The End of History and the Triumph of Reason According to Cournot

The life of peoples and societies is thought of by Antoine-Augustin Cournot (1801–1877) by way of a vegetal model: “Now, the life that circulates in the social body is an obscure, instinctive life, without consciousness of itself, and, by a quite remarkable regression, closer to the life of the plant than to that of the animal, a fortiori much inferior in the hierarchy of functions to the life of a being capable of deliberation and morality, to the degree of the human person” (Considérations sur la marche des idées et des événements dans les temps modernes, p. 403).

In contrast to plants, animals and human beings are constituted with their own individuality, voluntary movement, perception of external objects and memory, and a greater complication and specialization of organs and functions. Conversely, the evolution of socio-cultural phenomena is decentralized and takes place spontaneously, without reflection, without determined direction, by budding in the manner of plants. Parallel to this vegetal life, elements of a radically different order develop within human societies. In fact, it is because they are “both organisms and mechanisms” that human societies develop (Traité de l’enchaînement des idées fondamentales, p. 304). To be precise, they are shaped by two tendencies whose heterogeneity can be seen, first and foremost, in their respective durations—since every organic-type phenomenon is subject to a determined growth cycle, its life is limited; but if every techno-scientific process is capable of indefinite extension, its longevity is in principle unlimited. In this way, two types of phenomena coexist in the social structure, whose apprehension requires recourse to two epistemologically distinct regimes; because certain elements are subject to the biological rhythm, their progress is illuminated by the laws of life, while the perfection of others depends solely on the laws of physics. Having reached a certain stage in their development, societies must inevitably “divest themselves more and more of that which makes them part of the nature of a living organism,” so that their constitution gradually assumes “a kind of geometrical regularity” (Considérations, p. 148). The changing morphology of the social body is thus the fruit of this tension between the mechanical and the vital. And when the vital energy of society becomes necrotic, when mechanical devices take precedence over structures enshrined in custom and tradition, when reason replaces popular instincts, according to Cournot, this signals the advent of modernity.

Rationalization of Social Phenomena

In concrete terms, legal institutions, the political system, religion, language, mores and art express the particular life of a people; but modern science, technology, industry and economics can only be attributed to universal reason. Thus, if a young nation’s legal code is a reflection of its emotional dispositions, its subsequent use of mechanical forces in industry will show no cultural particularity. The closer a people comes to maturity, the more the structures that express its temperament lose vitality, and the more rational elements predominate in society. This is inescapable: the institutions in which a community’s physiognomy is embodied are bound up with an organic process of growth and decline; whereas the products of reason depend solely on methodical rigor and are potentially indestructible. In this way, Cournot establishes a genealogy of social forms, showing how these, initially created and made to work by collective instinct, gradually come to be rationalized. According to Cournot, for example, there is nothing metaphorical in describing language as living, provided we “distinguish between that which lives and that which is the product of life” (Matérialisme, vitalisme, rationalisme, p. 115). Although produced by life, the shell of a mollusk does not live; on the other hand, “language is not one of those products that life abandons once it has formed; life presides over the ceaseless work of development and maintenance that language undergoes, right up to the moment of decay” (Matérialisme, p. 115). But in order for language to respond to the imperatives imposed on every advanced civilization (international trade, administrative expansion, etc.), the latter forces it to become rigid and ossified, reducing it to its utilitarian function and turning it into an instrument at the service of progress.

Law, for its part, is first and foremost “the product of native instincts or the education of the race” (Matérialisme, p. 125), and is presented as a restricted set of more or less unchanging customs, towards which the indigenous people show an almost sacred veneration. However, the social problems that gradually present themselves to the legislator with increasing acuity, and the fact that the original meaning of symbols and legal formulas sooner or later fall into disuse, lead the law to become universalized and “appropriate to the general conditions of human nature” (Matérialisme, p. 125). Jurisprudence purges legislation of its idiosyncratic particularities, retaining only the essential, and, having deduced all its consequences, melds the rules into an architectonic whole. Finally, Cournot argues, against contractualist theories and emerging socialism, that the nature of a political regime can only be understood on the basis of the hereditary instincts of its community, without ever deriving its origin from the artificial constructs of reason. The parliamentary monarchy of the English, for example, is the result of three innate tendencies: “The cult of royalty, the respect of social superiorities, the love of personal independence” (Matérialisme, p. 130). Any attempt to recreate this regime identically on foreign soil, based on its institutions alone, is doomed to failure if these “native dispositions” are lacking. But with the development of international trade and industry, the center of gravity of power shifted—as traditional political forms became increasingly irrelevant, they were replaced by an impersonal administration, whose technical skills were a more effective response to contemporary challenges.

Stability, History’s Unsurpassed Horizon

As rationality gradually takes over all spheres of society, it increasingly reduces political and social upheavals to insignificant events; accidents that can only temporarily upset the equilibrium from which the community is no longer expected to depart. Territorial instability, local traditions, the passions of crowds and the great ideals that are always quick to inflame them, are succeeded by the unification of the national territory under similar mores and rules of life, liberal democracy and the fixity of production relationships.

Logic, a function once devolved to superior individualities, is now responsible for moving societies forward with a common step: “They must function, or come close to functioning, in the manner of a mechanism in which all the springs, all the cogs, can be defined, measured, adjusted with ever-increasing precision, and kept in a state of maintenance that lends itself to regular service” (Considérations, p. 148). With this in mind, Cournot prophesied the end of history—the “historical phase” of European civilization was now behind us. In truth, the movement of history can be broken down into three stages, of which only the middle part constitutes history proper: “In the first category, the phenomena observed follow one another too little, too irregularly, too independently of one another; and in the second, the phenomena follow one another too closely, are too expected to compose a history, as we ordinarily understand it” (Matérialisme, p. 133). The first stage is that of chronicles, in which all notable events are recorded—”prodigies, rains of blood, births of monsters, plagues, famines” (Matérialisme, p. 133).—which derive their extraordinary character from the fact that they seem to be due solely to chance.

Then, the historical phase begins with the emergence of great figures—”warriors, legislators, prophets, founders of religion and empire” (Matérialisme, p. 134)—who work to create a lasting civilization by directing the masses; events here present a real historicity, as they contain an element of chance as well as predictability. Post-historical societies, on the other hand, are characterized by the negligible importance of chance in the community’s future. The age of gazettes, humanity’s final historical stage, is that of the universal exercise of reason, although this stage is not synonymous with immobility: “the final state towards which humanity tends… will never be rigorously attained” (Essai sur les fondements de nos connaissances et sur les caractères de la critique philosophique, p. 485). At this point, individual genius and great scientific discoveries perish in favor of the anonymous and collective work of society as a whole, whose progress, regular and continuous, takes place in fits and starts and is mainly the result of the sum of successive adjustments made to the overall mechanism.

Finally, Cournot’s concept of civilization is representative of the intellectual and geopolitical context of the late 19th century; since the direction of history shows that there is no alternative to progress, civilized Western societies must in turn engage “barbarian” peoples in it—a Eurocentric conception, in fact, which justifies colonization by establishing a hierarchy between nations. As opposed to “national civilizations,” Cournot refers to this universal evolutionary process as “general civilization.” In each state, the prolonged action of time increasingly accentuates the characteristics of the latter to the detriment of the former: cultural particularities form the living reality of a people, a reality that is de facto perishable; whereas “in science, in industry, in everything that contributes to the formation of a capital capable of always increasing, we find a fund of general civilization common to all peoples and which can be transmitted almost unaltered from one people to another… in much the same way as a scientific treatise passes from one language into another, whereas the translation of a poem is always a very imperfect copy of the original” (Matérialisme, p. 135).

Through the technical and material levelling it imposes on cultures, modernity produces a generalized standardization of the world. However, one thing never fails to resist the steamroller of progress—the sacred: “There comes a time when peoples are obliged to give themselves artificial native political constitutions which have ceased to live and which the dissolving action of time has reduced to dust; whereas one cannot conceive, in a very advanced state of civilization, of the construction from scratch of a religion, any more than of a language. The longevity of religions would thus become indestructibility” (Considérations, p. 398).

Guillaume Floc’h writes from France. This article appears through the kind courtesy of PHILITT.

Featured: Study for “Jazz Hot,” by František Kupka; painted ca. 1929.