Augustine’s Cogito

Fallor, ergo sum

Nam et sumus, et nos esse novimus, et id esse ac nosse diligimus […] Nulla in his veris Academicorum argumenta formido, dicentium: Quid, si falleris ? Si enim fallor sum. Nam qui non est, utique nec falli potest, ac per hoc sum, si fallor. Quia ergo sum si fallor, quomodo esse me fallor, quando certum est me esse, si fallor? Quia igitur essem qui fallerer, etiamsi fallerer, procul dubio in eo quod me novi esse, non fallor. Consequens est autem ut etiam in eo quod me novi nosse, non fallar.

De civitate dei, book XI, chapter 26.

Yes, we exist and we know that we exist, and we love both that we exist and that we know it […] With respect to these truths, I am not at all impressed by the arguments of the Academicians (= skeptics of the Roman era) when they say: What if you are deceived (i.e. referring to sensorial il- and delusions)? For if I am deceived, I am (i.e. exist). For he who doesn’t exist, cannot be deceived; so through the same reasoning I exist, if I am deceived.. And since I exist if I am deceived, how am I deceived in believing that I am? for it is certain that I am if I am deceived. Since, therefore, I, the person deceived, should be, even if I were deceived, certainly I am not deceived in this knowledge that I am. And, consequently, neither am I deceived in knowing that I know.

Academic Humility (Umberto Eco)

Chapter 4.2.4 from Umberto Eco, How to write a thesis (1977, 1985, obsolete as a technical guide, but still relevant with regard to the attitude of a scholar). In this subchapter he recounts the ‘story of the Abbot Vallet’, to which he returns in the foreword of the second edition. There it becomes even more wonderful.

Chapter 4.2.4 Academic Humility

Do not let this subsection’s title frighten you. It is not an ethical disquisition. It concerns reading and filing methods.
You may have noticed that on one of the cards, as a young scholar, I teased the author Biondolillo by dismissing him in a few words. I am still convinced that I was justified in doing so, because the author attempted to explain the important topic of the aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas in only 18 lines. This case was extreme, but I filed the card on the book, and I noted the author’s opinion anyway. I did this not only because we must record all the opinions expressed on our topic, but also because the best ideas may not come from the major authors. And now, to prove this, I will tell you the story of the abbot Vallet.
To fully understand this story, I should explain the question that my thesis posed, and the interpretive stumbling block that obstructed my work for about a year. Since this problem is not of general interest, let us say succinctly that for contemporary aesthetics, the moment of the perception of beauty is generally an intuitive moment, but for St. Thomas the category of intuition did not exist. Many contemporary interpreters have striven to demonstrate that he had somehow talked about intuition, and in the process they did violence to his work. On the other hand, St. Thomas’s moment of the perception of objects was so rapid and instantaneous that it did not explain the enjoyment of complex aesthetic qualities, such as the contrast of proportions, the relationship between the essence of a thing and the way in which this essence organizes matter, etc. The solution was (and I arrived at it only a month before completing my thesis) in the discovery that aesthetic contemplation lay in the much more complex act of judgment. But St. Thomas did not explicitly say this. Nevertheless, the way in which he spoke of the contemplation of beauty could only lead to this conclusion. Often this is precisely the scope of interpretive research: to bring an author to say explicitly what he did not say, but that he could not have avoided saying had the question been posed to him. In other words, to show how, by comparing the various statements, that answer must emerge, in the terms of the author’s scrutinized thought. Maybe the author did not give the answer because he thought it obvious, or because—as in the case of St. Thomas—he had never organically treated the question of aesthetics, but always discussed it incidentally, taking the matter for granted.
Therefore, I had a problem, and none of the authors I was reading helped me solve it (although if there was anything original in my thesis, it was precisely this question, with the answer that was to come out of it). And one day, while I was wandering disconsolate and looking for texts to aid me, I found at a stand in Paris a little book that attracted me at first for its beautiful binding. I opened it and found that it was a book by a certain abbot Vallet, titled L’idée du Beau dans la philosophie de Saint Thomas d’Aquin (The idea of beauty in the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas) (Louvain, 1887). I had not found it in any bibliography. It was the work of a minor nineteenth-century author. Naturally I purchased it (and it was even inexpensive). I began to read it, and I realized that the abbot Vallet was a poor fellow who repeated preconceived ideas and did not discover anything new. If I continued to read him, it was not for “academic humility,” but for pure stubbornness, and to recoup the money I had spent. (I did not know such humility yet, and in fact I learned it reading that book. The abbot Vallet was to become my great mentor.) I continued reading, and at a certain point—almost in parentheses, said probably unintentionally, the abbot not realizing his statement’s significance—I found a reference to the theory of judgment linked to that of beauty. Eureka!
I had found the key, provided by the poor abbot Vallet, who had died a hundred years before, who was long since forgotten, and yet who still had something to teach to someone willing to listen.
This is academic humility: the knowledge that anyone can teach us something. Perhaps this is because we are so clever that we succeed in having someone less skilled than us teach us something; or because even someone who does not seem very clever to us has some hidden skills; or also because someone who inspires us may not inspire others. The reasons are many. The point is that we must listen with respect to anyone, without this exempting us from pronouncing our value judgments; or from the knowledge that an author’s opinion is very different from ours, and that he is ideologically very distant from us. But even the sternest opponent can suggest some ideas to us. It may depend on the weather, the season, and the hour of the day. Perhaps, had I read the abbot Vallet a year before, I would not have caught the hint. And who knows how many people more capable than I had read him without finding anything interesting. But I learned from that episode that if I wanted to do research, as a matter of principle I should not exclude any source. This is what I call academic humility. Maybe this is hypocritical because it actually requires pride rather than humility, but do not linger on moral questions: whether pride or humility, practice it.


Tam docte Venerem divinus pinxit Apelles
Illi ut credatur visa fuisse Venus.
At tantam sapiunt Venerem tua scripta, Marote,
Ut tibi credatur cognita tota Venus.

Translation by John Weever, also 16th Century, who suppressed the reference to Clément Marot, in whose praise this quatrain is composed:
Apelles did so paint faire Venus Queene,
That most suppos’de he had faire Venus seene,
But thy bald rimes of Venus savour so.
That I dare sweare thou dost all Venus know.

The Latin poem is by Théodore de Bèze (indeed, the successor of John Calvin in Geneva). He wrote it in his youth and published it in his Iuvenilia. He wrote this poem impressed by a rondeau by Clément Marot about the daughter of a painter. The reference to Apelles is – of course – to his legendary painting of Venus arising from the sea…

Interested? Read more…



16th C. paintings of Muhammed

To show them or not, that’s the question

In a special edition of the French magazine Sciences et Avenir two illustrations of Mohammed are included in an article about the Coran. Neither does show his face (it is erased), both belong to the muslim tradition (16th century). Still the government of Marocco prohibited its sale, because they considered it ‘provocative’. Below the article from Le Monde (16 jan. 2016)

« Sciences et avenir » montre le Prophète, le Maroc censure

L’information est venue de la rédaction de Sciences et avenir, mensuel français de vulgarisation scientifique, mardi 12 janvier : son hors-série, intitulé « Dieu et la science », sorti en kiosque mi-décembre 2015, a été interdit au  Maroc par le ministère de la communication au motif qu’il portait atteinte à l’image du Prophète. « Stupéfaction et tristesse », a réagi Dominique Leglu, la directrice de la rédaction, dans une lettre ouverte publiée ce mardi sur le site Internet du magazine. A l’origine de cette décision : deux miniatures publiées en pages 30 et 31 du hors-série et tirées d’une biographie ancienne  du prophète Mahomet.


Interrogé par Le Monde, mercredi 13 janvier, le ministre de la communication marocain, Mustapha – El Khalfi, confirme une « non-autorisation de distribution » prise le 17 décembre 2015. Le ministre explique se baser sur l’article 29 de la loi marocaine sur la presse (qui stipule que les publications étrangères peuvent être interdites, notamment pour atteinte à la religion islamique) et sur la résolution 224-65 de l’ONU relative à la lutte contre la diffamation des religions. Le magazine contient « une reproduction graphique de miniatures qui représentent le Prophète d’une manière négative », avance Mustapha El Khalfi, qui évoque une  « provocation contre le sentiment religieux au Maroc ».
Dominique Leglu s’élève contre cette représentation. « Les deux miniatures sont éminemment respectueuses », souligne-t-elle, rappelant que les deux dessins ont été réalisés au XVIe siècle par le célèbre calligraphe Lutfi Abdullah – dont l’œuvre est notamment exposée au musée du palais Topkapi à Istanbul – après une commande du sultan ottoman Mourad III.


Mohammed receives first verse of the Coran. 16tC illustration
Mohammed receives first verse of the Coran. 16th C. illustration, one of the contested images.

« Le contenu n’est pas un problème »

Dans le hors-série visé, ils illustrent un cahier pédagogique sur  les textes sacrés. La première miniature montre Mahomet nouveau-né, présenté aux habitants de La Mecque. La deuxième  image est celle du Prophète – dont le visage a été gommé – recevant la révélation par l’archange Gabriel sur le mont Hira.
Cette censure « nous semble d’autant plus inappropriée, poursuit Dominique Leglu, que la période actuelle réclame plus que jamais une compréhension approfondie de la science, des cultures et des croyances ». Le hors-série « Dieu et la science » est le prolongement d’un colloque organisé début 2015 au collège des Bernardins, à Paris, sur le même thème et auquel avaient participé d’éminents scientifiques, philosophes et religieux. « Le contenu n’est pas un problème, il est même très intéressant », reconnaît Mustapha El Khalfi. Dominique Leglu, elle, ne masque pas sa déception ni son incompréhension : « Un seul souci a présidé à ce travail : favoriser le dialogue à l’heure où les discours extrémistes le détruisent. »

Charlotte Bozonnet