An Interpretation of Jacques Ellul’s Dialectical Method

  • D. J. Wennemann
Part of the Philosophy and Technology book series (PHTE, volume 7)


For the past fifty years Jacques Ellul has carried out a sustained investigation and critique of the nature, development, and social implications of modern technique.1 Much of the difficulty that has been associated with interpreting Ellul’s thought2 can be traced to a general lack of understanding of his method. It is my view that a deeper understanding of Ellul’s method would show that his thought warrants serious reexamination. The purpose of this paper, then, is to attempt to describe Ellul’s dialectical method.


Technological Society Grand Rapid Human Freedom French Original Dialectical Thought 
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  1. 2.
    See David Lovekin, “Jacques Ellul’s Philosophy of Technical Consciousness,” dissertation, University of Texas at Dallas, 1986. Lovekin provides a review of some of these misinterpretations.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    In Season, Out of Season: An Introduction to the Thought of Jacques Ellul; Based on Interviews by Madeleine Garrigou-Lagrange (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1982; French original, 1981), p. 73.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    Clifford G. Christians and Jay M. van Hook, eds., Jacques Ellul: Interpretive Essays ( Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1981 ), p. 291.Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    Christians and van Hook, Interpretive Essays, pp. 291–292.Google Scholar
  5. 8.
    John Boli-Bennett, “The Absolute Dialectics of Jacques Ellul,” in P. Durbin, ed., Research in Philosophy and Technology ( Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Press, 1980 ), p. 174.Google Scholar
  6. 9.
    Quoted in Christians and van Hook, Interpretive Essays, p. 293.Google Scholar
  7. 11.
    Jacques Ellul, “Mirror of These Ten Years,” Christian Century, February 18,1970, p. 200.Google Scholar
  8. 12.
    James Y. Holloway, ed., Introducing Jacques Ellul ( Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1970 ), p. 6.Google Scholar
  9. 13.
    Christians and van Hook, Interpretive Essays, p. 305.Google Scholar
  10. 16.
    Ellul, “Mirror of These Ten Years” (note 11, above), p. 201. See Vernard Eller, “Ellul and Kierkegaard: Closer Than Brothers,” in Christians and van Hook, Interpretive Essays: On the contrary, because it deals in concrete realities rather than ideas, existential dialectic cannot arrive at synthesis, it firmly resists any effort to synthesize, and takes as its goal the finding of one’s life within the tension between the dialectic’s unsynthesized poles (p. 55 ).Google Scholar
  11. 20.
    Ibid. See also In Season, Out of Season: “Having said this, I want to clarify that the dialectic presupposes history. It is not enough to pose a positive factor and a negative factor. There has to be a passage of time for the two contradictory factors to come into relationship and be able to give rise to a new situation” (p. 202).Google Scholar
  12. 22.
    Christians and van Hook, Interpretive Essays, p. 296.Google Scholar
  13. 23.
    Ellul adds, a few pages later: My own claim, however, is that well before these intellectual formulations [of the Greeks] from the eighteenth century, B.C., dialectic appeared in Hebrew thought, and that the whole of the Old Testament expresses a dialectic. In other words, the Hebrews formulated God’s revelation dialectically without examining what they were doing intellectually, without working out the noetic aspect (Interpretive Essays, p. 298).Google Scholar
  14. 24.
    Ibid., p. 296. See also Ellul, The Betrayal of the West (New York: Seabury Press, 1978): “The astounding truth that is peculiar to man: he is a maker of history. History understood as the expression of freedom and of man’s mastery of events, nature, and his own life” (p. 32). Again: Human life has no meaning if there is no chance of changing anything, no part of one’s own to play, that is, if there is no history begun but not yet finished. And this is the precise moment that negativity comes to the fore. In one of my books, I adopted the famous statement of Guehenno: “The first duty of man is to say No” (Christians and van Hook, Interpretive Essays, p. 296).Google Scholar
  15. 26.
    Boli-Bennett, “The Absolute Dialectics of Ellul” (note 8, above), p. 174.Google Scholar
  16. 28.
    Ellul, “The Latest Developments in Technology and the Philosophy of the Absurd,” in P. Durbin, ed., Research in Philosophy and Technology, vol. 7 ( Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Press, 1984 ), pp. 92–97.Google Scholar
  17. 29.
    Ellul, Hope in Time of Abandonment (New York: Seabury Press, 1973; French original, 1972).Google Scholar
  18. 32.
    Ellul, Humiliation of the Word (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1985), p. 39. See also Hope in Time of Abandonment (note 29, above), pp. 53–54.Google Scholar
  19. 33.
    Christians and van Hook, Interpretive Essays, p. 52.Google Scholar
  20. 35.
    In Season, Out of Season, p. 189. Ellul says: In my case, I was able to be intellectually strict with Marx’s thinking in the area of world interpretation. Moreover, I was convinced from the beginning that there could be neither Christian politics, nor Christian economics, nor a Christian society, but that the revelation contributes a fundamental existential truth. It was necessary to work it out so that these two truths could be lived together - I do mean lived, not reconciled intellectually in a system (p. 18).Google Scholar
  21. 37.
    See Maurice Friedman, To Deny Our Nothingness: Contemporary Images of Man (Delacorte Press, 1967), chapter 16: “The Existentialists of Dialogue: Marcel, Camus, Buber,” pp. 281–308.Google Scholar
  22. 38.
    Christians and van Hook, Interpretive Essays, p. 24. Also: “Ellul’s attachment to dialectic, inherited in kernel from Marx, lies at the heart of his work’s purpose” (p. 29).Google Scholar
  23. 39.
    Ellul, “Mirror of These Ten Years” (note 11, above), p. 201.Google Scholar
  24. 40.
    Ellul, Ethics of Freedom (note 1, above), p. 248.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1990

Authors and Affiliations

  • D. J. Wennemann
    • 1
  1. 1.Marquette UniversityUSA

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