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Interdisciplinary Journal on Human Development, Culture and Education
Revista Interdisciplinar de Desenvolvimento Humano, Cultura e Educação

ISSN: 1533-6476

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vol.1  n.1 December 2000

Interview with Michel Serres
 by Marcelo Guimarães Lima

 Marcelo Guimarães Lima interviewed Michel Serres in São Paulo (Brazil) in October of 1999.
 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.

Marcelo 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?

Michel 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. 
Indeed, the 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.
My conference 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.

 MGL - 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 and freedom.
Education was 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?

MS- 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.
But, first, 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.
Inversely, 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.
Other example: 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.
Therefore, 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

MGL- 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?

MS- 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.

MGL- 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?

MS- 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.

MGL - 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?

MS - 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 solution. 
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. 

MGL- 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.
The objective 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)?

MS-The 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. 
  I tried 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 circulation..

MGL- 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. 
Your philosophical 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 “intimate”.
Where does this style of philosophical reflection and presentation come from? What sort of unity is there between message and medium?

MS - 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.

MGL- 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?

MS - 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.
Montaigne, 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 .

translated by Marcelo Guimarães Lima 

copyright (c) 2001  Centro de Estudos e Pesquisas Armando de Oliveira Souza CEPAOS 

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