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The Humanities Conference 2003

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How to Become a Generalist: Michel Serres, Philosophy, and the Sciences

Peter Trnka.

In a recent work, 'Exact Sciences and Human Sciences: The Case of Turner', the French philosopher, mathematician, communication theorist, and polymath Michel Serres argues that interdisciplinarity is not supplementary to disciplinary knowledge but is the condition for the possibility of the latter. He ends this remarkable piece by exhorting academics and scientists to be generalists.
The ambition of Serres' project is vast and so raises numerous difficulties. Serres' own work has been criticized for being incomprehensible, lacking logic and focus, etc. Even sympathetic readers of Serres may be daunted by the imperative to become generalists since not all of us are able to even think of trying to know everything, as Serres at times has characterized his endeavours. This essay will focus on the promises and difficulties of generalism today.
In 'The Case of Turner' Serres states that it is specialists who become generalists. It appears, then, that generalism is not a first option. Serres himself was trained initially as a mathematician and then a philosopher. Do these specializations not have a built-in generalism of some sort? Is it not easier to become a generalist if one begins with a more abstract science? These and other questions will be explored through a reading of The Case of Turner', Genesis, and The Natural Contract.


Peter Trnka  (Canada)
Director of Studies, Graduate Programme in Humanities and Associate Professor of Philosophy
Humanities and Philosophy
Memorial University of Newfoundland

  • Generalism
  • Discipline
  • Specialization
  • Serres
Person as Subject
  • Serres, Michel

(30 min Conference Paper, English)