Michel Serres, 1930-2019

Tributes paid to ‘one of the greatest humanists of the early 21st century’

July 4, 2019

A French polymath who transformed our understanding of life in the digital era has died.

Michel Serres was born in Agen, southwestern France in 1930 and initially studied mathematics at the Naval Academy. Yet reading Gravity and Grace, a celebrated 1947 book by the philosopher, mystic and activist Simone Weil spurred him to turn to philosophy instead. He therefore went to the École Normale Supérieure in Paris (1952-55) and, after a few years as a naval officer, wrote a doctoral thesis on the work of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1968).

Exceptionally wide-ranging in his interests, Professor Serres wrote more than 70 books on subjects ranging from law to thermodynamics by way of ecology, ethics and evolution. Yet much of his work focused on communications and the development of human cultures in the digital era. Just like the development of writing and printing, he once told an interviewer, “the third [electronic] revolution” had “transformed practically all aspects of society [and] brought about financial changes, industrial changes, new jobs, changes in language, in science, and even in religion”.

A great enthusiast for Wikipedia and for reaching out beyond the academy, Professor Serres produced many podcasts during the last decade of his life and regularly appeared on French radio. He was a professor at the Paris-Sorbonne University – Paris 4 for 27 years (it is now part of Sorbonne University) and taught at the universities of Vincennes and Clermont-Ferrand, and was elected into the French Academy in 1990 as one of its 40 life members.

In parallel with this, however, Professor Serres taught at Stanford University’s School of Humanities and Sciences for nearly 30 years, where he found it very relaxing not to be constantly recognised. His weekly two-hour philosophy lectures were always full and attracted an audience from well beyond the university.

“Serres was one of the greatest humanists of the early 21st century,” said Robert Harrison, Rosina Pierotti professor of Italian literature at Stanford. “He showed us the way to a new kind of encyclopedic humanism…[He] believed that digital gadgets, social media and internet interconnectivity promised a new chapter in our history – equivalent of the invention of the printing press.”

“Whenever Serres arrived on campus,” added Professor Harrison, “he brought a certain kind of joy and happiness to people. He was always full of positive emotion and charm.”

Professor Serres died of lung cancer on 1 June and is survived by his wife Suzanne, four children, 11 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.

matthew.reisz@timeshighereducation.com

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