Gilbert Simondon — L’individu et sa genèse physico-biologique (Adkins Translation)

The following is subsections 2 and 3 of section 1 of chapter 1 of Gilbert Simondon’s L’individu et sa genèse physico-biologique. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1964. pp. 39-50.

Original translation by Taylor Adkins 10/19/07.

2. Validity of the hylemorphic model; the obscure zone of the hylemorphic model; generalization of the notion of the capture of form; modeling, molding, modulation

The technical operation of the capture of form can thus be used as a paradigm provided that one asks this operation to indicate the true relations which it institutes. However, these relations are not established between the raw material and the pure form, but between the prepared matter and materialized forms: the operation of the capture of form does not suppose only raw material and form, but also energy; the materialized form is a form that can act as a limit, as a topological border of a system. The prepared matter is that which can transport the potential energy which charges it in the technical manipulation. The pure form, playing a role in the technical operation, must become a system of points of application corresponding to the reactive forces, while the raw material becomes a homogeneous vehicle of potential energy. The capture of form is a common operation of the form and matter in a system: the condition of energy is essential, and it is not furnished by the form alone; it is the whole system that is the focus of potential energy, precisely because the capture of form is an in-depth operation throughout the entire mass, in consequence of an energy state of reciprocity of the matter in relation to itself. It is the distribution of the energy which is determining in the capture of form, and the mutual suitability of the matter and the form is related to the possibility of existence and the characters of this energy system. The matter is what transports this energy and the form what modulates the distribution of this same energy. The unity matter-form, at the time of the capture of form, is in the field of energy.

The hylemorphic model retains only the ends from these two half-chains that the technical operation elaborates; the schematics of the operation itself is veiled, been ignored. There is a hole in the hylemorphic representation, making the true mediation disappear, the operation itself which attaches one to the other both half-chains by instituting an energy system, a state that has evolved and must indeed exist so that an object appears with its haecceity. The hylemorphic model corresponds to the knowledge of a man who remains outside the workshop and considers only what enters there and what is done there; to know the true hylemorphic relation, it is not enough even to penetrate inside the workshop and to work with the craftsman: one would need to penetrate inside the mold itself to follow the operation of the capture of form to the various levels of the dimensions of physical reality.

Seizure in itself, the operation of the capture of form can effectuate itself in many ways, according to various methods apparently very different from each other. The true technicality of the operation of the capture of form largely exceeds the conventional limits which separate trades and the fields of work. Thus, it becomes possible, by the study of the energy field of the capture of form, to bring closer the molding of a brick to the operation of an electronic relay. In an electron tube of the triode type, the “matter” (vehicle of potential energy which actualizes itself) is the cloud of electrons leaving the cathode in the circuit cathode-anode-effector-generator. The “form” is what limits this actualization of potential energy in reserve in the generator, i.e. the electric field created by the potential difference between the grid of order and the cathode, which is opposed to the cathode-anode field, created by the generator itself; this counter-field is a limit to the actualization of the potential energy, as the walls of the mold are a limit to the actualization of the potential energy of the system clay-mold, transported by the clay in its displacement. The difference between the two cases lies in the fact that, for clay, the operation of the capture of form is finished in time: it tends, rather slowly (in a few seconds) towards a state of equilibrium, until the brick is taken from the mold; one uses the state of equilibrium while un-molding when it is reached. In the electron tube, one employs a support of energy (the cloud of electrons in a field) of a very weak inertia, so that the state of equilibrium (adequacy between the distribution of the electrons and the gradient of the electric field) is obtained in an extremely rapid time compared to the preceding (some billionths of a second in a tube of greater dimensions, some tenth of a billionth of a second in the smaller tubes). 

Under these conditions, the potential of the grid of order is used as a variable mold; the distribution of the support of energy according to this mold is so fast that it is carried out within the smallest minimum time for the majority of the applications: the variable mold is then used to vary in time the actualization of the potential energy of a source; one has stopped not when equilibrium is reached, one continues by modifying the mold, i.e. the grid voltage; actualization is almost instantaneous, there is no end to its release from the mold, because the circulation of the support of energy is equivalent to a permanent release from the mold; a modulator is a continuous temporal mold. The “matter” is there almost only as the support of potential energy; it however always preserves a defined inertia, which prevents the modulator from being infinitely fast. In the case of the clay mold, that which, on the contrary, is technically used as the state of balance that one can preserve while un-molding: one then accepts a rather large viscosity of clay so that the form is conserved during the release from the mold, although this viscosity slows down the capture of form. In a modulator of energy, because one does not seek to preserve the state of balance after the conditions of equilibrium have been met: it is easier to modulate energy carried by compressed air. The mold and the modulator are extreme cases, but the essential operation of the capture of form is achieved there in the same way; it consists of the establishment of energy, durable or not. To mold is to modulate in a final way; to modulate is to mold in a continuous and perpetually variable way.


A great number of technical operations use a capture of form that has intermediate characters between the modulation and the molding; thus, a spinneret, a rolling mill, are molds in a continuous mode, creating by successive stages (master keys) a final profile; the release from the mold is continuous there, as in a modulator. One could design a rolling mill which would really modulate the matter, and would manufacture, for example, a crenulated or dented bar; rolling mills that produce corrugated sheet iron modulate the matter, while a rolling mill smoothes only a model. Molding and modulation are the two borderline cases whose modeling is the average case.


We would like to show that the technological paradigm is not deprived of value, and that it is possible up to a certain point to think the genesis of individuated beings, but under the express condition that one retains as an essential model the relation of the matter in the form through the energy system of the capture of form. Matter and form must be seized during the capture of form, at the moment when the unity of the becoming of an energy system constitutes this relation on the level of the homogeneity of forces between the matter and the form. What is essential and central, is the operation of energy, supposing energy potentiality and a limit of actualization. The initiative of the genesis of substance returns neither to the raw material as passive nor to the form as pure: it is the complete system that generates, and it generates because it is a system of actualization of potential energy, joining together in an active mediation two realities, of different orders of magnitude, in an intermediate order.


Individuation, in the classical sense of the term, cannot have its principle in the matter or the form; neither form nor matter is enough with the capture of form. The true principle of individuation is the genesis itself taking place, i.e. the system in becoming, as its energy self-actualizes. The true principle of individuation can neither be sought in what exists before the individuation occurs, nor in what remains after the individuation is accomplished; it is the system of energy that is individuating insofar as it realizes in the individual this internal resonance of the matter taking form and a mediation between orders of magnitude. The principle of individuation is the single way in which the internal resonance of this matter is established taking this form. The principle of individuation is an operation. With the result that a being is itself, different from all the others; it is neither its matter nor its form, but it is the operation by which its matter took form in a certain system of internal resonance. The principle of individuation of brick is not the clay, nor the mold: this heap of clay and this mold will leave other bricks than this one, each one having its own haecceity, but it is the operation by which the clay, at a given time, in an energy system which included the finest details of the mold as the smallest components of this wet dirt took form, under such pressure, thus left again, thus diffused, thus self-actualized: a moment ago when the energy was thoroughly transmitted in all directions from each molecule to all the others, of the clay to the walls and the walls to the clay: the principle of individuation is the operation that carries out an energy exchange between the matter and the form, until the unity leads to a state of equilibrium. One could say that the principle of individuation is the common allagmatic operation of the matter and form through the actualization of potential energy. This energy is energy of a system; it can produce effects in all the points of the system in an equal way, it is available and is communicated. This operation rests on the singularity or the singularities of the concrete here and now; it envelops them and amplifies them.

3. Limits of the hylemorphic model

However, one cannot extend in a purely analogical way the technological paradigm to the genesis of all beings. The technical operation is complete in a limited time; after actualization, it leaves a partially individuated, more or less stable being which draws its haecceity from this operation of individuation having constituted its genesis in a very short time; the brick, at the end of a few years or several thousand years, again becomes dust. The individuation is complete in one stroke; the individuated being is never individuated more perfectly than when it leaves the hands of the craftsman. There thus exists a certain externality of the operation of individuation compared to its result. Quite to the contrary, in the living being, the individuation is not produced by only one operation, limited by time; the living being is in itself partially its own principle of individuation; it continues its individuation, and the result of a first operation of individuation, instead of being only one result which gradually degrades, becomes the principle of a later individuation. The individuating operation and the individuated being are not in the same relation except in the product of the technical effort.

To become a living being, instead of being a becoming following individuation, is always to become between two individuations; individuating and individuated are in the living being in a prolonged allagmatic relation. In the technical object, this allagmatic relation exists only for a moment, when both half-chains are connected one to the other, i.e. when the matter takes form: in this moment, individuated and individuating are coincident; when this operation is finished, they separate; the brick does not carry its mold, and it is detached from the workman or the machine that pressed it. The living being, after being begun, continues individuating itself; as time individuates the system and partial results of individuation. A new mode of internal resonance is instituted in the living being whose technology does not provide the paradigm: a resonance through time, created by the recurrence of the results going up towards the principle and becoming the principle in its turn. As in the technical individuation, a permanent internal resonance constitutes the unity of the organism. But, moreover, with this simultaneous resonance a successive resonance is superimposed, a temporal allagmatic. The principle of individuation of the living is always an operation, like the capture of technical Form, but this operation is of two dimensions, that of simultaneity, and that of succession, through an ontogenesis supported by memory and instinct.

One can then wonder whether the true principle of individuation is not indicated better by the living than by the technical operation, and if the technical operation could be known as individuating without the implicit paradigm of the life exists in us, that knows the technical operation and practices it with our body diagram, our practices, and our memory. This question is of a wide philosophical range, because it results in wondering whether a true individuation can exist apart from life. For knowledge, it is not the technical, anthropomorphic and consequently zoomorphic operation that is necessary to study, but the natural processes of formation of the basic unities that nature presents apart from the domain defined as the living.

Thus, the hylemorphic model, departing from technology, is insufficient under its usual species, because it is even unaware of the center of the technical operation of the capture of form, and led in this direction to be unaware of the role played by the conditions of energy in the capture of form. Moreover, even restored and completed in the form of the triad matter-form-energy, the hylemorphic model is likely to wrongly objectify a contribution of the living in the technical operation; it is this fabricated intention which constitutes the system thanks to which the energy exchange is established between matter and energy in the capture of form; this system does not form part of the individuated object; however, the individuated object is thought by mankind as having an individuality as a manufactured object, by reference to the manufacture. The haecceity of this brick as brick is not an absolute haecceity, it is not the haecceity of this preexistent object due to the fact that it is a brick. It is the haecceity of the object as a brick: it comprises a reference for use and, through it, to the fabricated intention, therefore with the human gesture which constituted the two half-chains joined together in a system for the operation of the capture of form.


In this semse, the hylemorphic model is perhaps only apparently technological: it is the reflection of the vital processes in an abstractly known operation and draws its consistency of what it is made by a living being for living beings. This would explain the very great paradigmatic capacity of the hylemorphic model: coming from the living, it goes back there and applies to it, but with a deficiency owing to the fact that the awakening which has clarified it seizes it through the wrongly simplified particular case of the technical capture of form; it seizes types more than individuals, specimens of a model more than of realities. The dualism matter-form, seizing only the extreme terms of that which is larger and smaller than the individual, obscures the reality that is of the same order of magnitude that produced the individual, and without which the extreme terms would remain separate: an allagmatic operation spreading itself starting from a singularity.

However, it is not enough to criticize the hylemorphic model and to restore a more exact relation in the course of the technical capture of form to discover the true principle of individuation. It is also not enough to suppose in the knowledge that one takes from the technical operation a paradigm initially biological: even if the relation matter-form in the technical capture of form is easily known (adequately or inadequately) thanks to the fact that we are living beings, it is not more important than the reference to the technical field that makes it necessary for us to clarify, explicate, and objectify this implicit concept that the subject carries with it. If testing the vital is the condition of the represented technique, the represented technique becomes in its turn the condition of the knowledge of the vital. One is thus returned from one order to another, so that the hylemorphic model seems to owe its universality mainly to the fact that it institutes reciprocity between the vital domain and the technical field. Besides, the model is not the only example of a similar correlation: the automatism to penetrate the functions of the living by means of representations resulting from technology, from Descartes to current cybernetics. However, an important difficulty emerges in the hylemorphic use of the model: it does not indicate what is the principle of individuation of the living, precisely because it grants to the two terms an existence prior to the relation which links them, or at least because it cannot make it possible to think this relation clearly; it can represent only the mixture, or attachment part by part; the way in which the form informs the matter is not enough for the hylemorphic model. To use the hylemorphic model is to suppose that the principle of individuation is in the form or in the matter, but not in the relation of both. The dualism of substances–soul and body–is in the seed of the hylemorphic model, and one can wonder whether this dualism will leave the technique in good condition.

In order to look further into this examination, it is necessary to consider all the conditions that surround a notional capture of consciousness. If there were only the living individual being and the technical operation, the hylemorphic model perhaps could not be constituted. In fact, it seems well that the middle term between the living field and the technical field was, at the hylemorphic origin of the model, social life. What the hylemorphic model reflects initially is a socialized representation of work and a representation also socialized of the individual living being; the coincidence between these two representations is the foundation common to the extension of the diagram from one field to the other, and the guarantor of its validity in a given culture. The technical operation which imposes a form on a passive and unspecified matter is not only an operation considered abstractly by the spectator who sees between the workshop and what is produced without knowing the development properly stated. It is primarily the operation commanded by the free man and executed by the slave; the free man chooses matter, unspecified because it is generically enough to the designer under the name of substance, without seeing it, without handling it, without preparing it: the object will be made of wood, or iron, or out of the earth. Truthfully, the passivity of matter is its availability abstracted behind the given order that others will carry out. Passivity is that of the human mediation which will retrieve the matter. The form corresponds to that which the man who commands has thought by himself and which he must express in a positive way to whom he gives his orders: the form is thus of the order of the expressible; it is eminently active because it is what one imposes on those who will handle the matter; it is the same contents of the order, that through which it governs. The active character of the form and the passive character of the matter answer the conditions of the transmission of the order which supposes social hierarchy: it is in the contents of the order that the indication of matter is undetermined and at the same time form is determination, expressible and logical. It is through social conditioning that the soul is opposed to the body; it is not through the body that the individual is citizen, participating in collective judgments, common beliefs, surviving in the memory of his fellow citizens: the soul is distinguished from the body as the citizen from the human living being. The distinction between form and matter, the soul and the body, reflects a city that contains citizens in opposition to the slaves. One must notice however that the two designs, technological and civic, if the citizens agree to distinguish the two terms, do not assign to them the same role in the two couples: the soul is not pure activity, full determination, whereas the body would be passivity and indetermination. The citizen is individuated as a body, but he or she is also individuated as a soul.

The vicissitudes of the hylemorphic model owes to the fact that it is neither directly technological nor directly vital: it is a technological operation and a vital reality mediated by the social, i.e. by the conditions already given—in inter-individual communication—from an effective reception of information, in the species the order of fabrication. This communication between two social realities, this operation of reception which is the condition of the technical operation, masks what, within the technical operation, allows two extreme terms—form and matter—to enter into interactive communication: information, the singularity of the “here and now” of the operation, pure event in the dimension of the appearing individual.

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