Think Piece

The Concept as a Struggle of Parts

By Ruben Verkoelen

Wilhelm Roux (1850-1924), a revolutionary anatomist, began to develop a new perspective on life and organisms early in his career. Born in Jena in 1850, Roux studied medicine under Ernst Haeckel and Rudolf Virchow and, in 1878, wrote his dissertation about the branching of human blood vessels. After an extensive series of clever measurements, Roux initially employed a mode of explanation that was commonly used in biology at the time: function determines structure. The shape of the blood vessel must, therefore, have been determined by the dynamic of the blood flow, the force and logic of which gradually formed the vessel into its optimal shape. But Roux appears to have been uncertain about such an explanation, as he pointed out that the blood vessels were not exactly passively adapting material: instead, they controlled the blood flow by maintaining a constant resistance against the blood pressure. Due to their carefully maintained functionality, the vessels could not be considered purely structural. Moreover, the blood flow was not purely functional either because the blood itself exhibited structural characteristics, such as its consistency. The well-established biological dichotomy of function and structure started to crumble in Roux’s hands. Concluding his article, he thus called for more physiological research into morphological phenomena.

A schematic diagram of a vessel.

Yet, realizing that every little part of an organism could be both structural and functional at the same time, he soon encountered a problem of teleology: how, then, to explain any part without recourse to some purpose or principle beyond its structure? How could something be devoid of any internal or external purpose and yet be purposeful? In order to solve this issue, Roux first considered using a new and exciting principle: the struggle for existence. In Roux’s understanding of this Darwinian principle, all the different parts of the organism were driven by just one ultimate purpose: to make the organism outcompete other organisms in their adaptation to the surroundings. While other biologists soon found empirical evidence against this principle, Roux had already rejected this Darwinian view on theoretical grounds. He did not believe that all the different parts of an organism could share one single overarching purpose. According to him, one purpose – whatever it was – could not account for the vast complexity and intricate interplay of living elements that make up an organism.

In order to obtain a new perspective, Roux overthrew one more foundation of nearly a century of biological inquiry. Cuvier’s principle of the correlation of parts held that “in every being life is a whole, resulting from the mutual action and reaction of all its parts.” According to the established view, all the different parts of an organism ultimately combined into a a harmonious and organized whole: life. Arguing against these notions of life as a higher-order whole and the organism as a static organization, Roux believed the organism to be the site of a ‘struggle of parts’: a struggle of cells in a tissue, a struggle of tissues in an organ, a struggle of organs in an organism. He reasoned that, because no two cells were ever completely alike, their slightly different ways of maintaining their existence and ensuring their purposivity had to result in a constant interplay. If this struggle among a certain number of cells balanced out, they would create a new purposive structure and form a tissue. In the same way, a number of interacting tissues might form an organ, and a number of organs might form an organism. Each of these would simultaneously be a whole made up of parts, whose active struggle between each other was precisely what supported – or sabotaged – the existence and immanent purposivity of the whole.

The titlepage of Roux’s Der Kampf der Theile im Organismus (The Struggle of Parts in the Organism) (1881).

Roux developed this perspective of the organic element as a fraction rather than a unit in his boldly titled essay Der Kampf der Theile im Organismus (The Struggle of Parts in the Organism) (1881). The book had a profound influence on Friedrich Nietzsche and also left a strong impression on Charles Darwin, who considered it to be “the most important book on Evolution, which has appeared for some time.” It is remarkable, then, that in spite of Darwin’s positive judgment hardly any historian or philosopher of biology has written about it. Historians of science remember Roux, above all, for his technical achievements in embryo research, which paved the way for experimental embryology, but his theoretical work has been largely neglected. Only recently, Der Kampf der Theile was translated into French under the direction of Thomas Heams, who still believes that after all these years Roux’s theoretical insights might “pave the way for unifying theories in biology.” But regardless of their potential relevance for biology, Roux’s understanding of the organism can stimulate methodological debates in intellectual history, serving as an inspiration for a new understanding of the concept.

Recently, questions about the nature and interrelations of concepts moved into the foreground in the reception of Stefanos Geroulanos’ methodologically innovative book Transparency in Postwar France (2017). Instead of writing a genealogy of transparency, Geroulanos took an experimental approach: he studied transparency as a concept within a wider network of related concepts, or – in his words – as one of the “knots” in a “conceptual web” (pp. 23-5). Perhaps the main innovation of this approach is that the ‘context’ of transparency is nothing but other, related concepts that are all treated as “conceptual events” (p. 20). In doing so, Geroulanos sidesteps the unproductive dualisms of concept and context, and of concept and metaphor. Like words and actions, he treats concepts as elements in the changing fabric of everyday life where the transformation of one knot may alter the entire web. In this model, transparency becomes one concept among many – a “minor concept” (p. 387) – which is nonetheless treated as the key to understanding the entire conceptual web. But was this “collage approach,” as one reviewer called it, able to cover an abundance of thinkers and contexts in sufficient depth while also providing insight into their mutual coherence? Could the single concept of transparency really act as the key to such a variety of source material? And what, then, is transparency: a part of a whole or the principle that determines a process?

Geroulanos is not the first or the only historian to conceive of a time period as a conceptual web. Michel Foucault did the same in The Order of Things when he summed up his dense analysis in two diagrams that show the conceptual network (including three sciences) of the Classical age and modernity respectively:

Michel Foucault’s diagrams of the Classical and modern episteme from The Order of Things (1970).

However, from the viewpoint of intellectual history today, Foucault’s magnificent study is tainted by its conceptual determinism. Time and again, the book states that the ‘episteme’ determines all other aspects of civilization, acting as the first principle of an entire era. Similarly to Roux, who rejected the principle of the struggle for existence because it functioned as an “ultima ratio,” Geroulanos also steers clear of teleology and metanarrative in his fascinating account of transparency. Its focus on one concept among many, within a wider conceptual web, precludes any form of strict determinism. Yet, this desire to decenter the concept comes into conflict with the study’s coherence, which hinges precisely on the centrality of transparency.

Is there a way out of this dilemma? What if we take the disintegration of a singular purpose or meaning – whether it is the struggle for existence, the ‘episteme’, or the concept – a little further still? What if we follow the example of Roux’s conception of the organism? Is it feasible to conceive of a concept or conceptual network as a precarious balance between parts that compete and collaborate with one another? Could we handle the complexity to view these parts, in turn, as conceptual networks themselves, too? How should the parts be identified and where should we draw the line between the concept’s inside and its outside? While these questions still await answers, such an approach would have one crucial advantage: instead of reducing complexity or standing awkwardly next to it, it could embrace it.

All the different discursive items that, in their unstable configuration, form a certain concept could be understood coherently if such concept was seen as the relative balance between a set of parts or aspects rather than a black box, the center point of a certain discourse, or a whole that subsumes its lower-level parts. Take, for example, the concept ‘Earth’: it would be nothing but the struggle between a set of identified parts, which are perhaps place (humanity’s home), space (the expanse of its surface), being (Gaia), and object (planet). Anything related to the concept ‘Earth’ could be explained by considering its dynamic position in the ongoing struggles and alignments between these aspects. Meanwhile, the history of the concept could be explained by analyzing the transitions and evolutions of the configuration of the parts. The number of parts is flexible since they are nothing but sets of discursive items grouped together on the basis of (relative) affinity. Acting primarily as methodological tools (even though they could figure as concepts themselves), the parts provide the relatively fixed points that help make the dynamics of the concept intelligible. Any form of profound coherence is no longer needed nor desired because the concept itself is recognized as inherently divided. This approach to conceptual history, based on the concept as a struggle of parts, could, therefore, enable us to study complexity without giving up on clarity.

Ruben Verkoelen graduated from the master’s program in History & Philosophy of Science at Utrecht University last year. His thesis was an inquiry into fin-de-siècle biology that used both historical and philosophical methods to reconstruct the conceptual apparatus of life science. He’s currently looking to start a PhD in intellectual history or the history of science.

Featured Image: Heterotopic Ossificagtion in Lung Tissue. Source: WikiCommons.

Think Piece

Remembering MERS in South Korea: Mobilizing Experience of Epidemic Disease

By John DiMoia

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.

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.

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.

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).


French Symbolism and the Origins of Analytic Philosophy

By David Kretz

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.


David Kretz (DK): 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?

Andrei Pop (AP): 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.

DK: 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?

AP: 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.

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

AP: 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.

DK: 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?

AP: 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.

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

Intellectual history

Divi filius: The Comet of 44 BCE and the Politics of Late Republican Rome

By guest contributor Dora Gao

Celestial objects and events have appeared in the historical record for a myriad of reasons, serving as portents of either fortune or doom or asserting the divine authority of a ruler. The comet of 44 BCE is one example of the way in which astronomy played a role in political narratives, given its use to legitimate the young Octavian (later known as Augustus) as a significant and serious figure in the politics of the late Roman Republic. We can look at the fact of this comet’s occurrence and its interpretation as a case study to examine the use of celestial phenomena as a sociopolitical tool.

The comet of 44 allegedly appeared in the sky over the funeral games that Octavian had put on for his adoptive father, Julius Caesar, in July of that year. As Octavian himself would later write in his Memoirs, “On the very days of my games, a comet (sidus crinitum) was visible over the course of seven days, in the northern region of the heavens (= near Ursa Major). It rose at about the eleventh hour of the day (= ~5 – 6:15 PM) and was bright and plainly seen from all lands” (Memoirs, fr. 6 [Malcovtai], translation and interpretation by Ramsey and Licht). According to Octavian’s testimony, “the common people believed the comet to signify that the soul of Caesar had been received among the spirits of the immortal gods” (Memoirsfr. 6 (Malcovtai)).

The comet and its interpretation had significant ramifications given the political climate of the late Roman Republic. With a growing schism between the conservative senatorial faction and popular politicians that culminated in the assassination of Caesar and threatened open civil war, the Roman Senate was facing a leadership vacuum. Though Caesar had named Octavian as his son in his will, Octavian was only eighteen years old with no political or military experience at the time, and had been adopted by Caesar only months before. There was no reason for the Roman Senate to view him as a legitimate contender for leadership. The fortuitous appearance of the comet in July, then, presented an opportunity for Octavian to distinguish himself. 

In order to examine the role that the comet of 44 played in Roman politics, it is first necessary to evaluate whether there was any comet at all. Though some may argue that the existence of the comet is secondary to its impact on Roman history, it is important, for our purposes, to question whether the comet’s existence in Augustan imagery may have been prompted by an actual celestial event. Such an inquiry is necessary to distinguish whether political messages were created in response to astronomical phenomena, or whether existing methods of discourse regarding heavenly bodies alone shaped the form of propaganda. The case for the comet certainly appears suspect, given that the first attestation of its existence is from Octavian’s own Memoirs. Astronomers, furthermore, would ideally verify any comet with six unique parameters and then use the information to cross reference with a catalogued comet, but the paucity of rigorous astronomical data on this comet from our ancient sources makes it impossible to verify its existence under these standards.

Despite these problems, we cannot  say conclusively that the comet did not exist. First, the Romans were not particularly disciplined about their stargazing at this time; thus, the lack of any astronomical records is not indicative of the lack of astronomical events. Second, the fact that the comet cannot be identified in our existing catalogue does not necessarily mean that it did not appear over Rome. The best orbital reconstruction scholars have managed given available data indicates that the comet likely would have had an unstable orbit that takes several hundred years to complete. As such, it likely would have been thrown off course before it returned to Earth to be catalogued during a second viewing (Ramsey and Licht, The Comet of 44 B.C. and Caesar’s Funeral Games, 124-5). 

So scholars cannot rule out the existence of the comet from incomplete evidence. Furthermore, historical context and Roman attitudes towards celestial phenomena provide a compelling case  for its occurrence . The Romans, up to Octavian’s time, had viewed comets as bearers of misfortune and did not often receive them with optimism (e.g. Cicero, De Divinatione If there had in fact been a comet, one can imagine that Octavian might have felt the need for an interpretation advantageous to himself—or, at the very least, as something less ominous than usual readings of a comet, especially in light of the political situation at Rome. If there had been no comet, however, Octavian would have picked a surprisingly inconvenient object to construct in his favor. In addition to the traditional stigma attached to comets, a bright object that allegedly could have been seen from all lands and that remained in the sky for seven days would have by no means been an easy event to fake. More likely than not, then, the appearance of a comet in Octavian’s earliest messaging was due to a real, unexpected celestial phenomenon.

If the evidence suggests that the comet of 44 did indeed exist, the next question we must ask is how did Octavian deal with this phenomenon? Interestingly, the appearance of the comet in Octavian’s early political imagery was not the result of existing Roman discourse regarding the positive significance of comets. Instead, it was a response to a natural event of ominous nature which was then reinterpreted and redefined within a new and specific political context. By claiming the comet to be a sign of Julius Caesar’s deification, Octavian was also asserting himself as a divi filius, the son of a god. Such a statement had two immediately advantageous effects for the eighteen year-old: first, it established a clear legitimizing link between himself and his adoptive father; and second, it allowed him to showcase his commitment to filial and religious piety. 

Denarius minted by Augustus depicting himself on the obverse, the comet of 44 and divus Iulius (the divine Julius) on the reverse, c. 19-18 BCE (

Octavian’s bond with his adoptive father was tenuous compared to Caesar’s long-time relationships with his trusted generals and advisors. The teenage Octavian’s only legitimizing quality lay in his adoption by Caesar, and he thus would have benefited greatly from creating additional connections. Octavian had already begun to strengthen the relationship through the funeral games, themselves a public display of Octavian’s filial piety towards his late father. His declaration of Caesar’s apotheosis during those games would have further validated the association, since Caesar’s soul was rising to heaven during the time at which his son chose to honor him. 

Given the love for Caesar that the people of Rome held at this time, this ostentatious display of the link between Octavian and his adoptive father led both the general public and Caesar’s troops to view the former in favorable light and as a worthy successor to their beloved Caesar. This one claim would have been key in helping Octavian win the support he needed from the people and the legions, both vital constituencies for gaining political footing in Rome (Paul Zanker, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus, 34).

The comet, as a symbol of Julius Caesar’s divinity, furthermore, granted Octavian the occasion to display both filial and religious piety and portray himself as a responsible youth dedicated to the moral traditions of the Republic. This in turn helped Octavian win the trust of the Senate and his first military command, aiding Decimus Brutus, upon whom Antony was laying siege at Mutina in 43. Indeed, the orator Cicero, who had been unwaveringly suspicious of Octavian only months before, wrote a letter to one of his confidants announcing his support of the protective force (praesidium) that the outstanding youth (puer egregious) had raised for the res publica (Cicero, Fam. XII 25.4). In a political landscape where Octavian needed to build his moral credibility over more seasoned politicians and generals, the comet provided him a way to capitalize upon an astronomical event and demonstrate his commitment to the Republic.

While we certainly cannot go so far as to say that the comet alone catalyzed Octavian’s rise within Roman politics, we can draw a clear narrative line between the fortuitous appearance of a celestial event and its appearance within the early self-fashioning of Rome’s first emperor. Though Roman political discourse had previously incorporated other celestial events, the use of comets as a symbol of divinity was a precedent set by Octavian through the comet of 44. For example, Suetonius writes that Vespasian famously joked, upon seeing a comet on his deathbed, “Woe’s me. Methinks I’m turning into a god” (Suetonius, Life of Vespasian 23.4). His interpretation of this phenomenon and the ways in which he used its appearance for his own political gain demonstrate both the role that astronomy played in the political life of Rome as well as its potential to shape the way in which Romans conceived of imperial legitimacy.

Dora Gao is an MA student in the Classical, Near Eastern, and Religious Studies department at the University of British Columbia. She is interested in the mythology and cult worship of Diana/Artemis and the ways in which they inform the construction of identity for various groups under the Roman Empire.

Think Piece

Watts in Water

By guest contributor Nicole Welk-Joerger

In September 2016, Sadie Frericks, a Minnesota dairy farmer, recounted a moment in Hoard’s Dairyman when she and her husband noticed their heifers were trying to tell them something. She noted that the heifers “wouldn’t stop bellowing,” and by process of elimination the couple decided to tackle their animals’ automatic waterer. In the process of cleaning the tub full of water, Sadie’s husband, Glen, felt a small jolt run up his arm.

If electrical currents traveled through the water into Glen’s arm, they likely bothered the muzzles of their heifers. The Frericks consulted an electrician and a nutritionist to resolve the problem. A storm caused an electrical surge through the farm’s electric fence and connecting outlets, resulting in stray voltage: currents generated by sources producing 10 volts of electricity or less. The heifers felt this phenomenon through their water trough nearby.

Livestock Waterer isometric diagram
An illustrated example of an automatic livestock waterer, possibly similar to the system that was susceptible to stray voltage in the case above. From Tru-Test Livestock Company.

Seamless resolutions to stray voltage, like this one, are uncommon. It can take days, sometimes weeks, for farmers to realize their animals are experiencing subtle electrical shocks when drinking from their troughs, grazing on pasture, or walking into the milking parlor. When stray voltage goes unresolved, some cows can become more hesitant to eat and drink. They can also prove difficult to move through barns for their daily milkings.

Some studies suggest most cows can adapt to these shocks if they come to expect them. However, scientists continue to investigate stray voltage and its complexities. It has been a topic of study in agricultural science since at least the 1960s. Physics textbooks from over the years even include cases of stray voltage with problem sets based on these electrical currents. Equations are often illustrated with pictures of cows lapping at water bowls. To further emphasize the significance of this phenomenon, farmers have filed court cases against electrical companies for unresolved stray voltage, claiming damages for their sick animals.

An advertisement for the Agrivolt ground fault detector, which may help detect stray voltage.

In these different instances, as they bellow, dance about, cautiously approach their troughs, or get sick outright, cows force us to acknowledge the anthropocentric history of our larger electrical systems.

A stray voltage image accompanying a problem set from Essential University Physics (Second Edition, 2011).


Experts designed power grids with humans in mind. The grid is the interconnected network of power that delivers electricity from generators to consumers. As engineers tinkered with this system in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, high voltage interactions were just one of a myriad of new concerns. One solution to high voltage surges included grounding systems, which helped distribute electrical currents away from points of transmission. Grounding electricity helps limit electrical build-ups from static electricity, and it redirects power from lightning strikes into the soil.

A diagram of the electric power system. From Wikimedia Commons.

At its inception, human safety was paramount with grounding, among other designs. These developments not only kept electrical producers and their workers safer, but also enabled us as everyday consumers to continue to interact within an electrified landscape with little realization of the currents above our heads and beneath our feet.

Non-humans disrupt the convenient invisibility of electricity. As they interact with our human-built environment in often unexpected ways, they reveal the very material decisions made by scientists and engineers in the past that still affect us today. Historian Etienne Benson illustrates this clearly with an early 20th century case from the Southern California Edison Company. As the company sought to remedy “flashovers,” which caused voltage drops and risked power outages, investigations in the 1920s revealed that the excrement from birds that perched on transmission towers caused these problems. In his article, “Generating Infrastructural Invisibility,” Benson explains that mechanisms like insulation and interconnection render unavoidable interactions between our human-built infrastructures and the natural environment invisible to the everyday consumer. And they remain invisible, unless you know where to look. Today, the history of this exchange between power companies and bird excrement manifests in spikes and plastic “tents.” These implements are meant to discourage birds from perching on transmission towers and power lines for both their sake and the sake of convenient power.

Cows are much more sensitive than humans to the electrical currents we have built into our environment; so much so that on farms that do not actively use the grid, cows can still feel the effects of stray voltage from surrounding grounded systems.

A metal water trough design on a farm in New York from an April 2018 field visit. Photograph by author.

Some of the dairy farmers I have visited and worked with in my research, for example, actively try to avoid electricity. Amish farms across Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Ohio run at night on battery-powered flashlights and kerosene lanterns. On hot days, gasoline-powered engines run fans to cool barns. Instead of using mixing machines and automated carts,many Amish farmers shovel feed to their cows by hand. Amish interactions with the grid remain minimal to best enact the separation between Amish life and modern, worldly life. By extension, Amish-owned cows live in off-grid conditions, or so it seems. When symptoms of stray voltage manifest in Amish cows, it is a reminder that it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate from electrified landscapes – regardless of one’s intentions.

Historical processes of generalization and standardization have naturalized our electrified world in the United States. However, it is worth remembering that not all humans interact with electricity in the same way, and neither do non-humans. In ethnographic and historical searches for those “frictions,” as Anna Tsing so aptly calls them, we can see where national and global projects like electrification challenge assumptions of scalability and our attempts to apply seemingly positive technoscientific interventions across different communities. Stray voltage is one such case I have encountered in my own ethnographic work with the Amish, and has inspired me to look into longer technological processes. The invisible, often rendered “mundane,” electric grid becomes more complicated through these moments of friction, forcing us to confront historical decisions that continue to impact present-day relationships between humans and non-humans.

Nicole Welk-Joerger is a PhD candidate in the History and Sociology of Science Department at the University of Pennsylvania. Her current research focuses on human-animal relationships in food production.
Intellectual history

Leonardo’s Leicester Codex at the Uffizi Galleries: a review of “Water as Microscope of Nature”

By contributing editor Luna Sarti

This year several events will take place across the world to celebrate Leonardo da Vinci on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of his death. In Florence, where Leonardo lived and worked for several years, the Uffizi Galleries hosted the exhibition entitled “Water as Microscope of Nature”, which  focused on Leonardo’s multidisciplinary engagement with water. Organized by the Uffizi Galleries in collaboration with the Museo Galileo, this project was made possible thanks to the generosity of Bill and Melinda Gates, who loaned the Leicester Codex to the Uffizi Galleries, as well as to the financial support of the Fondazione CR Firenze and the Comitato Nazionale per le celebrazioni dei 500 anni dalla morte di Leonardo da Vinci.

Leonardo 1

Almost 400,000 people visited the exhibition and stared in amazement at Leonardo’s writings. Individual folios were displayed in vertical glass cases which allowed visitors to read the recto and verso sides of each page while moving through the dark, arched room.

Leonardo 2
The exhibition room and two of the codescopes.

The curatorial team, guided by the director of the Galileo Museum, decided in fact to group folios according to topics while several codescopes were installed in the space to allow visitors to virtually flip through the pages of the Leicester Codex, thus reproducing the order in which the folios were bound together. Thanks to the codescopes, it was also possible to browse the codex and eventually visualize transcriptions of the text while getting information on some of the most significant issues addressed by Leonardo, particularly the physics of water movements, the structure of the Moon, and the history of the Earth.

As the exhibition title suggests, water intrigued Leonardo perhaps more than anything else. In his writings, he discusses its nature, its movements, and the difference between springs, rivers, seas, and rain. Defining the mechanisms connecting all these different phenomena became almost an obsessive thought for him. In order to deal with this complex system of problems, Leonardo meticulously recorded observations from experience and compared them with existing sets of knowledge, drawing on a variety of sources and devising experiments to verify hypotheses.



Leonardo’s experiments on water. Video available on the exhibition website.

Although Leonardo’s myth in popular discourse undoubtedly plays a role in attracting visitors to events of this kind, it is remarkable that the curator managed to orient such a vast audience toward the manuscript pages and other forms of “row documents”. A variety of texts, such as other manuscripts, incunabola, and maps were, in fact, on display as Leonardo’s possible sources, thus fostering the interest of the public toward the historical processes that inform not only knowledge formation but also its circulation and legacy. The inclusion of such documents as Leonardo’s sources contributes to dismantle conceptions such as that of geniality or the irrelevance of history for scientific engagement, while stressing the role of education and tradition in any process leading to new knowledge.

Leonardo 3
Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia (1458). Manuscript conserved in Florence at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Plut. 82,4. Folio available on the exhibition website .

Certainly, some of the items that were on display also have an incredible aesthetic quality that captivated the audience and thus amplified the call for the significance of history that informed the exhibition. For example, among the manuscripts that were likely consulted by Leonardo for their relevance on the questions of the nature and physics of water were a 13th-century manuscript edition of Ristoro d’Arezzo’s La compositione del Mondo (The composition of the world) now conserved in Florence at the Biblioteca Riccardiana, and a 15th-century illuminated manuscript of Pliny’s Natural History, which belonged to the Medici Family and is now part of the collection of the Biblioteca Laurenziana in Florence. Remarkably, almost to reiterate the importance of access to sources and of history in the making of knowledge, all the materials that were part of the exhibition, including the curatorial narrative, are now available for public consultation on the official website.

Leonardo 4
Ristoro d’Arezzo, La composizione del mondo con le sue cascioni (XIII century). Manuscript conserved in Florence at the Biblioteca Riccardiana, Ricc. 2164. Folio available on the Exhibition website.

Although some of the celebratory language and the Promethean tones informing the curatorial narrative might sound overwhelming for many science historians, this exhibition was particularly interesting for assessing the way in which the dualism art/science can still characterize public discourse around figures who would actually be functional to question such a divide. Leonardo is, in fact, a pivotal figure for any discussion on the relationship between artistic practice and scientific thought and can spark interesting considerations on the benefits of interdisciplinarity.

While walking through the exhibition and learning about Leonardo’s reflections, it becomes clear that much of the audience’s amazement stems from the variety of tools and languages on which Leonardo could draw to investigate problems of physics, mechanic engineering, and geology. Together with geometrical representations illustrating physical problems, the Codex also includes an “image bank” and several attempts to develop a lexicon for describing water.

Thus, much could be said on the curator’s decision to keep the two parts of Leonardo’s work separate, even if motivated by practical reasons, such as the absence of alarm systems in the space that was used for the temporary exhibition. Leonardo’s paintings, although referenced, were not in fact part of the exhibition which instead focused on documents, particularly manuscripts and maps, to position the viewer within that part of Leonardo’s work which is considered “scientific”. Unfortunately, the choice of material presented as well as the title seems to suggest the persistence of the dualism science/humanities when considering historical processes of knowledge making. On the contrary, Leonardo’s engagement with tradition, his open mindedness when combining historical research, field-work, and different languages for the investigation of problems, could have been easily presented as a model-story advocating for thinking across disciplines.

Leonardo da Vinci, Leicester Codex (1501-1508). Folio 7v and 30r. Available on the exhibition website.

Hopefully, this beautiful show will be of inspiration for more exhibitions that are able to work across the division between art and science when presenting historical process of knowledge formation to the public. With this in mind, we look forward to the upcoming exhibition “Leonardo da Vinci: a Mind in Motion” in London at the British Library this summer.

Water as Microscope of Nature” was on view at the Gallerie degli Uffizi  in Florence, Italy from October 30, 2018 to January 20, 2019. The exhibition was accompanied by a beautiful catalogue (available in Italian or English).