The prescient advice of Michel Serres
Just now, I was reading an interview to Michel Serres by Peter Hallward, from a 2003 issue of Angelaki (which the usual anonymous benefactor has made availlable online here). In it, there is a passage which made me smile, given the current situation with Middlesex University in which Hallward is involved and also for its proximity with my own opinions about academia in general, and academic philosophy in particular (and how the best philosophy is not from philosophy departments). Here it is (from page 10, the emphasis is mine):
P.H.: One last question along these lines: it seems to me that sometimes you affirm a sort of ethics of genius or of heroic innovation, in which innovative and courageous invention “is the only true intellectual act, the only act of intelligence” – and therefore, I suppose, the only act worthy of moral consideration. You insist on the value of rarity. Do you conceive of morality on the basis of what’s exceptional?
M.S.: It’s not a question of genius, but it’s true that the only true intellectual act is to invent. Now, it is equally true that nothing works better than the university model: it generates honest, industrious and precise people. How old are you, Mr Hallward?
P.H.: I’m 34.
M.S.: I have just one piece of advice for you: take the university model and chuck it into the sea.
P.H.: It’s a tempting thought! And how will I make a living?
M.S.: You can make a living by teaching, etc., but you need to be careful that, as far as your own thinking is concerned, you’ve thrown away the model. The university model is the best possible model, that’s why it’s dangerous; the better it is, the more we must keep our distance. Why? Because it forbids invention, it forbids it absolutely. If you invent then you will be excluded from the university, one way or another. The university is the great inhibitor of intelligence, precisely because it is its perfect model. The professors are admirable, the École Normale is magnificent – throw it all overboard. Because after you reach a certain age there is only one lesson of intellectual morality, which is to forget this entire model as quickly as possible. I am not saying that this is the sufficient condition for invention, but it certainly is a necessary condition.
P.H.: And you, an honoured member of the Académie Française, an employee of Stanford University, doesn’t your own trajectory rather refute what you’ve just said?
M.S.: But I was excluded from the field of philosophy at your age, I was barred from teaching philosophy. I moved to history, and taught in a history department my entire life. All of my books are outside of traditional philosophy, as the university understands it.