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Scientific Visions

  • Suzannah Biernoff
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)

Abstract

R oger Bacon, in what was to become one of the most influential works on optics in the Western Middle Ages,2 reflected that the superiority of sight over the other senses was manifest in two ways: in visual pleasure, and in the necessity of sight for knowledge of the natural universe. We ‘take especial delight in vision’, he wrote in his introduction:

and light and color have an especial beauty beyond the other things that are brought to our senses, and not only does beauty shine forth, but advantage and a greater necessity appear. For…vision alone reveals the differences of things; since by means of it we search out experimental knowledge of all things that are in the heavens and in the earth.3

Keywords

Geometrical Optic Experimental Knowledge Twelfth Century Intuitive Cognition Physical Causation 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 2.
    David Lindberg discusses the impact and dissemination of Bacon’s optical theories in Theories of Vision from Al-Kindi to Kepler (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 116–22.Google Scholar
  2. 6.
    As with any such generalisation, the polarisation of scholastic philosophy into Augustinian and Aristotelian traditions has attracted due criticism. For an overview of the issue, see F. C. Copleston, A History of Medieval Philosophy (London: Methuen, 1972), 156–9.Google Scholar
  3. 7.
    H. Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age trans. R. M. Wallace (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1983), 336.Google Scholar
  4. 13.
    J. Owens,’Faith, Ideas, Illumination, and Experience’, The Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy: From the Rediscovery of Aristotle to the Disintegration of Scholasticism 1100–1600 , ed. N. Kretzmann, et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 444. It is a testimony to the abiding influence of Augustinian and Neoplatonic thought that most medieval philosophers retained some version of Platonic Ideas and insisted on the necessary role of divine illumination for intellectual knowledge. For a survey of these theories in the later Middle Ages, see Owens.Google Scholar
  5. 17.
    C. Burnett, ‘Scientific Speculations’, A History of Twelfth-Century Western Philosophy , ed. P. Dronke (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992) 154. C. Riedl identifies Grosseteste with the beginnings of ‘a new tradition, characterized by the blending of philosophy with experimental science’. ‘Introduction’ to Grosseteste’s On Light 2. On Grosseteste’s contribution to early modern science, see also Southern, Robert Grosseteste 150; A. C. Crombie, Robert Grosseteste and the Origins of Experimental Science 1100 –1700 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1953), 43; and B. Eastwood, ‘Medieval Empiricism: the Case of Grosseteste’s Optics’, Speculum 43 (1968), 306.Google Scholar
  6. 18.
    On James of Venice see the Dictionary of Scientific Biography , ed. C. C. Gillispie (New York: Scribner, 1973), vol. 7: 65–7.Google Scholar
  7. 26.
    See, for example, Crombie, Robert Grosseteste 116; Lindberg, Theories of Vision 99; and S. L. Goldman,’On the Interpretation of Symbols and the Christian Origins of Modern Science’, The Journal of Religion 62.1 (Jan. 1982): 6.Google Scholar
  8. 27.
    For Evelyn Fox Keller and Christine Grontkowski,Western science and epistemology have developed according to the principle that ‘Vision connects us to truth as it distances us from the corporeal.’ ‘The Mind’s Eye’, Discovering Reality: Feminist Perspectives on Epistemology Metaphysics, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science ed. S. Harding and M. B. Hintikka (Dordrecht, Neth.: Reidel, 1983), 209. While their observation certainly holds true for the geometrical strand of medieval optics, and the theological polarisation of sight into carnal and spiritual vision, it is by no means universally applicable. Chapters 4 and 6 of this book demonstrate an intimate relationship between ‘truth’ (scientific and divine respectively), and the corporeality of vision.Google Scholar
  9. 34.
    D. C. Lindberg, Studies in the History of Medieval Optics (London: Variorum Reprints, 1983) 338–9, 349–54. Pecham’s Perspectiva Communis (probably written between 1277 and 1279) is available in a critical edition and English translation by Lindberg, John Pecham and the Science of Optics (Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1970). Witelo’s Perspectiva was written some time after 1270. Although the text was printed several times in the sixteenth century (as well as surviving in 19 mss copies), there is no complete modern edition. See the entry in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography for a bibliography of commentaries.Google Scholar
  10. 40.
    Barthes claims that the ‘reality effect’ is pervasive in contemporary Western culture, citing as examples: the realist novel, the diary, the documentary, news media, historical discourse and photography. The effect, he explains, is based on a confusion of meaning or interpretation (the signified) and the referent, so that the signifier seems to be a direct representation of the Real. R. Barthes, ‘Historical Discourse’ (1967) in Introduction to Structuralism , ed. M. Lane (New York: Basic, 1970), 154. Although he is concerned here with verbal and pictorial signifiers, Barthes’s analysis of the reality principle is equally applicable to mathematical languages.Google Scholar
  11. 49.
    For standard formulations of the nobility of sight (and a critique of Vasco Ronchi’s contention that vision was regarded with deep suspicion in the Middle Ages), see: D. Lindberg and N. H. Steneck, ‘The Sense of Vision and the Origins of Modern Science’, Studies in the History of Medieval Optics 29–45. Pouchelle discusses the nobility of the eye (and other ‘noble’ organs, including the lips and penis) in relation to the social metaphor of the body’s ‘offices’. Body and Surgery 119.Google Scholar
  12. 59.
    John Wyclif (c.1328–84), Sermones , quoted in H. Phillips,’John Wyclif and the Optics of the Eucharist’, From Ockham to Wyclif , ed. A. Hudson and M. Wilks (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987), 247. Wyclif would have been familiar with the optical writings of Alhazen and Witelo from his studies at Oxford; and Phillips considers Roger Bacon a likely source for the text I have quoted from.Google Scholar
  13. 68.
    Epicurus, ‘Letter to Herodotus’ in Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers trans. R. D. Hicks, 2 vols (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), 2: 577–9 (10.48–9).Google Scholar
  14. 85.
    ‘Mathematics is an abstractive science considering things [forms] existing in matter, but without the matter.’ Domingo Gundisalvo (or Gundissalinus) (fl. 1140),’Classification of the Sciences’, trans. M. Clagett and E. Grant, in A Source Book in Medieval Science ed. E. Grant (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974), 65. Hugh of St Victor (d. 1141) writes similarly that mathematics ‘is the branch of theoretical knowledge “which considers abstract quantity. Now quantity is called abstract when, intellectually separating it from matter or from other accidents, we treat of it as equal, unequal, and the like, in our reasoning alone”—a separation which it receives only in the domain of mathematics and not in nature.’ He is quoting here from Cassiodorus’s Introduction to Divine and Human Readings. Hugh of St Victor’s ‘Classification of the Sciences’, trans. J. Taylor, in A Source Book in Medieval Science 55.Google Scholar
  15. 101.
    The continuing currency of causal, physical models of sight is evidenced in Bartholomæus Anglicus’s Latin encyclopedia, De proprietatibus rerum (On the Properties of Things), compiled in c.1230–c.1240. By the end of the fourteenth century the text had been translated into French and English. John Trevisa’s translation (extant in eight manuscripts) has been edited by M. C. Seymour et al. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1975). See Book 3.17:’De sensu visus’ 108–13.Google Scholar
  16. 102.
    K. H. Tachau, ‘The Problem of the Species in Medio at Oxford in the Generation after Ockham’, Mediaeval Studies 44 (1982): 395.Google Scholar
  17. 118.
    Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle ’s De anima , trans. K. Foster and S. Humphries (London: Routledge, 1951), Lectio 14 on Bk II, par. 417.Google Scholar
  18. 122.
    Tachau, Vision and Certitude 34, n.20. On the historical specificity of the mind-body question, see also:W. I. Matson,’Why Isn’t the Mind-Body Problem Ancient?’ Mind, Matter and Method: Essays in Philosophy and Science in Honor of Herbert Feigl , ed. P. K. Feyerabend and G. Maxwell (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1966) 92–102; and H. Putnam,’How Old is the Mind?’ Words and Life ed. J. Conant (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), 3–21.Google Scholar
  19. 123.
    Bacon, Opus majus 1: 43–5 (2.5). Z. Kuksewicz outlines the major positions on this issue, including the variations within Bacon’s writings, in ‘The Potential and the Agent Intellect’, The Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy: From the Rediscovery of Aristotle to the Disintegration of Scholasticism 1100–1600 , ed. N. Kretzmann et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 595–601.Google Scholar

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© Suzannah Biernoff 2002

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  • Suzannah Biernoff

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