MICHEL SERRES AND NON-PHILOSOPHY (1): philosophy and the desire for power

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”.

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3 Responses to MICHEL SERRES AND NON-PHILOSOPHY (1): philosophy and the desire for power

  1. Tim Howles says:

    It is a wonderful book. It’s actually existed in English translation, by Felicia McCarren, for quite some time though – I don’t know why it’s been re-translated by Burke. It’s good to have it synchronised (in its cover) with ‘Statues’, the first and second books of foundations. It’s hardly had any reception in the English-speaking world, although Maria Assad has some critical words for it in her (otherwise brilliant, IMO) book on Serres: http://www.sunypress.edu/p-3000-reading-with-michel-serres.aspx. She seems to take it as offering a retrograde, quasi-Girardian model of linear time ending in death, rather than the nonlinear time she celebrates in Statues (as well as Genesis, Tier Exclu, Detachment, etc).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. JH says:

    Can you tell me more about this curious remark?: “Non-philosophy is about real life and concrete experience, it is not just a matter of abstract discussion”. But is not abstraction also something that we want to hold onto in philosophy? It is just that most of the times, against philosophy and even science at times, we hear such things as, ‘oh, we need actual, concrete things and not abstractions’. Especially for non-philosophy, abstract discussions seem important, though I assume that what you mean by ‘abstraction’ something detached from the present with no perspective/ episteme. However, I feel like the rhetoric of speaking against abstractions is not so so useful, unless it is more precise.


    • terenceblake says:

      I say “not just” a matter of abstract discussion. Obviouly abstract discussion is important, and even a cursory glance at my blog shows I love philosophical abstraction. I am utterly hostile to the anti-intellectualism behind the attitude expressed in anti-abstraction slogans, because abstractions are good, necessary, and sources of joy, and also because what they come down to is advocating leaving abstractions to an élite who regiment our life and who monomolise the profit. What I refuse is the attitude of people who propose beautiful abstractions about life and who do not even try to bring their own lives in line with their abstract proposals. Anti-“sufficiency” is just such a notion: it should mean something as to the conduct of life.


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