As long as philosophy invents concepts, it constructs an infinitive and substantive language no one can speak without laughing. By recognizing the spaces and times conditioning the positions, it reconstructs, through these prepositions, a sayable language close to those real ones we speak … it invents fewer concepts than personages … wandering in the landscapes of the world … which all have in common vibrating between the person and the symbol, combining the singular with the universal (THE INCANDESCENT, 180).
We can use this text to extract three « moments » in Michel Serres’ work:
1) conceptual invention – this was dominant in his first books, from 1968 (THE SYSTEM OF LEIBNIZ AND ITS MATHEMATICAL MODELS) to 1980. This period contains his more « conceptual » « Hermes » pentalogy, dealing with the history and philosophy of science and the philosophical consequences of the sciences of information and communication.
In these books Serres develops a theoretical vision of an indeterministic universe and of methodological anarchism, not unlike Karl Popper’s vision in the three volumes of his POSTSCRIPT. Where Serres differs from Popper is in his search for passages between the state of the sciences at any given epoch and that of the epoch’s other cultural formations. However, Serres remains scientistic in that for him science is the determinant formation. His pluralist formulations are implicitly limited by this underlying scientism.
2) invention of personages – an imagistic style is dominant in this series of books ranging from 1980 (THE PARASITE) to 1997 (NOUVELLES DU MONDE, « News of the World »). This period contains his « Foundations » trilogy (ROME, STATUES, THE ORIGINS OF GEOMETRY) but is initiated by THE PARASITE (1980) and GENESIS (1982).
Serres is heavily reliant on René Girard’s theory of mimetic desire and of the scapegoat during this period. This is unfortunate as the increased pluralism made possible by the imagistic style tends to be counterbalanced by the dualistic simplifications of Girard’s theory.
3) vibration between concept and image – in 2001 there is a return of the concept, in the form of the grand narrative constructed by modern science and of the new possibilities opened up by modern technologies. This is the period of his « humanist » tetralogy starting with HOMINESCENCE (2001), through THE INCANDESCENT (2003) and RAMEAUX (which can be translated as « Branches » or « Palms », as in Palm Sunday, 2004), ending with RÉCITS D’HUMANISME (« Narratives of Humanisme », 2006).
For Michel Serres philosophy aims at the conceptual and imaginative appropriation and extrapolation of the new natural and human synthesis elaborated in the grand narrative of modern science, stretching from the Big Bang to the contemporary world. The concept and the personage are to a certain degree, which remains unclear, not only facilitated but legitimated by the global narrative that Serres constructs out of the diverse sciences.
Thus Serres’ pluralism as developed in his later works is partially undermined by the two counter-tendencies from the previous phases of his work (physicalism/scientism, psycho-anthropological reductionism). I will be reading Serres’ THE INCANDESCENT in the light of this tension between conceptual and imaginative pluralism and monistic reductionism.