Doing things to better understand them, understanding to take action

Charles Lenay is tit­u­lar Pro­fes­sor of Phi­los­o­phy and Cog­ni­tion Sci­ences at UTC, post­ed to the UTC-Costech Lab (Knowl­edge and tech­nol­o­gy-inten­sive sys­tems and orga­ni­za­tion). This year, June 5–12, he co-orga­nized the ‘Journées de Cerisy¹’ con­fer­ence on the theme “Social sci­ences and human­i­ties in tech­no­log­i­cal research”. In Jan­u­ary 2017, Prof. Lenay received the insignia of Cheva­lier of the French Order des Palmes académiques. 

It was when he was engaged — “with no spe­cif­ic prob­lems” — in mol­e­c­u­lar biol­o­gy stud­ies (virol­o­gy con­trol mech­a­nisms), that Charles Lenay read a book by an Ecole Poly­tech­nique grad­u­ate, lec­tur­er and philoso­pher, Prof. Jean-Pierre Dupuy enti­tled Ordres et désor­dres. Enquête sur un nou­veau par­a­digme [Order and dis­or­der ; inves­ti­gat­ing a new par­a­digm] Ed. Seuil, 1990 and which made him change head­ing and set out for new hori­zons. “My back­ground train­ing was mixed, so to say”, notes Charles Lenay, who pre­pared and pre­sent­ed in 1989 a the­sis in his­to­ry and sci­en­tif­ic epis­te­mol­o­gy on the explana­to­ry role played by chance in 19th Cen­tu­ry bio­log­i­cal the­o­ries²; Spurred with his PhD, Charles added two degrees, one in phi­los­o­phy and the sec­ond in logic.

“What is the act of know­ing? What does it mean to ignore and/or to know when and what you ignore?” these are among the ques­tions that guid­ed Charles to move towards then field of cog­ni­tion sci­ences. Those that under­pin our think­ing process­es.”” What always fas­ci­nat­ed me (and con­tin­ues to fas­ci­nate me*), are tech­nol­o­gy-relat­ed facts? Ask­ing myself ques­tions such as: what is tech­nol­o­gy doing with/to us? How does a tech­no­log­i­cal envi­ron­ment forge us into human beings?” explains Charles Lenay. 

When he was recruit­ed by UTC in 1990, these ques­tions and oth­ers were going to con­crete­ly serve this objec­tive, lead­ing on to the idea of “Devel­op­ing social sci­ences and human­i­ties, in their full gamut of pos­si­ble themes — run­ning from phi­los­o­phy to the econ­o­my, from cog­ni­tion sci­ences to ICTs …, includ­ing more soci­o­log­i­cal, anthro­po­log­i­cal, man­age­ment, con­no­ta­tions … — with­in a tech­nol­o­gy-inten­sive envi­ron­ment” he stress­es. Remem­ber Johann Beck­mann, was it not he who in his book enti­tled Entwurf der all­ge­meinen Tech­nolo­gie³ sub­ti­tled Pro­jet de Tech­nolo­gie Générale, 1806, was the first to coin the dual con­cept of sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy? Is this not sim­i­lar to geol­o­gy and biol­o­gy belong­ing respec­tive­ly to earth sci­ences and to bio­log­i­cal sciences?

Hence the chal­lenge accept­ed by UTC, even in its infant days, to set up a train­ing cur­ricu­lum with 30% of the engi­neer­ing cours­es devot­ed to social sci­ences and human­i­ties. This is a dis­tinc­tive fea­ture which, in the field of emerg­ing cog­ni­tion sci­ences became known as “the Com­pieg­ne school”. It is a spe­cif­ic fea­ture which forces us to “seri­ous­ly ques­tion the bases of tech­nol­o­gy. We must no longer try to under­stand it as an applied sci­ence, but rather see tech­nol­o­gy as an object in its own rights, suit­able for basic sci­en­tif­ic research. In short, under­stand­ing how tech­nolo­gies are trans­form­ing the way we live and act in today’s world”, adds Chares Lenay.

“As human beings, we are cul­tur­al crea­tures; means nec­es­sar­i­ly being tech­no­log­i­cal. We refer here to a com­plete set of tech­niques, such as lan­guage skills, writ­ing, plus oth­er tech­niques that help us think, inter­act, per­ceive and inter­act in soci­ety … that make us human beings”, he insists. The first hominids pos­sessed and used tools dai­ly, did­n’t they? “One of the remark­able ideas offered by Prof. André Leroi-Gourhan, a renowned eth­nol­o­gist and his­to­ri­an, is that from the very ear­li­est times, Mankind and tech­niques have always pro­gressed togeth­er”. So, what are the con­se­quences on today’s human beings of ongo­ing tech­nol­o­gy-relat­ed trans­for­ma­tions, in par­tic­u­lar those that accom­pa­ny the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion? “At this point in time, we sim­ply do not know”, admits Prof Lenay.

Hence his unfail­ing com­mit­ment to work at the UTC-Costech Lab. “What we are try­ing to do in the Lab”, he insists, “ is to val­orize an orig­i­nal approach to tech­ni­cal ques­tions at a uni­ver­si­ty of tech­nol­o­gy or also in the way we inves­ti­gate and prac­tice social and sci­ences and human­i­ties in a tech­nol­o­gy-inten­sive envi­ron­ment, all of which led to the set­ting up of a sci­ence inter­est group (GIS) in 2011”. This GIS ‑aka UTSH (Unit for Social Sci­ences & Tech­nol­o­gy), is a con­junc­tion of con­tri­bu­tions from the 3 French uni­ver­si­ties of tech­nol­o­gy — UTC, UTBM-Belfort Mont­be­liard and UTT-Troyes, plus Uni­LaSalle (Beau­vais). One of the objec­tives assigned to the UTSH is “to make this spe­cif­ic approach bet­ter known and to pro­mote it, inas­much as it is a real­ly nov­el way to engage in social sci­ences. Hence the orga­ni­za­tion of the Journées de Cerisy Con­fer­ence”, adds Charles Lenay. Par­tic­i­pants are invit­ed “not to look at tech­nol­o­gy from the out­side, in a sort of cliff-over­hang exer­cise, but to get involved in tech­no­log­i­cal research. We must endeav­our to get to the heart of tech­nol­o­gy and innovation”.

Serge Bouchardon, Direc­tor of UTC-Costech report­ed­ly said “We do things to under­stand them and we under­stand things to act accord­ing­ly”. Prof Charles Lenay has adopt­ed this mot­to. So, to con­clude, what do we dis­cov­er among his con­crete achieve­ments? Devel­op­ment of aids for pur­blind per­sons where the key idea is to imple­ment sys­tems that enable these per­sons to “touch and feel shapes on a screen”. 


² Lenay, C. ” Enquête sur le hasard dans les grandes théories biologiques de la deux­ième moitié du XIXe siè­cle “. Doc­tor­at de Philoso­phie et His­toire des sci­ences, Uni­ver­sité de Paris I : Pan­théon-Sor­bonne, 1989. 


Le magazine

Novembre 2023 - N°61

Activité physique, nutrition & santé

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