Questions of Heritage, Research Time, 10/10/2013

I finished The Troubadour of Knowledge Wednesday night, though I prefer to call it Le Tiers-Instruit despite my reading the English translation (as you’ll recall from my earlier posts, I had to read it to make sure I didn’t miss a book where Serres anticipated any of my thinking, and I had to read it fast to discover that he didn’t). And I thought I’d end my brief new engagement with him by offering a few thoughts about the intellectual tradition that he’s part of.

Here’s a controversial thing to say on a blog. But if anyone on a university faculty search committee discusses the idea with me, I’d tell them the same thing. I don’t really believe Continental philosophy is a unified tradition at all, even though many researchers in North America identify as Continental philosophers, and I say I am on my faculty C.V. It’s more commonly defined by what it isn’t: the writers and works pay little attention to the Analytic tradition (which is a unified thing, thanks to its clear line of descent), and mean-spirited Analytic philosophers tend to make fun of it or dismiss it. Analytic philosophy was a self-identified movement against the metaphysical philosophy of the idealist thinkers of the 19th century Cambridge establishment. Continental philosophy became the buzzword for what philosophers in this tradition disliked about the philosophy that was coming out of Europe throughout the 20th century.

French philosophy has many silly stereotypes
in North America, and this photo of Deleuze
wearing a black turtleneck sweater doesn't
help overcome them.
I see six relatively independent streams of thought in what is, in North America, called Continental philosophy. 1) The phenomenological tradition that originated with Edmund Husserl, and has seen diverse influence in philosophy, psychology, and animal behaviour science. 2) Existentialism, the more openly ethical philosophy whose current form starts with Martin Heidegger’s appropriating phenomenology for his own projects, but saw its greatest figures in the ethical and political philosophies of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. 3) The deconstructive methods of scholarly research developed by Jacques Derrida and carried on largely in cultural studies and literary theory in North America. 4) Political philosophy and activism inspired by Marx and taken up into the social philosophy of Louis Althusser, continued in Félix Guattari’s and Antonio Negri’s political writings. 5) Philosophy inspired by psychoanalysis, developing philosophical principles from the medical theories of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Jacques Lacan. Slavoj Zizek’s work merges the ideas of post-Marxism and psychoanalytic philosophy. 6) The philosophy that is normally called post-structuralism, but this is an inadequate term for a group of thinkers who have reiterated the ideas of Benedict Spinoza, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Henri Bergson into one complex new tradition. I’d call Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault the major figures in this tradition. None of these theorists ever called themselves Continental philosophers. On the European continent, the term is meaningless.

I think Serres, if he could be said to fit into one tradition, would continue the sixth, Spingsonzsche tradition. He makes a point that Deleuze returned to frequently throughout his own work. Serres considers the relation, in classical music, of variation to theme, and wonders why the theme is given a special status as if the variations were just imperfect imitators of it. Really, the musical phrase we call the theme is another variation, one more peculiarity among all the other peculiarities. Deleuze let this point rest at the abstract level of philosophical metaphor. Serres brings the idea into specific contexts. One point is political. Consider the king (the parable of the emperor’s new clothes was a touchpoint at the start of Le Tiers-Instruit). We hold kings, royalty, dictators, the elite members of any society, be they politicians, rich businessmen, or rich businessmen who become politicians, to be separate from the common people. Themes. But they’re men just like us, their peculiar situations categorically no different from the peculiar lives and characters of the least politically significant among us. Serres explicitly identifies the political point to the theme-and-variation argument that Deleuze was content to let remain implicit: the central idea of democracy (and Christianity done right), that the most noble of us stand equal to the least of us.

The more I engage with Serres' work, the more he impresses
me. Especially now that I've found this picture, which
reveals that we have the same taste in sunglasses.
More than this, Serres includes an interpretation of the idea that I could call ecological or cosmological, depending on where you want your emphasis to lie. We often think of human life and the Earth as particularly special. I’ve read so much popular science journalism that defines the Sol system as being an exception from the general order of the universe. We have gas giants far away from the centre of our orbits, protecting the rocky inner planets from asteroid bombardment that would be terribly destructive to life. Most solar systems are arranged in the reverse, at least most solar systems we’re able to examine in detail with our current technology. But the structure of the Sol system is one peculiarity among many peculiarities. The planets have a unique arrangement, but in terms of uniqueness alone, all solar systems have unique arrangements. If human intellectual history can be said to have any progress, it’s that this idea has developed and spread: Humanity and Earth is not the centre of the universe, not its purpose, and we are one bundle of beings among a vast and complicated collection of worlds. 

We are slowly learning and accepting the humility of understanding that our uniqueness doesn’t make us superior to an otherwise generic world, that uniqueness is ordinary and ubiquitous. If my ecophilosophy project has any single core concept, this is it.

Yet a melancholy aspect of Serres’ philosophy, as I’ve encountered it so far, is his peculiar appropriation of Spinozist ideas. In Le Tiers-Instruit, Serres discusses how he understands God to exist as every body in the universe, and the universe as a whole. This is basically a Spinozist point, to conceive God as a pantheism that is also functionally equivalent to an atheism: God as Nature itself. Yet there is a curious phenomenological element to how he expresses the idea in this book. He makes the subject an exemption from God/Nature. “Everything is God except the one who writes him, who lets fall His pen amid tears,” he writes. 

The philosopher himself becomes alienated from creation in the act of writing his account of creation. At least in this ethical sense of the tears that flow as he lets go of his pen (which is, being part of Nature, itself God). The one who understands the universe, at least in how he lives, transcends the world in doing so, reminiscent to me of Husserl’s old concept, the transcendental ego. Yet he describes an alienation of the philosopher from the world, even from contact with the divinity he writes about. An unbearable separation just because he’s decided to learn and write.

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