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Michel Serres talks to François-Bernard Huyghe

Michel Serres of the Académie Française is an educator and philosopher whose interests range from science and literature to painting and environmental issues and whose self-proclaimed purpose is to establish "the link between the sciences, law and religion". He believes strongly that the philosopher should play a part in the life of the community and is a member of Unesco's Ad hoc Forum of Reflection, which is seeking to strengthen worldwide intellectual cooperation in identifying and responding to the new challenges facing humanity. He is the author of some twenty books including Le Contrat naturel (1990) and Le Tiers-Instruit (1991). His most recent works are Eclaircissements (Editions François Bourin, Paris, 1992), a book of conversations with Bruno Latour, and La Légende des Anges (1993). 

Interviewed by François-Bernard Huyghe

One of your books is entitled Le contrat naturel (The Natural Contract). Does this mean man can make a contract with Mother Nature?  

Mother Nature does not appear in my book. What I describe is a new shift, from earth with a small "e", denoting earth as one of the elements or the earth of farming, to Earth with a capital "E", meaning the planet, and hence a shift from a local perception to a global conception. We have been witnessing the emergence of such a global conception, from the technological, human and scientific points of view, for the past twenty years, which is why I examine both meanings of the word "earth" and hardly ever use the word "Nature".  

This idea of a new globality is perhaps best symbolized by a photograph taken from space, which arouses a feeling that just about everyone who has seen it must have shared. It shows the whole planet as seen by a human eye. This new perception is an event in the history of mankind. Owing to this globalization of the way the Earth as an objectthe planetis perceived, and by a kind of recoil effect, the unity of humanity is being gradually constructed. Societies can only come into being if they have an object in common; this object, the globalized Earth, is new, and new bonds are thus being established between humanity and the planet.

The "natural contract" (which has echoes of Rousseau's "social contract") applies to this emerging bond. The idea of standing in a legal relationship with the entire planet was foreign to previous generations, but just as human societies cannot be conceived of without the social contract, the construction of the globality and unity of the human race cannot be conceived of without the idea of a natural contract. The Enlightenment philosophers had already worked out a concept of the human Universal and natural law, but no one before our times could have imagined this construction of the global. The natural contract is thus not a metaphor to describe our relationship with the Earth, but a fullblown philosophical concept.  

Does it not relate back to to the discovery of laws the laws governing our survival, for example?  

No law, in the legal world itself or in the philosophy of law, comes into being unless it is preceded by a contract. Contracts are a prerequisite for all laws. But the same word is used to denote laws in the physical sciences and the laws we humans enact, and until now these two sets did not intersect. The natural contract establishes a relationship between the exact and the human sciences, between the two kinds of laws.

Do you know of a single philosopher worthy of the name who has not at some time been forced to think anew about science and the law, and about the relationship between the two kinds of laws that govern them? The whole problem of Western philosophy resides in this relationship or linkage.  

The philosopher's job is to describe the conditions that have to be met in order for laws to be made, not to describe the content of those laws. It is to think about the nature of the bonds on which duties are grounded. In the case of the social contract, the bonds are between human beings only, while physical laws relate exclusively to links between objects. What is the relationship between these two kinds of bond?

A link must be forged between humanity, now in the process of becoming one, and this new object, planet Earth. This relationship, which entails new duties, is what I call the natural contract. We can discuss the duties when cases come to court. We have already seen lawsuits involving the users of a national park and the park itself which thus becomes a legal entity possessing rights. As cases like these are tried, and judicial precedents are set, the duties involved will gradually be established. The law did not cover these areas. It therefore has to be thought through, first in philosophical terms, then in legal and, lastly, political terms.

Should the Earth be viewed as a "subject", an entity possessing rights?  

That is the main problem facing the philosopher. How can an object become a subject? All advances in law have consisted of taking things that had been objects and turning them into subjects. Slaves, who were objects, became subjects before the law, and the same is happening with children and embryos. Every time law makes progress, it turns objects into subjects in this way. The planet was an object and I am suggesting it be made a subject. This innovation has met with a certain amount of resistance, but in philosophy one must learn to challenge generally accepted ideas and be ready to accept that an issue has taken on a new form.

Have atomic weapons helped the idea of globality to emerge?  

The shift from the local to the global did indeed begin some time ago. The atomic bomb has been what I have called a "world object", in other words a technological object one of whose dimensions is worldwide in scale. It was one step on the road from the local to the global. Today we have the means to assess this relationship between the local and the global and express it in equations. Climatological models are another example.

Cross fertilization is another of your concepts.

Education today produces scientists who, generally speaking, are ignorant outside their own fields, and cultured people who know nothing about science. Most of today's problems stem from the separation between these two groups. Both have become decision makers but they no longer understand each other. The latter enact human laws without bearing in mind the existence of objects and of science, while the former discover and apply natural laws without taking human beings into account. This is where I first used the idea of cross-fertilization imagine, as Plato did, a sociologist familiar with natural science or a politician well versed in physics. The idea of cross-fertilization means first of all devising an education system that does not separate the exact sciences and the humanities in a foolish, dangerous way.

It then occurred to me that cross fertilization was the global concept underlying all learning processes. If you start to learn physics, your life and your world are going to change. You become crossbred by the very fact of learning. That's why I started my book on education (Le Tiers Instruit) with a portrait, describing how I learned to write with my right hand even though I was lefthanded. Left or right-handed people will always be physically and intellectually hemiplegic half their body is paralysed. If you know how to use both hands your body is whole. The crossbreed I'm talking about is this monster a human being who can use his or her right and left hands at the same time, reborn at the point where the two sides meet.  

We experience this a little when we learn to speak another language. It is as if a second person were entering us to beget a third, by cross fertilization. The hybrid offspring is what I call the tiers-instruit, the "educated third party".

Traditionally, culture is viewed as something that makes an individual "blossom ". Is there a relationship between your own idea of culture and this long-established metaphor?  

I'm not really fond of the word "culture" which, like "nature", is one of those words that always cause aguments. But to continue with the metaphor let's say that crossbreeding is similar to a graft. When something is learned, a third person is produced from the rootstock into which the scion is inserted.  

Are you advocating a form of learning that would go on making us forever someone else, helping us each to become, in our own way, the "educated thirdperson" that we unknowingly carry around inside us?

We must accept and acknowledge this "someone else", who keeps company with us and takes us to meet a second person. The moment you acknowledge otherness, learning has this modifying effect. It is not a matter of developing a philosophy of the Other. The Other is the second person. We are talking about the educated third person begotten by the encounter between the self and the other.

There are thousands of books on teaching that have never served any purpose other than to enable inspectors to terrorize teachers. No amount of teacher training can provide you with specific details about the individual pupils in such-and-such a class at such-and-such a time of day, and so the more specific the textbook, the more illusory it is.

As far as teaching is concerned, giving practical instructions advising teachers to get their pupils to read the newspapers, for instance often amounts to giving abstract instructions. The reality consists of particular cases and particular types of pupil. Generally speaking, educational theory is middle-of-the-road, neither specific nor abstract. It is much less useful than it claims to be or is thought to be. The issue I am interested in is, what are the necessary conditions for learning?

You are a member of a UNESCO Forum which is concerned with getting to grips with specifics and recommending solutions.

In Le contrat naturel I take note of something that happened, perhaps, after the founding of UNESCO: the construction of a human unity that, for many reasons, objective reasons in particular, could probably not have been foreseen in the late 1940s. The specific advice I give the Forum will take this rise of the global into account.  

We are currently witnessing an irresistibly growing trend towards the global. Unfortunately this trend is increasingly monopolized by the most powerful, whose might is right. That which is universal is warped when it is taken over by a single power, and we are increasingly under the sway of a single culture.  

What specific steps can be taken against the development of a universal culture that only expresses a single force? That is the question.

The media have a tendency to look upon philosophers as oracles, asking them for their ideas about how to save the world and their views on all kinds of current events. What do you feel about this?  

It's true that the media ask philosophers all sorts of questions on a host of topics. Personally, I never answer such questions because I don't think my ideas on all kinds of topics are necessarily useful. I only answer questions about topics dealt with in my books or about things like the Forum you mentioned. In all other cases I keep out of the media because my mind is not all embracing. Furthermore, I never engage in polemics. Polemics is the enemy of every form of invention. Those who do not invent have no right to be considered as intellectuals or philosophers. Polemics is an unmitigated obstacle to the invention of concepts.

Philosophers are not "competent" in the sense of being experts, but they have a very specific task, which is to produce ideas. I would rather produce in my field and refuse to answer questions outside it. I'd never write a book attacking another book. On the contrary, if I see someone come up with a new concept I'm as happy about it as if I had thought it up myself. A new concept is something very rare and very fragile. It must be protected like a newborn child. It will bear fruit later, perhaps in fifty years.  

Michel Serres

Member of the Académie Française, Michel Serres is an educator and philosopher whose interests range from science and literature to painting and environmental issues and whose self-proclaimed purpose is to establish "the link between the sciences, law and religion". He believes strongly that the philosopher should play a part in the life of the community and is a member of UNESCO's Ad hoc Forum of Reflection, which is seeking to strengthen worldwide intellectual cooperation in identifying and responding to the new challenges facing humanity. His books include Le Contrat naturel (1990) and Le Tiers-Instruit (1991), Eclaircissements (1992), a book of conversations with Bruno Latour, and La Légende des Anges (1993),