Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems that the philosophy of Michel Serres just hasn’t made it to this side of the Atlantic yet. Despite the fact that he is a member of the Académie française and one of France’s most significant living philosophers, Serres’ name is far from common knowledge here in the U.S. When he is mentioned, it is in the context of his relationship to the history of science, the discipline in which he was formally trained. And although this is undoubtedly an important aspect of his work, it is by no means the predominant one. It is a shame that American literary scholars have not honed in more to Serres’ unique gift of lyrical, prosaic philosophy, as there is much to be learned there. Most significant, I think, is his advocating for a philosophy of language that presents a unique sensory-based alternative to phenomenological and post-structuralist schools of thought.
Although this thread runs through other works, it is most significantly explored in 1985’s Les cinq sens: philosophie des corps mêlés, available in an English translation
by Margaret Sankey and Peter Cowley published as The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies by Continuum in 2008. The book is organized into five chapters, ostensibly representing the traditional designation of the five senses. In this work, the author laments a hyper-focused modernity that is obsessed more with the description of experience than with experience itself. True knowledge, Serres argues, is located in the body.
In “Veils,” the first chapter of The Five Senses, the author introduces his “philosophy of mingled bodies” by way of a shipwreck metaphor. This autobiographical preface to the work describes the moment of physical chaos as a place where true synesthesia takes place. All five senses are utilized in such upheavals but cannot be separated by unique triggers or functions; rather, the body is revealed as a site of mingled causalities and causations. In “Veils,” however, Serres explores the primacy of touch, as the skin exists as an organ encompassing all five (and, as he explores later, possibly six) senses. The skin, for Serres, is the true core of the body, being both subject and object, within and without. Like the soul, it is the place “where the I is decided.”
In “Boxes,” a loose meditation on hearing and sound, Serres opens with a narrative entitled “Healing at Epidaurus.” He describes a group of loud, camera-happy tourists at the site and wonders, “What did they really see? They heard: cries, words, echoes. But certainly saw rather little.” Serres utilizes these tourists to illustrate the “shell of language” that we encase ourselves in all too often. For him, language is a thing that dominates and is removed from nature, something which veils true experience. Words make the world safe, but they also remove us from it. He describes sound in terms of “hard” and “soft,” the former defined as requiring “an energy output measurable in horsepower” and the latter as “measured on the entropic scale.” In other words, “hard” sound is quantifiable, visceral, loud, while “soft” sounds are made up of signs and codes.
We are too reliant on our use of data as perception, Serres asserts. He expands upon this in theme in a crucial section of chapter three entitled “Statues,” in which he contends that philosophy seeks to render us robots devoid of sensory apparatuses. Modern philosophy asks that we divorce ourselves from experience itself and focus instead on “codes and numbers.” Interestingly enough, he makes another interesting move here in noting that not only do we “suppress all objects in favour of words,” but we also “suppress the word itself and meaning.” Here, Serres shows us that it is not language as such that is dulling but the analytical, destructive means for which language is used. The proverbial statue/robot enters the banquet and, rather than tasting or smelling, which it cannot (yet) do, it proceeds to quantify and catalog. All that it knows is internal and it does not rely on others to produce its own knowledge. This returns to a previously discussed link—and one of the few places where Serres overtly opens himself up to an ethics of sensory perception— between sensory perception and community, words and individuality. Serres favors instead a “philosophy of unruliness” where there exists a messy and heterogenic “world outside of signs.”
Serres introduces several interesting imperatives regarding wisdom and ethics. Most notably, he states that the body “should not become a statue or tomb” because it “radiates wisdom” and that it is our duty not to “receive sense data as a gift, without reciprocating.” These statements are extremely interesting to me, as they go so far as to suggest a relationship between the self and the outside world (the aforementioned community/sense, word/individual dichotomy). Serres repeatedly mentions our need for a philosophy of knowledge rooted in the senses, but I am often left wondering what such a philosophy would look like. Perhaps, as I think Serres suggests here, it would be a philosophy rooted in the experience of the world (with a deep responsibility for giving back to that world—in whatever form—in return) and which also privileges the joy of scientific and philosophical experience rather than the analysis of it.
The fourth chapter of The Five Senses deviates in theme and scope from the previous three chapters. While we have previously explored sight (albeit indirectly) and touch in “Veils,” hearing in “Boxes,” and taste and smell in “Tables,” this chapter is centered around the concept of voyaging. This deviation is evidenced in the choice of titling; while the first three chapters have the names of nouns, the fourth is the only chapter of the five to have a title that also functions as a verb. (The French title “Visite,” while a noun, is also the first and third person conjugation of “visiter.”) The idea of “visiting” is, for Serres, the sort of approach one ought to have when participating in or describing knowledge production. Instead of fixedly adhering one’s thesis (as if stuck in place), Serres asserts that we would be better off wandering.
The final chapter of The Five Senses is also Serres’ shortest and most direct. He begins with the old trope of life as the best teacher one will encounter, a trope that in anyone else’s hands would come off as clunky and ill formed. He notes that on a ship—Serres gracefully bookends the entire text with images of sailing—“you can die from either hot or cold” and it is the experience of these extremes that truly tests one’s character. Unlike their American brothers, with their air-conditioned rooms and chilled iced tea, French sailors were, at least in Serres time at sea, conditioned to weather storms of extreme hot and cold in which the threat of death was ever-present. Here the body—and, Serres asserts, true knowledge—comes alive. “Passionate energy” and strain bring this bodily knowledge to the surface, as the body “discovers its existence when its muscles are on fire, when it is out of breath—at the limits of exhaustion.” The antithesis of this embodied experience is that of sleep: “To fall asleep is to acquiesce, waking tends towards refusal.”
A self-aware joy, then, is the body’s most graceful state. Serres utilizes the experiences of jumping (specifically on a bed, with his brother), playing (on a merry-go-round), and running to evoke these states of bodily knowing in general and in his own life in particular. In each case, it is in the giving up of one’s control and ceding to the world that one experiences pure joy/knowledge. There is a sort of juvenile playfulness here that Serres acknowledges: Authors and philosophers are “weighed down…by sciences and books” while the philosopher’s goal should be to “become children again. Immediately happy in the sensible world.” It is in this state that a “complete knowledge” is formed and “founded and based on the sweetness and competence of the senses, knowledge attuned to its limbs and the world, toned-down and pacified, ready to agree, delivered from resentment, consenting, a luminous, transparent, vibrant, spiritual, flexible, quick.” It is a “lively subject body—a body that thinks.” Conversation—like that of the Parisian salons—and the “joyous liberation” of “plain language”—counter to the muddiness of academic writing—are, for Serres, exemplary models of such thinking bodies.
Serres ends, appropriately, on a hopeful note that gestures towards future scholarship. Rather than asking how science or language are created or from within what parameters they exists, the real questions of philosophy should be “what do we think when we know?” and “what remains to be thought?” “Everything,” Serres notes joyfully “remains to be thought, reassessed,” for “there remains a world to construct.”