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Contemporary Philosophy


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



Early Modern Eyes edited by Walter S. Melion and Lee Palmer Wandel (Intersections Interdisciplinary Studies in Early Modern Culture: Brill Academic) In bringing together work on optic theory, ethnography, and the visual cultures of Christianity, this volume offers a sense of the richness and the complexity of early modern thinking about the human eye. The seven case studies explore the relationship between vision and knowledge, taking up such diverse artifacts as an emblem book, a Jesuit mariological text, Calvin's Institutes, Las Casas's Apologia, Hans Staden's True History, the Codex Telleriano-Remensis, and an exegetical painting by Herri met de Bles. Argued from different disciplinary perspectives, these essays pose crucial questions about the eyes, asking how they were construed as instruments of witnessing, perception, representation, cognition, and religious belief.

In Essay XII, Book II of his Essais, first published in 1580, Michel de Montaigne posed the question `Que sçay-je?' What do I know? It was not a question of quantity — which piece of information he might possess. As he made clear in the "Apology for Raymond Sebond", the key word in that question was the verb, know. At the end of roughly a century, which had begun with Columbus's 'discovery', he asked whether one could know anything at all. He had been witness to many of the challenges: the bitter and violent confrontations between Huguenots and Catholics over revealed truth; conflicting accounts of peoples and cultures across bodies of water; the smashing of images in churches; the disconnect between Pliny's system of visual organization of the natural world and unimagined animals, plants, and peoples. Between the arrival of Columbus's first letters and the death of Etienne de la Boétie, European eyes had been at the center. Discovery, iconoclasm, revelation, observation all presumed some kind of a direct relationship between the human eye and knowledge. And as Montaigne detailed so carefully, none took into account either the subjectivity of the eye or the role of prior knowledge in shaping what the eye could see.

In the seventeenth century, Descartes sought to formulate a durable answer to Montaigne's question, and Cartesianism — in which the mind is construed as a thing apart from body or things 'external' to the mind —seemed for three centuries to hold.' In the twentieth century, Cartesianism came under widespread and substantial criticism, opening new questions of perspective, the subjectivity of any epistemology, the role of images in cognition, and the relationship of body and mind.

Those questions have been taken up with particular fertility in the study of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Scholars in anthropology and ethnography, art history, geography and cartography, history, history of science, and national literatures have explored with deepening sophistication and sensitivity what might broadly be called the

subjective eye. In 1972, Michael Baxandall posited the notion of 'the period eye': the ways in which the perception of visual values — such as scale, perspective, texture, color, and line — was dialectically intertwined with contemporary social relations and economic practices.' In 1982, Anthony Pagden took up early modern ethnography and the categories, drawn predominantly from classical texts, Europeans brought to bear on their `witnessing'. In 1992, Stephen Greenblatt linked a growing body of work on wonder with the burgeoning study of the Columbian `encounter'. In 1994, Stuart Schwarz published a collection of essays on European 'visions' of other peoples, those peoples' `visions' of Europeans, blurring distinctions between 'perception' and 'observation'.

While Baxandall's conception of the 'period eye' had repercussions for work on Europeans' perceptions of the peoples of the Americas and elsewhere, penetrating scholarship on observation and perception, he was himself engaged with the interplay of eye and made object. He belonged to an extraordinary generation of art historians who returned to familiar images, who sought to move past the categories of analysis in which they had been trained — schools and masters, technique and realism — to explore a far more complex dialectic of eye and object. In 1965, Sixton Ringbom explored the relationship between what he called 'pictorial forms' and religious devotion.' In 1983, Svetlana Alpers challenged the criteria by which, in particular, images produced in the early modern Netherlands had been viewed and judged, arguing for an 'art of describing', as discrete from an Italian narrative art.' So, too, in 1983, Norman Bryson argued for a mutually informing interplay, a 'logic', between an image and what he called 'the gaze'. In 1990, Martin Kemp took up the ways in which images reflected and depicted the principles of optics operating in a particular society at a particular time, linking, as he said, science and art, in shared theories about the operating of the human eye.9

At once echoing and separate from this work in art history, a group of map historians began to explore maps as something made to shape perception, in this instance, of space.'" In 1987, J.B. Harley and David Woodward published the first volume of The History of Cartography: Cartography in Prehistoric, Ancient, and Medieval Europe and the Mediterranean."

In the very title, the two intended to mark a shift, from a history of maps to something far more complex. They and their contributors approached maps as complex cultural artifacts, which, at the simplest level, enabled them to include under the rubric 'map' a range of different kinds of images and objects. At a deeper level, that way of speaking about maps invited scholars of Asia, Latin America, Africa, and pre-modern periods to explore what certain cultural objects were seeking to 'represent', following Harley, through a system of signs that particular culture accepted as conventional.

Inspired in part by Walter Ong's work on the transition to print in the early modern period," historians explored the printed page as a seen object that itself shapes modes of cognition. In a series of essays, originally presented in the 1970s, collected and published in 1987, Roger Chartier explored the ways in which print — not simply texts, but their material form and its visualities — shaped thinking." Since

1987, Chartier has refined and extended his argument, detailing the ways in which the particular materialities of the codex or the physicalities of the print medium — front to back, right to left, columns, paragraphs, the spacing of words — have implications for how human beings organize as well as articulate their knowledge."'

Working in a number of different disciplines and along a number of different lines of inquiry, these scholars have called into question key terms in our thinking about the eye: the 'objectivity' of such visual values as perspective and balance; the relationship between observation or witnessing and subjectivity; the ways in which 'representation' implicates the eye of the beholder.

In the wake of their work, 'perspective' can be understood simultaneously as a system of signs arising in a mercantile culture and a way of conceptualizing individual sight. Perspective as system of converging lines situates the viewer in relationship to a two-dimensional image. At the same time, scholarship on the Columbian encounter/exchange situated perspective, physically, in persons it treated as members of historically specific cultures: sixteenth-century Europe, Aztec, Inca.

That scholarship enriched our thinking about 'representation' even more. In focusing attention on the words Europeans abroad chose to name what they said was before their eyes, scholarship on the 'new world' challenged any understanding of representation as something transparent or single-dimensional. Even as that group of scholars complicated representation as a relationship between words and the seen world, a separate group of scholars, following Ringbom's work, began bringing to bear on their analysis of devotional art the lens of contemporary theology. They drew upon a very different vocabulary to reconceptualize 'representation' in a culture that had so richly grappled with the doctrine of the Incarnation and its implications for made objects. Historians of cartography have argued persuasively that two- and three-dimensional 'representations' of the earth and the globe, of geographic space and human place," are equally epistemo logically complex, at once drawing upon a system of signs that are conventional in order to shape perception of space.

Even as this scholarship was first complicating our understanding of the relationship between the eye and object or other person —observation, witnessing, viewing, perception — and demonstrating the inadequacy of any simple model of 'reception', David Lindberg published Theories of Vision from Al-Kindi to Kepler. Gathering diverse theories of the anatomy of the eye, the physiology of the visual system, the mathematical principles of perspective and the psychology of visual perception together, Lindberg documented the plethora of modes of thinking about sight prior to Kepler's theory of the retinal image. Lindberg's careful descriptions of individual theories revealed not simply the absence of any single unified theory of optics prior to Kepler, but how very differently classical, Arabic, medieval, and early modern theorists of vision conceptualized the eye, the mechanics of sight, the mathematics of perspective, and visual perception.

In particular, Lindberg detailed distinctive theories of intromission —in which the object, which exists outside the eye somehow enters the eye, often through 'species' or lines of sight — and extramission — in which the eye reached out to the seen object in some way. In these theories, scholars found another set of conceptual coordinates to understand better early modern theories of perspective, representation, and the image and ways of conceiving visual cognition that moved past the model that currently underlies most work on modern vision. The notion that images entered the eye and through the eye, the mind, opened new ways of approaching first devotional images, and then other sorts of visible objects. While modern studies of visual culture and vision were normally built upon modern optics' model of the organism, early modern scholarship could explore alternative ways of conceptualizing what might be called visual cognition, in which made objects and the human eye were bound up together in a complex dynamic.

The models of the eye and of visual cognition delineated in Lind-berg's work also offered news ways of thinking about 'the invisible', both as an early modern concept and as a judgment modern scholars

had applied to early modern phenomena. Herbert Kessler, Klaus Kruger, Christine Göttler, and other art historians have explored the ways in which medieval and early modern artists sought to 'picture' (Kessler's term) or to make of the image a veil of the invisible (Kruger) or render in matter 'unseen spirits' (Gottler). In each of these studies, scholars drew upon a more complex conceptualization of visual cognition in order to explore the ways in which 'images' engaged through their materialities with that which, according to early modern Europeans, could not be seen. While eschewing Lindberg's argument for the plurality of models of visual perception, Stuart Clark has drawn upon Lindberg's argument for those models' essential difference from modern theories of optics to explore early modern notions of 'vision', primarily demonic and fantastic. Each of these scholars has brought new layers to our understanding of 'vision' and 'the invisible', and their relationship to cognition.

In the expanding interdisciplinarity of the past two decades this work was read in turn by people working in other disciplines and on other kinds of artifacts. That cross fertilization, which is very much evident in the essays collected in this volume, is leading to a wonderfully rich conceptualization of the human eye. Among early modernists, the eye links images and exploration, representation and the theology of Incarnation, optics and perspective, observation and cartography. That eye was the focus of a conference Walter Melion, Neil Whitehead, and I organized in 2006. The scholars we brought together came from anthropology and ethnography, art history, English and French literature, history of science, and history. Denis Cosgrove was to participate until his health made that impossible. His presence, I believe, is still visible in the work of a number of the contributors.

Even as I invoked 'the human eye', however, the work in this volume demonstrates there is not one 'early modern eye', but many eyes.

At one level, as many of these papers suggest, there was no shared visual education, not among Christians in Europe, not imposed by Europeans on subject colonial peoples. At another level, as Walter Melion suggests in his study of Peter Canisius's De Maria Virgine, within the continent of Europe, even among those who called themselves Catholic, there was no clear consensus, what the relationship between the human eye and the made object was — even as Canisius sought to shape what it should be. As Tom Conley suggests, sixteenth-century Europeans took up small and subtle visual cues to differentiate ways of seeing we are still in the process of delineating.

The following articles take up such diverse artifacts as a Jesuit marilogical text, cosmographies, Calvin's Institutes, Las Casas's Apologia, Hans Staden's Testimony, and the Codex Telleriano-Remensis. The sheer breadth of sources — from a guide for reading Scripture, through the testimony of a captive, to an illuminated manuscript produced in a Spanish colony — offers a kind of panopticon of the different venues in which early modern persons engaged with questions of the eye. Each object, text, artifact offers a different angle of approach, a different lens through which we might consider the eye. Each is, at the same time, a distinctive site in which questions of witnessing, perception, representation, cognition and the visual intersect uniquely.

The articles in this volume are not organized according to broad themes. They intersect and resonate with one another at a number of levels, resisting the efforts of an editor to sort them into clean categories. That, too, is one of the legacies of interdisciplinarity: the slow, and one might add, natural erosion of ancient boundaries that served to organize, here, a book. Instead, let me suggest here some of the intersections that link these articles. When read together, these articles resonate with one another, deepening the insights of one another through the reverberations, the echoes, of methods, terms, points of entry.

Witnessing and Representation: Neil Whitehead and José Rabasa explore the interplay of witnessing and translation in two very different artifacts. Whitehead draws upon his training as an ethnographer to explore the tension between Hans Staden's efforts to communicate the authenticity as well as the strangeness of his experience of the Tupi, and in particular, their anthropophagy, on the one hand, and, on the other, the woodcut illustrations of his Testimony, which negotiated visually between conventional signs and the unfamiliarity of what von Staden was claiming to have witnessed. Rabasa takes up a very different sort of artifact, the Codex Telleriano-Remensis, a manuscript illuminated

by a native artist, for the complexity of the witnessing there rendered in line, color, and sign. In so doing, he reveals a multi-layered interplay between subjectivity and sight. Michel Weemans interrogates 'the spectator' and with it, the act of visual exegesis, as they are instantiated in Herri met de Bles's "Landscape with David and Bathsheba".

Visual Epistemologies: Tom Conley analyzes images that accompanied Gilles Corrozet's Hécatomgraphie and different editions of Pieter Apian's Cosmographia as they reveal different ways of conceptualizing, as well as perceiving, oneself in the abstract space of the globe and the specific space of topography. Nicolás Wey-Gómez interrogates Bartholomé de Las Casas' conception of optics and its role in his effort to locate the cultures and peoples of the Americas within certain referents and not others.

Vision: Walter Melion explicates the image theory of Peter Canisius's De Maria Virgine, a text which sought to use images to shape both inner vision and perception of outward religious practice. My own piece takes up John Calvin and Michel de Montaigne and their critique of the models of eye and brain upon which natural theology rested.

In bringing together work on optic theory, ethnography, the visual cultures of Christianity, cosmography and topography, the volume hopes to offer a sense of the richness and the complexity of early modern thinking about the human eye. In bringing together discussions of vision, representation, witnessing, and the relationship between vision and knowledge, it hopes to restore something of the complexity of their intersections in the early modern world.


A Companion to Early Modern Philosophy by Steven M. Nadler (Blackwell Companions to Philosophy: Blackwell) is a comprehensive guide to the most significant philosophers and philosophical concepts of seventeenth‑ and eighteenth‑century Europe . The individual chapters, written by leading scholars in the field, represent the most up-to-date research in the history of early modern philosophy.
These newly commissioned essays span a wide range of philosophical areas and problems, including metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of science, ethics, political philosophy, and aesthetics. Each presents a general overview of the thought of each figure and provides the reader with an accessible but sophisticated account of the philosopher's basic ideas.

A Companion to Early Modern Philosophy includes biographical information on each philosopher, a bibliographical guide, and a list of works for further reading. It will be an invaluable resource for students and professionals alike.

The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries represent an extraordinarily rich period for philosophy in Western Europe . This is due not only to the fortuitous appearance of individuals of great natural genius -- Descartes, Leibniz, Newton, et al. -- but also, in no small part, to a confluence of various historical, intellectual, spiritual and even material factors; the rise of the new modern science, with its devotion to clear and fruitful mechanistic explanations of natural phenomena, along with the devel­opment of sophisticated conceptions of experiment and theory and consequent re­formulations of the canons of knowledge; the radical rethinking of the cosmos entailed by new developments and discoveries in particular sciences, especially physics and astronomy; the culture‑shock generated by the relatively recent confrontation by the West with theretofore unknown civilizations half a world away; the proliferation of centers of learning and channels of communication; and, not the least, the Protestant Reformation of the previous century, combined with the reac­tionary forces of the counter‑Reformation.

In addition to all of these factors, some of which existed in tension with each other, there are also the important changes that took place in the social context of philosophizing itself. During the Middle Ages, philosophizing took place in the arts faculties of the schools and colleges ‑ where ethics, logic, metaphysics, and physics were taught ‑ and in the theological faculties of the universities. It thus came under the direct and censorious scrutiny of the Church. By the seventeenth century, how­ever, although it was still the case that anyone who would earn a living by doing philosophical thinking and writing had either to belong to a university faculty or to teach in a college, it had become more common to find original philosophical minds working outside the strictures of the university ‑ i.e., ecclesiastic ‑ framework. Newton , to be sure, did have a professorship at Cambridge ; Berkeley was an Angli­can bishop, and Arnauld and Malebranche were Catholic priests. But Spinoza was an excommunicated Jew; Leibniz was employed as a librarian, diplomatic adviser and historian to German dukes; and Bacon, Descartes, Locke, Hume and many others were what would today be called "independent scholars." At the end of the sixteenth century, in other words, although there had already been a number of independent thinkers of great importance (such as Erasmus, Machiavelli and Pico della Mirandola), philosophy was still, for the most part, under the aegis of ecclesiastics and their schools; by the end of the eighteenth century, it was a secular enterprise. Part of the reason for this may, in fact, have been that philosophers who sought to break out of the prevailing orthodoxy sought to create for themselves some space, and even institutions, for philosophizing outside of the universities.

On the other hand, I do not want to suggest that there is a radical discontinuity between early modern philosophy and what went before. The history of philosophy tends not to proceed by large‑scale paradigm shifts. Descartes and his colleagues did indeed take themselves to be instigating a renewal of philosophy; but it is also the case that both the structure and the content of much of their philosophy has at least one foot in the scholastic mindset in which they were educated and against which they were reacting. They could not leave the influence and the material of the schools entirely behind, even if their intention was to move philosophy well beyond them.

What we tend to think of now as "philosophy," a broad but relatively precise discipline distinct from what we call "the sciences" and "religion" and character­ized by certain kinds of (apparently unresolvable) questions, would have struck an early modern thinker as unreasonably narrow. The term "philosophy" included in the seventeenth century a great deal more than it does today, including much of what we take to be the physical and biological sciences. The makeup of the world around us ‑ both the terrestrial and celestial realms ‑ was, in the early modern period, as much an object of the philosopher's attention as the logical structure of an argument, the conception of the good life and metaphysical questions about being. Natural science was, indeed, simply "natural philosophy." Similarly, when studying the thought of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, we would do wrong to separate those figures who are properly "philosophical" from those who are "theologians" or "political theorists" or "jurists." The study of early modern philosophy demands that we pay attention to a wide variety of questions and an expansive pantheon of thinkers: the traditional canonical figures (Descartes, Spi­noza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume), to be sure, but also a large "supporting cast," including Christian apologists, mechanistic chemists, Jansenist polemicists, political pamphleteers, country priests, rabbinical messianists, and intellectually gifted queens, princesses and noblewomen.

As the editor of this volume, I have tried to insure that the essays reflect these facts, and that the reader will get a reasonably fair sense of the richness and variety of philosophy in the period. Of course, not all of the philosophers discussed in the chapters that follow are of equal significance. As essential as it is to be ecumenical in deciding whom to include, it would be absurd to treat all figures and movements as being of the same importance. Thus, a number of thinkers are given essays of their own, some longer than others; other thinkers are incorporated into extended discussions of movements or context. Another editor might have done things differ­ently in these regards; and a discussion of that question would be of great value in its own right.

Two particular questions about inclusion, however, do need to be addressed briefly here. Naturally, the division of the history of a field into distinct periods involves a great deal of arbitrariness. Why should the early modern period in philosophy begin with Descartes and Bacon, for example, rather than with Erasmus and Montaigne? (How, in fact, are we supposed to separate "early modern" thought from that of the late Renaissance?) And why should it end just before Kant rather than, say, with Hegel? There are no answers to these questions that will satisfy everyone. Suffice it to say that at the beginning of the seventeenth century, and especially with Bacon and Descartes, certain questions and concerns come to the fore ‑ a variety of issues that motivated the inquiries and debates that would characterize much philosophical thinking for the next two centuries. As for Kant, the only reasonable answer that comes to mind is that Kant's philosophy does indeed represent so much of a break from what went before that it seems more of a new beginning than the culmination of a preceding tradition.Perhaps less arbitrary, and certainly ‑ in terms of realistically containing the scope of this book ‑ practically necessary, is the limitation of our geographical attention to Western Europe. In many respects, it is the Western European philoso­phers in the early modern period who set the agenda for philosophy today as it is practiced in much of the English‑speaking world (and the French‑, German‑, Italian‑, Spanish‑, and Dutch‑speaking worlds as well) ‑ not only with regard to its aims and problems, but also in terms of method. Moreover, confining our attention to this part of the world in this particular time period, and starting and ending with these specific philosophers and movements, is also useful for allowing some kind of narrative unity ‑ or, better, a series of narrative unities ‑ to emerge from the essays. The history of philosophy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Western Europe contains a number of very interesting stories, stories that readers will see develop not only in individual chapters, but especially as they carry on through a number of essays. Some of these are success stories; others are tales of failure. All of them are enlightening for what they tell us about the practice of philosophy not only in the period, but also today.

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