Birth of Technology from Spirit of Alchemy

In ‘The Birth of Technology’ (1970), Simondon argues that “scientific spirit” (the lógos, as such, of technè) developed in the West as a result of the meeting and mingling of Eastern, Near-Eastern, orEgyptian technics on the one hand and the [principally Greek] contemplative and theoretical sciences onthe other (Alexandria — with its Ptolemaïc Pharos — was an exemplary hub of this confluence between thetechnical and the theoretical). Since it deals for the most part with what the ancient Egyptians called al-khem (the Arabic al-khimiya, the Latin alkimia, the French alchimie and the English alchemy, originallydesignating a fertile as opposed to a desert milieu: the generative “black earth” of al-khem as opposed tothe deleterious “red earth” of al-deshret), ‘The Birth of Technology’ could just as easily have been called ‘The Birth of Technology from the Spirit of Alchemy’ (the title of the present essay).

Del Re concludes his essay on ‘Alchemy and Technology’ with a statement the spirit of which isalso (beyond the bounds of its alchemical analysis) altogether Simondonian and indeed (in addition)Stieglerian: “those who develop technology without even a trace of the spirit of alchemy, i.e. without aparallel upgrading of their spiritual standards—particularly their sense of responsibility—may becontributing to the devastating ills of society[…] which no vaccine can prevent.” “The main spiritualphilosophy of alchemy,” he explains, “placed the search for the secrets of nature in the context of a pathtoward elevation beyond [individual or collective] ambitions and lust for power”; “as a condition formaking matter proceed toward its ultimate perfection, the operator [in any and every alchemicalundertaking] should tread the same path as the matter s/he is modifying and manipulating].”


The concept of the birth of technology from the spirit of alchemy suggests a connection between the ancient practice of alchemy and the development of modern technology. Alchemy, traditionally associated with the transmutation of base metals into gold and the search for the philosopher’s stone, also encompassed a broader philosophical and spiritual quest for knowledge and transformation.

While alchemy is often viewed as a precursor to modern chemistry, with its emphasis on experimentation, observation, and the search for hidden truths, some interpretations extend its influence to the realm of technology. Here are some ways in which the spirit of alchemy may be seen as influencing the birth of technology:

1. **Quest for Mastery over Nature**: Alchemy and early technology share a common goal of understanding and harnessing the forces of nature for practical purposes. Alchemists sought to unlock the secrets of the natural world and manipulate them to achieve desired outcomes, whether in the form of transmutation or the creation of medicines. Similarly, technology seeks to control and manipulate natural phenomena to improve human life, whether through the development of tools, machines, or infrastructure.

2. **Integration of Science and Mysticism**: Alchemy often blended scientific inquiry with mystical or spiritual beliefs, drawing on both empirical observations and esoteric symbolism. Similarly, technology can be seen as a fusion of scientific principles and human creativity, drawing on both rational analysis and intuitive inspiration. The integration of science and mysticism in alchemy may have laid the groundwork for the interdisciplinary nature of modern technological innovation.

3. **Transformation and Progress**: Both alchemy and technology are concerned with processes of transformation and progress. Alchemists sought to transform base metals into gold, symbolizing the pursuit of perfection and enlightenment. In a similar vein, technology seeks to transform raw materials and ideas into new forms of value and utility, driving progress and innovation in society.

4. **Alchemy as a Metaphor for Innovation**: The metaphor of alchemy has often been used to describe the process of innovation and discovery in technology. Like the alchemist’s quest to turn lead into gold, innovators and entrepreneurs seek to turn ideas into tangible products and services that create value. The spirit of alchemy, with its emphasis on experimentation, resilience, and the pursuit of the unknown, resonates with the creative process underlying technological advancement.

While the connection between alchemy and technology may be metaphorical rather than literal, it highlights the enduring human quest for knowledge, transformation, and mastery over the forces of nature. The spirit of alchemy continues to inspire and inform the ongoing evolution of technology, as we continue to explore new frontiers and push the boundaries of what is possible.

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