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Environmental Philosophy and the Question of Origins

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Environmental Philosophy and the Question of Origins

By Ashok Karra

Review of Biogea, by Michel Serres. Translated by Randolph Burks (Univocal, 2012). Distributed by University of Minnesota Press.


In Biogea, the French philosopher Michel Serres attempts to find a softer science, one not as destructive or reductive as the “hard” science some say we practice today. The Enlightenment, the historical root of that hard science, can be thought to have provided the ground for industrialization and a host of other ideas not terribly friendly to the environment. Descartes expressed the hope that we might become “like masters and possessors of nature.” And our current attempts at a greener world seem to be just that, mere attempts. It is not clear they will ever become a more systematic approach to respecting the Earth on which we are born. Further, the dominance of the hard sciences in the academy has almost completely eclipsed the humanities. Nowadays, many works of philosophy put on scientific airs to try to persuade readers. Biogea is primarily a work of environmental philosophy, but it does not take an analytic or demonstrative approach to its subject. Rather, Serres aims to reflect, sharing a number of stories, experiences and musings about encounters with nature. He seems interested in speaking to large questions.

However, the book is not terribly well-organized, and Serres is unclear about what a “soft” approach actually involves. None of these problems need be fatal. But when one makes Biogea try to delineate the larger questions, questions the text itself at times suggests, it fails. It is, to be sure, an interesting failure.

Philosophy engages questions about what the origins of humanity are and what they might mean. We will see below that Biogea, as a work of environmental philosophy, needs especially to join in this project. An appeal of environmental philosophy is how it hearkens back to a mythical point of origin, when humanity first encountered the world. Biogea does this, too, but unsuccessfully. It is a problematic book at best.



Environmental philosophy sits peculiarly within philosophy. All the subfields of philosophy are home to large questions, but there is something both immediate and universal in focusing on the relationship between humanity and the natural world. There seems to be a power to this sort of inquiry that often escapes our notice. It is as if, prior to any social contract, investigation into ethical norms, or considerations of the uses and abuses of technology—a point of contact exists where an individual simply meets the world around her. Myth might arise from such contact, but saying that does not do full justice to an original fear, awe, or wonder. One might be curious how we have buried this, as no less a philosopher than Aristotle saw the human soul as somehow continuous with the souls of plants and animals.

Enter Michel Serres’s Biogea. Biogea can be viewed as anecdotes and musings thrown together with a few roughly sketched themes guiding organization. But on a larger level, it seems to attempt a recovery of an original power that thinking about the environment and our being within it might have. Serres is not shy about the largeness of the questions he means to engage. “Knowledge is changing,” writes Serres. “The all-political is dying; the monarchy of the sciences said to be hard is coming to a close.” (My emphasis.) The “hard” in his usage applies to a number of things and our approach to them. It signifies everything from indifference, to objectivity, to the empirical sciences, to conventionality, to things that are literally hard. It is a difficult term to understand fully, but what Serres wants is clear enough. He wants our very approach to knowledge to be different. What he declares necessary is a soft unity of the sciences. It should lack our “narcissism,” our “analytical enjoyments of refined cutting up, of endless debates and . . . exclusions full of hate.” With that soft unity, human beings will cease injuring the environment and each other.

How exactly the soft works, though, is an open question. It figures in what little organization the book has. Biogea divides its material into four chapters devoted to elements (seas/rivers, earth, volcanoes and fire, winds); a chapter entitled “Flora and Fauna”; and finally one called “Encounters, Loves.” The division shows a rough movement from the hard to the soft, from destruction to love. Floods and earthquakes which devastate give way to thoughts about trees and lovers; water is a theme which connects the beginning and end of the book. Serres concludes with the idea of different waters from different oceans, seas and rivers softly mixing as opposed to crushing everything in their path. He is emphatic that he is expanding on Heraclitus’s river metaphor, even saying at one point that it is possible to step into the same river twice, as old water from a particular source tends to linger in eddies. A river, for him, is at least as much stability as change.

Ultimately, he wants us to connect love with stability and growth. We know this not just from what he talks about, but also because many times he is too forthright. He often interprets metaphors as soon as he has invoked them. For example, a part of Biogea is devoted to explaining how Empedocles died. He had a cosmology where love and hate united and separated elements; he saved a people from the plague. Apparently he threw himself into a volcano, and Serres lets us know just how important this is. Empedocles did science and he knew science could lead to more dangerous things precisely because he could save people with it.

Let’s understand as Empedocles understood it, the urgency of reuniting wisdom and knowledge, under penalty of collective eradication. He saw and makes us see that our history from its beginnings moves forward, like him, on the flanks of a volcano, closer and closer to the slash and burns of its crater.

He is now climbing its flanks. During the ascent of his calvary on molten Mount Etna, in the sweat of the effort and his deathly pain, Empedocles is approaching the mystery of the origins, of the big bang of world and human history, of the violence that separates and the energy that reunites things as well as humans. He is approaching the mouth of the volcano that destroys, through hate, the cultivable fields and, through love, causes the fragile relief of the Earth to be continually reborn.

Serres explains the myth to the very last detail as he tells it. Even though he is describing images he has in his head, this is too literal to be a re-imagining. He has declared his theme: wisdom and knowledge must be united otherwise there will be collective eradication. This is Serres’s theme, not necessarily Empedocles’s. Empedocles was described prior to this passage as one who did physics, wondered about love and hate as cosmological forces, and saved some from the plague. None of this is a concern with “collective eradication,” which seems to be a rather contemporary issue. One can see some justification for what Serres asserts is the theme, as Empedocles kills himself right after saving a number of lives. It could be the case that Empedocles realized his power could be used for massive evil, as his mastery of “love” also implies a mastery of “hate” in terms of uniting/dividing elements.

Be that as it may, Serres continues with explaining every last detail of the myth, as if there is nothing else to be had from the story:

Hard and triumphant like a mountain climb, the slow or rapid growth of knowledge requires an ascent just as vertical to a wisdom where a love, still unknown, would balance our essential compulsions of hate, exactly as the world shows and says such balance in its noises. Empedocles is climbing the flanks of the volcano in order to hear, through its violet mouth, the world say to him – that.

Three volcanoes and fires of hell, under the reign of hate: Majorana foresaw the flames of Hiroshima; Archimedes built his scorching mirrors and the fleet, in front, exploded under the blazing fire; Empedocles, lastly, fell into the volcano; he hurled himself into Etna’s crater.

Empedocles gets to the top of Etna and this is that he knew his knowledge had to be tempered by wisdom. He perhaps suspected this before, but now he kills himself. I wish the translator did not leave a “like,” a hint of simile and analogy in this passage. After all, Serres’s whole story, when it works, depends on the identification of the literal, that we see and experience nature, with how we truly know. The volcano must speak to Empedocles’s cosmology—it must confirm it—in order for him to kill himself.

I do not want to comment extensively on Serres’s style or his way of thinking through issues. I will just say this: imagine those passages quoted above being repeated for about 200 pages. That, in a nutshell, is Biogea. One might forgive Serres as he is thinking aloud through a number of issues. Still, even if the soft were easier to grasp and Serres’s vision were more than sentiment, there is a problem. It is not clear, despite how grand his claims are, that he understands how much is at stake. The power that thinking about the environment might possess is completely missing from this book. He mentions “origins,” he talks about the environment, but it is not quite the same. The hard versus the soft feels a pale shadow of an original tension, of origin itself.



To see why Biogea fails on a larger level, one has to think through its most successful part. Serres opens the book by retelling the Noah story. He replaces Noah, a religious man, with “Taciturn,” a natural scientist. Serres describes the landscape of the world in such a way that Taciturn can make observations, speculate, then predict and demonstrate that it will flood. Taciturn starts building an ark and is promptly laughed at. The other people in his world are more concerned with political and social things. They see history as their story exclusively and cannot even begin to imagine cataclysm. Whereupon Serres narrates his flood story from the perspective of one of Taciturn’s contemporaries, one skeptical of a flood. Since Taciturn takes little heed of politics and human history, since he is speculatively reconstructing a natural history (i.e., figuring out how the landscape “works”), he sounds like a lunatic even as his case is sound. Typically one groups the things that belong to “myth” with “politics” and “history,” as myth is foundational to politics and at least a primitive kind of history. In the case of Taciturn, his natural history sounds mythical and one sees a bond between science and religion emerge.

Serres opens his own book, then, with a myth that raises questions about the status of myth itself. The story of Taciturn is a story about how one can do science and know the truth but sound like someone who collects fables and uses them to describe and explain everything. Serres picked wisely in retelling a flood story central to several ancient religions. One must link Taciturn’s myth-like speech to religion itself because otherwise one would be ignoring the typical context for the flood story. Again, the emphasis is on a kinship between science and religion, not on what divorces them from each other.

Perhaps the reason a kinship can be sensed between the rhetoric of science and religion is the peculiarity of this story. But that is ultimately a trivial consideration. Science and religion each point to principles that supposedly govern the world in different ways. Some of those principles can create and destroy the world. Thus that governance might not happen through us, but it happens at us in a way distinct from politics or history. Human beings do not simply observe. We identify laws and forces and come to understand causality and meaning. We see some processes as more fundamental than others, and this is not merely our subjectivity at play. All of this is connected with a recounting of our origins (natural or divine), and as opposed to a present over which one could say politics asserts authority and a past that history enables us to use. We discover something about ourselves while contemplating the natural world and any divinity within or beyond it.

Serres ignores these considerations which are implied by his own narrative. For much of his book he pays woefully insufficient attention to this particular group of things that shapes us. He tries instead to talk about the voices natural phenomena might have, what they might be saying independently of us. For a book that is about our approach to knowledge, he seems to want a certain knowledge directly. He identified one such voice in Mount Etna when talking about Empedocles’s death. Other examples come from encounters he has had with extreme weather as a sailor or mountain climber. That waves terrify or that lost climbers are found within the earth testifies, for him, to the harshness of the sea and to the earth as a locus of generation. Of course, we can only speculate about what the sea or earth might be saying, as we do not know if anything is being said at all. Therefore, Serres places his findings in the light of the “hard” and the “soft” and translates them into a guide for us from that placement. When Serres does talk about people, they tend to be reduced to an elaboration of the “hard” or the “soft.”

If all of this seems a bit contrived, it is. Serres wants to point the way to a new science, but has forgotten that what really drives science are questions, not answers. The question of human origins involves reflection on why we ask what we ask. This leads back to a larger conception of philosophy, where the humanities and respect for the environment matter just as much as the hard sciences, because questioning is a direct reflection of human limits. What we know points to what we do not know and where we need to tread carefully. Rather strangely, Biogea features a lot of speculation but few challenging questions. There is a price to be paid for lacking a developed sense of priorities but attempting to moralize about how we know. At one point, Serres describes seeing a murdered corpse float down a river. He says his co-workers seemed “ill at ease, informed in some way.” He then says he is not telling a detective story and continues speaking about the river as a natural phenomenon beyond all mere human things, such as finding out who may have committed murder.

Biogea, as environmental philosophy, may have a special claim on the “whole,” i.e. what all things mean. But surely other works of philosophy make such claims and are aware of the trade-off that at times is necessary for being comprehensive. That trade-off is very difficult to address, but indifference to a murder might indicate exactly what is at stake. Pity poor Plato. The Republic is a comprehensive book which loses sight of something crucial as it ascends from the topic of the city to that of forms. Still, Plato only temporarily drops the question of earthly justice in the Republic for questions of censorship, the city, ideas/forms, tyranny, justice, and character in an afterlife.


Ashok Karra studies political philosophy at the University of Dallas. He blogs regularly at ashokkarra.com.

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2 Comments to “Environmental Philosophy and the Question of Origins”

  1. Hi Ashok,

    Thanks for the review. I will post a brief note about it on the website and hopefully that will generate some interaction around the important ideas and critiques you have made. Serres is not easy to follow and for some, not worth contemplating. Alongside more linear thinkers, I find his approach interesting, challenging and confusing – sometimes all at once.



  2. Ido Yoav says:

    Certainly, a good overview and also, very brave – respect!

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