International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology

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TUESDAY, JULY 7  /  09:00 - 10:30  /  DS-M280
Organized session / standard talks
Drawn from life: Visual constructions of biological knowledge from early modern alchemy to Victorian botany

Donald Opitz (DePaul University, United States); Agustín Mercado-Reyes (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico)

Recent historiography has drawn attention to the role of visual art not only in representing scientific knowledge but also in its very construction. What we can know about natural phenomena gets mediated through processes of visual observation, as well as visual conceptualizations and figurations of phenomena. Understandings of nature are achieved through the very making of artworks, and these, in turn, are often rendered indistinguishable from the natural objects themselves. Visualizations of nature, too, enable the communication and transit of ideas, as well, at times, their obfuscation. The papers of this session explore these dimensions to the entanglement of art with biology in three European contexts: the early modern alchemical tradition, the romantic galvanic experimental tradition, and the imperial Victorian botanical tradition. The presenters address how visualizations of life within the cosmos, the symbolic figuration of experiments on life, and artistic embodiments of botanical specimens visually construct (authoritative) biological knowledge in distinctive ways.

The cosmography of my self: The exchange between microcosm and macrocosm in the tradition of alchemy

Agustín Mercado-Reyes (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico)

The Paracelsian tradition of alchemy, during the late 16th century and the first half of the 17th century, thrived in the complicated relationship between the human microcosm and the larger macrocosm. This relationship was highly paradoxical: humans were and were not a part of Nature. Furthermore, the individual person could create a sort of inner world through the lens of consciousness. The relationship between microcosm and macrocosm was clearly that of "otherness," but the traces of opposition between them were dissolved by the alchemical tradition. In an operation of concordia discors, alchemy postulated a meshwork of correspondences which permitted the flow of knowledge between different levels. The present work aims to show how, using the meshwork of correspondences as common ground, art and science were allowed to closely interact. Embedded in this meshwork, specific animals, plants, colors and activities were appointed as the bearers of deep and complex meanings. Expressive arts in the alchemical tradition were focused on expressing these unseen relationships, and thus artistic representation guided specific modes of inquiry, practice and further representation. Art, then, was both an object of investigation and an instrument for understanding the phenomenon of life and organic matter. Although alchemy fell out of favor in the early 18th century, recent work on the historiography and philosophy of science can help us reassess the bond it created between knowledge representation and knowledge construction and, moreover, help us to evaluate this bond in its proper light.

Instrumental languages and symbolic scripts: Visualizing galvanic experiments

Joan Steigerwald (York University, Canada)

Recent scholarship on romantic experiments has drawn attention to its methods of active empiricism. Novalis in particular gave expression to an epistemic emphasis on experimentation as a process of mediation between conceptual representation and empirical perception, enacted concretely through instruments and depicted symbolically in figures. Ritter's galvanic experiments with frog legs were regarded by Novalis as exemplary of active empiricism. Ritter's intense investigations of a range of galvanic phenomena made evident through different instrumental arrangements, and his dense descriptions of his experiments, showcased romantic experiments as concrete practices and active interactions with the living material world. Novalis depicted Ritter s experimenting as a means of making knowledge, open-ended and generative. But not only does it render material processes cognitively meaningful, it also renders our concepts concrete. Novalis held that it is not possible to arrive at determinate knowledge of the world, or ourselves, but rather one must remain in the space of appearances and the making of meanings. Ritter's figures of his experiments lie precisely in this space of mediation. Ritter called these figures experiments as well as formulae. They provide a visual representation of his experiments, but they are also abstractions from actual material experiments into the language of scientific formulae. Novalis regarded Ritter's figures as an instrumental language. Ritter's figures are amphibious schemata--both intuitive and conceptual, lying between experimental phenomena and their interpretation--that act as instruments for making and communicating meaning. Novalis held that the language of nature resists understanding because that understanding can only be expressed in another language one cannot get beyond signs and symbols to the thing itself. Ritter's galvanic experiments, and his figures, for all their mediations between phenomena and thought, do not provide a definite deciphering of nature s script, but only a refiguration of it in a symbolic script.

Size matters: Victoria Florilegia and the embodiment of botanical authority

Donald Opitz (DePaul University, United States)

The nineteenth-century imperial obsession over the gigantic South American water lily, best known as Victoria regia (Lindley), led to innovations in biological classification, horticultural and architectural design, and, indeed, visual artistry. In my paper, I will analyze the lily’s role in creating an interdisciplinary space for science and art, with a particular focus on the production of nineteenth-century florilegia devoted to the species. What was the significance of this “boutiquish” genre of publication, one bearing all the marks of gentility, for the construction, representation, and transit of botanical knowledge about the lily? Here I will advance the idea that size indeed mattered: the mid-nineteenth century practice of representing botanical specimens in artistic folios, within a flourishing marketplace of scientific publication formats, distinguished the subjects within a realm of noble science, and in doing so, imbued them with noble authority. This elevation of select departments of botany, in this case exotic floriculture, within noble realms fed into a more general aristocracy of knowledge that increasingly clashed with a growing democratization of science marked by its professionalization and, indeed, popularization. The entanglement of science with art not only influenced the fate of knowledge about the lily, but it also determined the very format of that knowledge and its circulation.