Michel Serres begins ROME with a very moving dedication:
With the present book and, if my life isn’t too hard, with some others to follow, I express my gratitude to the community of historians that welcomed me thirteen years ago when the pressure group then in power expelled me from my former paradise: philosophy. Thereby making my life hard.
ROME was published in France in 1983, and has just been published in English translation. In my opinion it is one of his best books, presenting itself as a pure theory of multiplicities in the form of a free commentary on the first book of Livy’s THE HISTORY OF ROME.
In this short paragraph, Serres indicates that he is theorising his own life, and ours, in this book, as well as the dynamics of society and the interplay of pluralism and mimetic violence. He tells us that the mimetic cronies of a lobby or “pressure group” with its party lines and strategies of power expelled him from his “paradise”, philosophy. Many people who love philosophy suffer this fate, expelled by those who love comfort and power, status and money, more than philosophy.
In “PANTOPIA: from Hermes to Thumbelina” 2014), a series of interviews containing much autobiographical material, Serres recounts how one day he was seated in a restaurant with six other philosophers (among them Martial Gueroult, Georges Canguilhem, Louis Althusser, and Michel Foucault). Foucault suggested a game of “telling the truth”, replying to the question “What would you have wanted to be, if you hadn’t been a philosopher?”. Canguilhem insisted that the answer be submitted by secret ballot.
Each of us took his sheet of paper, and I wrote “Nevertheless, a philosopher”. When the seven votes were opened, all of them except mine said “Minister”… I found that tragic. Pathetic. These guys confessed that finally they had only one desire: power… There was some discussion and it transpired that the most interesting job was Minister of the Interior. Not Foreign Affairs, not Justice, not Education. Minister of the Interior. Unanimously.
These are the sorts of people who expelled Serres from his paradise, even if it was not these particular people. In fact, Serres indicates that one of them was responsible: Canguilhem. Serres traces their rupture back to the day of the oral defence of his thesis on Leibniz, in 1968. Canguilhem had always been like a second father to him, but he broke with Serres that day. The next year Serres obtained a post teaching the history of science:
I was told that this was provisional, but in reality I found myself banished from philosophy at the university. I had to teach outside my profession. I was used to having five hundred students in my philosophy class, and in one stroke I had only a handful in history of science.
Fortunately, this expulsion did not put an end to Serres’ career as he was in fact welcomed by the community of historians. We may add that he was also welcomed as a philosopher by a far wider intellectual community and by the philosophical reading public, both in France and abroad. He was able to “find refuge” in the United States, teaching in the universities of Baltimore, Buffalo, New York, and later in Stanford.
Non-philosophy is about real life and concrete experience, it is not just a matter of abstract discussion. Michel Serres became administratively and objectively a non-philosopher because of an expulsion. No doubt he was already subjectively and creatively a “non-philosopher”, that is to say a philosopher not enamoured with power. Talking about the dinner with the philosophers, he comments:
It is perhaps on that day that I had the intuition of a hero who would be called Pantopia, who would travel around the world, meet people, learn all the sciences, and who would never, never, chase after any power.
This intuition preceded his doctoral defence and ensuing expulsion by several years. It was Serres’ underlying orientation before being banished into the realms outside of official philosophy. Pantopia is the conceptual hero of pluralist knowledge, free exchange, and philosophy without power. He should be the hero of any “non-standard” philosophy or “non-philosophy”.