A note on the text 7

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titreA note on the text 7
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3. The beast-machine controversy: reason, instinct and the causality of motion

La maniere de naistre, d’engendrer, nourir, agir, mouvoir, vivre et mourir des bestes estant si voisine de la notre, tout ce que nous retranchons de leurs causes motrices, et que nous adjoustons à nostre condition au dessus de la leur, cela ne peut aucunement partir du discours de nostre raison.425

où est l’homme qui oserait dire qu’il n’y a que lui qui pense, et que tous les autres sont des machines? Ne le regarderait-on pas comme un personnage plus extravagant que ceux qu’on enferme dans les Petites Maisons, ou que l’on séquestre de toute société humaine? Cette conséquence du dogme cartésien est un fâcheux rabat-joie: elle est semblable aux pieds du paon; c’est une laideur qui mortifie la vanité que le brillant du plumage avait inspirée.426

some deserving very ill of themselves, have affirmed the Souls of Man and the Beasts only to differ in degrees of Perfection. 427
By defining the self-conscious human organism in terms of two substances, and these substances in terms of their essential properties, the Cartesian system narrowed the playing field in which it was possible to identify operations of cognition. As I shall explain in this chapter, it did so by extending the operational range of reason to a realm not bound by sense-perception. Given the logical and metaphysical constraints internal to the orthodox Cartesian version of this system, it is not surprising that Descartes’s successors and disputants had a hard time trying to reshape what, for the majority of them, was the problematic beast-machine.428 Pierre Bayle understood the issues, for example calling the scholastic alternatives to granting beasts a rational soul ‘muddled and impenetrable verbosity’, useless to those who wanted to ‘avoid the alarming consequences’ of assigning to animals a sensitive soul and who were anxious to ‘establish a specific difference’ between the human and animal soul.429 We shall see how this ‘verbosity’, which is apparent in the more recondite arguments used in the case for or against animal reason, showed up the limitations of mechanistic as well as scholastic causal accounts of animal and human willed action. It indicated a sense that no one had explained properly what it was that enabled animals to behave in the ways that they did, to make nests, remember locations, and so on; but it also pointed out the complex, at times worrying implications of accounting for human action together with animal action. I shall begin by describing how thinkers who explicitly embraced the modern, corpuscularian philosophy discussed the difficulties of ascribing minds and intentionality to beasts, before going on to analyse the confusions which arose from attempts to describe the putative functions of these animal minds.
Augustine, whose presence, as we have seen, suffuses these debates, had suggested that the bodily pain experienced by beasts was the manifestation in them of a resistance to the body’s division and corruption, and thus of an aspiration to unity; moreover, our awareness of the beasts’ aspiration and pain showed us that God was a unity.430 All living things were united in the pain they experienced as a result of the body’s division from the soul. Beasts were imbued with a life spirit, a ‘corporeal feeling of which the soul was the principle’.431 This idea sufficed to account for the sentience of creatures deprived of reason, and it served to glorify the activity of contemplating God. It did not, however, constitute a solid enough basis for mechanistic theories of action. La Forge, in the Oratorian manner, had insisted on the Augustinian foundations of Descartes’s metaphysics of matter;432 but intrinsic to the shorter, less elaborate tracts which fuelled the controversy over the beast-machine thesis was a belief in the need to justify one’s point of view in terms sympathetic to the ‘modern philosophy’. The theological outcome of each theory, whose acceptableness one had to demonstrate in order to make a case, was secondary to the case itself. What was being developed in these discussions was a theory of knowledge which would take into account the importance of experimental natural philosophy; not a natural theology. Thus, Pardies found it viable to appeal to the notion of God’s intentions, arguing how unfair to God it was to define his creatures as mere machines433 - different from automata only in that they were built by nature, rather than humans - and how disrespectful we were to think of God as a puppeteer, when assuming that animals were puppets.434 Dilly explicitly responded to Pardies and to his worry that God could not have given animals senses just for the sake of ornamentation,435 using the epistemological rejoinder that the presence in beasts of operational sense-organs did not entail that they had knowledge, since sensation was corporeal, whereas all knowledge was spiritual.436 Beasts, argued Dilly, did feel pain and distress, and our violence towards them could indeed be the cause of this distress. But this actually showed that they were deprived of a soul: surely God would not allow a creature endowed with a soul to suffer with no hope of redemption after death, just as he could not create creatures capable of loving, without giving them the possibility of loving God.437 Moreover, Dilly – along with Pardies – rejected the notion put forward by orthodox Aristotelians that to deny a soul to animals was to deprive humans of an immortal soul, and thus to play into the hands of libertines.438

Since no one knew what sort of experience or knowledge animals had,439 those for whom Cartesian ‘clear and distinct ideas’ alone provided a secure ground for any theory about the natural world were loath to presume anything about animal minds other than that they functioned according to the laws which prevailed in the mechanical philosophy.440 Those like Cureau de la Chambre, Pardies or even Locke, on the other hand, for whom unknown entities were transformable into previously unimagined elements of natural history, could accept that the speechlessness of animals did not signify that they must be excluded from the map of cognizant creatures.441 In doing so, they had to ascribe to animals intentionality - the capacity to represent to themselves memory, future actions or present objects - and to defend the case, for example, that foxes who put their ear to ice to check if it was thick enough to tread on were engaging in inferential reasoning, as Plutarch had assumed.442 The precedents for such a conception extended back to Aristotle, for whom both humans and animals were moved by ‘reasoning and phantasia and choice and wish and appetite. And all of these can be reduced to thought and desire. For both phantasia and sense-perception hold the same place as thought, since they are all concerned with making distinctions’. Moreover, ‘wish and spiritedness and appetite are all desire, and choice shares both in reasoning and in desire’.443

In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke wrote that if beasts ‘have any Ideas at all, and are not bare Machins (as some would have them), we cannot deny them to have some Reason. It seems as evident to me, that they do some of them in certain Instances reason, as that they have sence.’444 The power and kind of these senses, however, varied from animal to animal: ‘We may, I think, from the Make of an Oyster, or Cockle, reasonably conclude, that it has not so many, nor so quick Senses, as a Man, or several other Animals,’445 wrote Locke. But it did possess the faculties that it needed - for ‘would not quickness of Sensation, be an Inconvenience to an Animal, that must lie still, where Chance has once placed it’? There were degrees of perceptual faculties, in man as much as in beast; and Locke went on to say that ‘one, in whom decrepit old Age has blotted out the Memory of his past Knowledge, and clearly wiped out the Ideas his Mind was formerly stored with’, as well as dulled all the senses, was not far removed ‘in his Knowledge, and intellectual Faculties, above the Condition of a Cockle, or an Oyster’.446 Furthermore, ‘if a Man had passed Sixty Years in such a State, as ’tis possible he might, as well as three Days, I wonder what difference there would have been, in any intellectual Perfections, between him, and the lowest degree of Animals’.

Locke was also aware that, since ‘we sort and name Substances by their nominal, and not by their real Essences447 and since we, rather than nature, were the ones to establish and categorize natural kinds,448 the qualities we ascribed to species in order to define them and differentiate one from another tended to lead to confusions precisely because they did not reflect real boundaries between species. A deformed foetus, for instance, might be denied baptism, as Locke pointed out, on account of its failure to correspond to a certain definition of human essence. The existence of monsters was enough to confound us with regard to the applicability of instituted norms. Similarly, ‘Some whereof, though of an approved shape, are never capable of as much appearance of Reason, all their Lives, as is to be found in an Ape, or an Elephant; and never given any signs of being acted by a rational soul.’ On this account, even the definition of man as the rational animal appeared to be as partial a view of human essence as any other.449 Still, Locke also had to show, and he did so explicitly, that beasts were not capable of reasoning, in the sense that they did not ‘make complex ideas’ out of simple ones. Complex ideas were the starting point for the use of signs and words, which, he wrote, ‘stand as outward Marks of our internal Ideas’. These in turn were generated through abstraction, of which no animal was capable: ‘the having of general Ideas is that which puts a perfect distinction betwixt Man and Brutes’.450 Locke was thinking here in terms of general capacities; but it is clear that he would have found abhorrent the possibility of running the reasoning faculty, the specifically human capacity for abstraction, together with the powers of intellection he found it possible to assign to some beasts.

With Locke, then, the need to draw a boundary between animal and man simply corresponded to the ongoing, earthbound project of setting out the nature of human intelligence, conceived as an entity or phenomenon to be analysed apart from the body. In considering the nature of reason in humans, Locke did not worry about God’s intentions with regard to the fate of human or animal souls. He was aware of the problems inherent in determining boundaries between biological organisms; but he had no doubt that ‘An animal is a living organized Body; and consequently, the same Animal … is the same continued Life communicated to different Particles of Matter, as they happen successively to be united to that organiz’d living Body.’451 For Locke, knowledge was a function of the sharpness of perceptual faculties, since all creatures derived cognition from perception and all creatures, including man, were equipped with sense-organs; and it seemed fair to say that ‘it is Perception in the lowest degree of it, which puts the Boundaries between Animals, and the inferior ranks of Creatures’.452 Deliberations on the characteristics of the dual physical organism were thus not necessarily tied to discussions about the problems bred within the Cartesian system.

But there was in fact little formal space within the debate on animal souls for a mitigated reasoning capacity such as Locke could envisage,453 given that he was concerned to establish the prior grounds of knowledge rather than to construct a systematic metaphysics. The Cartesian account of mind-body dualism, on the other hand, was conceived on the basis of a physics in which matter was endowed solely with local motion. It is worth noting again the sharp contrast between this conception of matter and the Aristotelian picture, where motion was identified with change. In De anima,454 Aristotle had defined ‘life’ as ‘self-nutrition, growth, and decay’. This implied that the living creature, unlike fire, for example, had ‘a certain plasticity of behaviour’,455 more fundamental than motion or perception, which plants lacked although they too were living creatures. For Aristotle, the function of self-nutrition was the law-like pattern which overrode any other faculties in explanatory power and which characterized the ‘first soul’, since it was for its sake that the other faculties existed. However embodied it was, it had to be ‘necessarily realized in some sort of suitable matter’.456 This teleological account of living matter also exhibited Aristotle’s central dictum that the soul was the form of the living body;457 and it was the all-encompassing generality of this account which ensured both its staying power and the confusion which arose from discarding it.

Descartes’s corporeal and spiritual substances represented too much of a break from faculty psychology for worries over the fate of substances to be set apart, as was the case with Locke, from preoccupations with the fate of the non-human soul. The Cartesian system demanded that any account of physics, physiology and the psyche be based on ‘clear and distinct ideas’. These constituted the very foundation of self-knowledge - as well as its main tool - and the validation of the reasoning faculty as the means of knowing the world and controlling the self.458 Rather than delimiting the boundaries within which it was safe to presume what qualities a substance could be said to possess, this requirement actually served to construct the boundary, to determine its nature, its shape and the territory on either side of it. Intrinsically exclusive of anything as messy as a desiring and willing sensitive soul, the Cartesian requirement served to plant a looking glass on the spot where the boundary had been drawn, through which animals failed to pass. Although for Descartes, an animal was a sensing organism, it could only belong to the physical, natural world insofar as mechanism alone sufficed to explain in what way it was indeed a sensing organism and an extended body. Only thus did it remain where it belonged, without menacing the hegemony of clear and distinct ideas - or the established power of humans and of God. A beast which crossed the boundary would turn into a ‘monster’, capable, by becoming our equal, of wrecking the posited order of reason.459

Yet, in the eyes of someone like Malebranche who, remaining broadly within the Cartesian framework, wanted to glorify reason and its powers on the grounds that it was separate from the senses, Descartes had not succeeded in connecting the foundation of epistemological certainty in the ‘cogito’ with a convincing account of sense-perception. He had left both too much and too little to God: too much by using him to short-circuit any attempt at exploring in detail how the mechanistic physiology of the senses corresponded to the mind’s conscious apprehension of sense-data and emotions;460 and too little by not explaining why God constituted a guarantee against the encroachment of scepticism with regard to the reality of the objects of sense. Malebranche extended the Cartesian thesis in his effort to solve the formal problems inherent in Descartes’s positing of a natural, although to many, inconceivable causal interaction between body and mind, between a material substance and an immaterial one. In suggesting that the causality was occasional - that movement in the one was actually the occasion for movement in the other - he chose to emphasize that the concordance of activity in mind and soul was ensured by God, just as his glory was attested in the bodies of creatures.

Malebranche thus associated the impulse to give souls to beasts with a dethroning of God. As he wrote in a chapter on the passions in La recherche de la vérité, to infer from the ‘agility and ingenuousness’ [adresse et esprit] of beasts’ actions that they did have a soul, was ‘by a strange neglect [oubli] of God, to attribute to the work the wisdom of the worker’461 - in other words, to naturalize the universe. When, he continued, one examined in detail what was going on at each moment within the body of man and of animals, it was impossible to believe that a finite spirit could manage at once all its regulated motions. Moreover, beasts would be endowed with a far greater spirit than ours if one assumed them capable of regulating their inner machinery with the help of their so-called souls. The machinery of our body was such that it was impossible to know all of its movements, and ‘our soul is not the true cause of those [movements] which follow from our will. We want to speak or sing, but we do not even know which muscles to move in order to do so.’462 In the same way, a grain of wheat was ignorant of the processes by which it was able to grow and was another sign of God’s wisdom. We should admire and adore this wisdom, he wrote, and watch out not to attribute to the works of nature, souls or chimerical forms, what belongs solely to the maker.463 The existence of complex natural, mechanical processes, then, should call forth the human capacity for wonder, not only our scientific curiosity.

There followed a mechanistic account of passions reminiscent of Descartes’s psychology, one which looked very much like an account of instinctive behaviour. But here mechanism was used to explain the physically visible signs of changes in emotional states, themselves triggered by a chain of reactions both to the vision of an object and to the force of the imagination. Humours were shaken up by the sensory nerves’ response to a disturbing perception and flowed through the blood vessels into the heart, where they were fermented into animal spirits. From there, they travelled through nerves to all the viscera, including the liver, spleen and pancreas, and they ‘express through their agitation the humours which these organs preserve for the needs of the machine’.464 Variations in passions were due to differences in the kinds of agitation and fermentation the humours underwent; and these in turn were due to the varied action and force of nerves around the heart. Some ‘nerves in the lung also distribute air to the heart, and by tightening or expanding the branches of the canal used for breathing, they regulate the fermentation of the blood according to the dominant passion’.465 Other nerves which surrounded the arteries leading to the brain and to all the other organs in the body regulated the flow of spirits, and ensured that, if the brain was shaken by an unexpected sight, the movements of the passion could shift as required.466

Malebranche initially came across Descartes’s L’homme in 1664 - the date of its first Paris edition, some thirty years after its composition in 1633. This work, as we saw, presented a similarly smooth mechanistic picture of physiology and psychology, for which ‘movements are actions of the will; feelings [sentimens] are modifications of the mind; movements of the will are the natural causes of feelings of the mind; and these feelings of the mind in turn determine the movements of the will’.467 One important aspect of this picture, apart from its genesis in Descartes’s wish to make do without scholastic entities and qualities, was the room it afforded for involuntary action, for bodily movements which were appropriate to circumstance but not under the control of will and reason. The mechanistic physiology Malebranche developed had even more extreme consequences than did Descartes’s, however; for, where Descartes allowed for the existence of sensations and passions in animals, Malebranche was happier to conclude from the usefulness of the automaton analogy that they had no sensations at all: a dog’s cry on being hit was simply ‘a necessary effect of the machine’s construction’, not a proof that it had a soul. To attribute to them a soul was to confuse the cause of our movements with a soul. It was an instance of our tendency to ‘humanize all causes’; and since we had trouble conceiving of ‘a soul that does not think, want and feel’, it was easy to conclude from our dog’s behaviour that it did think, want and feel.468 But this was entirely misguided. After all, wrote Malebranche, ‘a healthy man does not scream when wounded, and this shows that his soul resists the machine’s operation’: he would cry if he had no soul469 because the body would be free to obey its impulse. It was the soul which stopped one recoiling when one was being bled, for instance.470

The human body was here treated as equal to the animal body (there was even room to acknowledge its inferiority to the animal body in some respects); and the rational faculty which accompanied it did not so much ennoble it as give humans the capacity not to scream when hurt, not to follow their senses. It was because it enabled humans to deny, in a sense, the body’s reality that the rational faculty ensured the nobility of their status among God’s creatures. Unlike reason, the body was invulnerable to ‘intropathy’:471 as Malebranche believed, it could not know which muscles functioned, and we were not actually aware of the humours flowing through our blood and of animal spirits acting on our brains.472 These things simply happened; and, in the dualist scheme, they had to happen in that way, or in a way like it, if the Cartesian ‘cogito’ - the thesis that we could be certain of anything only because we were certain of the existence of our reason - was to be maintained.
Once the possibility of dissociating reason’s activity from sense-perception was enunciated in this way, it was reason’s task to set the logical conditions whereby the definition of its remit might correspond to its now purified state. Given that beasts as well as man were capable of seemingly rational behaviour, it became important to explain the causes of this behaviour in animals and man in order to differentiate the two. If one was a Cartesian mechanist, it was impossible to call any animal behaviour ‘rational’; but it then became necessary to establish why the fact of being an animal constituted enough of a justification for discounting reason as the cause of this animal’s behaviour. Pardies, in his account of the Cartesian posistion, pointed out that no one denied that ‘thinking’ and ‘reasoning’ must entail one another,473 and that thinking, in turn, entailed the capacity to deliberate and choose, in other words, to exert freedom of will:474 the difficulty of attributing reason to animals was its association with voluntary action. Some forms of behaviour, Pardies told us, still in the name of Cartesians, were so well ‘proportioned to an end’475 that they seemed to entail rationality, although in fact they were instinctive - and no less admirable for that.476 Instinctive behaviour provided the organism with a ‘natural disposition’477 to act and thus with a certain kind of knowledge. In man, however, natural disposition (say, to play the organ) needed to be supplemented by intelligent knowledge (here, the technique for playing an organ);478 and it required the soul’s will to move the limbs, without, let it be said, any knowledge of the physiology of motion.479 But Pardies recounted this theory of animal action in order to show that the resort to instinct was not sufficient to deny animals some form of intelligent knowledge.480 The justification for denying reason to animals, it appears, was simply that they were animals. Any further justification of the Cartesian position was redundant, because those who adopted it made sure, implicitly at least, that accounts of animal action and accounts of rational action were two, entirely separate discourses.

This rigidity with regard to the mode of evaluating the ‘other minds’ of animals determined the nature of the arguments put forth by each of the two sides. The causal order of animal action was imagined, or affirmed, with the help of categories such as reason, instinct, sensation, knowledge; but these categories were themselves in need of definition. A quarter of a century before the Dilly-Pardies dispute, it occurred to a Protestant physician from La Rochelle, Pierre Chanet, to invoke the category of ‘instinct’ with a great deal of trepidation, claiming the superiority of its explanatory range, in response to a treatise by the established Marin Cureau de la Chambre. Bayle paid some, although scant, attention to the old quarrel481 in which Cureau argued in favour of ascribing a kind of rationality to animals, in line with the tradition represented by Montaigne and Charron,482 while Chanet, in De l’instinct et de la connaissance des animaux, tried to show that ‘reason’ in such cases was really ‘instinct’. What is interesting here is that Chanet did all he could to deprive his notion of instinct of any naturalistic associations, moulding it instead, in a scholastic manner, into an abstract entity which suited his conceptual purposes.483

Chanet defined instinct as ‘a direction of the first cause which carries and brings all secondary causes to their end, when they have no rational faculties to do so’.484 All living creatures from plants to humans, but also all things, including those deprived of ‘life and sense’,485 were endowed with instinct, impulsion and drive. The purpose of instinct was not to take reason away from beasts, stated Chanet in the first pages of his tract, but rather to explain those motions which they would be unable to carry out even if they did have reason or any other natural faculty.486 It was an explanatory category, a constant that accounted for the ability of animals to achieve the ends to which their very constitution predisposed them. Creatures had been created by God in such a way that they were both diverse and able to achieve these ends. On the one hand, however, they could not achieve these ends without knowing them, just as they could not know them without reason or without being ‘more perfectly intelligent than are men’;487 on the other hand, if God had endowed all creatures with such an intelligence, he would have diminished the world’s diversity. The solution to this dilemma was the distribution by God of instinct, which supplemented natural faculties where those did not suffice for the achievement of ends. The concept of instinct thus abolished the need to refer to rational knowledge to explain the abilities of beasts, but without depriving them of the sensation, memory, locomotion and imagination which they possessed by virtue of being endowed with vegetative and sensitive souls.488 Instinct was natural in animals, since one noticed it as soon as they were born; it was hereditary in all individuals and was passed on within each species.489

Instinct explained such phenomena as the capacity for a sick animal to find a curative plant it would never approach in good health,490 as well as a baby’s ability to suck at its mother’s breast. The concept operated, too, in the explanation of what caused a rock to fall to the ground in a straight line, and of the functioning of the heavens and elements.491 Scholastic beliefs such as these were quite valid for Chanet, since they explicated those phenomena not accounted for by natural faculties and the presence in nature of reasonable behaviours performed neither freely nor through the agency of reason.492 By ‘nature’, he meant ‘the essential principles that constitute the nature of each thing’.493 Natural faculties alone were the essential principles which composed the ‘nature’ of each thing, and in that sense instinct, whose role was to supplement natural faculties, was not ‘natural’.494 But nor was it miraculous: it was as much in the divine order of things as was the creation of our soul.495 Instinct thus helped account for physical phenomena in terms of an ordinary, but divinely instituted quality which enabled bodies to act according to their nature. It allowed for the constancy of physical laws and made it possible to relate them to the remarkable efficacy and variety of animal action. But it was God’s providence which allowed animals to behave in ways which surpassed their knowledge and which bore the mark of a wisdom higher than their natural faculties.496 With arguments such as these, lists of the feats of animals in the Plinian or Plutarchan mode did not by themselves constitute a case for the causal efficacy of reason in animal action. Once instinct was posited as the force which enabled the world to function, intelligent behaviour in creatures deprived of an immortal soul ceased to be an enigma.

Chanet’s comments on Cureau’s arguments for the presence of deliberation and reason in beasts were rather sneering, but then so too was the latter’s Traité de la connaissance des animaux.497 It was written as a response to Chanet’s book against Charron, itself a response to an earlier work by Cureau, De la connaissance des bestes.498 Chanet countered Cureau’s worry that endowing animals with the gift of instinct was in effect glorifying them at our expense by arguing that it made no sense to assign glory to an animal because it was served by God, just as it made no sense to regard as more perfect a blind boy who, on account of his infirmity, received more care from his father than did his sighted brother.499 Chanet reported Cureau’s belief that instinct had to be a product of the animal’s faculties, most probably the imagination or appetite. Some knowledge was required for instinct to operate; and this knowledge would have to come from within, in the form of internal images stored in the memory, perhaps acquired at birth as natural species, before being activated on encountering similar external images.500 For Chanet, this was nonsensical; he had never seen a fly avoid a place in which it had previously been struck.501 Beasts had no knowledge of the past, nor of the future. Their only memory, if they had any, was a function of the material soul, of the senses and of motions of the imagination; moreover it was corruptible because it was lodged in a corruptible part of the brain.502 Beasts had no estimative faculty, either: the swallow did not need natural knowledge of any kind to make its nest.503 Nor did imagination have anything to do with instinct: the bird no more laid her eggs out of need than it was possible for an astrologer to incite a pregnant woman to wait for a better constellation under which to give birth.504 Instinct alone explained why rats were afraid of cats at birth, or why the child of a learned father was not born erudite.505 Unlike memory, it could not be forgotten by the animal: the swallow never forgot how to make a nest even after long years in captivity; but nor was it inherited: it was not present in the seed. Rather, it depended on a higher cause - God.506

Chanet used the argument that reason was too imperfect to account for nature’s perfection. Bees needed no council, although their actions were always identical and perfectly accomplished: if this was taken to mean that they reasoned, then one would have to say that they reasoned better than us, which, obviously, could not be right.507 Simply, the operations of instinct were much more certain than the knowledge we derived from natural species. Cureau, according to Chanet, accepted that such types of behaviour as the bees’ pollination and the spider’s capacity to spin a web were the product of instinct; but he saw deliberative reason in the predator’s hesitation at chasing an overly distant prey.508 Again, Chanet’s counter-offensive was to shrug off the idea that any reasonable action, like eating when hungry, entailed even implicit syllogistic thought. Not all knowledge was reasoning, nor did all reasoning consist in the progress from one piece of knowledge to another. Reasoning was not necessary for the achievement of ends; and reasonable behaviour did not require deliberation, either in man or in animals.509
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