Decision at first sight: the coup-d’oeil

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This Sunday, 9 July, I will present on a somewhat excentric topic at the annual conference of the British Society for the History of Science. My presentation, prepared jointly with Alberto Frigo, will tell a very tentative history of a so-far neglected epistemic category: the coup-d’oeil, the ability to see or recognize familiar patterns at a view.

Despite the fact that the Encylopédie only discussed coup-d’oeil as the ability to survey a battlefield at a glance, this talent, according to 18th-century writers, was an essential component of military genius, architecture and art connoisseurship.

The abstract follows.

The concept of stroke-of-the-eye, or coup d’oeil, gained center stage in the first half of the 18th century, as a very broad epistemological category evoked in connection with different intellectual practices. As it is well known, since the work of Pomian, Griener, and Tummers, art collectors, connoisseurs and merchants relied on coup d’oeil as the ultimate foundation of the aesthetic judgments they expressed on the quality and attribution of artworks. But coup-d’oeil was a much wider category that appealed to practitioners of a variety of disciplines. Topography and warfare alike mobilised this category that acquired a central role in military thinking and field-practices, as showed by the works of Valeria Pansini. The eye of the topographer and the eye of the general were attributed the same quality as the eye of the art expert, an instantaneous ability to see things differently.

The coup-d’oeil has often been analysed as a rhetorical device meant to hide or dignify the actual mechanisms that underpinned the socially constructed authority of experts. Our contribution instead aims at understanding the concept itself and how it came to be considered a true human ability. We intend to show that 18th century authors mobilised this concept in order to characterise a form of knowledge that had its own rules despite being neither axiomatic nor truly experimental. By analyising treatises and textbooks in art connoisseurship, military thinking and topography, we will try to understand how the coup d’oeil was defined, which human faculties were considered crucial to its apparence and development, which kind of knowledge the coup d’oeil give access to, and whether it could be taught.

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