Michel Serres

Kai Eriksson

Posted on May 04 2018

  • One of France’s most prominent intellectuals
  • Has had a great influence on Bruno Latour and the actor network theory



 1930 Born in Agen, France
1940-1945 Witnesses a man dying during the WWII, which had a huge impact on his later thoughts about violence and order
1949 Enters the naval academy of France
1955 Graduates in the field of philosophy. Starts working as a naval officer at the Suez channel. During his time as a sailor, he experiences a fire aboard. He later utilized this experience to convey his idea of the bodily sensations
1969-1980 During this period Serres publishes many books on his unique philosophy of science. This period is distinct from his later works, establishing his typical mode of thinking
1984 Starts teaching at Stanford University as the professor of French
1985 Publishes Le Cinq Sens. It marks one turning point in his thinking, leading him one step further away from the philosophy and history of science to the realm of the human senses
1987 Receives an honor of being appointed an officer of de l'ordre national du Mérite. It is the highest order of merit in France for a civilian
1990 Elected in the prestigious Academiè Francaise. La Contrat Naturel is published
2000 Shifts his focus to the ‘grand narrative’ of human evolution
2010 Turns 80, yet his publishing pace keeps rising, as he publishes around two books per year





  • Philosophy
  • Sculptures
  • Thermodynamics
  • Geometry
  • Mathematics
  • Information theory
  • Literary science
  • Myths
  • Sailing
  • Fables






The highly original work of Michel Serres seeks to find a way to fuse humanities and natural sciences together in order to achieve a wide scope for philosophy.

He remained relatively unknown to the English-speaking academia for a good while, despite being a distinguished thinker in France. His reputation has grown due to his influence to the development of actor-network-theory.
    For him, there is no clear-cut system of knowledge to be formulated, which is the aim of traditional philosophy. Instead, the world is a fuzzy place with multiple domains or modes of truth.
      The task of philosophy is to describe these systems and their interrelations.
        Serres seeks connecting links between the different systems of knowledge that he considers just as true as the other.
          He refrains from the use of a meta-language by sticking to the concepts employed in the particular system of knowledge he investigates at any given time. When he talks about sailing the seven seas, he uses the terminology of sailors.
            Through his travels across myths, literature, philosophy, natural science, and the senses, he presents his argument by a series of digressions to different systems of knowledge with the intention of demonstrating the circulation and passages in and between these systems.

              He depicts the different circulating truths as codes. A new connection is forged when a set of codes is translated so as to be able to interact with a different system.


              The notions of circulation and translation have inspired the actor network theory vastly.


                Another important contribution to the development of the actor network theory is the way Serres incorporates the physical world into his travels between systems.


                Systems of truth are not merely systems of language they are just as much about nature and physical objects as they are about language.







                Serres does not use citations in his texts, so it is not always clear who is he discussing with. This shortlist is just a scratch of the persons Serres engages with in his work:

                • Lucretius
                • Renè Descartes
                • Gottfried Leibnitz
                • Rene Girard
                • Victor Turner
                • Gianfranco Zola
                • La Fontaine
                • Euclid
                • Molière
                • Thales
                • Carpaccio




                THE PARASITE


                In his book The Parasite, Serres provides an excellent example of his typical circulating style of thinking. The book sets forth a novel description of the origin of all human relations, depicted as parasitic in nature.


                Serres defines three different meanings for the word parasite; biological, anthropological and communication theoretical.

                  Biological parasite attaches to its host and feeds of it.
                    Anthropological parasite is a guest, feeding of its host without paying.
                      In communication theory, the parasite is the noise that garbles the message that runs through a communication channel.
                        Serres uses these three meanings to explore the possibility of an ordered system of knowledge.
                          An order can be constructed when a link is forged between different systems. Only a parasite can achieve this, being always the one who is responsible for the increasing complexity. By taking something from one system without return, a parasite forges an interconnection between separate systems.
                            In communication theory, noise (i.e. the parasite) is simultaneously the material precondition of communication and something that must be excluded in order for communication to be successful.
                              Constant work is thus needed to exclude the parasites that could jeopardize the fragile order. (Read more about Serres's view on communication in a Diiplook on Latour).
                                The concept of parasite shows how Serres travels between three different sciences and explores their interconnections.
                                  It also manifests the way his own thinking is parasitic by nature. By traveling between different systems of knowledge, he leaves something out in order to illustrate their connectedness.
                                    Parasitism is a new philosophy of relations.


                                      DIIPLE RECOMMENDS

                                      • Literature, Science, Philosophy, 1982
                                      • The Parasite, 1982
                                      • The Natural Contract, 1995
                                      • The Five Senses. A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies, 2008
                                      • Malfesance. Appropriation through waste?, 2011



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