CONFERENCE 'Michel Serres and Bruno Latour in conversation'


© Private collection - Médiathèque d’Agen


Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent

Henriette Korthals Altes


With the generous support of the Fondation Michel Serres-Institut de France

Eclaircissements (Conversations on Science, Culture and Time) is the original title of the volume of five dialogues between Michel Serres and Bruno Latour published in 1992. Widely translated, this book reflects a time of intense and joyous dialogue and sharing ideas. This conference aims to shed new light on their philosophical dialogue and explore how their views compare, clash, dovetail and are mutually enriching. How do, for instance, The Natural Contract and Politics of Nature, Biogea and Gaia, echo each other. This conference seeks to examine the legacy of Michel Serres in the light of his relation to Bruno Latour and identify continuities and fault lines between the two oeuvres. Beyond the question of legacy, the conference hopes to bring to the fore how both challenged modern categories to reconnect philosophy with the urgent questions concerning the Earth. The conference will also explore how their respective philosophical practices, as they break away from the traditional codes of academic writing, fashioned an idiosyncratic style of their own that allowed them to engage a larger readership and audience.




Frédérique Aït-Touati (EHESS, Paris)

Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent (Université Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne)

Steven Connor (Kings College, Cambridge) 

Martin Crowley (University of Cambridge)

Elie During (Université Paris Nanterre) 

Henriette Korthals Altes (Maison Française d’Oxford)

Catherine Larrère (Université Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne) 

Lilian Kroth (Freiburg University) 

Simon Schaffer (University of Cambridge )

Massimiliano Simmons (Maastricht University) 

Victor Simmonet (Université Paris 8 Vincennes - Saint-Denis) 

David Webb (Staffordshire University) 


Thursday May 23

13h30 Welcome and start

14h-16h: Successions and Secessions

Steven Connor (King’s College, London): Sect and Secession: Serres, Bachelard and Philosophies of No

Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent (Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne): So Near and so Far: Two Object-centred Philosophies

Massimiliano Simons (Maastricht University):  Nothing but Experience: The Empiricisms of Serres and Latour 

Moderator: Christina Howells (Wadham College, Oxford)

16h-16h30: Coffee Break

16h30-18h30: Translations 

Lilian Kroth (University of Fribourg):  Serres and Latour: what does it mean to translate?

Elie During (Université Paris-Nanterre): Scallops and Structures: Serres’ Paradoxical Contribution to the 'Sociology of Translation'

Martin Crowley (University of Cambridge): 'A line in the sand'

Moderator: Macs Smith (University College, London)


Friday May 24

9h30-11h30: The Natural Contract and Politics of Nature

Victor Simmonet (Université Paris 8 Vincennes - Saint-Denis): References and their potentials. Michel Serres and Bruno Latour's politics through the prism of nature, modernity and style.

Catherine Larrère (Université Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne): Serres and Latour : From The Natural Contract  to 'The Parliament of things'

David Webb (University of Staffordshire): Reason, Judgement and the Problem of Decision Making in Latour and Serres.

Moderator: Timothy Howles (University of Oxford)

11h30-13h: Lunch

13h-15h: Styles of writing and performing

Henriette Korthals Altes (Maison Française d’Oxford): What language do the things of the world speak?

Frédérique Aït-Touati (EHESS, Paris): FIC and fables: Uses of Literature in Michel Serres and Bruno Latour’s Works

Simon Schaffer (Darwin College, Cambridge) The Balance and the Network

Moderator: Arto Charpentier (ENS Paris)


Frédérique Aït-Touati (EHESS, Paris)

FIC and fables: Uses of Literature in Michel Serres’ and Bruno Latour’s Works

In the philosophies of both Michel Serres and Bruno Latour, literature occupies a central - and in many ways, foundational - place. In this paper, I propose to observe and compare the uses of literature by these two thinkers, who are also two outstanding writers: the epistemic functions of fables, the importance given to writing and forms, the taste for narrative... there are many links, as well as divergences in the literary texts they mobilized. I shall also attempt to shed light on the ‘uses of Michel Serres’ in some of Latour's work, particularly in the theater plays. For Michel Serres makes a comeback on stage as a central character in a theatrum mundi overturned by the shock of an ‘earth that moves’ (Le Contrat Naturel / Moving Earths).


Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent (Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne)

So Near and so Far: Two Object-centred Philosophies

Serres’s and Latour’s intellectual pathways have never been closer than at the turn of the 1980s-1990s when they shared the common project of overcoming western dualisms and to shape an object-centred philosophical system. Latour adopted Serres’ s concept of quasi-objects especially in Nous n’avons jamais été modernes (1991) with due references to Serres and quotations from Statues (1987). He remarkably developed the various repertoires connected by quasi-objects and put them at work in the course of his argumentation about the proliferation of hybrids in modern practices. However a closer look at how Latour appropriated Serres’s concept reveals slight differences which become more visible when Latour picks up the concept of pragmatogony ventured by Serres and develops his own genealogy of objects.  I will argue that their differential treatment of objects contributed to driving them apart.


Steven Connor (Kings College, London)

Sect and Secession: Serres, Bachelard and Philosophies of No

Serres says no to Bachelard’s ‘Philosophy of No’, lamenting in Conversations the split that Bachelard effects between solar-scientific rationality and the nocturnal candle of poetic imagination. But Serres never succeeds in securing his secession from Bachelard’s influence, and, increasingly, his work falls back on, and sometimes almost into, the mysticism of Bachelard’s material imagination. I will use Serres’s ongoing recoil from and rapprochement with Bachelard as a way of examining the larger topics of schism and secession themselves.


Martin Crowley (University of Cambridge)

‘A Line in the Sand’

Starting from Michel Serres’ Les Origines de la géométrie and Bruno Latour’s Où atterrir, this paper will consider the relation between different forms of verticality and horizontality and the modes of inhabitation these forms articulate. Against the transcendent watchtower verticality and scorched-earth horizontality of the regime Malcom Ferdinand has called ‘colonial inhabitation’, it will explore critical and alternative configurations of these dimensions found in the work of Caribbean artists and writers, including Suzanne Roussi Césaire and Donald Locke, along with points of contact between these configurations and work by Serres and Latour.


Elie During (Université Paris-Nanterre)

Scallops and Structures: Serres’ Paradoxical Contribution to the 'Sociology of Translation'

The founders of the ‘sociology of translation’ have often paid tribute to Serres; they have acknowledged a filiation that harks back to Hermes III (Translation) or to The Parasite. But the very term ‘translation’ is fraught with ambiguity in this context. More generally, the insistence on a distinctly formal theme in Serres’ work - a theme that is by no means confined to his early ‘structuralist’ moment - seems at odds with the empiricist orientation taken by the actor-network theory. In Conversations, Latour expressed his perplexity over the dizzying short-circuits encouraged by Serres’ ‘mathematical’ or ‘comparative’ method. Is there a continuous theoretical path connecting the scallops in the Bay of Saint-Brieuc and the quasi-objects, the Berlin key and the mathematical models of knowledge, Gaia and the Grand Narrative? Reflecting on this question requires that we distinguish different ways of understanding the operation of translation, the forms of interobjectivity, as well as the articulation of local and global (by comparing, for example, Serres’ Atlas with Latour’s Paris: Invisible City).


Henriette Korthals Altes (Maison Française d’Oxford)

‘What language do the things of the world speak?’

Eclaircissements (1992) was originally published as a single authored text by Michel Serres. Yet the English translation brought out under the title Conversations on Science, Culture and Time brings Bruno Latour, the interviewer on the cover.  The rather unusual mention Michel Serres with Bruno Latour begs the question as to what a dialogue does and for whom. This paper sets out by examining Conversations against the long tradition of philosophical dialogues. Dialogue at its best aims to be transformative, self-reflexive, self-aware and strives to embody a democratic plurality of voices, that, may or not, dovetail in a dialectic or consensus.  My paper argues that, rather than drawing on the Socratic tradition, Conversations features Latour as a directeur de conscience, who prompts Serres in a journey of intellectual introspection, self-justification, and self-clarification. But it also draws on other forms of spiritual and intellectual exercises between the master and student, that of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. The conversation which hinges much around Serres’s modes of enquiry, allows Latour to better hone his own sociological approach and translates Serresian concepts to harness them through his own idiosyncratic modes of enquiry.

One such concept is Serres’s natural contract (1990) which is transposed into Latour’s Politiques de la nature (1999) and Esquisse pour un parlement des choses (1994).  What conversation is possible between nature and man, to take up the words of Serres, quoted in my title. What dialogue can there be and in what language? Both the contract and the parliament of things are premised on a tacit fiction that is also a legal fiction, namely that the ‘the things of nature’ may have legal personality. Is such legal fiction just a rhetorical fallacy which betrays once more an inevitable anthropomorphism? Can ‘things’ have legal and political representation via scientific discourse as Latour seems to suggest? What language may be imagined in the light of a ‘post-linguistic turn’ which foregrounds actor network theory, quasi-objects, parasitism, interference, translation as various modes of inter-relating? This paper seeks to explore what ethical stance is embedded in this (legal) fiction and what effectiveness it may have.


Catherine Larrère (ISJPS, Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne)

Serres and Latour: from The Natural Contract (1990) to ‘The Parliament of things’

When Michel Serres’ Natural Contract (1990) was assimilated to “deep ecology” by Luc Ferry (Le Nouvel ordre écologique 1992), Bruno Latour supported Serres in a paper published in the  Winter 93 issue of Ecologie Politique, where he distinguished between ‘attachement/ and ‘arrachement’. Beyond this controversy, Latour’s Politics of Nature (1999) can be seen as a way of reading Serres’ Natural Contract. Both books deal with the same question (which can also be found in Serge Moscovici’s De la nature) : how is nature to be governed when it is largely informed by scientific activity and technological practices? Hence we’ll go first examine the relationship between man and nature and then the connections between sciences and politics.


Lilian KROTH (University of Fribourg)

Serres and Latour: What does it Mean to Translate?

In Conversations, Michel Serres and Bruno Latour explore shared topics of concern, one of which is the meaning of ‘translation’ as a philosophical approach: how to ‘translate’ and to think ‘across’, with figures such as the third or Hermes (Serres & Latour, 1995, pp. 1, 101). For both Serres’s and Latour’s works, translation as a method plays an import role, yet in strikingly discontinuous ways. In this presentation, I will trace some of the backgrounds of Serres’s and Latour’s shared concern with translation, as well as negotiated divergences: starting with Serres’s idea of translation as a navigational passage, I will read his early texts in Hermès as a search for isomorphic patterns across sets of knowledges. In Hermès III, Serres translates, among others, between Leibniz and contemporary mathematics, between Descartes and statics, La Tour and Pascal, or Turner and Carnot. Serres shows how to topologically traverse through the history and philosophy of science, literature and art, how to make a passage, how to encounter filters, gaps, and non-connectivity, and how these passages can be understood as a coping with and navigating through complex structures and discourses (Serres, 1969, 1974, 1986).

Serres’s understanding of both the network metaphor as well as his idea of translation have been significant conceptual sources for Actor-Network-Theory (ANT), and developed further not only into Latour’s approach, but also by Michel Callon, Annemarie Mol, and John Law (Callon, 1986; Mol & Law, 1994; Latour, 2011). How does particularly Latour’s understanding of translation depart from Serres, while being directly influenced by it? What are the motivations and rails that make the idea of translation prove useful for sociology and ANT? In tracing the way Latour harnesses a concept of translation in contrast to ‘purification’ and in close interconnection of his analysis of hybrids and networks in The Pasteurization of France and We Have Never Been Modern, his departure from Serres’s suggestion of a Ulyssean trajectory through knowledges, towards an idea of ‘translation chains’  between agents or interests in a network gains contour (Latour, 1988, 1993). In this presentation, I would like to shine a light on translation as a concept that connects Latour’s and Serres’s work, but that – as a method – also implicates striking differences that are worth unpacking.


Simon Schaffer (Darwin College, Cambridge)

The Balance and the Network

Both Michel Serres and Bruno Latour were fascinated by fables and their construction. Serres' remarkable and very long-standing engagement with the writings of Jean de La Fontaine offered something like a set of cases for the analysis of the relations of force and the increasing complexity of the figures of the balance and the network - this was indeed the epithet Serres attached to the first two books of La Fontaine's fables. The approach adopted in Serres' readings can also be usefully located in several of Latour's most significant interventions, especially the range of projects in science studies that in some respects was both summarised and challenged in Irreductions and its preparatory accounts of Louis Pasteur's microbial wars. The aim here is to comment on some uses of the imagery of the balance and of the network in the two bodies of writing; and to suggest some similarities and contrasts that could nourish further work in science studies now.


Victor SIMONNET (Université Paris 8 Vincennes – Saint-Denis)

References and their Potentials. Michel Serres and Bruno Latour's Politics through the Prism of Nature, Modernity and Style.

During the 1990’s, both Michel Serres and Bruno Latour developed a theory for responding to the ecological crisis. Although Bruno Latour regcognizes in Politics of Nature (2004, 1999) that The Natural Contract (1995, 1990) was 'a seminal book', their approaches aren’t without divergences. There are at least four of them: the questions of nature, modernity, style and politics, the latter being dependent on the other three (I won’t address here the religious dimension, which could constitute a fifth one). After recalling some of the key steps of their reasoning processes, and therefore their respective presuppositions, I'll look at the ways in which politics is woven into these two books. If, as Christopher Waktin points out in Michel Serres: Figures of Thought (2020), the Latourian enterprise, with its proposal for a 'Parliament of things', relies on the framework of liberal representative democracy, by contrast, the Serresian thought unfolds an imaginary of the contract, whose meanings it sets out to disturb. From this initial observation, I will highlight a series of differences that structure the way they tackled the ecological emergency, and that won’t be without consequences on their overall intellectual projects or the reception of their works.


Massimiliano Simons (Maastricht University)

Nothing but Experience: The Empiricisms of Serres and Latour 

In his later work, Bruno Latour explicitly embraces the label of 'radical empiricism', which, inspired by Isabelle Stengers and Vinciane Despret, he traces back to the work of William James and A. N. Whitehead. It is a form of empiricism that places experience at the center of philosophy, a 'pure' experience that does not reduce it to sensory data. The value of concepts and ideas, moreover, must be weighed by tracing their connection to and impact on our actual experience.

What is less well known, however, is that Serres also draws on a certain form of empiricism in his work, perhaps most explicitly in Les cinq sens (1985). What is less clear, however, is what this form of empiricism entails. And where, at first glance, it seems to coincide in several respects with Latour's radical empiricism, there are also a number of fundamental tensions at play. This paper will explore some of these tensions, comparing Serres's empiricism with that of Latour. In particular, I will look at the role of mathematics, information theory, and the astrophysical revolution in inspiring Serres's philosophy of the 'transcendental object'. The result seems to be an empiricism that does not start from a fixed point, including that of 'pure' experience.


David Webb (Staffordshire University)

Reason, Judgement and the Problem of Decision Making in Latour and Serres

If The Politics of Nature can be read as an attempt to give political and institutional form to Serres’ proposal of a natural contract, it includes questions of decision making: who decides what form the collective will take, and how is this decision made? Latour delegates the responsibility to the Lower House, which must decide on the basis of compatibility which claimants can be included and which cannot (for the time being). In this presentation, I’ll outline Latour’s account of decision-making in The Politics of Nature, qualify it by looking at passages from Facing Gaia in which Latour seems to modify his position, and then turn to Serres’ account of reason and judgement in The Natural Contract. In particular I will focus on Serres’ proposal that we need to invent a new form of reason that 'thinks truthfully while judging prudently'. A narrow reading of this may see it as a call to find new ways to  connect the sciences and politics more or less as we find them. But beyond this Serres may be calling here for the invention of a form of reason in which the functions of science and politics are more fully combined. I’ll examine the extent to which this new reason may involve Serres’ interpretation of Leibniz’s principle of sufficient reason in terms of ‘giving back’, and the related idea of justice in terms of equilibrium and disequilibrium. Finally, I’ll compare what emerges from this to Latour’s conception of the political process.


Please note that the event will take place at the Maison Française d'Oxford and be livestreamed on Zoom.
Follow the links below to register for the in-person or to access the online event directly.


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Conference venue:

Maison Française d'Oxford
2-10 Norham Road


To get there:

By bus:

From the train station:

(bus stop R4): line 14 and get off at Park Town and walk for 3 minutes.

(bus stop R5): line S3 gold to Chipping Norton. Get off at Plantation Road and walk for 5 minutes.

(bus stop R1): line 500. Get off at St Margarets Road East Oxford (101 Banbury Road) and walk for 6 minutes.


From the town centre (11 minutes’ walk from the train station): from Magdalen Street

Stop C1: take line 2, 2A or 2B, and get off at Park Town.

Stop C3: take line 7 gold (and get off at Old Woodstock), line 7, S4 gold or S5 gold and get off at Park Town.



The Maison Française d’Oxford is half an hour’s walk from the train station.

From the Bodleain Library, it will take you 15 minutes.



It costs about £ 7 from the train station.!1m14!1m8!1m3!1d2469.221880342603!2d-1.2611104!3d51.7655508!3m2!1i1024!2i768!4f13.1!3m3!1m2!1s0x4876c41cb3c04e01%3A0x5f1add8f04f56d84!2sMaison+Fran%C3%A7aise+d