Michel Serres

I first crossed paths with Michel Serres in the late 90s. I was studying philosophy at that time in Copenhagen when I overheard someone speaking about a French writer and philosopher who had a “poetic style.” Shortly afterward, I found a book written by Serres called Genèse published in 1982. The volume marks a shift in his oeuvre from a more traditional academic style to a more poetical tone. For example, from Genèse onwards Serres rarely used footnotes. It was the beginning of the kind of love affair that philosophy is full of—illustrating that philosophical thinking begins with a vital force like loving friendship.

Michel Serres was born in Agen, France in 1930 and died Saturday, June 1st, 2019.

He was the son of a sailor—a path he too followed by entering the École Navale in 1949. In 1952, he began studying at Ècole Normale Supériere. Significant for a multidisciplinary thinker like Serres, he was a licentiate in three disciplines: mathematics, philosophy, and classical philology. After graduation, he returned to sea, working as a naval officer until 1958. Following this period he began teaching, and his philosophical opus began with his doctoral thesis on Leibniz in 1968. Still, the sea never left him. For example, on several occasions, he described philosophy as a journey through an archipelago, where the philosopher connects what is being separated. For a time, Serres was a professor at Stanford in the US, and in 1990, he became a member of the French Academy.

Read the rest of the essay in Erracticus.

Philosophy as Poetry

In 2004, the American pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty spent three days holding his Page-Barbour lectures entitled Philosophy as Poetry. Its beautiful title captures important aspects of Rorty’s philosophy. 

Philosophy is not about presenting solutions to problems but inventing problems worth exploring. Some of the problems that Rorty addresses relate to the notion of origin and reality—both concepts are not something given or static. For example, philosophy is not a thinking tool aimed at representing reality; rather, it’s a curious and creative exploration of what is possible.

For Rorty, at least in these three lectures, philosophy begins when we overcome the representational figure of thinking (i.e. reality versus appearance); actually, it begins with a wondering imagination. Perhaps for this reason, he—like many continental philosophers—sees philosophy as a literary genre. According to the French philosopher Michel Serres, a work of fiction can often produce far more experience, knowledge, and testing of our moral limitations than some philosophical papers. 

So what is Rorty saying? 

“… we need to think of reason not as truth-tracking faculty but as a social practice,” he says, continuing, “We need to think of imagination not as the faculty that produces visual or auditory images but as a combination of novelty and luck. To be imaginative, as opposed to being merely fantastical, is to do something new and to be lucky enough to have that novelty be adopted by one’s fellow human, incorporated into their social practices.” 

Later, he clarifies: “What we call ‘increased knowledge’ should not be thought of as increased access to the Real but as increased ability to do things—to take part in social practices that make possible richer and fuller human lives.”

Philosophy is a creative and imaginative practice proposing new ways of living more humanely, which always seemed to be one of Rorty’s concerns

From Emerson, Rorty takes the notion that there “is no outside, no inclosing wall”, there is nothing outside language. Language comes to us with the world like a wave hitting the shore. 

“Every human achievement,” Rorty says, “is simply a launching pad for greater achievement … There are only larger human lives to be lived.” 

Referring to Schiller, Shelley, and Nietzsche he emphasizes that we must become “the poets of our own lives”, echoing Nietzsche’s commend; however, not just our own lives (which would be an ego trip) but for “the world in which those lives are lived is a creation of the human imagination.”

Imagination is the principle vehicle of human progress. If you can’t imagine another world, then you can’t act responsibly. Thus, the task of philosophy is to create better poems, to achieve something better, to expand life. 

In a similar way, when Nietzsche tried to overcome Platonism, he said that it’s not about self-knowledge but “self-creation through self-description.” Reason, in other words, works only within the limits set by imagination. Or, as Wittgenstein, another of Rorty’s companions, said, “We should not ask about meaning but only about use.” For example, “… if we have a plausible narrative of how we became what we are, and why we use the words we do as we do, we have all we need in the way of self-understanding.” 

Rorty’s philosophy as poetry is narrative and inconclusive—just like life is. The words we use to describe the world change because everything in life changes. Therefore, the search for truth is also a search for justification, and being “rational is a practice of giving and asking for reason, not the employment of an innate truth-tracking faculty.” 

If there is a romantic formula, it goes something like this: you imagine something novel, like catching an idea; you then test and experiment with this idea, and perhaps this novelty is so good that it will become a new social practice. 

A Smile for You

It is said that a smile knows no boundaries, that it is universal.

A smile can cross continents and time. It can overcome ugly ideologies, whether they are tied to race, religion, age or sexual observance.

A smile is more mobile than the internet. It connects. It is life’s messenger.

A smile can be decoded at a very early age. Children know whether what they are doing causes concern or earns approval – just by looking at their parents or other adults.

A smile is a language that connects, touches and penetrates because it confirms life. No less than life.

A smile is a smile is a smile. It can be said that simply. It can’t be misunderstood. Naturally, false smiles exist. But such smiles are not really smiles, but rather false smiles. They are assumed, like the Joker’s smile in the Batman comics and films – pasted on. A false smile can seem frightening, because it pokes fun at life. No one knows that better than best-selling suspense author Stephen King, who in his book IT has a clown represent man’s deepest fear. The false smile lacks respect.

A smile is something happy, as well as something serious. It is a love missile that does not seek, but gives, shares. A smile is generous.

A smile comes when it comes, as we say. And indeed it does. But it is possible to cultivate a more smiling approach to life, as when the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh encourages his readers to wake up with a smile on their lips. It is life you are smiling at, from and with. You have awakened, not died in your sleep. You can always smile, because things could be worse. You could be dead. A smile is what always makes us turn towards life, even when we feel that life has turned its back on us. A smile wills life.

A smile is disarming. You can go through most of a day without speaking to other people but still treat others with respect and kindness, if only you smile.

A smile is more than an upward curve on your lips. The smiling sun in children’s drawings always has a mouth turned upward. But even if your mouth were to be sewn shut, you could still smile with your eyes. In fact, you can smile with your entire face. Your entire body. You can have a smiling approach to life. Not a frivolous or unserious approach, but one that is life affirming. The French philosopher Michel Serres has said that people who age unattractively do so because they so rarely smile. Even your wrinkles can smile. Yes, even your frame can smile.

A smile always emphasizes three things: I have lived, I am living, and I want to live.
That is why you smile.



In connection with the launch of a new Danish ecological clothing label called Change yourself, I wrote three semi-philosophical reflections: A Smile for You is the first.

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