‘Structures of Capital’: Centre d’étude des problèmes humains, CEPH (2022)

by Federico Soldani – 8 Jan 2022

Jean Coutrot, Aldous Huxley, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

According the a brief profile on the online catalogue of the French National Archives (emphasis and links added in subsequent quotes as well) “Born in 1895 in Paris, Jean Coutrot studied at the Lycée Carnot. Received first at the Ecole Polytechnique in 1913, he left for the front in August 1914. Seriously wounded, he spent his convalescence studying for a license in law and taking courses at the Free School of Political Sciences. Upon his demobilization, he gave up doing his second year of Polytechnic, for family reasons. He was associated by his father-in-law with the management of the Gaut-Blancan family business, a paper and dyestuff factory, and he began to take an interest in the Scientific Labor Organization (O.S.T.). At the same time, from 1920 to 1930, Coutrot and his wife made friends with painters and poets: the Delaunays, Picassos, Braque, André Lhôte, Jules Supervielle, the anthropologist P. Teilhard de Chardin

In 1931, a call from three former polytechnicians in X-Information led to the formation of the “X-Crise” group, which soon after became the Polytechnic Center for Economic Studies (CPEE), and whose goal is to study the reasons for the economic crisis. While simultaneously leading the management of the family business and that of the Office of Consulting Engineers in Rationalization (BICRA), which he created in 1930, Coutrot taught at the School of Scientific Organization of Work, collaborated with the National Committee of French Organization (CNOF), the French Standardization Agency, the CPEE, wrote numerous articles and an essay, Quelle vivre (published by Grasset in 1935), and gave lectures. In 1936, he created a new study group, the Center for the Study of Human Problems (CEPH), which met for the first time in Pontigny and saw, from 1936 to 1941, the creation of the Institute of Applied Psychology and specialized committees and groups.

“Photographie anonyme de Jean Coutrot, publiée dans le journal L’Œuvre, le 20 mars 1936.” Jean Coutrot — Wikipédia (wikipedia.org)

A page dedicated to him on the SciencesPo website highlights about this how there was “At the center of this activity, the promise of the advent of a “mystique of the future” to regenerate the human species, “transhumanism”.

Charles Spinasse, Minister of Economy and Finance” – the webpage of the French National Archives continues – “in the Popular Front government, calls Coutrot to his side. The latter creates and runs the National Center for Scientific Organization of Work (CNOST), the purpose of which is to lower French cost prices without wage cuts, by introducing the Scientific Organization of Labor into the programs of vocational schools and by better organization of businesses, administrations and scientific research. The activities of the C.N.O.S.T. slow down after Spinasse leaves. Coutrot followed the government in Bordeaux and Vichy until July 10, 1940. He committed suicide in May 1941, shortly after his appointment to the accounting plan commission.”


The 1990 volume ‘Structures of Capital. The Social Organization of the Economy‘ edited by Sharon Zukin and Paul DiMaggio (Cambridge University Press) in the chapter on ‘Visions of American management in postwar France’ by Luc Boltanski highlights how “Coutrot was probably the first French businessman to perceive the possible use of psychology and sociology in business, and was passionately interested in these fields. His friend Gerard Bardet [founder of the “Groupe X-Crise (or X-Crise), French technocratic movement created in 1931 as a consequence of the 1929 Wall Street stock market crash and the Great Depression; X-Crise – Wikipedia ed.] was to follow. […]

Jean Coutrot had organized a meeting in 1934 at Paul Desjardins‘ home in the Pontigny Abbey to “expand the concrete knowledge we already have of the universe to human problems, both individual and social.” He called for a gathering of specialists in the social and natural sciences: biologists, physiologists, doctors, philosophers, sociologists, businessmen, and political economists. This was the spirit in which he created the Centre d’Etude des Problèmes Humains, CEPH, in association with the writer Aldous Huxley, the archeologist Robert Francillon, and the economist Georges Guillaume. Hyacinthe Dubreuil, Jean Ullmo, Alfred Sauvy [who coined the expression ‘Third World’, ed.], Teilhard de Chardin (a close friend of Coutrot’s) [see for Sir Julian Huxley‘s introduction to the Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin book ‘The Phenomenon of Man’, Voegelin’s “Science, Politics and Gnosticism” (2020) – PsyPolitics, ed.], Tchakotine, and others participated in the CEPH meetings, which included eight commissions: economic humanism, applied psychology, rational and humane limitation of inequality, propaganda, industrial decentralization, psychobiology, history and analysis of Marxism. The commission reports were published in the Center’s journal, Humanisme Economique. Jean Coutrot was one of the masters of management training in the 1950s, who thought new management techniques and social psychology – of American origin – the oldest of whom had often participated in BICRA. They were thus prepared to follow the road from corporatism to human relations.

“Sir Julian Sorell Huxley FRS, English evolutionary biologisteugenicist, and internationalist.” Julian Huxley – Wikipedia

In the 1950s AFAP [French association for the increase of productivity, ed.] supported – with some reticence – such groups as the Bedeau council which had been created between the wars and were still active. The councils were criticized for having ignored the “human factor” and, in the 1950s, praising “American-style productivity” often implied criticizing French management councils. The new generation of engineering consultants which emerged in the 1950s, mainly around a group of Ecole Centrale (engineering school) graduates from CEGOS [Commission D’Études Générales D’Organisation Scientifique, ed.] who had worked in BICRA, such as Noel Pouderoux or Gilbert Bloch, broke off – or at least claimed to – from the “authoritarian” and “rigid” instrumentalism which had until then dominated the councils. Management was no longer conceived in a strictly technical, flatly Taylorist view, and rationalization of the material process of production, the breakdown and restructuring of manual tasks, was no longer considered sufficient to increase productivity or turnover. The two main trends dominating management science had to fuse: the technical tradition centered on mechanical organization of the work process and the human relations and group dynamics movement. Open to psychology, even psychiatry and sociology, the new managers wanted to take into account the human factor and analyse the motivations buried deep inside managers, at the very heart of the spirit of capitalism glorified by Octave Gelinier, diretor of CEGOS in the 1960s, another Ecole Centrale alumnus trained by Pouderoux who for twenty years was to be one of the main importers of American management techniques.”

“The innovative avantgarde of the grand patronat (often tied to Social Catholicism) had, in turn, reinvested the hopes formerly placed in corporatism in the social sciences, reinvested the hopes formerly placed in corporatism in the social sciences, social psychology techniques, and industrial psychology imported from the U.S. Thus, a mixed discourse can be seen to be forming in which the words and expressions borrowed from the spiritualist and personalist vocabulary (community, person, man, liberty, dialogue) are blended with terms used for technical efficiency and psychoanalysis. The switch to human relations and the social sciences by the heirs of Social Catholicism after the aggiornamento of corporatism, contributed to a large extent to making it possible for a closely woven instrument of cadre management to be created.

The diffusion in France of industrial psychology and particularly of “group techniques” owes much to the efforts of members of the French Psychotechnical Mission to the United States, organized by the French Association of the Growth of Productivity (AFOP) in 1952, which included, in addition to Paul Fraisse, head of the mission, Jean Bonnaire (head of the psychotechnical service of Renault), Jean-Marie Faverge (who belonged to the Center of Psychoanalytic Studies and Research of the Ministry of Labor), and Suzanne Pacaud (maître de recherche at the Centre National des Recherches Scientifiques (CNRS) and head of the Psychotechnical Laboratory of the SNCF (national railroad). The mission reports were the object of a special issue of Revue de Psychologie Appliquée (vol. 4, no. 1, January 1953). One article was devoted to the cadres and their selection, which must be founded upon the experimental study of “leadership,” their promotion, which must be “rationally organized,” and the “grading systems” and “training”; another discussed their education in psychology.

A new generation of psychosociologists followed the importing of group techniques by both legitimizing them in the universities and diffusing them in business. Claude Facheux, Jacques Ardoino, Guy Palmade, Max Pages, Robert Pages, Didier Anzieu, Jean Maisonneuve, and Roger Muchielli were all born between 1920 and 1925. Most received, after their university studies, a complementary education in the United States from the “masters” of American social psychology (in particular Carl Rogers); all were active in universities or in research in the CNRS and worked in numerous organisms, usually private – management, selection, or training councils – which were created or developed during the 1950s. […]

This intermediate position between the university and business and sometimes political power (specialists in the social sciences were welcomed in the technical sections of ministries or the Plan) predisposed the masters of industrial psychology to incarnate the new model of the intellectual manager, directly involved in “action.” More generally, the interest which the government officials and employers had for psychology and sociology contributed to a large extent to the development of the social sciences in the 1950s and 1960s.


“The Conversion of the Whole World”

But the introduction of management, human relations, group dynamics, marketing, and, no doubt more profoundly, the representation of economic agents as free subjects invested with the deep-seated desire to “succeed and to consume,” also helped to impose, particularly among the middle management, the high standards, knowledge, and objects rightly or wrongly associated with the culture of the United States (which was one of the conditions for the opening of the financial market to American capital). It also made seem inevitable that France develop a social order similar to “American society.”

Octave Gelinier, one of the most ardent proselytizers of the new belief, wrote in 1965:

The puritan ethic, now the science of management, has acquired a new force. It is no longer taught in Sunday school but in business schools. To propagate it throughout the world, missionaries have been replaced by the ‘institutes of productivity’ created in each country with the support of subsidies and American experts. And each year the leaders of the whole world come on pilgrimage (which they call a ‘productivity mission’) to see and hear first hand the latest revelations. The puritan ethic of good management in the modern version of the Science of Management, is now rapidly converting the entire world, including France and the U.S.S.R.


[In the photo at the top, “French Jesuit priest, scientist, paleontologisttheologian, philosopher and teacher” Pierre Teilhard de Chardin – Wikipedia. See also, Teilhard the Jesuit and Huxley the agnostic – good friends – British Teilhard Network.]

Cite this article as: Federico Soldani, "‘Structures of Capital’: Centre d’étude des problèmes humains, CEPH (2022)," in PsyPolitics, January 8, 2022, https://psypolitics.org/2022/01/08/structures-of-capital-centre-detude-des-problemes-humains-ceph-2022/.

Last Updated on January 9, 2022 by Federico Soldani

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