To read Michel Serrès is to set sail on an essayistic, poetic, and philosophical journey of discovery and recovery of the history of sciences, human nature, and knowledge.
Serrès was born in Agen, in his beloved Valley of Garonne, and later became a naval officer. He coined numerous maritime metaphors on his journeys on board military ships, at the same time developing a very different perspective of the earth and humanity, which led him to his cherished field: philosophy. This itinerary explains the tropological language that surfaces in his nature-oriented, essayistic writings, such as Détachement (1983; Detachmenti)—which he subtitles Apologue—and Le Contrat naturel (1990; The Natural Contract), in which he views earth as a spaceship that humanity must steer wisely. Here his philosophical views against violence, inspired by his reading of Simone Weil, gather a momentum that permeates all his work, influencing his exchange of maritime journeys for revolutionary ones across the archipelago of knowledge. He sees his exploratory passages as “re-educating revolutions” (La Traduction [1974; Translation]). These explorations were widened at L’École Normale Supérieure, where Serrès completed his doctorate in philosophy and the history of science in 1968. Since that time he has been best viewed as a philosopher-poet, which reflects his penchant for the pursuit of synthesis out of the complexity of humanity’s inherited knowledge.
Serrès’ essayistic methodology and approach to philosophy are epitomized by free thinking and random searching for passages and connections across the sciences, a Hermeslike method he deems essential to creativity. It is not by chance that he chooses the Greek god/messenger Hermes (Mercury/angel messenger in Roman tradition) as the pilot of his intellectual journeys. Serrès elects this symbol of the “power to communicate, to connect” (by the magic power of Hermes’ wand), a power which he also perceives in our contemporary mass media. Under Hermes’ aegis Serrès launched his five-volume series Hermès: La Communication (1968; Communication), L’lnterférence (1972; Interference), La Traduction (1974; Translation), La Distribution (1977; Distribution), and Le Passage du Nord-Ouest (1980; The Northwest passage)—a series reflected in his subsequent writings, a complete Hermesian/Sèrresian system in itself.
These exploratory and revolutionary journeys provide us with the opportunity to reconsider the modern essay as a genuine locus of cultural mestizaje (adaptation), a view that springs from one of Serrès’ most constructive philosophical metaphors: that of the “educated third” (Le Tiers-instruit, 1991). Serrès wants his readers to understand this metaphor as the philosophy of cultural adaptation, a metaphor that echoes Hermes’ ability to transport cultural values from one place to another. Culture, for Serrès, stands as the foundation of human civilization; he sees its significance as comparable, for example, to a “plate tectonics” theory for understanding humanity’s development.
While he visualizes humanity as passing from local through global frontiers (The Natural Contract)—a movement that parallels that of the essay—Serrès hopes cultural adaptation will return humanity to the original sense of philosophy as love of wisdom, as the urgently needed confluence of the soft and the hard sciences (humanities and natural sciences). This confluence, Serrès believes, is needed in order to reverse the regrettable departure of science from the humanistic sphere as brought about by the “scientifization
and technologization” of modern Western society. It is at this confluence that Serres foresees the main role and responsibility for the philosopher and writer toward the humanistic disciplines.
As for the possibilities for such cultural mestizaje to crystallize, Serrès reconsiders and redefines the fundamental physical constructs of time and space, as the primordial ambience where fruitful and countless contacts between diverse entities and principles may develop, beyond the positivistic and reductionist frontiers of hegemonic specialization. Here he acknowledges his debt to the poetic vision of Lucretius (c. 100–55 BCE) in his De rerum natura (On The Nature of Things). This Latin poet and philosopher gave Serrès insight into the existence of principles such as that of the clinamen (inclination), “the smallest conceivable condition,” that sets in motion the creative processes of the turbulent universe (La Naissance de la physique dans le texte de Lucrèce [1977; The birth of physics in the text of Lucretius]). Like Lucretius, Serres envisions an ontological and structural grounding for a theory of systems, and the intricate series of
processes of exchange, within and across countless systems. Thanks to these systemic interrelations, it is possible for Serrès to link, for instance, the processes of language, communication, and life. In turn, this structural vision allows us to perceive the poetic sense of Serrès’ philosophy, for poetry gives us an image of the world and its being in time and space. Serrès’ vision here may concur with that of Octavio Paz, who believes that poetry is what manifests itself in/as the poem, that very space from which things emerge out of the creative turbulence of chaos, and which we can perceive as an infinite array of kaleidoscopic images, colors, and a holographic dance of fractals. This connection helps explain Serrès’ illuminating statement that “philosophy is profound enough to make us understand that literature [poetry] is even more so” (Stéphan Bureau rencontre Michel Serrès, Radio Québec, 1993).
The principal aim of these philosophical and poetic connections is the search for innovative, creative ways of solving problems in the perception of knowledge, and in the portrayal of what is called reality, as Serrès clarifies in a series of interviews with philosopher and anthropologist Bruno Latour, published as Élaircissements (1992; Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time). As Serrès explains, the rationale for his essayistic methodology of comparative connections and interferences is that legitimate knowledge is disseminated everywhere, with no one claiming exclusive rights or possession. Accordingly, argues Serrès, there is as much logic and reason to be found in the essays of Michel de Montaigne as in poetry, physics, or biochemistry. Equally, there can be as much unreason scattered throughout the sciences as there may be found in myth and dream (Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time). Serrès echoes Montaigne’s essayistic method when he states, for instance, that where philosophy cannot go, literature very well can. This is indeed an apology for the humanities, as well as a denial that science is the only illuminating sun of truth (paraphrasing Kepler).
As a philosopher-poet and humanist, Serrès also seeks a space for the senses, especially the spirit of beauty. Thus he feels that the soft sciences (humanities) provide us with that sense of “earthly residence” (Pablo Neruda), whereas the hard sciences such as mathematics—the very language both Leibniz and Serrès see as central to the study of a philosophy of communication—are the most effective means of dealing with the luminous spirit embodied in human rationality. Serrès regards philosophy as an enterprise in which the new culture will reconcile, not only exact sciences and humanities, but also the most advanced rational knowledge, ethics, and spiritual uneasiness (Statues, 1987).
Born 1 September 1930 in Agen. Studied at the École Normale Supérieure, Paris, agregation in philosophy and the history of science, 1968. Professor of philosophy and the history of science at the Sorbonne, Paris, Stanford University, California, and the Institut de France, Paris. Elected to French Academy, 1990. Editor, Dominos, from 1993.
President, Association pour le Corpus Philosophique de la Langue Française (Association for the philosophical body of the French language).
Essays and Related Prose
Hermès I–V, 5 vols., 1968–80; selections as Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy (various translators), edited by Josué V. Harari and David F.Bell, 1982.
Jouvences sur Jules Verne, 1974
Feux et signaux de brume, Zola, 1975
Auguste Comte: Le$ons de philosophie positive, 1975
La Naissance de la physique dans le texte de Lucrèce: Fleuves et turbulences, 1977
Le Parasite, 1980; as The Parasite, translated by Lawrence R. Schehr, 1982.
Genèse: Récits métaphysiques, 1982; as Genesis, translated by Genevieve James and James Nielson, 1995
Rome: Le Livre des fondations, 1983; as Rome, the Book of Foundations, translated by Felicia McCarren, 1991
Détachement: Apologue, 1983; as Detachment, translated by Genevieve James and Raymond Federman, 1989
Les Cinq Sens, 1985
Statues: Le Second Livre des fondations, 1987
L’Hermaphrodite: Sarrasine sculpteur, 1987
Le Contrat naturel, 1990; as The Natural Contract, translated by Elizabeth MacArthur and William Paulson, 1995
Le Tiers-instruit, 1991
Discours de recéption à I’Académie française et réponse de Bertrand Poirot-Delpech, 1991
La Légende des anges, 1993; as Angels: A Modern Myth, translated by Francis Cowper, 1995
Les Origines de lagéométrie, 1993
Les Messages à distance, 1995
Éloge de la philosophie en langue française, 1995
Other writings: works on philosophy, literature, and science.
“Bibliographie des travaux de Michel Serrès,” Critique 380 (January 1979):121–25
Auzias, Jean-Marie, Michel Serrès, philosophe occitan, Mussidan: Fèdèrap, 1992
Crahay, Anne, Michel Serrès: La Mutation du cogito: Genèse du transcendantal objectif, Paris: Éditions Universitaires, and Brussels: De Boeck University, 1988
Michel Serres: Interferences et turbulences, Critique issue on Serres, 35, no. 380 (1979)
Serrès, Michel, and Bruno Latour, Michel Serrès with Bruno Latour: Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995 (original French edition, 1992)
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