Theses Doctoral

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

O'Neil, Sean Thomas

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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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Smith, Pamela H.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 16, 2019