Au revoir to Stanford’s Michel Serres (1930-2019), one of France’s foremost intellectuals and master of the “grand récit”

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Resident Socrates (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Michel Serres, one of France’s leading public intellectuals, died today in his native land. He was 88. The longtime faculty member at Stanford and immortel of the Académie Française, had a regular radio spot, and the publication of his many books (he had written at least 60) was an event. We’ve written about him here and here and here and here

“Why do I speak on the radio? It’s very simple,” he explained to me. “A class that I teach may have 25 students; a radio audience 4 million. That’s interesting for a professor who is trying to raise the level of cultural life.” I was, to my best knowledge, the only person to ever record him in an English-language interview. See the short youtube video below. I also had the privilege of attending one of his small classes for a quarter back in 2009.

According to his friend, Robert Pogue Harrison, “For the last 150 years, Western philosophy primarily has been a story of telling philosophers that they cannot do this, that or the other. They cannot synthesize, philosophize, cannot tell the grand story.” This idea of the grand récit, he said, “is distinctly non-postmodern, maybe even non-modern.”

“His is the ‘yes we can’ of an older concept of the philosopher. Yes, philosophers can—even in our time—tell the grand récit.”

The comment is from my 2009 interview here. Here’s more from the article:

Serres was born in 1930 in Agen, on the Garonne river in southwest France, the son of a bargeman. Friends say his humble country origins are key to understanding the richness of his thought and his fundamental decency.

He was studying mathematics at the Naval Academy when he found Simone Weil‘s Gravity and Grace. Largely because of that book’s impact on him, he left the academy and turned to philosophy. He entered the famous École Normale Supérieure (which Weil had attended) in 1952; he received a doctorate with a thesis on Leibniz’s philosophy in 1968. He was appointed to a chair in the history of science at the Sorbonne, where he taught for many years.

To tell the grand récit, said Harrison, Serres must trawl “the natural sciences, genetic science, all new biotic, evolutionary, cosmological discoveries” as well as the history of science, philosophy, literature and religion and bring them to bear on philosophy, concocting “a coherent theory of where we are in human knowledge.”

“And he’s doing that. Especially in the last five to seven years, his work of synthesis is very compelling.”

Serres weaves the history of science, mathematics, thermodynamics, chaos theory, Balzac, Proust, Zola and Chateaubriand into his reflections. His thinking perhaps is better known for its roads than its destinations, whether he’s discussing le tiers-instruit, the third element between antitheses, or the pervasive relationships between parasites and hosts in human affairs or bridges.

It’s impossible to present the full Serres banquet—there are too many dishes for that—but perhaps it’s possible to offer the tiniest hors d’oeuvre: an ongoing concern of Serres has been the nature of time. He said the nature of time is more like the experience of closing your eyes, when images, thoughts and memories come to you in a jumble.

In his book-length interview with Bruno Latour, Conversations on Science, Culture and Time, he compares time to a handkerchief. Flattened on a table, the distance between points can be measured. But crumpled in one’s pocket, he wrote, “Two distant points suddenly are close, even superimposed.” If torn, two points that are close will suddenly become distant—time becomes topology, rather than linear geometry.

“As we experience time—as much in our inner senses as externally in nature, as much as le temps of history and as le temps of weather—it resembles this crumpled version much more than the flat, overly simplified one.”

Incidentally, he was one of two immortels at Stanford. The other, his friend and colleague René Girard, died in 2015. Read the rest of the article on Michel Serres here.  My youtube video interview below.

Postscript on June 3: The video below was picked up and described by Radio France International here


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7 Responses to “Au revoir to Stanford’s Michel Serres (1930-2019), one of France’s foremost intellectuals and master of the “grand récit””

  1. Sandra Dolmatch Says:

    Thank you for sharing this video. I wish I had met him long ago.

  2. Kathleen Says:

    Very honest man ! He said it all.

  3. marilyn yalom Says:

    It was an honor to have known Michel Serres even slightly, as I did at Stanford. The last time I saw him was in in France in the Strasbourg train station. We were both arriving to speak at the book fair, and he told me that he had just completed his final term of teaching at Stanford. When I learned that my talk was to be directly after his in the same hall, I thought to myself: That will be a hard act to follow. He was a great man, and, at the same time, very human.

  4. Cynthia Haven Says:

    A hard act to follow indeed, Marilyn. Thank you for sharing your memories. – C.

  5. Luc-Laurent Salvador Says:

    I met him in Stanford French & Italian Department thirty years ago, thanks to Mark Anspach who introduced me. We had immediately a very nice (french) conversation and we discovered that we attended the same religious school in Agen.
    As a visiting scholar I had the opportunity to follow his classes in Stanford and I loved the way he extracted new meanings from words. He was brilliant and I still use affectionately many notions I learned with him during the many conversations we had, mainly on girardian topics, since I was in Stanford to follow the girardian tracks.

  6. Luc-Laurent Salvador Says:

    I mistakenly thought I was here on the Stanford Daily. Having discovered my mistake, I researched this newspaper to discover that they didn’t mention Michel Serres death. I tought that, like Girard, he would have deserved an obituary.

  7. Cynthia Haven Says:

    One would think…

    (I wrote the Stanford News Service obituary for René Girard, which was sent out on November 4,2015, the day of his death. It was picked up all over the world…including The Stanford Daily.)