“Renaissance and innovation”: Philosophy and digital circle with Karine Safa

Cigref’s Digital Philosophy Circle received Karine Safa around the theme “Renaissance and Innovation”

During the last meeting of the “Philosophy and Digital” Circle (Cigref conference cycle), the members of Cigref had the pleasure of receiving Karine Safa on the subject ” Rebirth and Innovation“. Karine Safa is a Doctor of Philosophy, specialist in the Renaissance, associate researcher at the CNRS and works as a lecturer in engineering schools (Polytechnique, École des Mines, Arts et Métiers, etc.) and in companies. His latest work “Why the Renaissance can save the world: imagination as a path” (PLON 2022) was the guideline of this fascinating intervention, mixing the notions of innovation and Renaissance humanism.

The men of the Renaissance, philosophers, artists, leaders, have in common a particular state of mind, conducive to innovation. This is what the utopias of that time seem to translate, veritable laboratories for thinking about a better world, which tends towards the progress. The exemplary journeys of Brunelleschi and Gutenberg shed light on the ecosystem of the time which enabled their audacious inventions. What if the humanist philosophers of the Renaissance could inspire us, even today, with innovative practices to adapt to changes in our own world and better anticipate the upheavals of tomorrow? ?

Humanism is a contemporary emergency

The Renaissance is an era marked by a strong interconnection between different disciplines and in particular between the worlds of art, technology, science, etc.

The first innovative subject in the Renaissance is in fact the man. Man in the biblical discourses is brought into the world as a second God, which gives him incredible freedom. But freedom is a dangerous power: through his freedom man can either humanize himself or dehumanize himself according to Pic de la Mirandole. Thanks to this freedom, man adapts to changes in the world by transforming himself as Machiavelli thinks. For him, the problem does not come from outside (crises, epidemics, etc.) but arises from the fact that we are unable to adapt, to transform ourselves. Hence the image of the chameleon which he praises and which is the emblem of the Renaissance. As for Montaigne, he tells us that you have to “file your brain against that of others to sharpen your intelligence”. The humanity of the man in the Renaissance is also due to his ability to weave links. He is seen as a “singular universal”: singular because each man is unique and universal because man’s vocation is to bring people together. But this idea of ​​otherness is eroding today. We are torn between naturalistic reductionism (which makes man a parasite in the order of creation) and the growing artificialization of man through the use of emerging technologies that challenge the very idea of ​​humanity.

The promoters of NBICs (nanotechnologies, biotechnologies, computer science and cognitive sciences) such as Elon Musk, come to weaken the very idea of ​​what Man is by “technicizing” him excessively. Indeed, the declared objective of technosciences is to “short-circuit the wanderings of nature” (words of designer Damien Broderick).

Let us remember the words, still as topical as ever, of Faust : “ here is the time to prove by actions that the dignity of man does not yield to the greatness of a God “. Today there is a form of resurgence of Faustism in the West.

Technosciences not only produce a technological rupture but also a anthropological break. The very idea that we have of Man, of human identity, loses its obviousness. This idea of ​​Man had already been weakened by the extension of rights and characteristics that were believed to be properly human to nature and animals. Today we recognize rights to the forest, to nature. Until the 1970s, Man was considered “as master and possessor of nature”, he exploited it as he saw fit. Today ecosystems are subjects of rights, which gives them a legal personality. This is quite commendable but it contributes to reviving man’s narcissistic wounds (described by Freud): the first goes back to Copernicus and Galileo with whom man lost his cosmic dignity. The second wound is caused by Darwin’s discovery of evolution by natural selection, and the third by that of the unconscious, which shows that we are not as free as we think. We could add a fourth wound linked to the technosciences which seek to go beyond the boundaries between the living and the artificial, between the deficient and the augmented…even a fifth narcissistic wound with the question of the rights of robots. The idea of ​​man wavers and sends us back to this eternal question: what is human?

Karine Safa shares with us her conviction that “Humanism is a contemporary emergency” : we would have to rediscover humanism as it was carried by the thinkers of the Renaissance, who wanted to block this temptation to mechanize man, to make of him an undifferentiated, standardized, calculated creature. Humanism is a profound experience of otherness, but the technosciences challenge our relationship to otherness, to chance and to death, considered as wanderings of nature.

Social and political crises as the engine of utopia

The 14th century was a disaster period: black plague, war of religion, economic crises… How this period of crisis became the cradle of innovation in Europe ?

Karine Safa hypothesizes the imagination, daydreaming, foresight that abounded in the minds of men of that time: ” The men of the Renaissance will get through their crises with a revival of imagination. says Karine Safa.

This is illustrated by a particular and masterful work: the ” utopia ” by Thomas More published in 1517. It is an indictment against the moral and political decay of England at the time, where poverty and injustice reign. Like Martin Luther King, he dares to say ” let’s have a dream »: what would be the ideal society of a better governed England? He imagines a society going against the current, that is to say, egalitarian between men and women, without social fractures, and even without money: ” The man of Utopia retains the power given to him by his freedom for the common good » reports Karine Safa.

During the Renaissance, utopia is linked to the fact that history leads us towards the progress. From the point of view of innovation, utopia is interesting because it envisages thinking in rupture. Utopia is seen as a laboratory, as a space of experience to imagine “counter-worlds”.

Thomas More’s utopia has been widely criticized for its totalitarian aspect. And yet More does not speak of a political program. Moreover, he makes his own self-criticism at the end of his work, noting himself that this utopia, if it were to come true, would raise many moral and political questions.

But societies that have a utopian vigor are societies in good health, provided that utopias regain their primary vocation as laboratories for experimenting with better worlds. Let us be vigilant, says Karine Safa, in relation to our modern tendency to produce dystopias, negative utopias, which essentially stage technical barbarism or ecological catastrophe.

What about our contemporary utopias? Are they faithful to the spirit of Thomas More’s Utopia?

Consider two examples of utopia:

the libertarianism : it is the ideological engine of Silicon Valley based on individualism. In “The Strike” (1957), Ayn Rand describes a selfish virtue ethic. We lose sight of human and social progress. With it, we are very far from the freedom conceived by More as collective responsibility. (Ayn Rand is a Russian writer who rebels against communism and advocates “rational selfishness”).

The digital utopia : in the 1940s, digital technology was meant to make civil society tend towards political awareness by decentralizing information. A democratic tool, which is being undermined today, although digital is a reservoir of extraordinary opportunities elsewhere. In a commercial logic, for example, we notice, alas, that the fake news are profitable. Digital can quickly become dystopian. A utopia whatever it is is not necessarily positive, it can become restrictive.

This return in time shows us that we are moving away from the primary meaning of utopia consecrated by Thomas More, and therefore pushes us to call more on our positive imagination. But there are still other lessons we could learn from the inventors and teachers of the Renaissance.

Renaissance pedagogues

Renaissance pedagogues will revolutionize learning because they had a real desire to decompartmentalise disciplines. For Rabelais, teaching must be diversified. Multidisciplinarity is experienced in a very practical way: mathematicians, goldsmiths and sculptors come together in common works, which stimulates the spirit of innovation. Take two major figures as an example: Gutenberg and Brunesleschi

  • Gutenberg was a polisher of precious stones, which would have put him on the path to his invention. Indeed, with the polishing of stones we enter into an industrial logic to mass produce various objects. Gutenberg, from his initial training, presents himself as a mechanic, as a multiplier. He is a performance-loving engineer.
  • Brunelleschi was a goldsmith by trade (and not an architect). As for Gutenberg, one can wonder to what extent he did not reason as a goldsmith when faced with an architectural problem (to build the dome of the Sana Maria dei Fiori cathedral on a gigantic surface). In any case, it is certain that the philosophical ideas of his time influenced his discoveries. In the Renaissance, there is this conviction of a profound harmony in the universe. Everything is connected. Reflecting this philosophy, Brunelleschi built a dome where everything is held together, like a mini universe.

These innovations ultimately come from an ability to shift one’s gaze, to cross disciplines but also to take risks and break with the prevailing dogma.


We find in the Renaissance all the germs of our modernity, including the augmented man, the will of a “perfect man”. But the Renaissance does not lose sight of the meaning of its “innovations” even if this term is anachronistic. In effect, innovation has a technical-economic sense whereas the progress Renaissance men had an ethical sense, which wants to be at the service of man.

What is the desire of men of innovation today to change the world, and what meaning do they give to it other than the search for private interests?

To rediscover the humanism of Renaissance thinkers, shouldn’t we rethink our relationship to nature and the world, rediscover man in his otherness?

These reflections on humanism and utopia reveal that moments of crisis give us the opportunity to reinvent ourselves, to better diagnose our dysfunctions. The crisis is what must be explained and not what explains our situation, it calls for an outcome and must push us to act.

“Renaissance and innovation”: Philosophy and digital circle with Karine Safa – Cigref