Robert Salais, Dr. h.c. – Lecture “Products: Objects and/or Things”

Robert Salais talks on coming challenges to EC on the occasion of being named honorary doctorate by the University of Lucerne

Kenneth Horvath (University of Lucerne) and Guy Schwegler (University of Lucerne)

On 8 November 2018, Robert Salais received an honorary doctorate degree from the University of Lucerne, among others for his groundbreaking interdisciplinary engagement linked to the formation of Économie des conventions. In his laudatory speech, Rainer Diaz-Bone emphasized Salais’ central position for the development of new French pragmatism, an approach that, as Diaz-Bone nicely summarized, offers “many solutions to many problems”—and opens many new perspectives for social sciences.

Rainer Diaz-Bone, Robert Salais, Bruno Staffelbach (Rector)

On the occasion of the academic celebration, Robert Salais held an evening lecture in which he provided insights into his current studies of the relation between nature and conventions, with a focus on the convention-based creation of objects and things. An object, in this understanding, is created via an equivalence principle, making both a classification and comparison possible. A thing, on the other hand, is based on a specific identification and addresses something in all its particularities. Such a differentiation, Salais went on, is well established in philosophy. In the social sciences, however, most writers tend to use both terms indiscriminately—even within the same paragraph. For Salais, the conceptual differentiation between objects and things is essential, but the same entity could become an object or a thing depending of the types of conventions used by actors. Hence the conceptual distinction should not be used as an ontological opposition in the social sciences, the use of entities is dependent on two different types of conventions—one type already widely covered by EC research practices as well as one to be added to EC’s analytical repertoire.

After introducing central axioms of EC, Salais continued to elaborate the distinction between thing and object using the example of forest management in France. On the one hand, through the standardized planting of trees and through the possibilities of advance woodcutting machines, the forest can be turned into an object. The planting techniques and machines enable to establish relations of equivalence for trees. This corresponds with a rapid investment of capital and a specific temporality for a tree, determined e.g. by the duration of production cycles. This first way of handling products as objects is based on the first type of conventions in a classic EC sense: coordination based upon situations’ commonality. On the other hand, there is the work of lumberjacks who assess trees and decide which one to cut one by one. Within randomly growing forests, the lumberjacks handle trees as things. As a result, the self-sustaining regulation of nature is used as capital, where there is no standardized idea of time for the production cycle. Treating products as things is then based on a second type of conventions: a trans-identification, that is always based upon the particularity of a situation.

Salais further explained the consequences of the distinction between products as objects or as things. Handled as objects, products become subordinated to subjects. Through this subordination, the particularities of the things are being denied, the products as a consequence only exists as the object. At the end of a life cycle of a product, however, its existence as a thing becomes apparent again. Old computer and other electronic devices, for example, result in specific forms of waist that very often were not considered in their production as objects in the first place. Salais went on to explain why products should be treated as things—especially in relation to environmental issues. Unexpected or even perverse effects of environmental regulations become apparent. Those effects, he claimed, are a result a consequence of a conventional logic of products as objects. Furthermore, these effects are also a consequence of regulatory policies following a top-down logic. For Salais, however, the starting point for regulations should be a different one. Central for him is the coordination of actors. Starting there would allow for an openness to things. The goal is to have things taking part in the deliberation itself. Ultimately, Salais closed his lecture, such an assemblage to influence production would correspond with the German etymology of thing: Ding, as a gathering for decisions.


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