On Academic Humility (by Umberto Eco)

“I had a problem, and none of the authors I was reading helped me solve it” (p. 143)

This post is an extract from the late Umberto Eco’s How to Write a Thesis (published in Italian in 1977, but translated into English in 2015, pages 142-144). The quote resonates with my current state of mind. It is a lovely book, and I thoroughly recommend it to anybody doing research because it very much emphasises the disposition we need to do a PhD, rather than the raw, mechanical skills that are so often foregrounded in similar books for the autodidact (which I think one needs to be in research, however much we seek and are offered help, guidance, and advice). [Bolds and square brackets are mine]

…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 interpretative 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 [of Aquinas] 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’ 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 organises 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. Often this is precisely the scope of interpretative research: to bring an author to say explicitly what he [sic] 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, the answer must emerge, in the terms of the author’s scrutanised thought. Maybe the author did not give the answer because he [sic] 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’ (Louvin, 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 realised 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 reading that book. The abbot Vallet was to become my great mentor). I continued reading, and at a certain point – almost in parenthesis, said probably unintentionally, the abbot not realising 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. 480px-Golden_key_icon.svg

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 perhaps 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 the 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 [sic] 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 resource. 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 [sic].


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