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Words, Lines, Diagrams, Images: Towards a History of Scientific Imagery

In: Early Science and Medicine
Authors:
Alexis Smets Faculty of Philosophy, Radboud University Nijmegen, P.O. Box 9103, NL—6500 HD Nijmegen, The Netherlands

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Christoph Lüthy Faculty of Philosophy, Radboud University Nijmegen, P.O. Box 9103, NL—6500 HD Nijmegen, The Netherlands

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Abstract

This essay examines the problems encountered in contemporary attempts to establish a typology of medieval and early modern scientific images, and to associate apparent types with certain standard meanings. Five particular issues are addressed here: (i) the unclear boundary between words and images; (ii) the problem of morphologically similar images possessing incompatible meanings; (iii) the converse problem of comparable objects or processes being expressed by extremely dissimilar visual means; (iv) the impossibility of matching modern with historical iconographical terminologies; and (v) the fact that the meaning of a given image can only be grasped in the context of the epistemological, metaphysical and social assumptions within which it is embedded. The essay ends by concluding that no scientific image can ever be understood apart from its philosophical preconditions, and that these preconditions are often explained during disputes between the protagonists of different iconographical types.

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