The Epistemic Lives of Pictures and Visualisations
Edited By Nora S. Vaage, Rasmus T. Slaattelid, Trine Krigsvoll Haagensen and Samantha L. Smith
The Optics of Understanding: Sight, sensing and discourses of knowledge in early modern Europe
“All science is derived from self-evident and therefore seen principles;
wherefore all objects of science must needs be, in a fashion seen.”
St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae1
My topic for this chapter is what we might call the optics of understanding – taking my point of departure in the importance of sight that may be seen as a common feature in the discourses of knowledge and understanding in early modern Europe. That is, the importance of sight in early modern theories and understanding of the psychology of knowledge and the relation between visuality and knowledge. This discussion will also serve as an instrument to question certain understandings and ideas about historical development.
In using the phrase “discourses of knowledge”, I first of all want to underline the plural – there was more than one discourse – and secondly to avoid any clear-cut differentiation between these discourses, be it “religion”, “natural history”/ “natural philosophy” (science) or other “arts”. These discourses existed neither clearly distinct from each other – they were all interlaced – nor did they exist in a historical vacuum, and I will try to give an outline of what might be their genealogy. In so doing I aim to open up some aspects of the period’s visual culture and/or cultural visuality in light of a broader perspective of visual argumentation, and what we might call “a culture of the gaze” – by which I mean the understanding(s) of visual perception/sensing...
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