Some Thoughts on Curiously Drawn: The Origins of Science as a Visual Pursuit

Here are two thoughts occasioned for me by our recent excellent conference, Curiously Drawn: The Origins of Science as a Visual Pursuit:

1. Does the project title need further clarification and justification?

During the final discussion, Martin Rudwick made the very important point that there is something arbitrary (and perhaps anachronistic?) about our choice of subject matter.  As Martin put it, under the category of the ‘visual’ might be included nearly any and all the non-written or spoken practices and resources employed by the Royal Society’s early members. In fact, the artifacts that normally count as ‘visual materials’ in science studies -that is, images inscribed or spread out on flat paper surfaces – account for a very small amount of the visual evidence employed by these philosophers. Paula Findlen and Urs Leu very usefully reminded us of this by ranging samples alongside the engraved images derived from them. Not only is it the case, therefore, that the field of the ‘visual’ groups together an enormous range of images and artifacts of very different ‘genres’ and put to rather different purposes. It is perhaps also the case that we need to be able to account for and intellectually justify the necessarily narrow selections that are made from this range of materials.

It is possible to darken the picture even further by making a few remarks on the conflicting attitudes that some of the Society’s members held towards visual forms of evidence in the period. It is possible, of course, to find remarks made by these men to the effect that images provided uniquely powerful means of impressing upon other people ideas about the forms of natural things. Paula Findlen brought up this comment made by John Ray in a letter to John Waller of 1691, in which he made just this point:

‘it [an engraved plate] conveys speedily to the mind with ease & pleasure a clearer & truer Idea of the thing delineated, then the understanding can with much labour and in a long time form to itself from a description.’

However, in the same letter, Ray indicated that the work of the entire book that he was discussing could be achieved, albeit with more work on the part of the reader, by a verbal description alone:

‘The Titles subjoined to each Table [here he means engraved plates] may supply the place of Descriptions, as containing certain characteristic notes, sufficient to distinguish the species, to which they belong, from any others whatsoever; so that they alone without any icon, if diligently heeded & attended to, might serve to lead a man into a certain knowledge of the plants.’

Although Ray argued in this letter that an imaged could work more easily than a verbal description, it is (I would say) important to note that he did not seem to partition words and images off into separate categories of evidence.
Robert Hooke, a great image-maker, furnishes us with an even more pessimistic claim about the power of images, reminding his readers that the self-same ease and pleasure that they sometimes provoke could lead the mind into distraction if used in a context in which another form of representation was more appropriate to the subject:

‘The Explication of such things as can be better describ’d by words is rather noxious than useful, and serves to divert and disturb the Mind.’

These remarks are useful to us, I think, because they help to illustrate a problem that could arise as a result of choosing to privilege the ‘visual’ aspects of the work of the early Royal Society – namely, the reification of that field. Hooke and Ray were careful to read their readers and correspondents (respectively) that images were not (nor could they ever be) the silver-bullet solution to problems of representation.  Rather, used in a measured way, they could contribute to even bigger schemes of representation, which had philosophical goals as their ends. This is a point that Matthew Hunter as made very usefully in his extremely instructive PhD thesis about Robert Hooke. As Hunter argues, Hooke was in respects not especially interested in the practices of drawing and painting. Instead, it is better to think of Hooke as someone who marshaled a range of representational practices and moves in an architectonic fashion, in the service of philosophical ends.

I should say that I think that the project title is absolutely correct, and indicates exactly the line of inquiry that ought to be followed at the moment. However, it would seem worthwhile to engage in some self-conscious reflection about the precise implications of privileging the visual field, and about how our senses of the ‘visual’ can be mapped onto a range of early modern practices of inquiry and representation. What pay-offs can we expect to obtain by using this category to guide our inquiries? Equally, what false promises can we identify – perhaps those that are suggested by an excessive regard for the perspicuity of visual materials?

2. What was ‘visual’ in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries?

In this second comment I will elaborate a little on a comment that I made rather obscurely during the final discussion session.

It is really interesting that the project title refers to ‘The Origins of Science as a Visual Pursuit’ because there is considerable evidence that most of the members of the Royal Society in its early period thought that cognition itself could be thought of mainly in visual terms. As Catherine Wilson has pointed out, these philosophers tended to associate the intelligibility of an explanation ‘with its visualizability, or with the analogical similarity of the process to a visualizable process.’ (Wilson, 1995, p. 113).

That said, it is worth asking precisely what people like Hooke and Ray thought ‘seeing’ was actually like, since this had such an important bearing on both their ideas about images and on the credibility of their empirical methods. They were alert to contemporary developments in neurology, and knew that the impressions made by light, sound etc. on the senses resulted in mental ‘images’ that corresponded to, but did not much resemble their objects. Consider this remarkable passage from Descartes [a little off topic, I know, but it illustrates the point so well!]:

‘Engravings which consist merely of a little ink spread over paper, represent to us forests, towns, men and even battles and tempests.  And yet, out of an unlimited number of different qualities that lead us to conceive the objects, there is not one in respect of which they actually resemble [the objects] except shape.  Even this is a very imperfect resemblance’

With wonderful subtlety, Descartes argued that graphic representations made on flat surfaces do not cause people to imagine things by resembling them.  Rather, the ‘qualities that lead us to conceive the objects’ had to be quite different if they were to provoke the sensations that would cause images corresponding to them in the imagination.  Descartes continued to show, for example, that circles must be replaced by ovals, and squares by diamonds, if they were to be successfully represented graphically, in perspective, on a flat surface: ‘Thus very often, in order to be more perfect qua images, and to represent object[s] better, it is necessary for the engravings not to resemble [them].’  We cannot know whether Ray and his contemporaries thought about these matters as deeply as did Descartes.  Nevertheless, these statements about the non-resemblance of graphical representations to their objects are consistent with their mechanical account of the brain, nerves and senses.  Since the senses could not convey the likenesses of things into the imagination, these philosophers did not seek this capacity from their representations.  Instead, they sought a capacity to provoke in people images correspondent to those that they wanted to communicate.

The point of making these remarks is just to suggest that the ‘visual field’, for members of the early Royal Society, requires pretty close investigation. I would submit that these distinct ideas about the way in which sense impressions resolve into ideas can produce some powerful observations about how people like Hooke and Ray construed visual evidence, and permit us to think about the sorts of qualities that they sought from visual materials. They also suggest that the visual field was both a) stranger and b) larger than perhaps might be imagined. As I have argued elsewhere, any of the Society’s early members thought of verbal communication as a means of provoking the brain into fishing out stored memories – images of things long since registered in the memory (that is, ‘images’ construed as inscriptions in the surface of the brain). It was possible, therefore, to think of verbal descriptions as facets of inquiring into, representing and thinking about ‘Science as a Visual Pursuit’.

This entry was posted in Commentary on Images, Current research, Position papers, Royal Society. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Some Thoughts on Curiously Drawn: The Origins of Science as a Visual Pursuit

  1. awraggemorley says:

    Sorry, some typos in there. The only one that is really significant is ‘Hooke and Ray were careful to read their readers and correspondents (respectively) that images were not (nor could they ever be) the silver-bullet solution to problems of representation.’ This should be ‘Hooke and Ray were careful to REMIND…’

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