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French philosopher Michel Serres dies at 88

Joël Saget, AFP | The philosopher Michel Serres, photographed on February 2, 2018, in Paris.

The philosopher, writer and academic Michel Serres died on Saturday June 1 at the age of 88.

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His publishing house Le Pommier made the announcement on Saturday evening. “He died peacefully at 7pm, surrounded by family,” said his editor Sophie Bancquart.

Serres was an extremely prolific writer and public figure in France, and was elected to the Académie française – a highly selective and somewhat grand French institution that issues edicts on the proper usage of the French language.

Luminary in French academia

Serres was born in 1930 in Agen, a town situated in the south-west of France between Bordeaux and Toulouse. He graduated from France’s elite university, the École Normale Supérieure, with a degree in philosophy in 1955, after having studied at a naval academy. He worked as a naval officer for a few years before becoming an assistant professor in philosophy at the same faculty as Michel Foucault.

He received his doctorate in 1968, and became a professor of History of Science at the Sorbonne in 1969. Later in life, he was a professor in the French department of Stanford University in the United States.

In 1985 he published an essay, “Les Cinq Sens”, which a year later won the French literary prize, the Prix Médicis. In this essay, he wrote, “Intellect is worth nothing if the body hasn’t travelled, if the nose hasn’t tasted spices in foreign lands”.

Long before today’s ecological awareness, Serres was interested in environmental issues, and particularly in the transition “from local to global”. He anticipated the upheavals that technology would wreak on modern society, but remained optimistic about its impact.

He was elected to the Académie française in 1990, where he was appointed without the traditional sword ceremony as “a sign of peace”. It was around this time that he started to be better known by the wider public.

A tireless traveller of thought

He found success in 2012, when his philosophical essay “Petite Poucette” sold over 270,000 copies. It is based on the premise that technology has effectively created a new type of human. Serres analyses how the technological revolution has brought about major political, societal and psychological transformations.

His page on the website of his publishing house describes him as a “tireless traveller of thought”. He’s written over 80 pieces of work and continued to publish right up to this year, releasing “Morales espiègles” (‘Rogue morals’) in February.

Serres was an indefatigable optimist. In 2016, he said, “In comparison to what I experienced in the first third of my life, we’re currently living in a period of peace. I would even go so far as to say that western Europe is going through an era of paradise.”

Always striving forward – that’s quintessential Michel Serres.

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