Contraries as the Act of Straining Against Language, Research Time, 25/09/2013

Returning to philosophy today, I’ve almost finished the edits on my ecophilosophy manuscript, and have several intriguing ideas not just for updates to my thinking to throw on the blog, but for actual essays that can be published in professional journals. I’ll get to writing about these over the course of this week. 

One passage in my last pre-conclusion chapter is about a particular idea of Michel Serres. He wonders what kind of person could be an exemplar for environmentalist activism and lifestyles in his 1990 book The Natural Contract. This is a strange little book, my first encounter with Serres and my only such encounter so far. I am, however, extremely interested to pursue is more recent work, which concentrates on developing a pluralist vision of philosophy of science. Depending on my what my next university position turns out to be, I’ll read these works sooner or later.

Serres' writing in his original language is
brilliant enough that I'd say the top three
reasons to learn to read French are the books of
Marcel Proust, Albert Camus, and him.
Serres’ vision for philosophy of science is developing methods of mapping and translating the core concepts of various scientific disciplines. Philosophy’s role would be as the messenger of concepts from one scientific world to another. I’m extremely interested in this idea, as it throws away the old notion in philosophy of science (that remains annoyingly persistent in some circles) that philosophy’s purpose is to analyze scientific knowledge or practice and faithfully describe what’s really going on, presuming that the scientists can’t. This is the notion that philosophy is an authority over the essence of science and scientific knowledge. It also moves away from another, equally problematic conception of philosophy of science, that a philosopher can only speak legitimately about a scientific discipline when she has received sufficient training to practice the discipline herself. This is the notion that philosophy can only ever be subservient to the disciplines of science, never offering critique of alternative ideas. 

However, I haven’t read those books of Serres yet, so this post is not about those ideas. Instead, it’s quite a critical post. The detailed argument will be in my manuscript, but the gist of it goes like this. Serres describes a type of person, which he calls Le Tiers-Instruit, who is the most environmentally virtuous figure. The sketch is tremendously interesting, but also tremendously frustrating. I’m not totally sure if he intends to advocate this figure as an actual role model for people, or if it’s a hypothetical construction to see how workable such a person is. Here’s the edited quote describing Le Tiers-Instruit that I use in my manuscript, drawn from the English translation of Elizabeth MacArthur and William Paulson.

“Knowledge’s troubadour: expert in formal or experimental knowledge, well-versed in the natural sciences of the inanimate and the living . . . lover of rivers, sands, winds, seas, and mountains; walker over the whole Earth . . . thus archaic and contemporary, traditional and futuristic, humanist and scientist, fast and slow, green and seasoned, audacious and prudent.”

The whole description is a collision of contraries. It’s a passage incredibly pregnant with meaning, but that meaningfulness doesn’t come from the image itself. It is meaningful because it provokes the reader to try to figure out what kind of phenomenon could articulate all those contraries, these attributes that appears opposite, yet might be able to fit together. It’s a passage more puzzling than enlightening.

Now, I’m not about to dump on Serres. I found pretty much everything else in The Natural Contract incredibly enlightening, at least when it came to meditating on the perennial problems of environmental moral/political philosophy. Serres covers more territory in a 125-page book than some environmental philosophers do in their entire careers. The problem is that while his perspective on those problems is fascinating and illuminating, he never seems to advance an answer to those problems, or at least a way to move those problems forward. 

I think my ecophilosophy manuscript manages something of progress in these recurring problems. I know how arrogant that may sound: “He thinks his work achieves what one of France’s greatest writers of philosophy couldn’t manage? What does he think he is!?”

I think I’m a damn good philosopher, that’s what.

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