The world of philosophy has lost one of its most popular figures with the death of Michel Serres on June 1st. First attracted to a career in the French Navy, the young officer soon realised that philosophy was his true passion along with mathematics and the history of science. On the strength of his eclectic philosophical knowledge, he went on to elaborate a five-volume theory of communication under the aegis of Hermes, the Greek god of trade and commerce.
Like the mythical messenger, Serres saw himself as a go-between, bringing to light new interpretations of neglected concepts such as those of ‘parasite’ on which he dedicated an essay or the notion of ‘proximity’ abolished by the generalisation of long-distance travelling. Born in the South-West of France in 1930, Serres grew up in a stratified world still dominated by social deference and strict scientific boundaries. Opposed to all ideologies, he observed our changing society with a questioning impartiality and never ceased to warn against the dangers of an exponential progress leading inexorably to spiritual perdition and ecological disaster.
Paradoxically, he welcomed the advent of new technologies enabling man to control his own destiny. Yet, at the same time, he lamented a new human order which turned mankind into the sorcerer’s apprentice. In 1992, he acknowledged the triumph of Descartes’ prophecy regarding man’s total domination of nature while pointing out the challenge facing future generations: ‘how to manage this domination, how to tame our own mastery of the world?’
In his view, part of the answer had to come from the introduction of a multidisciplinary form of education giving free rein to dialogue and fruitful cross-fertilisations between subjects. In his 1990 bestselling essay, ‘The Troubadour of Knowledge’ (originally entitled ‘Le Tiers-Instruit’) Serres took great pleasure in debunking traditional pedagogical methods and praising a new curriculum founded on a practical knowledge of sciences coupled with a fruitful appreciation of literacy works enhanced by an initiation to philosophical reasoning. By dropping his former prejudices and putting himself in the Other’s place, Serres’ student would necessarily become a better informed person and altogether a better member of the world community through a process of cultural crossing or ‘métissage culturel’.
The preservation of the environment was also at the centre of the philosopher’s reflections and his essay on ‘The Natural Contract’, published in 1990, was also the result of his constantly displaced and deliberately skewed approach of ecological issues. Serres introduced the idea that as a living organism, the Earth was entitled to legal rights on the same level as human beings. Beyond Rousseau’s ‘Social Contract’ and its consenting members, a contract should, in his view, be entered between every new generation of ‘earthlings’ and their natural environment. Serres compared the Earth to a ship in the hands of an incompetent, querulous crew, not unlike Plato’s ship in ‘The Republic’. Another vivid and pathetic image used by the author was Goya’s painting of two men fighting each other with cudgels while they are slowly sinking into some treacherous quicksand.
In 2012, at the age of 82, Michel Serres published a short book entitled ‘Petite Poucette’, a pun on the famous character ‘Le Petit Poucet’ (‘Tom Thumb’) created by Charles Perrault in 1697. In this mischievous essay, translated as ‘Thumbelina’ in English, Serres extolls, once again, the benefits of modern technology in the form of the digital revolution. Humanity has reached a third stage in its evolution after the inventions of writing and publishing which opened the doors of knowledge and scientific progress. An indomitable optimist, the octogenarian firmly planted his flag in the camp of the millennial youth as he pointed out the horrors experienced by poorly educated previous generations compared with the liberating democratic power of digital technology connecting friends and strangers at the single press of a thumb and giving them instant access to the treasures of past and present knowledge.