Thesis ID: CBB896696901

The Art of Signs: Symbolic Notation and Visual Thinking in Early Modern Europe, 1600-1800 (2019)


O'Neil, Sean Thomas (Author)
Smith, Pamela H. (Advisor)

Columbia University
Smith, Pamela H.
Publication date: 2019
Language: English

Publication Date: 2019
Physical Details: 480

During the early modern period, practitioners in oftentimes unrelated arts and sciences began to experiment with transcribing and disseminating technical information by means of new symbolic notations. Algebra, music, chemistry, dance—whole fields of knowledge were quite literally rewritten with plus signs, treble clefs, affinity tables, and step symbols. “The Art of Signs” examines why early modern people working within and across disciplinary boundaries converged on the idea that developing complex symbolic notations would ultimately be worthwhile by reconstructing the reasons that they gave for doing so. It argues that symbolic notations appealed because they enabled powerful techniques of “visual thinking” that had no analogue in more conventional methods of inquiry. Notations transformed problems of information into problems of visualization whose solutions could then be derived by manipulating the properties of the drawn, two-dimensional plane. Indeed, early modern proponents of notations frequently described them in terms of vision, of being able to “see” things with them that they had not recognized before. However, because established methods of reasoning were predominantly verbal or empirical, symbolic notations and the visual thinking that they entailed necessarily challenged received ideas about how information ought to be represented and how knowledge ought to be discovered. Critics of the new notations argued that, at best, they amounted to a form of intellectual obscurantism that stymied rather than facilitated the circulation of knowledge. At worst, notations harbored disturbing implications for human ingenuity if the generation of new ideas truly could be reduced to the ranging and rearranging of symbols on a piece of paper. All told, “The Art of Signs” argues that early modern debates about the use and abuse of symbolic notations represent an underappreciated component of the epistemological ruptures that characterize the Scientific Revolution. Moreover, by recovering early modern understandings of symbolic notation, this dissertation demonstrates that a historical treatment of early modern semiotic thought can be leveraged to take a fresh look at perennial questions of representation that concern scholars across the humanities.

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Authors & Contributors
Bellissima, Fabio
Coppola, Al
Couchman, Jane
Eddy, Matthew Daniel
Maclean, Ian
McIver, Katherine A.
Bollettino di Storia delle Scienze Matematiche
Ambix: Journal of the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry
Eighteenth-Century Studies
European Legacy
Foundations of Chemistry
Isis: International Review Devoted to the History of Science and Its Cultural Influences
Ashgate Publishing
Cambridge University Press
Cambridge Univ. Press
Princeton University Press
University of Virginia Press
Drama, dance, and performing arts
Visual representation; visual communication
Signs and symbols
Dalton, John
Evelyn, John
Galilei, Galileo
Pepys, Samuel
Corazzi, Ercole
Time Periods
17th century
Early modern
18th century
16th century
19th century
Great Britain
New Orleans (Louisiana, U.S.)

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