Philosophe Alain

Le site de référence sur le philosophe français Emile Chartier, dit Alain (1868-1951), par l’Association des Amis d’Alain, fondée par ses proches après sa mort.

Le site de référence sur le philosophe français Emile Chartier, dit Alain (1868-1951), par l’Association des Amis d’Alain, fondée par ses proches après sa mort.

To think is to say no

To think is to say no. Notice that the sign for yes is that of falling asleep; while waking up shakes the head and says no. No to what?  To the world, to tyrants, to preachers?  That’s only the appearance. In each of these cases, thought is saying no to itself. It breaks off happy agreement. It divides itself. It struggles against itself. There is no other struggle in the world. What allows the world to deceive me through its perspectives, its mists, its collisions avoided, is that I consent, is that I don’t look for something else. And what makes a tyrant my master is that I give him respect instead of a close examination. Even true doctrine falls out of true through this somnolence. It’s through believing that people are slaves. To reflect is to deny what one believes.

A person who merely believes no longer even knows that he believes. A person content with his thought thinks no further. I say this too for the things that surround us. What do I see when I open my eyes? What would I see if I had to believe everything?  In truth a kind of gaudy colour scheme like an incomprehensible tapestry. But it’s through interrogating myself on each thing that I see it. A lookout shading his eyes with his hand is a person saying no. In the war, the lookouts stationed in observatories for long days learnt to see, always by saying no. And astronomers through the centuries always pushed the moon, the sun and the stars further away from us, by saying no. Notice that when existence first presented itself to us, all was true; this presence of the world never deceives. The sun appears no larger than the moon, so it shouldn’t appear any different, according to its distance and size. And the sun rises in the east for the astronomer as well; that’s where it should appear according to the movement of the earth on which we are brief passengers. And so it’s our business to put each thing back in its right place and at the right distance. So it’s to myself that I say no.


Sir William Orpen R.A., R.H.A. (1878-1931): A woman thinking, 1930


All religion is true in the same way that the first appearance of the world is true. But this doesn’t take me very far. I have to say no to the signs; there is no other way of understanding them. But to always rub one’s eyes and scrutinize the sign, that’s what it is to watch and think. A severe rule for our thoughts, suspected rather than known until Descartes, for the ancients let the world and war run on through fear of allowing too many denials.  We must reflect on consciousness itself: ‘I think’ as did Descartes. Then doubt appeared, attached like a shadow to all our thoughts. Simple faith was not diminished by this – on the contrary, for it’s through doubt that there’s a background of appearances. Otherwise it is to sleep. However determined we may be to believe everything, it remains true that Jesus is something other than a baby in a manger. We must pierce through appearance. Even the Pope does, in each of his prayers. Would they be prayers otherwise? Not at all, just the sleep of an old man. Behind the sign is theology. But what is theology if only a sign?  And what is there behind theology? We must understand, which is always to say no. No, you are not what you seem to be. As the astronomer says to the sun; as everyone says to images distorted in water. And what is a scruple if it isn’t to say no to what one believes?  The examination of conscience is to say no to oneself lying down. What I believe is never enough and incredulity is a strict faith. « Take up your bed and walk ».

January, 19 1924


English translation copyright © Michel Petheram

To read the French version on this website. 


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