East Asia history of science

Remembering MERS in South Korea: Mobilizing Experience of Epidemic Disease

By John DiMoia
Figure One: Poster at Incheon Airport requesting passengers with MERS symptoms to report themselves to public health authorities (author’s photo: June 2015, Incheon, ROK).

With South Korean elections held in mid-April (April 15th), one of the major issues became the Moon Jae-in government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis. Though briefly one of the world’s leading countries in terms of the number of cases as of mid-February, the nation has since earned international praise for its ability to “flatten the curve,” quickly reducing the number of cases through an intensive testing and tracing program. Indeed, the government has been quick to claim credit for the collective response of its public health workers, earning public trust, and aiming for electoral success. Still, the question remains: which experiences in the Korean past contributed to this impressive output? Could it be, as some have suggested, that the experience of SARS played a role?

Following the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak of 2003, governments throughout the greater East and Southeast Asian region mobilized the lessons they claim to have “learned from SARS.” This was certainly the case with H1N1 (2009) in Singapore; and later, with the MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak which took place in South Korea (2015). Although the analogy to SARS is understandable, an easily available comparison, I suggest here that there are much richer possibilities in the Korean past for understanding the present circumstances of COVID-19. Although SARS is clearly an important precedent, the disease carries with it a great deal of ideological baggage, seeking to blame China specifically for a failure to ensure reliable reporting of cases, and for a corresponding failure to be transparent and maintain communication with international institutions. It was MERS, rather than SARS, which helped to reshape the South Korean experience, especially as it surprised a large number of people, including those in charge of the public health system.

Public Health: Origins in Successive Crises
Before touching on MERS, we should first recall the spread of epidemic disease in the late 1940s as the formative context for public health in Northeast Asia, especially following the closing weeks of World War Two. Japan neglected the peninsula’s infrastructure in the later war years, given the need to fight on multiple fronts. In 1945 and following, with the Korean War (1950-1953) soon to come, the migration of refugees between China, Japan, and South Korea led to frequent outbreaks of cholera and typhus. The joint occupations of Japan (1945-1952) and South Korea (1945-1948), along with the resumption of China’s civil conflict (1945-1949), heightened concerns for American military authorities. During the Korean War, the hanta virus, manifesting itself in the form of hemorrhagic fever, led to kidney ailments for combatants regardless of their ideology, and some historians have speculated about linking this development to Chinese and North Korean allegations of biological warfare. As a coda to this story, Dr Ho Wang Lee, a Korean physician, isolated the virus in 1976, bringing a successful result to a quest beginning with the war.

If the rapid spread of epidemic disease in the region lingers powerfully in Korean memory, a related point concerns the South Korean public health system as an ongoing set of bureaucratic institutions, a significant number of which derive their origins in part from late Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945) and the subsequent period of Korean military rule (1961-1987). The period spanning the late 1940s through the 1970s witnessed the gradual introduction of national health insurance (1963, 1977), with major reforms coinciding with the arrival of democratization (1989). At about the same time (1954-1960) as the earliest forms of health insurance, many South Korean hospitals received international aid in the aftermath of the Korean War, and began transforming their approach to clinical practice with new resources and medical pedagogy from Europe (Norway, Sweden, and Denmark) and the United States (University of Minnesota). If South Korea now possesses biomedical facilities more than capable of handling any crisis, the practices and institutional norms at these sites were nonetheless acquired under very different conditions at mid-20th century. This was medical care directed at an emergency situation, one filled with refugees, bodies, and the exigencies associated with wartime conditions and its immediate aftermath.

With these difficult circumstances, beginning in the late 1950s, South Korea pursued a series of ambitious national health campaigns, first targeting chronic disease, such as leprosy, tuberculosis, and malaria, often working in conjunction with the WHO (World Health Organization). These campaigns were followed by additional schemes, associated with a heavy dose of social engineering, here including Family Planning (1964-mid 1980s), and Anti-Parasite Campaigns (1968-early 1990s). Once again, efforts were carefully coordinated with international partners and institutions, including the Population Council and Japanese technical cooperation (JICA, Japan International Cooperation Agency). Moreover, the second of these campaign, targeting parasites, focused on school-age children, requiring them to submit stool samples on a bi-annual basis, with teachers collecting the “data” before it was analyzed. The stories from these campaigns indicate that there was a good deal of unfamiliarity with the Korean state’s goals, and sometimes, embarrassed students avoided school, or submitted a pet’s sample in place of their own. Only through concerted efforts, including posters, print ads, and public outreach could the government make its public health intentions clear. The generations of Koreans raised in the post-Korean War era through the early 1980s soon learned to become familiar with frequent health interventions (inspections, vaccinations, samples), whether at school, the office, or comparable public institutions.

The MERS Mishap (May-June 2015)
Give this successful legacy of national campaigns, and a developmental trajectory often assumed to be “progressive,” the MERS scenario began modestly, with health authorities assuming that it would not represent a major problem. The disease was framed as a “foreign” problem, with MERS manifesting itself in 2012, and only three years later appearing in Korea. Posters placed at Incheon airport, and also at rail and bus stations, typically depicted a camel and a palm tree (see Figure One) to underscore the external nature of the virus, which would require a Korean to travel through the region to be exposed. One famous poster illustrated the disease with a bactrian, or two-humped camel (see Figure Two), which is not the species associated with the spread of MERS. A relaxed attitude, and the freedom of movement permitted to possible cases, caught the system by surprise, leading to a genuine health problem, and a related political problem for the government of President Park Geun-hye. This series of events soon became the largest outbreak of MERS to occur outside its original setting.

Figure Two: South Korean poster illustrated with a two-hump Bactrian camel (author’s photo).

The diverse stories emerging during the spread of MERS illustrate a strong continuity with earlier historical developments, as the first patient traveled to four hospitals over a nine-day period, seeking a diagnosis, with uncertain symptoms. In the course of this movement, this individual, along with others to follow, some of whom broke quarantine, infected surrounding individuals, and also the surrounding space of health care facilities. In turn, after the outbreak became public knowledge, Korean patients sought to gain access to major health facilities in Seoul, often with crowded, inhospitable conditions in the wards. The structural inequities of the nation’s health care system—the rural / urban divide, geographical isolation, access to public health care in a system strongly favoring its more lucrative, private side—are certainly not new, and very likely exacerbated conditions as MERS made its way rapidly through hospitals, ultimately killing thirty-eight individuals, out of one hundred eighty-five confirmed cases. The largest MERS outbreak to take place outside of the Middle East, this incident served as a critical wake-up call.

Figure Three: Sign posted in a Korean church, southern Seoul, asking church-goers to understand that the facilities are temporarily unavailable due to COVID-19 (author’s photo, March 2020).

As South Korea grapples with COVID-19, receiving a great deal of praise for its series of rapid testing, drive-in checkpoints, contact tracing, and the distribution of masks, we should remember that these developments cannot be attributed to culture, a set of attitudes, or be credited to a narrow set of political interests. If it is reasonable to screen for elevated temperature and related symptoms, we also need to be careful about assuming ready consent upon the part of all Koreans, and to recognize that much of the domestic criticism of the Moon Jae-in government does not make the international press. In fact, the link of the virus to the Shincheonji church has been controversial, with some elderly Koreans complaining about their treatment, and the disruption of church services (see Figure Three).

Ultimately, the MERS outbreak in the region, tied to a longstanding legacy of institutional and structural inequities, brought much-needed attention to these kinds of issues within the Korean health system. A bureaucracy with a lengthy history, health care in South Korea derives from the period of transition following colonialism and two wars—Korean participation in Vietnam (1964-1973) was also extensive, and featured the nation’s first overseas medical outreach—and it holds onto a deeply ingrained set of practices, many of which require periodic updating. MERS became the critical factor calling attention to this need, and the renewed practices of 2020 started only in the intervening period, especially the use of rapid and effective testing.

When it became apparent that Korea would be affected by China’s circumstances in mid to late January 2020, there was a rapid turnaround in terms of implementing many of these newer measures. In particular, the use of credit card data, allowing for tracking of purchases, and by extension, an individual’s movements, became a core part of the new approach, a measure first adopted following the MERS quarantine breaks. If there has been controversy, and continues to be, over this concession and the use of phone / credit data, many Koreans treat it as a worthwhile trade-off under emergency conditions. In fact, the Korean government has been extremely careful to avoid claims of targeting, especially with the church, given that former President Park Geun-hye continues to maintains strong support among groups such as the elderly and evangelical Christians.

Coda: This analysis was written prior to the ROK elections held on April 15,,2020. The ruling party of President Moon went on to win an electoral majority. The ROK government has since issued its version of the COVID-19 story as a pamphlet, and it can be found here:

How Korea responded to a pandemic using ICT: Flattening the curve on COVID-19

Suggested Readings:

John DiMoia is Associate Professor in the Department of Korean History at Seoul National University. He is the author of Reconstructing Bodies: Biomedicine, Health, and Nation-Building in South Korea since 1945 (Stanford University Press / WEAI 2013), and with Hiromi Mizuno and Aaron S Moore, one of the co-editors of Engineering Asia: Technology, Colonial Development and the Cold War Order (Bloomsbury / WEAI 2018).

Ancient history of science Intellectual history

Genres of Math: Arithmetic, Algebra, and Algorithms in Ancient Egyptian Mathematics

By contributing author E.L. Meszaros

As non-native readers of Egyptian hieratic and hieroglyphics, our understanding of the mathematics recorded in these languages must necessarily go through a process of translation. Such translation is both necessary to allow us to study these problems, but also precarious. If done improperly, it can prevent us from true understanding. One way that we approach translating Egyptian math problems is by grouping them into genres, using categorization to aid in our translation by thinking about problems as algebraic or geometric equations, crafting them into algorithms, or piecing together word problems from their prose. If the process of understanding Egyptian math problems relies so heavily on translation, and translation in turn is influenced by categorization, then we must consider how our processes of categorization impact our understanding of ancient Egyptian math. 

The necessity of translation for the modern study of ancient mathematics has been the source of a great schism within the community. In an infamous 1975 paper, Unguru argued that one of the unintentional consequences of translation was the attribution of algebraic thinking to these ancient cultures. Mathematicians and historians tend to translate the word problems of ancient Iraq or Egypt into the abstracted symbolic statements we are familiar with today. This has helped us to better understand ancient mathematical ideas, but has also done a disservice to the math itself. The process of abstraction manipulated the geometry or arithmetic of ancient math into algebra, a way of examining mathematical problems that Unguru argued these ancient cultures never used (78).

Image of a fragment of the Moscow Papyrus showing problem 14 on how to calculate the volume of a frustum. The top portion shows the original hieratic, which has been translated below into Egyptian hieroglyphics.

However, others have pushed back against Unguru. Van der Waerden suggests that Unguru has misunderstood “algebra” by attributing such importance to the symbolic representation of data. Rather, van der Waerden emphasizes the convenience of symbols as a way of interpreting, analyzing, and comparing data, rather than the structural language of understanding data (205). Freudenthal similarly takes umbrage with Unguru’s understanding of what algebra is. “Symbols,” he writes, “…are not the objects of mathematics…but rather they are part of the language by which mathematical objects are represented” (192).

We can compare the strict translation of an Egyptian word problem to its algebraic translation by looking at problem 14 of the Moscow Papyrus.

Prose English translation:
Method of calculating a / ̄\.
If you are told a / ̄\ of 6 as height, of 4 as lower side, and of 2 as upper side.
You shall square these 4. 16 shall result.
You shall double 4. 8 shall result.
You shall square these 2. 4 shall result.
You shall add the 16 and the 8 and the 4. 28 shall result. 
You shall calculate  ̅3 of 6. 2 shall result.
You shall calculate 28 times 2. 56 shall result.
Look, belonging to it is 56. What has been found by you is correct. (Translation by Imhausen 33)

Algebraic Translation:
V = 6 (22 + (2*4) + 42)/3

Abstracted Algebraic Translation:
V = h (a2 + ab + b2)/3
h (height) = 6
a (base a) = 2
b (base b) = 4
V = volume

The algebraic translations are at once easier to take in but also visibly shorter, clearly missing information that the prose translation contains.

As an alternative to these translation techniques, Imhausen proposes the use of algorithms. Imhausen suggests that we translate Egyptian mathematical problems into a “defined sequence of steps” that contain only one individual instruction (of the type “add,” “subtract,” etc.) (149). These algorithms can still represent math problems in multiple ways. A numerical algorithm preserves the individual values used within Egyptian problems, while a symbolic form abstracts the actual numbers into placeholders (152). 

Numeric Algorithmic Translation:

  1. 42 = 16
  2. 4 x 2 = 8
  3. 22 = 4
  4. 16 + 8 + 4 = 28
  5.  ̅3 x 6 = 2
  6. 2 x 28 = 56

Here the first three numerical values are the given bases and height from the problem. The unfamiliar ” ̅3″ is the standard way of writing a fraction of 3, namely 1/3, in ancient Egyptian math.

Symbolic Algorithmic Translation:

  1. D22
  2. D2 x D3
  3. D32
  4. (1) + (2) + (3)
  5.  ̅3 x D1
  6. (5) x (4)

Drawing out the scaffolding of the problem by defining such algorithms allows scholars to easily compare math problems. The abstraction into symbols, the removal of extraneous information, and the sequential rendering allow us to more easily notice variation or similarity between problems (“Algorithmic Structure” 153). Imhausen suggests that identifying the substructure encoded beneath the language of presentation allows us to compare individual math problems not only with each other, to generate groups of mechanisms for solving and systems of similar problems, but also to look cross-culturally. Breaking down problems from Mesopotamia, China, and India may reveal similarities in their underlying algorithmic structures (158). 

The generation of algorithmic sequences from Egyptian word-based math problems does not solve all of our translation problems, however. Any act of translation, no matter how close it remains to the original language, is a choice that necessitates forgoing certain options. It also allows for the insertion of biases on the part of the translator themselves—or rather, such insertion is unavoidable.

In the example from the Moscow Papyrus, for example, the initial given values of the frustum are not specifically identified. The images from the original problem are missing, as are the verbs for the mathematical operations. Imhausen herself points out that this algorithmic form reduces some interesting features. The verb “double” in the original problem, for example, is replaced with “x 2” in the algorithmic translation (75). Making these changes requires us to confront the choice between algorithmic structure and staying true to the source material. “Fixing” these differences allows us to more easily compare math problems, but also presumes that we know what was intended.

The translation of Egyptian math problems into schematic algorithmic sequences is, therefore, not without its own set of problems. While Imhausen claims that they avoid some of the pitfalls of translation into algebraic equations that have so divided the community (158), algorithm interpretations are still likely to present the material in a way that differs from how ancient mathematicians thought about their own material. However, when applied carefully, such mapping may provide valid interpretations of these texts and a focal point for comparison.

Thinking about the genre of translation, the use of algebraic or geometric or algorithmic tools to interpret ancient math, is important for a number of reasons. We have already seen that the choice of genre impacts ease of understanding. Modern scholars used to thinking about math problems in an algebraic format will, unsurprisingly, read algebraic translations more easily. But these choices also impact what aspects of the original we preserve — algebraic translations lose information about the order of operations and remove the language used to present the problem.

However, paying attention to generic classification can also prevent us from reading ancient math problems with the “Western” lens. While algebraic interpretations are an artifact of modern scholarship, they are also an artifact of European scholarship. Too often the idea of geometry is put forward as an entirely Greek invention, while algebra is thought of as belonging to Renaissance Europe. By privileging these ways of thinking about ancient math problems we may be inherently white-washing native Egyptian thinking. Prioritizing algebraic interpretations, even if they aid in understanding, work to translate Egyptian math into the more familiar “Western” vernacular. Instead, scholars should work with the unfamiliar and think about these math problems without filtering them through these modern concepts.

Regardless of who one sides with in the debate between algebra and arithmetic, prose and algorithm, we must be cognizant of the fact that categorizing ancient Egyptian math is a conscious choice that influences how these problems are understood. Much like the act of translation itself, categorization is a process that is inherently influenced by the biases—intentional or otherwise—of the scholar. There may be nothing wrong with thinking about Moscow 14 in terms of an algebraic equation as long as we understand that this is an act of translation from the original and, therefore, reflects a reduced understanding of the native problem itself and incorporates aspects of the translator’s biases.

Which is all to say: tread carefully, because even numbers are not immune to the bias of translation.

E.L. Meszaros is a PhD student in the History of the Exact Sciences in Antiquity at Brown University. Her research focuses on the language used to talk about science, particularly as this language is transmitted between cultures and across time.

art history history of science Intellectual history philosophy

French Symbolism and the Origins of Analytic Philosophy

On the face of it, art historian Andrei Pop, in his latest book, A Forest of Symbols: Art, Science and Truth in the Long Nineteenth Century (Zone Books, 2019), sets out to achieve something rather concrete—a reevaluation of the French symbolist movement in art—and yet the reader soon becomes aware that much more is at stake, as Pop weaves together art history with an account of early analytic philosophy to raise questions about the very nature of truth and human ways of meaning-making in artistic and scientific practice, which are further explored in this interview with David Kretz.

A Forest of Symbols: Art, Science, and Truth in the Long Nineteenth Century begins by characterizing a type of mid-19th-century reductionism about the self and the mental that finds expression, for example, in Ernst Mach’s psychologistic philosophy and impressionist painting, which, roughly speaking, presents the viewer with sensations of color pigments rather than with objects. You then establish a surprising parallel between two counter-reactions to this Zeitgeist: symbolist art and early analytic philosophy, especially Frege and the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus. Can you sketch the parallel in their responses for us?

The predominance of positivism and various forms of mechanistic philosophy and science, including physiological psychology, was no ideological conspiracy but a result of real progress: the invention of analytic chemistry, the refinement of celestial mechanics, and the rapid strides in comparative anatomy, microbiology, and the rest, crowned as we still think by Darwinian evolutionary theory. To say nothing of practical gains from pasteurization to electricity. This materialist front faltered a little when confronting the mind and subjectivity, but here too advances were legion: from the study of the eye and physiologic color to the psychology of counting and their manifold applications, from calculators to color printing, early motion pictures, and, yes, realist and impressionist painting. These art practices, of course, were not always understood as reductive, but insofar as they were—as they answered to the decree of “paint only what you see”—they fit the positivist lockstep.

Only they also produced weirdness: what an impressionist ‘saw’, made up as it was of blocky saturated brushstrokes, differed markedly from what anyone else saw, live or through a camera. So the act of translating vision to canvas produced an effect different in kind. At the same time, positivism was of little help in the foundations of arithmetic, or physics, where explaining natural law mechanistically and psychologically (a tendency called “psychologism” on the model of scientism—taking psychology beyond its field of application) led to theories of numbers as consensual hallucinations, or meaningless counters in a game. This self-undermining nature of positivism—its search for verification leading always to unstable mental states that could deceive the verifier—naturally led to revolt among ambitious scientists from Boltzmann to Cantor. The revolts tended to assert the reality of things unseen and strictly unseeable: whether infinite sets (Bolzano) or irrational numbers (Weierstrass) or both of these (Dedekind, Cantor, Frege). This is a reformed Platonism, because it doesn’t point us to the perfect Bed in the sky, but to what is necessary for there to be anything at all—the laws of arithmetic describe any possible universe. They certainly underlie the mathematical natural science on which positivism relied while undermining it.

It is perhaps surprising then that the scientific revolt against equating truth with the perceptible or verifiable, which issued in mathematical logic and philosophy of language that you call “early analytic philosophy”, also made room for domains inaccessible to it, what it called the subjective realm, which stretched from color perception and proprioception to poetic nuance to aesthetic judgment. If we identify the later tradition with the elimination of subjectivity and a nearly algorithmic commitment to the application of logic to philosophical problems, we may, ironically, regard Frege and the young Russell and Wittgenstein as backward Romantics, because they sought to delimit objective sense and laws from realms of radical subjectivity that separate each mind from each other: the very notion of private language, which the older Wittgenstein violently rejected. The philosophical point of this book is to show that the objective requires the subjective as a foil if it is to play the scientific role late nineteenth-century philosophers assigned to it, not to mention to become accessible through our perceptual apparatus in new kinds of mathematical and logical symbolism. As for the symbolist artists, they frankly acknowledged that the mind contributes as much as the hand in reproducing reality, so that continuous color and contour, which impressionism and the opticians had rejected as found nowhere in nature, reappear as signs of our subjective activity as perceivers as much as our logical activity organizing percepts into objects. The category of the image serves as a useful beacon, joining theoretical speculation to plastic art: it is structured sense itself, distinct from and mediating between the concrete things embodying it and whatever else, concrete or abstract, they stand for or refer to. But once one has noticed the affinity between the artistic and philosophical project, there is no reason to leave out photographers, realist painters, or romantic poets like Poe, when one finds them engaged in a project of exploring the interface between the logically objective, or public world, and the private, subjective worlds which Heraclitus already said we each possess.

Édouard Manet, Illustration for Stéphane Mallarmé’s translation of “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe, 1875

You agree with historians of science like Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison that there is an artistic aspect to scientific practices of observation and documentation, for example, but want to also claim the inverse: that artworks are, in a sense, truth-apt and logical. Truth in art, moreover, on your view lies not so much in its power to disclose a world (Heidegger, Gadamer). Rather your concept of truth in art seems to follow along representationalist lines: Frege and the early Wittgenstein. Could you tell us more about your understanding of truth—in art, in science? Are they the same? Is truth in art the same as meaningfulness?

The opposition between disclosive and representationalist accounts of truth requires some scrutiny. I take it by the latter you have in mind the view that sentences or images build up models of reality, which we compare with their referent and judge to be true in case the representation corresponds to reality. Frege in fact denied that such a view is generally applicable to pictures—as he pointed out, we would only call a picture of Cologne Cathedral “true” in this sense if we appended the sentence “the cathedral looks like this”, so that what we are really judging true is the sentence. But then he went further and pointed out that the correspondence theory doesn’t explain truth in language either! For if you ask just what makes this sentence correspond to reality, and I provide an answer, you can still ask whether the answer is true, which on the correspondence theory would lead to asking for another object of correspondence (not of the sentence, but of the sentence asserting the truth of the sentence), and thus a vicious regress. So correspondence will not explain truth in general: but it certainly plays a role in much everyday language and imagery, from ID cards to IOUs.

So it won’t do to dismiss representation altogether and insist on elevated uses of “world-disclosing” language and images: it matters whether I owe you or you owe me a sum of money, just as it should matter to the disclosing of a peasant world whether, say, a pair of boots painted by Van Gogh belonged (are painted as belonging) to a peasant woman or not. What matters still has to do with the language or the image: these are logically articulated, which needn’t mean reducible to language. What it does mean is: properly interpreted, it is responsive to true or false propositions about it. This is how a picture differs from the object which is its bearer, as it differs from a stone or a leaf, which are neither meaningful nor potentially true or false, though we can say meaningful, true or false things about them. As for the worry that pictures allow for multiple plausible interpretations, that doesn’t differentiate them from language qualitatively, only quantitatively. A picture might seem awfully ambiguous about, say, the intentions of the person it portrays, but it is merely compatible with several different ones. In turn, a sentence describing a face, as Lessing noticed, is endlessly more ambiguous than even a crude visual image of that face. Logically articulated, then, in every domain, means something like this: the object would mean different things if it were structured otherwise.

Likewise, context matters: language abounds in indexical expressions whose full significance (as opposed to linguistic meaning) depends on who is speaking and listening, and the sense of images may depend on assumptions about who is looking, what goes on beyond the frame of the picture, and so on. This is why I like to say that a historian may not be a Platonist, but a Platonist must be a historian: you never reach mind-independent meaning from a historical artifact unless you account for specific human conventions and acts. As for truth, that is once again a further step: it is not objects as such, but the thoughts they provoke, which are true or false. The only guaranteed truths are the tautologies held in such suspicion by Wittgenstein—which are perfectly respectable logical truths, true solely due to their structure (the same goes for contradictions, which are necessarily false). As for other thoughts, their truth and falsity depends not so much on correspondence to fact (which, inconveniently, tends to ape the representational content of the thought), but on what they really mean. Again artifact and world, structure and context interlock, while remaining very much distinct.

And that is why images, and not just texts or scientific sentences, may be logically articulate: it’s because they are interesting, eventful. The Nelson Goodman line, according to which pictures are just analog color gradients with no structure, is as implausible as Heidegger’s speculations on peasant shoes, which he claims are accessible only in looking at a Van Gogh painting, but which in fact can only be had by reading Heidegger. In order for this kind of art theory to reestablish contact with ordinary acts of looking, and with communication between lookers, and their other intellectual activities (including science), logical structure has to be recognized wherever it is found. It is naturally rather unevenly distributed among meaningful artifacts (perspectival pictures may be dreadful at tense, but they are far better than sentences at describing spaces, and both are terrible at clarifying inferences). We also have to recognize and respect the incommunicable aspect of each subject’s experience, which we can sense rather than verify and which I suspect is what drives the world-disclosing philosophers to their premature attempts at disclosure.

Is there anything that would make an artwork logically inarticulate? Would you rule out the possibility of interesting, eventful nonsense?

I rule out “nonsense” understood as “no sense”, a degree zero of sense: the nonsense poems of Lear, Carroll, dada, medieval monks, etc. are in fact full of tidbits of sense, arranged less than sentence-wise (or even word-wise at times). So the “may be” above applies to the degree of coherence a particular artwork aspires to. A monochrome may well occupy a monistic logical space akin to David Chalmers’ fantastic “consciousness of a thermostat”. If so it is quite dull, perhaps inarticulate by our usual standards, but never unintelligible or senseless in a pure way. Poésie concrète, doodles, automatic writing are telic activities too, with a minimal sense that is requisite to being an interesting representation. Of course, a fossil or a blank wall may be interesting, but not as representation: only as a natural object about which questions may be asked.

How does your understanding of these larger metaphysical and epistemological issues inflect your own methodology as a historian? What do you think art historians should learn from philosophy—and philosophers from (art) historians?

I more than once heard a celebrated philosopher say that his only method is to never say anything that is obviously false. One could do worse! The use of external “theory” in art history once had a dogmatic cast—the writer “knows” that Marxism or Lacanian psychoanalysis or structural linguistics is right, and rearranges art, or rather the extant writings on it, in accordance with this certainty. The old (“classical”) Germanophone art historians by contrast had some philosophical training (generally neo-Kantian), which they did not flaunt, instead inventing terms like Kunstwollen (‘art-willing’), Pathosformel (‘pathos formula’) or symbolische Form (this one due to a philosopher, Ernst Cassirer) to do their philosophizing, still in a broad generalizing vein, but generally asserting a continuity or change over time in how concrete objects embodied these more abstract patterns or schemata. I hope I have learned some lessons from both traditions: to think on our feet when the form of artifacts is meaningful and to look outside them when artifacts reach into the world. Still, art historians must learn not just philosophical theories, but some habits of mind philosophers take for granted (notably analytic philosophers, whom too few of us read, but above all the great philosophical minds, wherever those occur): not to adopt any position because they think it’s right or will elicit admiration without understanding it, but to think for themselves, accepting only what on their best efforts they regard as the truth. This, of course, need not involve certainty, but includes possibilities and hypotheses and the most plausible conclusions.

Can philosophers in turn learn anything from art historians? Well, besides learning what not to do (in the bad case), most art history, and certainly art history at its best, abounds in careful and explicit observation of meaningful artifacts, from all known human cultures and epochs: I think it does so in a way that if properly taken up could challenge the philosophy of mind, of language (which really should be a branch of a larger philosophy of meaning), and of logic and science. Art history isn’t just interesting to aestheticians. Questions ranging from the compositionality of semantics to the nature of things can be elucidated, if not definitively answered, by closer attention to art and artifacts. Not that this will involve taking anything art historians say at face value, but most of what philosophers think about the limits of thought, discursive language and the expressible, would benefit from an acquaintance with a wider range of meaning-making tools. Knowing symbolic logic helps, but so do comics or sculpture or opera! I am just as bad, I have no clue what to make of key signatures and chord changes in music, which can be instruments of thought, as much as any syllogism or perspectival projection. The key to wisdom, I’d agree with Socrates, is knowing that we don’t know. That is something art historians and philosophers have in common with each other—and with everyone else.

Andrei Pop is a professor in the Committee on Social Thought and the Department of Art History at the University of Chicago. Previously, he has taught eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art history and aesthetics at the Universities of Basel and Vienna

David Kretz is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Germanic Studies and the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. His current project contrasts poets and translators as complementary paradigms of historical agency in times of crisis

Britain history of science Intellectual history Interview Podcast

In Theory: Simon Brown interviews Nasser Zakariya on Science, Myth and Beginnings

In Theory co-host Simon Brown interviews Nasser Zakariya , Professor of Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley, about his book A Final Story: Science, Myth, and Beginnings (University of Chicago Press, 2017).

The book explores how scientists and their readers have turned to narrative forms of natural history, myth and epic to explain how the sciences relate to one another and to the human past. His book ranges over systematic treatises of the early nineteenth century, to popular science in the early twentieth century, to TV documentaries in the 1980s. We talk about scholarship and popularization, theology and myth-making, and where humans have fit in our natural histories.

Book reviews environmental history history of science Intellectual history Water

History of Fishing: a Voyage of the Mind into Amphibious Adaptation

By Luna Sarti

In doing research on rivers, one starts to wonder what fish live in the river waters and what role inland fishing has had throughout history in the relationship between the river and its human communities. Finding sources is not that easy, however, and one has to skim through materials such as cookbooks, oral histories, or other forms of personal memories. The few scholars who have dealt with the history of fishing stress, in fact, how fishing has had a very minor role in most official histories because, as Eric Leed puts it in his book The Mind of the Traveler: from Gilgamesh to Global Tourism, we often tend to be unable to “regard place as anything but terrestrial,” mostly assuming that “societies are boundaried, centered, contained, and enduring structures,” which is “a view of history filtered through the results of history” (19). 

History of Fishing. (Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg)

Histories of fishing are more than niche studies tapping into ‘minor’ topics for the purpose of originality. Understanding fishing throughout history is extremely important, if only to prompt one’s own imagination to picture how humans populated the earth by using composite strategies that allowed them to survive through the shifting climates of the Holocene. As Dietrich Sahrhage and Johannes Lundbeck observed in their groundbreaking A History of Fishing, “in contrast to hunting, fishing has, since its inception in prehistoric times, always retained its importance in food production” (2). More recently, inFishing: How the Sea Fed Civilization, Brian Fagan draws on evidence from archaeology, geology, and genetics to show how “a significant intensification of subsistence fishing” occurred across different parts of the world in the period of global warming that followed the Ice Age, which favored the formation of thriving tidal areas and wetlands (73). By presenting a fuller view of how human food practices shifted over time, histories of fishing not only activate new temporalities and an ecological sense in the development of human societies, but also provide very interesting perspectives on strategies of human adaptation in the face of changing environments and rising waters. 

While most historical research is often conceptually associated with the agricultural revolution and the development of state-organized civilizations and cities, thinking about fishing requires a temporality that undoes any distinction between history and prehistory. As a practice, fishing has in fact not only characterized both Homo sapiens and extinct species of the genus Homo, but has also variously co-existed  with societies on the move that practiced foraging and hunting and trading, and with sedentary communities, which increasingly relied on agricultural and animal farming as much as on manufacturing and commerce. More noticeably, as historian Brian Fagan remarks in Fishing: How the Sea Fed Civilization, “the technology used both for subsistence fishing and for catching tens of thousands of anadromous fish, including Pacific salmon and the giant sturgeon of the Danube, has changed little in ten millennia” (11). Artifacts from ‘prehistoric times’ are still recognizable as fishing tools to individuals who are the least socialized in such practices, while others can be deciphered by looking at the tools that were used in fishing communities such as those of the Beringians in Siberia and Alaska, and the Gidjingali in Australia. 

Prehistoric fishing gear, nets, weaving etc. Credit: Wellcome Collection.

It is a fascinating way of thinking that adds significant tools to our kit for the imagination of human pasts and futures. Such a versatile mind is not only highly desirable but also hopefully highly productive in the formation of new generations. 

The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History (Chicago University Press)

Histories of fishing don’t simply activate longer temporalities. By looking at contemporary societies which are still relying on fishing technologies to develop literacy in artifacts from archaeological sites across the globe, in fact, historians of fishing complicate the distinction between the past and the present which is a fundamental asset of linear time. Thus, the continuity of fishing practices across societies beyond the time frame of modernity unsettles the European-born paradigm of progress. As John Gillis writes in The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History, digging into fishing throughout time and space reveals how by being  “trained to think of agriculture as the highest stage of civilization before the advent of the urban-industrial age,” we still tend to place foraging-hunting practices in the category of “the primitive” or, in the best case, in that of “a last resort for the lower classes of society” (14).

Since both the technology and the practices involved in community fishing have been strikingly stable across time and space, histories of fishing draw on anthropological research from the past two centuries to glimpse into a past that would be otherwise inaccessible. In doing so, this “alternative account of global history” -to use Gillis’ wording in The Human Shore– gestures towards the possibility of looking at foraging-hunting not simply as the myth of certain environmentally friendly utopia but as a way of living that is more likely to sustain human existence through the capacity to read the landscape and adapt to its changing features (4). Brian Fagan reports, for example, how a DNA research on the Chumash civilization shows that they had probably settled in the Santa Barbara Channel region thousands of years in the past and suggests that, when the Spaniards arrived in 1542, they found not a ‘primitive society’ but “a highly adaptable and flexible culture that had survived, and usually thrived, in a harsh, drought-prone landscape” (88). Similar stories emerge from other fishing societies that didn’t apply farming or industrial models to fishing, such as the Gidjingali in Australia and the Beringians in Alaska, who were mentioned above.

In spite of centuries of urban dwellers’ bias, practices such as fishing, hunting, and foraging, allow for more flexibility on the side of humans. It’s a way of living that not only requires an intimate knowledge of micro-environments, but also involves a considerable capacity to engage with complex environmental factors. Although reproducing that model is impossible, we can still study and recover some aspects of those practices and of that knowledge.

Swiss prehistoric lake dwellings. as pictorially restored by A. de Mortillet. Wellcome Collection

By focusing on fishing, historians make two narratives–that of history and that of prehistory–which collide. In such a process a new narrative surfaces, one in which some communities that disappeared from history, losing against modern conceptions of progress, might in fact have successfully lived for long spans of time by more successfully adapting their living practices to the shifting behaviors of their local flora, fauna, and waters. By engaging with this uncomfortable narrative, readers are forced to consider whether contemporary strategies of production and urban life might be the unsustainable consequences of failing strategies of adaptation. As a person interested in repairing the damages of extractionist economies, industrial farming, concrete cities, and low efficiency housing, I ponder the question of adaptability that stems from histories of fishing. The thought of people who were living with unstable waters seems fascinating and encouraging.

Perhaps many will argue against such a positive vision of fishing communities and identify elements of  romanticism in the narrative, which carries at times the trace of an idealized perception of otherness. However, the question seems worthy of debate.

Featured Image: Hans Hillewaert. Fishing down the food web, a North Sea perspective. Inspired by the work of Daniel Pauly. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

history of science Intellectual history

Enlightenment and the Discovery of Human Extinction

by guest contributor Dr. Thomas Moynihan

The idea of human extinction first appeared in the eighteenth century. A perennial tradition of religious eschatology and apocalypse has, of course, existed throughout history. But human extinction represents a novel and distinct idea. Simply put, where apocalypse secures a sense of an ending, extinction prognoses the ending of sense. Human extinction is predicated upon an awareness of our precarity as a biological species within a desacralized universe, and, as such, was not so much as even thinkable prior to a certain point. Most immediately, it became so much as thinkable—and, eventually, a target of our anticipatory concern and mitigative strategizing—due to the consolidation, across the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, of several new domains of empirical science. These were the geosciences, population science, and actuarial probabilism. The first gave us awareness of nature’s contingence and historicity; the second gave us sensitivity to our position as a biophysical species; the third inculcated a rigorized understanding of risk and uncertainty. This post will home in on the first of these: the earth sciences.

Assiduous description of empirical fact in and of itself was not sufficient to make available the concept of human extinction. Prior to a certain point in time, people simply believed that, should we die out today, the human species (or something either identical or axiologically equitable) would inevitably and eventually re-emerge. This was based upon the age-old presumption that it is the nature of the cosmos to be as maximally full of moral worth as is possible. Arthur Lovejoy, of course, once baptized one persistent form of this conviction as ‘the Principle of Plenitude’ in his 1936 The Great Chain of Being. Ergo, coming to care about our extinction involved not only empirical investigations but, also, in-step reflections upon the positionality and propriety of sapience and its value as such. Simply put, we had to disentangle ‘fact’ from ‘value’ before we could become gripped by the prospective fact of the end of all value. The cosmos had to be desacralized before extinction could become axiologically meaningful. This realization came from that master idea of Enlightenment philosophy, reaching its culmination in Kantian critique: the acknowledgement that norms are things that we elect to bind ourselves by and are thus not at all features of the natural world independently of this ongoing election. Apprehending this led us to acknowledge that we alone are responsible for the thing we call ‘mind’; which, in turn, is how we first came to be gripped by the prospect of its extinction and first became motivated to forecast our future.

One perfect case study of how theoretical assumption of ‘plenitude’ prevented appreciation of the true stakes involved in extinction—even after acceptance of the empirical fact of species extinctions—comes from eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century geology.

Put most simply, ‘plenitude’ entails that all legitimate possibilities are eventually realized: this essentially meant that, should any species die out, the possibility of its returning will at some point be fulfilled. In turn, this basically obstructed conceptualization of species extinctions (whether human or non-human) from Antiquity to the Enlightenment. The severity of such an event—its terminal nature—was simply not conceptually available. (Indeed, myriad fossil evidences were recorded by the Ancient Greeks, but the suggestion that they are facsimiles of irreversibly deceased fauna remained elusive until the late seventeenth century.) Extinction was utterly trivialized by the cosmic cycles of death and rebirth that plenitude enforces.

One can see this at work in the first recognizably geohistorical conjectures. These came from Robert Hooke and Edmond Halley across a period spanning from the 1660s to the 1710s. Both polymaths, that is, were the first to inject naturally caused vicissitude into their models of earth systems. The former proposed a terrestrial history riven by gigantic earthquakes, wherein the planet’s ever-changing surface led to “divers Species of Creatures” becoming “quite lost” (‘Lectures and Discourses on Earthquakes’, 435). (This was the first ever unequivocal endorsement of the idea of species extinctions.) Not long after Hooke’s conjectures, Halley ventured modernity’s first ever image of something looking like what we now call mass extinction event. He speculated the “causal shock of a comet” could cause such a cataclysm that “all things [living] should hereby be destroyed” (‘Considerations about the Cause of the Universal Deluge’, 122).

Nonetheless, despite admitting such calamity into their theories of nature, they could not accommodate ‘existential catastrophes’ or ‘human extinction events’. Halley, that is, maintained that such wipe-outs had happened multiple times prior to the current “Creation”. Each time, however, this was merely a localized truncation within an unending cycle of returning civilizations. A ‘punctuated eternalism’, if you will. Hooke even imagined that, prior to the previous world-order’s devastation, there had been a “preceding learned Age”: of perhaps even greater knowledge than the present (‘Lectures and Discourses on Earthquakes’, 328). (Projecting the ‘anxiety of influence’ between Ancients and Moderns onto geohistory, Hooke tantalized himself with the irrecuperable learnings of these prior peoples.)  In short, both savants presumed that an ‘annihilated’ humanity would persistently reappear and repopulate the desolate earth after each global desecration.

By 1750, the French polymath surgeon Claude-Nicholas Le Cat repackaged this now-familiar cycle of “ruin and renovation” in his own ‘Theory of the Earth’. However, Le Cat was conspicuously unclear as to whether humans would, indeed, inevitably return after the next world-collapse. A shocked reviewer of Le Cat’s book on the topic picked up on this equivocation, demanding to know whether “earth shall be re-peopled with new inhabitants” after any future desecration (‘An Account of Several Systems, Particularly that of the Ingenious Mr. Le Cat’, 384). In reply, Le Cat dodged the reviewer’s accusation of departing from orthodoxy (comparing himself to Galileo and Copernicus in the process) but not without wryly musing—with graveside smile—that there

are already a sufficient number of animals and men buried in the earth to gratify the curiosity of the new inhabitants of the new world, if there be any.

Ibid, 388

Surely this did not appease the perturbed reviewer. Nonetheless, Le Cat’s facetiousness aside, the ruin-and-renovation cycle remained a well-worn method for trivializing the stakes involved in existential precarity.

Indeed, decades later, the geologist Charles Lyell would perpetuate these naïve ideas of unending cycles (even after evidence of prehistoric extinctions had become undeniable). Confidently championing “invariable constancy in the order of nature”, the same presumptions that led Hooke and Halley to postulate eternally returning civilizations led Lyell to opine that the “the iguanodon might reappear in the woods” (Principles of Geology, i.123). He spoke to one of his colleagues of de-extincted dinosaurs repopulating Sussex in the deep future. He was confident: we must consider all extinctions within natural history as “merely local”; for, given the correct “conditions”, those “genera of animals” which are currently “preserved [in] ancient rocks” will inexorably “return”. And, by obvious entailment, if this applies to pterodactyls and ichthyosauri then why would it not also apply to humans? As the theologian Edward Nares jubilated in a treatise on geology and scripture a few years after Lyell’s publication: “Here then is no extinction for us” (Man, as Known to us Theologically and Geologically, 240).

Quite simply, plenitude, by collapsing the space of possibility entirely into eventual actualizations allows no ultimate distinction between talk of ‘what ought to happen’ and ‘what will happen’. It prohibits any ultimate differentiation between ‘fact’ and ‘value’. Mingling norm and nature, normativity can never truly go extinct. Insofar as one presumes plenitude, one simply cannot grasp the true stakes involved in extinction. Human minds, after all, will simply return.

Nonetheless, by the opening of the nineteenth century, the separation between the world of value and that of facts was becoming stark. This can be seen in Lyell’s own writing, where he pondered whether the first appearance of human civilization would constitute a breach of his “invariable constancy” in nature’s cycles. Imagining an extraterrestrial observer looking on our planet from afar, he realized that the reorganizing effect wrought by human intentionality upon our biosphere and lithosphere would be unmistakable. (The notion of the ‘Anthropocene’ is not so new, it would seem.) Would this constitute a breach of the “regularity of the system”, Lyell asked? No, since the “new and extraordinary circumstances” of rationality’s emergence are, he claimed, innovations not of a “physical, but [of] a moral nature” (Principles of Geology, i.163-4). Lyell was here falling back upon a specious dualism of ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’, yet such a position was becoming untenable. Values may not be identical with widest nature—but neither are they at all supernatural—as they emerge from the discursive activities of value-mongering creatures. Thus, there is simply no guarantee that they will inevitably return should we disappear.

By the late 1850s, Lyell could no longer deny such portents. Considering the “millions of years” of “extinction”, Lyell admitted in his private notebooks that this law must be “the same for Man & Animals.” By now a close friend of Darwin, Lyell wrote that if evolution “be true we must look [at] the whole prospect in the face”. Though he remained confident that “more intellectual beings” would supersede us, he nonetheless admitted that this is a “future paradox from which our race shall be excluded” (Lyell’s Scientific Journals on the Species Question, 180-200). In other words, Lyell now realized the stakes involved in our extinction: human-like intellect isn’t part of the furniture of the natural world such that, should we fail to protect it, it will not inevitably and ineluctably return or persist. Indeed, as a contemporary astrobiologist, Charles H. Lineweaver, has recently written, “human-like intelligence seems to be what its name implies—species specific.” Cosmic nonchalance regarding its return is, then as now, not warranted.

Thomas Moynihan recently completed his Ph.D. at Oriel College, Oxford. It focused on the intellectual history of ideas of human extinction and existential risk. His ongoing research is concerned with the long-term historical genesis of our concern for the deep future and our placement within it.