking that would be only thought about thought. By its refusal to leave me wholly transparent to myself, the body takes me constantly out of myself into the problems of the world and the struggles of mankind. By the solicitation of the senses it pushes me out into space, by growing old it acquaints me with duration, and by its death, it confronts me with eternity.

Whilst on technology…

Man is unique in his invention of tools, and in his subsequent linking of htem into systems of machinery that slwoly frame a collective body for all humanity. The men of this twentieth cnetury are bewildered to see this new and all powerful body they are constructing. The power of abstraction in the machine is indeed frightening; by its severence of human contacts, it can make us forget, more dangerously, thank anything else has ever done, what happens to those whose work it controls and whose bodies it may sacrifice. Perfectly objective, altogether explicable, it de-educates us from all that is intimate, secret or inexpressible. It puts undreamed-of powers into the hands of imbecile: it entertains us by its excesses, only to distracts us from its cruelties. Left to its own blind inertia, it is the most powerful of forces making for depersonalisation.

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