French Philosophy Today: Summary of Chapter 5 – Michel Serres

French Philosophy Today, New Figures of the Human in Badiou, Meillassoux, Malaobu, Serres and LatourThis is the fifth in a series of posts providing short summaries of the chapters in my latest book, French Philosophy Today: New Figures of the Human in Badiou, Meillassoux, Malabou, Serres and Latour. For further chapter summaries, please see here.

With Michel Serres’s universal humanism (Chapter 5) the argument returns to the question of host capacities in order, finally, to go beyond it. Rather than Badiou’s and Meillassoux’s determinate capacity for thought and rather than Malabou’s meta-capacity of plasticity, Serres seeks to elaborate a figure of the human that accommodates both determinate qualities (like Badiou and Meillassoux) and de-differentiation (like Malabou). This is judged to be the most adequate way of dealing with capacities encountered thus far, because it marries singularity and determinacy with genericity and plurality, yielding neither an undifferentiated and abstract notion of humanity nor a diversity of individuals with nothing in common. The second half of the chapter explores how Serres develops further the continuity between epigenetics and hermeneutics which Malabou begins to elaborate in Avant demain. Humanity is best understood, for Serres, as part of the ‘Great Story’ (Grand Récit) of the universe, a story not only about but also told by the natural world in a way that emphasises the continuity between ‘human’ language and ‘nonhuman’ processes. This insistence upon continuity between the human and the nonhuman also positions Serres very differently to Badiou, Meillassoux and Malabou (in her early work), who all continue to assume that humanity inhabits a meaningless and indifferent universe, and continue to maintain that to think otherwise is anthropocentric. The combination of Serres’s Great Story and his introduction of the two figures of multi-coloured Harlequin and all-white Pierrot gives him a multi-modal account of humanity (capacities plus narrative), and this makes the figure of the human that emerges from his work richer, as well as more situated in its landscape and its history, than in the accounts considered in previous chapters. There is, however, a danger that Serres’s Great Story becomes a ‘host story’ for his account of the human, forcing all humans into a single narrative mould in the same way that a host capacity or a host substance routes all discourse about the human through one single characteristic or quality. It is in order to resist this tendency that we turn in the final chapter to Bruno Latour.