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n.1 December 2000
with Michel Serres
by Marcelo Guimarães
Lima interviewed Michel Serres in São Paulo (Brazil) in October
Part of this interview
was published in Portuguese by Folha de São Paulo (Brazil)
The English version
of the complete interview is published here for the first time.
Guimarães Lima – The issues of Communication, Education
and Cultural Development were the central themes of the International Conference
on Human Development in São Paulo, Brazil (1999) where
you gave the opening talk. These are themes that, in various ways,you examined
in your many books.
At the end
of the 20th Century, at the beginning of a new millennium, how can we think
about the new possibilities and new challenges that the new technological
developments present to Education and to communicative practices, and what
impact they have now and will have in the future for cultural development?
Serres - In the decade of the 1960s, I wrote five books whose
common title was Hermes. This is the name of the Greek
god of messages, of translation, of trade and even of thieves! At that
time, philosophers around me revered mainly Prometheus, hero of the fire
of forges and of production.I made the bet that our civilization would
soon concentrate more on the transmission of messages, than on the production
of objects. And I won the bet! Also, before it, I had written a book
on Leibniz, philosopher of the 17th Century, who called his philosophy
system of the communication of substances. Thereafter, nearly
thirty years after, I wrote a book on Angels. The word Angel derives from
a Greek term that signifies messenger. As there is only one Hermes,in the
old Greek polytheist religion, but there are millions of angels in the
traditions of the three monotheisms, Jewish, Christian and Islamic, the
shortcircuit between the language of Theology and the language of the technologies
of communication, where each of us produce, stock, send and receive messages,
appeared to me to flash a singular light on our modes of thinking.
topic of my conference in São Paulo focused on the modern technologies
of communication and their likely influence on Education and on our ways
of thinking. This is, in fact, the main theme of all my work.
developed three points: 1) as each change of support of information has
produced in History great transformations in ways of living (for example,
the invention of writing or the invention of printing), we should
also expect radical changes in the near future. 2) among these changes,
those in Education and in our modes of thinking will be important:
creating other functions of memory, of imagination, of reason itself. 3)
the conference responded in a optimistic way to questions about the future:
I think, indeed, that distance learning, less costly than the traditional
learning, will be able to give accessto knowledge to underprivileged social
groups. Certainly, it will benecessaryto debate all these points.
- You have recently reflected on the passage from an information society
to a society of continuous formation, a pedagogical society.
The transformation of the savoir (knowledge) of the individual supposes
and it is presupposed by the transformations of institutional knowledge:
the transformations of scientific knowledge and technical knowledge. This
society of continuous creation and recreation of knowledge is, at the same
time, at least in its present stage, a neo-Darwinian society, in which
the systemic control of information at all levels (economic, social, political)
and the “preferential option” for the universal commodification of all
levels of social existence, intensifies rather than abates the “war of
everybody against everybody else”.
In this context,
the continuous creation of knowledge at the level of social existence goes
hand in hand with exclusion, destruction, violence. To the European Enlightenment,
knowledge would free Humanity. Apparently the society that we are constructing
(in a rather unconscious way, I would say) at the end of the millennium,
negates in practice (not necessarily in its ideology) the equation of knowledge
once an ideal of conduct, guidance, towards attaining the autonomy of development.
Does the pedagogical society run the risk of confounding ends and means,
of losing sight of the goal of personal autonomy and social freedom that
is, or should be, the goalof the process of education?
This is a very important question as it concerns our destiny today. Indeed,
knowledge and Education will be decisive, for people and social groups,
in the world of tomorrow. Since I consider myself heir to the Enlightenment,
I still hope that knowledge is in fact a liberating factor. If that is
not the case, one can always try ignorance! But, it is true that the social
constraints that weigh on knowledge seem to make of it an ordinary space
where the power of the strongest dominates.
it is not true that individual knowledge depends entirely on institutional
conditions. The history of sciences, that I have practiced for a long time,demonstrates
clearly that invention is often the product of solitary individuals and,
to give an example, a considerable percentage of Nobel prize winners got
it thanks to inventions that the scientific community didn't want to finance,judging
them without value. The collective and the institutions are so heavy that
they end up encouraging everything, except intelligence.
The dogma according
to which science advances by debate and by quarrels seems to me false most
of the time because these discussions waste more time that they gain, and
I don't know one single case of invention that has sprung indeed from this
sort of quarrel; on the other hand, the winner, in this type of battle,
is rarely the more inventive or the most productive, but the gangster better
skilled in politics; not the strongest in the discipline, but the strongest
in polemics. Today's academic life displays all the evidence that those
who direct are never those who work, even less those who invent; also,
the strongest is rarely the most inventive; in short, institutions pollute
knowledge a lot more than they condition it. It is necessary therefore,
I believe,to relativize the sociology of sciences, the American neo-Darwinism
of which you speak, as well as the Continental dialectic model. In short,
the collective and the battles, they eclipse knowledge a lot more and encourage
it much less than one believes. The struggle of all against all in knowledge
encourages more struggle not more knowledge.
culture permits a cultivated person not to crush anybody under the weight
of his/her culture; knowledge permits one who knows not to make war in
the name of his/her knowledge; otherwise, what we have is not a culture
or knowledge, but merely lethal weapons.
if you have twenty dollars and you give them to me, at the end of the exchange,
I have twenty dollars and you don't have anything anymore; if you know
one theorem and you teach me, at the end of the exchange, I have the theorem,
but you keep it too. Therefore knowledge doesn't obey laws of commodity
exchange, it even has the virtue of making precisely the opposite: instead
of a game of zero sum, it causes the multiplication of its value.
we cannot apply to it logics that are active in economy or in natural selection:
Social Darwinism is a Fascist type of ideology. Intellectual Darwinism
is worth the same.
There is room
therefore, again, for the solitary work of the individual, for a culture
that makes life a free life, for sharing knowledge that multiply itself
freely and don't increase misery. Moreover, for the moment, I only see
the way of formation and education for the liberation of men. I remain
optimistic about the new technologies that, opening, at present, a space
without established legal rights and restrictions, offers the
possibility of education while alleviating financial and social constraints.
The cost of branching on the Internet is infinitely cheaper than building
a campus,with laboratories,libraries and classrooms. But, on this point,
concerning the future, the discussion remains open
To bridge the Humanities and the, so-called, “Hard”Sciences, has been one
of the main objectives of you life long work. Recently, what became known
as the “Sokal Affair” has shown that, at least in what regards “public
opinion”, or more precisely, a large or prominent sector of the mass media
in the US and Europe, the gap between the Humanities and the Sciences is
as wide as ever: a young professor of physics from New York has gained
instant celebrity (his fifteen minutes of fame, as a commentator observed)
by attacking with territorial jealousy philosophers, mostly French, who
dare to engage, imagine, represent or interrogate the Sciences in their
own philosophical works. Certainly, the representation or misrepresentation
of Philosophy and its dangers in the public arena is not something new.
In the past, however, the risks of Philosophy were a more direct concern
of institutions, such as the State and Church. In the mass media environment
of today, reflection and speculative thinking are made spectacular. In
the name of truth as spectacle, Philosophy is spectacularly condemned,
and the domains of knowledge safeguarded. To what results?
I don't know the “Sokal Affair” well, but I sincerely believe that it may
have had one positive result, which consists in recommending prudence to
all writers or journalists when they speak of Science. A lot of philosophers,
sociologists or others, speak about the Sciences, indeed, without respecting
the elementary rules of training and practice that they imply. It is necessary,
from time to time, to remind them, even if in a harsh manner and, on this
point, Sokal was not the first; it is first necessary, therefore, to thank
him. This said, we have in French a nice saying: "when one empties the
bathtub, one should not throw the child with the water of the bath", that
expresses very well what I think. It is necessary to throw the dirty water,
certainly, but without killing the child.
As much as
it is necessary prudence and to respect rules of sense, the condemnation
of all philosophical thinking about Science would be a too big amputation
of our possibilities of invention. Philosophers had, at all times, an anticipatory
function: the Science of Antiquity is not possible without the Pre-Socratic
philosophers, the Science of the Middle Ages is not possible without Aristotle,
the Science of the Modern Age is not possible without Descartes and Leibniz,etc
The best scientists reflect on their specialties in the manner of the philosophers.
A change of paradigm, as a transformation of a world view, comes, most
often, from a philosophical thought. And the Humanities contain an immense
treasure of reflection that Science uses, sometimes a longtime after they
were first produced. To make the bridge between the two, accelerates invention.Finally,
if Philosophy,as you say, is condemned, I dare to say that she is used
to it, because, in History, the official institutions, guardians of Truth,
always have, more or less, condemned Philosophy. Philosophy is always dying
to make possible the birth of Science. This is not so serious: we need
to accept it and understand it as an occupational hazard; there is no such
a thing as a profession without risks.
In prior interviews you have mentioned Simone Weil as a formative influence
in your early development. Simone Weil was a Jew converted to Christianity,
a philosopher who lived religion as a daily task, an intellectual who spoke
against the violence of the social order and who took arms against Fascism
in Spain. Many times an outsider, her commitment to truth and justice can
be seen as utterly “untimely” in these rather cynical times we live in.
What was (and is perhaps today) your interest in Simone Weil’swork?
I read books by Simone Weil immediately after the war. Atthat time, I was
a young scientist. I researched specially mathematics. Simone Weil made
me understand the importance of the problem of violence, that I had, of
course, lived during the war and that marked my sensibility forever.In
years 45/50, no one, generally speaking, had analyzed the relations
betweenthe sciences and violence. However, in 1945 the atomic bombs exploded
over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A lot of scientists of that generation experienceda
serious crisis of conscience at that time. The majority believed that Sciencewas
all good and the only good; they were "scientificists". This event especiallyconcerned
Physics. But, thereafter, Chemistry brought questions about theenvironment,
Biology questions of genetic manipulations; in short, all disciplineswere
concerned by questions of ethics. I can say that I became a philosopherbecause
of these questions: the epistemological questions could not be consideredin
the same terms as before. And the first to ask important ethical questionsconcerning
Science was Simone Weil.
- In this respect, we can say that the 20th century excelled in the production
and use of weapons of mass destruction. How can Philosophy reflect on violence
at the end of this century and at the beginning of a newmillennium?
- I became a philosopher by reason of the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and
Nagasaki at the end the War, more specifically, the Japanese-AmericanWar.
All my generation was influenced by a terrifying crisis of Science atthe
time: whereas before we believed that knowledge liberated and pacifiedHumanity,
the physicists of the Manhattan project had just made the inversedemonstration.
We were shocked.
Thereafter, I can’t stand epistemologists who speak of Science without
taking into account these risks of violence. I repeat: all sciences, during
this last half-century, have had analogous problems: Chemistry with the
questions about the environment, Biology with the problems of genetic engineering,
etc. Nearly all of our ethical preoccupations concerning the sciences turn
around the question of violence. In nearly all my books I evoke this question
and I have found at present, among contemporary thinkers, that only René
Girard, the author of Violence and the Sacred, has proposed an interesting
I have even
suggested recently that students in the scientific fields pronounce, at
the end of their studies, a sort of “Hippocratic Oath", as physicians do,
to awaken in them those questions of ethics.
In Gnomon - The
Birth of Geometry you examine “artificial intelligence”, that
is, the intelligence of the artifact, that “precedes” and, in a strong
sense, makes possible, the “natural”, the “intimate” intelligence of the
subject, which, in philosophical modernity, is considered the source and
foundation of all sense, meaning and truth. Intelligence,we may say with
you, is a property of the real, not a gift of the subject.
and the collective go together in the beginnings of science. At the foundations
of scientific knowledge there is the experience of the collective, universal,
acting body, “thing” among things. Can you elaborate on this notion, which
is a fundamental part of your philosophical enterprise of examining the
anthropological foundations in the history of scientific knowledge (whose
examples, such as the gnomon, are many in The Birth of Geometry)?
word gnomon, in the Greek language, means "the one that understands", "the
one who decides" and, therefore, it refers indeed to the subject in themodern
sense, to intelligence or the understanding. But the same word means,also,
in the same language and then in the sciences, certain numbers in
arithmetic or certain lines in geometry, finally: the needle or the
axis of the solar dial. This primitive Greek language, first language of
rigorous Science, doesn't seem to make any difference between the knowing
subject and some very precise objects. At the dawn of Greek philosophy,
and until Plato himself, this difference doesn't exist indeed.
I tried, in
my book, to recover this deep intuition, in order to better explain the
emergence of geometry. The sun, for example, writes on the surface of the
earth, by means of the shade of the dial, a certain amount of information
on the world and, in particular on the sun itself.
As if the dial
deciphered all by itself the secrets of the sun; as if the sun expressed
these secrets directly; as if the world knew how to write about itself!
Being intelligent in this case consists, for us, in recovering the secret
of the intelligence of the world.
to take this idea seriously until the last consequences, concluding indeed
that we are " things among things " and that there is in fact an intelligence
of the world. For example, the more we know how to decipher the messages
contained in the winds, snow, light, all sorts of waves, the more we are
amazed by their wealth and their depth. One would say that the world
itself sends messages to itself and organizes itself thanks to their
The writer does not necessarily have to be self-conscious about his individual
voice, his personal language and literary means, as he uses them.The “spontaneity”
of the literary écriture, (whether consideredas “cause” or “effect”,
it doesn’t matter here) precludes any excessive “objectification” of the
literary effort. The philosopher, however, can make his way of saying also
an object of philosophical reflection.
prose combines narrative, dialogue, at times confession, elements of autobiography
and personal experience together with philosophical reflection and philosophical
analysis. In it, knowledge of the World, of Science, of Nature and Humanity,
while existing in media res, is experienced at the same time as something
this style of philosophical reflection and presentation come from? What
sort of unity is there between message and medium?
- Every scientific specialty has its specific language, that evolves with
the inventions and that is controlled by the community of scientists in
real time. What could be, then, the language of Philosophy? If, for example,Philosophy
studies language, it risks to reduce itself to a specialty: for example,
Linguistics, as in France some years ago, or Logic in the United States.
When this happens, we don't have anymore a language able to make the connections
between all specialties, and allowing the construction of a global world
view. However the construction of such a connection has always
been the major preoccupation of Philosophy, since its Greek foundation
and in all of its history. Therefore, the philosopher must learn the most
he can of scientific specialties, to adapt himself to their languages,
to know their history, to understand how these languages have varied, but
not to restrict himself to these sciences, and to know, also, the literary,
the artistic languages and others, to understand them and to attempt to
master them. This program is, at the end, impossible to achieve; yet, the
History of Philosophy shows that all philosophers worthy of this title
have tried to achieve it: Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Leibniz, Diderot,
Hegel, Bergson have worked to assimilate not
only the whole
of the "encyclopedia" of the hard sciences of their times,
but also aesthetics, rhetoric, politics or the history of religions, to
endup forging a vocabulary, a new vocabulary and, since new, necessarily
personal, that would assume the synthesis between all these languages.
It is their definition of philosophy and it is mine. Such work is a heroic
work, but I don't see how to avoid it, if we want to assure passages between
specialties and to construct a general vision.
If this whole
doesn’t exist, there is no Philosophy. Therefore, besides scientific accuracy,
one cannot avoid the recovery of a sense of human
and personal experience. Hence the obvious paradox, but yet perfectly
known by logic for thousands of years now,that the singular is, at the
same time, universal.
In its very language, in its expressive dimension, Philosophy would therefore
link the universal and the particular. Or, the “concrete universal” of
the philosophers’ language approaches it to the work of Art. Aesthetic
reflection, I believe it is correct to say, has been a leitmotif running
throughout your works: less explicit at times, more explicit at other times,
but always underlying the reflection on knowledge, scientific developments
and philosophical developments. In the History of Philosophy there are
moments in which the Aesthetic may constitute the very medium of the philosophical
enterprise. If there is a fundamental relation between the work of knowledge
and the work of art, how can we frame that relation today?
- Yes, I never ceased to be interested in the Arts: literature (I have
written on Balzac, Zola, Verlaine, Musil); painting (I wrote on Carpaccio,
Bonnard, Max Ernst); sculpture, to which I have even dedicated a whole
book: Statues, and specially music. I don't believe to have ever
written a book where I don't speak of it!
But that is
just one part of the matter, the core of the question is that the philosophy
that I practice
must be written
taking into account the deepest foundations of language, a if it is necessary
to reinvent the language in which one thinks, everytime one thinks. Immediately,
philosophy becomes poetry, in the original sense of the Greek word "poiesis",
which means fabrication, production, invention. It is necessary to reinvent
our words and our syntax as we procede: here, the true difficulty consists
in presenting to the reader a readable text; on that point, I confess that
I have not been always successful! And even when one works on Science,
one reaches, at some point, linguistic foundations common to both knowledge
and artistic expression. Moreover, I have often noticed that in relation
to the sciences, artists are in advance, in what regards the larger, decisive
intuitions; I have demonstrated that in my book on Zola,in my studies on
the paintings of Turner, on poems of Verlaine or on the music of Xenakis.
Finally, on this point, in general, the philosophy written in French is
very different from those of the Germans or Anglo-Saxons, which are
more technical and nearer, in that respect, to a scientific specialty.
Pascal, Diderot, Rousseau, Valery are at the same time writers in the proper
sense of the word and profound philosophers. I am rather a child of this
family, probably influenced by the fact that I speak a Latin language because
the same is true in Latin with Lucrece, for instance, who wrote a
true poem of true physics, as well as in Spanish, Italian, or Portuguese
by Marcelo Guimarães Lima
(c) 2001 Centro de Estudos e Pesquisas Armando de Oliveira
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