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Michel Serres - Biography

Michel Serres, Ph.D., is a philosopher specialized in epistemology, a professor as well as a writer. He was born on September 1st 1930 in Agen, in the Lot-et-Garonne region in France. Son of a farmer, he first studied at a naval school in 1949. He studied at the prestigious École normale supérieure, starting in 1952 where he also passed in aggregation in philosophy 1955 in Paris. However, from 1956 to 1958 her served in the French navy, even participating in the re-opening of the Suez canal as well as in the Algerian war. Serres is not only an elected member of the prestigious French Academy (March 29th 1990) but he has also received France’s highest decoration, the National Order of the Legion of Honour.

In 1968 Serres defended his dissertation and was granted his doctorate as a result. He went on to teach University-level philosophy in Clermont-Ferrand where he became a friend of Michel Foucault and Jules Vuillemin. At that time Foucault and him regularly work together on problems that would result in Foucault’s master piece The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. After that, he also taught at Vincennes, Paris I (from 1969 on) and Stanford University (from 1984 on) as professor of the history of science. His research not only focuses on the history of science but he is particularly interested in the possible links and interdisciplinarity between so-called hard sciences and social sciences. In fact, he has been instrumental in the popularization of scientific knowledge.

In his book The Parasite (1980; Eng. Trans. 2007) Serres wants to remind us how human relations are to society the same as that of the parasite to the host body. The point is that by being a parasite even minority groups can become play a big role in public dialogue. For example, they can bring the kind of diversity and complexity essential to human life and thought.

Genesis (1982; Eng. Trans. 1997) is Michel Serres’s attempt to think outside metaphysical categories such as unity and rational order. He wants to make us hear the "noise," the "sound and the fury," that actually are in the background of life and thought. The argument is that although philosophy has been essential to the conception of laws of logic and reason, which themselves have been key to our understanding of ourselves and our universe, one of the most pressing tasks of thought today is to acknowledge that multiplicity and not unity is the order of the day. Such plurality cannot really be thought, but perhaps it can still be sensed, felt, and heard beneath the illusion of rational order imposed by civilization. Serres gives us here a critique of traditional and contemporary models in social theory as a call for the rebirth of philosophy as the art of thinking the unthinkable.

In Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies (1985; Eng. Trans. 2009) Professor Serres warns us that the fundamental lessons we must learn from the senses have been marginalized by the scientific age. Indeed, the metaphysical and philosophical systems of the latter have taken over our five senses through the domination of language and the information revolution. This book is an exploration of the detrimental consequences of such powerful downplaying of the five senses in the history of philosophy of the West. By doing a history of human perceptions he writes in favor of empiricism and against the Cartesian tradition. He does this by demonstrating the sterility of systems of knowledge separated from the body. Yet data today is more important than sense perception. Serres makes the point even more strongly by asking the rhetorical question: “What are we, and what do we really know, when we have forgotten that our senses can describe a taste more accurately than language ever could?”

Michel Serres is the author of numerous books, some of which as we have seen have been translated into English. Le Système de Leibniz et ses modèles mathématiques (1968). Hermès I: La communication (1969). Hermès II: L’interférence (1972). Hermès III: La traduction (1974). Jouvences: Sur Jules Verne (1974). Auguste Comte: Leçons de philosophie positive, vol. I (1975). Feux et signaux de brume. Zola (1975). Esthétiques: Sur Carpaccio (1975). Hermès IV: La distribution (1977). La Naissance de la physique dans le texte de Lucrèce: Fleuves et turbulences (1977), which was published in English is 2000 as The Birth of Physics. Hermès V. Le passage du Nord-Ouest (1980). Le Parasite (1980), which was published in English in 2007 as The Parasite. Genèse (1982), which was published in English in 1997 as Genesis. Détachement (1983), which was published in English in 1989 as Detachment. Rome: Le livre des fondations (1983), which was published in English as Rome: The Book of Foundations in 1991. Les Cinq Sens (1985), for which he got the Médicis de l’Essai Prize, was published in English in 2009 as Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies. L’Hermaphrodite. Sarrasine sculpteur (1987). Statues (1987). Éléments d’histoire des sciences (1989). Le Contrat naturel (1990), for which he got the Blaise Pascal Prize and which was published in English in 1995 as The Natural Contract. Le Tiers-Instruit (1991), published in English as The Troubadour of Knowledge in 1997. Éclaircissements (1992). Les Origines de la géométrie (1993). La Légende des Anges (1993), which was published in English as Angels: A Modern Myth in 1995. Atlas (1994). Éloge de la philosophie en langue française (1995). Nouvelles du monde (1997). Le Trésor. Dictionnaire des sciences (1997). À visage différent (1997). Paysages des sciences (1998). Variations sur le corps (1999). Hergé mon ami (2000). Le Livre de la médecine (2001). Hominescence (2001). En amour, sommes-nous des bêtes? (2002). Jules Verne : la science (2002). L'Homme contemporain (2002). L'Incandescent (2003). Qu'est-ce que l'humain? (2003). Rameaux (2004). Récits d'humanisme (2006). L'art des ponts (2006). Petites chroniques du dimanche soir (2006). Le tragique et la pitié. Discours de réception de René Girard à l'Académie française et réponse de Michel Serres (2007). Petites chroniques du dimanche soir 2 (2007). Carpaccio, les esclaves libérés (2007). Le mal propre : polluer pour s'approprier? (2008). La guerre mondiale (2008). Écrivains, savants et philosophes font le tour du monde (2009). Le temps des crises (2009). Biogée (2010).

Finally, Michel Serres is the writer of many essays. ‘India (The Black and the Archipelago) on Fire’ in SubStance (1973). ‘Le Retour Eternel’ which translates as The Eternal Return in Annales : Histoire, Sciences Sociales (1975). ‘Peter-Stephen Isomorphisms, 2’ in Diacritics (translation of a chapter from Esthétiques : Sur Carpaccio) 1975. ‘Michelet: The Soup.’ Trans. Suzanne Guerlac (1977). ‘Jules Verne’s Strange Journeys’ in Yale French Studies (1975). ‘Exact and Human’ in SubStance (translation of ‘Exacte et humaine’, Hermès V: Le passage du nord-ouest) 1978. ‘Origin of Geometry, IV’ in Diacritics (1978). ‘Stakes, Fetishes, Merchandise’ in SubStance (1985). ‘The Natural Contract’ in Critical Inquiry (translation of chapter 2 of Le Contrat naturel) 1992. ‘Noise’ in SubStance (1993). ‘Anaximander: A Founding Name in History’ in SubStance (1993). ‘Science and the Humanities: The Case of Turner’ in SubStance (1997). ‘La nature dans les écrits’ which translates as Nature in written works in Courrier de la nature (1998). ‘Enseignement des sciences: Vive la crise ?’ which translates as Teachings from the Sciences: Long live the crisis? in Québec science (1998). ‘New Technologies’ in Mousaion (2001). 'Bryce-Hell' and 'Fontenelle, Troubadour of Knowledge' in SubStance (2003). ‘Nature Seen Through Culture’ in Naturopa (2004). ‘Ego Credo’ (extract from Rameaux) in Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture (2006). ‘Feux et Signaux de Brume: Virginia Woolf’s Lighthouse’ in SubStance (2008).



Michel Serres is a professor at Stanford University.