Annual public session of the five academies at the institut de france: intelligence combined with knowledge-driven rigour

Organized every year on the Tuesday closest to October 25th (the date of the foundation of the Institut de France back in 1795), the annual public session of the five academies (the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences, the Academy of Fine Arts, the Academy of Sciences, the Academy of Humanities and the French Academy) aims to restate the commitment to the values of the Institut de France, especially those relating to the development and dissemination of knowledge. The choice of each year’s theme for discussion is always a collective one. This year the topic was ‘irrationality’.

The session was opened by Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, Permanent Secretary of the French Academy and the President of the Institut de France. This session is characterized by the superb quality of intellectual debate and offered a platform for 5 different members of the various Academies to argue that irrationality is an inevitable ingredient of human existence.

Chantal Delsol from the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences gave the opening speech, a flamboyant discourse on irrationality as both an infamy and an inevitability. ‘Irrationality’ is defined by the dictionary as that which lies outside the realm of reason or which is opposed to reason. The dawning of the age of reason brought the curtain down on the world of wonder. Humanity became the judge, leading Nietzsche to write of ‘ the impoverished certainty of the void ’. Becoming a substitute for faith, reason has left irrationality with nothing but the crumbs of childhood and despair. Irrationality is experienced as something that’s outrageous and wrong. It’s in the name of this very reason that our societies have rushed headlong into unrestricted, chaotic globalization and we have put a monetary value upon those things which are in fact priceless. Goods have become our idols. We now throw accusations of irrationality around, as if anything that escapes the bounds of rationality is a monster to be fought and defeated. As Charles Dickens wrote, ‘When romance is utterly driven out of their souls, and they and a bare existence stand face-to-face, Reality will take a wolfish turn and make an end of you’. Because we are relational beings, religious faith is a quintessentially human sentiment. Humanity cannot live out its days in an environment characterized by a cold, abstract universality, because entire swathes of life lie outside the bounds of rationality. Only irrationality lays the foundation for what is the most fundamental cornerstone and value of all: freedom.

Next, Patrick de Carolis, a delegate from the Academy of Fine Arts, who delivered a lyrical and very powerful address on irrationality and the illuminating power of art.He drew on the emotional experience of musician Francis Poulenc, who upon seeing a statue of a Black Madonna in a church was cut to the heart by a profound sense of God’s grace. This poetic introduction served to underline the need to identify and understand what is real through the prism of art. Art does not reproduce what is visible; it brings what was hidden into the light. Art is the emotion which acts as a counterpoint to rules, as Georges Braque liked to say. Irrationality in art also clears the way for a full-scale assault on submission, no matter from what quarter it comes. It’s a source of human genius. To be an artist is to embark on a journey along an unknown path. It’s to catch a glimpse of the infinite because art brings us to the brink of death and brings us back to life again.

Next, Etienne Ghys, delegate from the Academy of Sciences, took the stand on the topic of mathematical irrationality. An outstanding mathematician capable of communicating his knowledge imaginatively yet in a way that is easy to understand, Etienne Ghys took a look at both Pythagorean rational numbers and irrational numbers. Discovered by Hippasus of Metapontum, it is said this discovery cost him his life. He also examined the idea of unprovable statements in mathematics and demonstrated that our brain is not capable of unlocking every single truth, because we will never know absolutely everything.

The fourth speaker was Pierre Gros, the delegate from the Academy of HumanitiesThis historian of Ancient Rome, archaeologist and Latinist delivered a very erudite, very comprehensive speech on irrational numbers in Timaeus by Plato and in Vitruvius’ treatise, De Architectura, as well as a tribute to the science of architecture in the shape of the famous golden ratio, which has been described as mathematics’ way of expressing beauty. This golden ratio is even now revered by various human societies.

The session ended with a contribution from Jean-Luc Marion, delegate for the French Academy.EAs a highly-qualified specialist in philosophy, he gave a complex and absolutely gripping talk on irrationality and the impossible, that which is left and that which cannot be eliminated. He paid particular attention to the idea that the sleep of reason produces monsters and the concept that madness stalks those who reject everything but reason. Nowadays we ask people to believe in science at the very moment when we are asking them to turn their backs on faith. Lastly, he paid tribute to the power of literature, which opens a window onto the otherwise inaccessible mystery that is other people’s lives. ‘ We understand the emotions that drive us better after reading a work like La Chartreuse de Parme ’ he added.

As is customary, this session took place under the central dome of the Institut de France in the presence of the Garde Républicaine, making this event a treat for both the ears and the eyes. Once again, the Institut de France has remained faithful to its duty and to the sentiment expressed in the words of Ernest Renan, one of its former members. ‘The institut de France is a place where the combined efforts of the human mind form a piercing beam of light’.