Oration | Address to Convocation
In a 1996 Times Literary Supplement review Simon Critchley described Michel Serres as "possibly the best known and most popular contemporary philosopher in France."
Born in 1930 in Agen, France, Dr. Serres' intellectual life has not been a conventional academic one. He initially embarked upon a naval career, serving for several years as an officer with the French Maritime Naval Service before devoting himself to the study of philosophy. In 1968, he earned his doctorate with a thesis on the German philosopher, Liebniz. During the 1960s, Dr. Serres taught with Michel Foucault at the Universities of Clermont-Ferrand and Vincennes. He was later appointed to a chair in the history of science at the Sorbonne, where he still teaches. He has also been a full professor at Stanford University since 1984 and was elected to l'Académie Française in 1990.
Dr. Serres is a philosopher of science, social science and mathematics, and their dense interrelationships. It has often been observed that his ideas are crafted from the vocabularies of numerous fields of knowledge (mathematics, esthetics, history, physics, literature, ecology), and that his work spans gaps between art and science. Yet he is less a conventional tiller of interdisciplinary academic fields than a philosopher and homme de lettres in the grand French tradition. His writings create and renew intellectual traditions, while not being easily subsumed under any of them.
Dr. Serres is the author of over 25 books including five under the title Hermes (1968-1981), Angels: A Modern Myth (1993), The Natural Contract (1990) and The Troubadour of Knowledge (1991). He is also a past lecturer with Memorial's Henrietta Harvey Distinguished Lecture Series.
Oration honouring Michel Serres
Dr. John A. Scott, University Orator
This year, Mr. Chancellor, Newfoundland and Labrador proudly celebrates 100 years of progress in global wireless communications inaugurated, right here in Newfoundland, when Guglielmo Marconi received the single letter "S" transmitted across the vast and frightening Atlantic Ocean. I believe, Sir, that Marconi would be truly pleased to find that Memorial University remains at the cutting edge of communications in singling out, for our highest honour, another great visionary and adventurer in the science of signalling across vast and frightening distances.
Before you, Sir, stands Michel Serres, mathematician, physicist, philosopher, social scientist, member of L'Academie, Stanford, John's Hopkins, Sorbonne professor: but, most significant of all, sir, the son of a St. Malo seaman. And he has found his way back to Newfoundland, home to so many descendants of his own St. Malo, where he belongs as the true 21st-century successor to Marconi.
It is particularly significant, Mr. Chancellor, that the single letter "S" Newfoundlanders received that day 100 years ago is the initial element in the universal distress signal, SOS. That distress signal, in Serres'estimation, is still being sent today; and we need to hear it and understand its meaning if we are to frame the appropriate response. Nature is the transmission source, he argues, and urgently needs some suitable Signal Hill where her messages can be received and understood and acted upon to inaugurate more vital centuries of communications progress.
Serres leads in the urgent work on what he has called a "general theory of signals," focussed not only on the cybernetics and dynamics of propagation, power and processing, but also a reflective intensification of the meaning which nature demands we generate in our commitment to the "natural contract" on which global survival depends. "It seems to me," says Michel Serres, "that language is our flesh and blood." He speaks not as an academicien or celebrated theoretician, but as a son of St. Malo, as one of those descendants of St. Malo who fish out of our own Port au Port Peninsula. He speaks to alert us to a globe threatened by the pollution of ignorance; in particular ignorance of our needs and capacities for communication. Serres explores the rich variety of local communications which will let us understand messages that nature is sending. He sees the Internet - and other iterations of the Web - as globally localized environments for growth in human understanding.
But this will not happen without courageously visionary leadership such as Marconi gave, and Serres is giving. He is a leader; and he leads from the front lines in shaping the minds and values of our scholars and their students, and the places they will build. Last year, Mr. Chancellor, Michel Serres spent a week here with us at Memorial as a Henrietta Harvey Lecturer. The provocative seminars and the enlivening challenge he provided our faculty and students will continue to animate our work for many years to come. We are richer for his presence, then and now.
But I must advise you, sir, that Michel Serres has potent forces at his disposal. In his later work, he has begun enlisting "angels" to describe the various messengers and messages we must learn to hear as educators and as communicators. And he is a trickster too, sir.
Knowledge, for Serres, is like a harlequin, that master of disguises always sustaining itself by generating new identities.
There is a joie de vivre and an optimism about Michel Serres, Mr.Chancellor, that makes him so worthy a 21st-century Marconi. He has the courage to see us as equal to the task of responding to the distress signal Marconi initiated 100 years ago. Serres sees a new century of surprises ahead, where angels and harlequins may turn out to be the most familiar of novelties; and where we learn to see ourselves, once again, as the most surprising - and surprisingly redeemable - of creatures. Serres' own words describe his vision best, sir:
"When the printing press appeared, the centuries before that became illegible to us, and we called them 'the Dark Ages'. A whole new sensation of meaning came to us with the advent of Renaissance, with people like Montaigne, Erasmus, Rabelais .... The Reformation heralded the liberty of thought, something unimaginable in a tradition grounded on the transfer of knowledge that was not based on the printed word."
Today, a new platform appears, and thus a new meaning will appear too... and suddenly everybody's going to be astonished that a new meaning is there. Do not look for it today: it is simply not in our world yet. You won't find it, only your children, or your grand-children."
Mr. Chancellor, it is my great pleasure and honour to present to you, for the degree of Doctor of letters, honoris causa, Michel Serres.
Address to convocation
by Dr. Michel Serres
I am very proud to become a member, even a virtual member, of your Memorial University. I thank the president of the university, my colleagues and friends, especially from the French, Philosophy and Sociology departments, and, above all, the graduates who have worked very hard these last years, and who are today perhaps anxious about their future. I hope for them a long life, and a good lifetime, full of work, success and joy. In the last weeks, as I have been thinking about the address I might make to the graduates, I had a dream. And I wish now to share this dream with you.
Like you probably, I have concerns about the misunderstandings and wars between people around the world. And, as a professor, I believe in education, and especially, I believe now - and this is my dream - in a common trunk of knowledge, a common knowledge, that would unite little by little all of mankind, starting with students. We can create, by means of this knowledge, a peaceful globalization.
We must build a new humanism for humanity. The humanism of the Renaissance has been criticized during the last decades for its imperialism. My dream today is the rebuilding of a new humanism. I suggest now its framework, in two parts: the hard sciences, and the soft sciences.
The hard sciences - astrophysics, cosmology, physics, geophysics, chemistry, biochemistry, biology, physical anthropology and so on - are telling us today a great narrative. A new Grand Narrative. Since the Big Bang started building the first atoms of which all inert matter and even our bodies are composed; since the planets have cooled down and our Earth became a reservoir of materials, of which our tissues and bone take form; since a strange molecule of acid began multiplying four billion years ago and then mutating; since the first living beings colonized the face of the earth, constantly evolving; since a young girl named Lucy rose one morning in the savanna of East Africa, unwittingly beginning one of many explosive journeys undertaken by the waves of humanity, who covered the totality of dry land in cultures and languages, as diverse as they were ephemeral; since a few South-American, Middle-Eastern and Indian tribes invented corn and wheat, planted the first vineyard, or brewed the first keg of beer, domesticating for the first time life forms as small as yeast; since the beginning of writing and the versification of Hebrew, Latin and Greek by certain tribes...
Since then, the common trunk of our grand narrative has never stopped growing in size, to give now an unexpected thickness, and a real humanism, worthy of its name. Because all the world cultures and languages to which it gave birth can finally participate in its telling -the unique as well as the universal, being written in the encyclopedic language of all the sciences, and subject to translation into every vernacular, without imperialism.
We are now creating a new community of human beings, in sciences as well as in reality, and we are finally enlarging old humanities, local and particular, into a wider humanism, closer to its universal meaning. Therefore, I dream that every university in the world could teach, through the hard sciences, this grand new narrative.
But. But, I hear you and you are right.
Nothing in this long epic will console or protect us from misunderstanding each other because we don't speak the same languages; nothing will prevent us from hating each other because we don't believe in the same religion; from exploiting each other because we don't live at the same economic level; from persecuting each other because we don't have the same form of government. I hear you, and you are right. Even worse, the old humanism did not save us from wars, from Auschwitz, or from Hiroshima. Hard sciences don't give meaning. Only cultures, languages, religions, history and philosophy give meanings. Therefore I dream that every university in the world could also teach about the mosaic of cultures, the trees and families of languages, the history of religions, the various types of government, the distribution of worldly wealth ... and above all, the masterpieces of human wisdom and arts.
That was my double dream - that the graduates of universities all over the world could share one single grand narrative, given by the sciences, and appreciation and mutual respect given by education in the mosaic of differences.
Your generation has a real chance to build this new humanism. I hope that this dream can become your reality. Thank you.
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