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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

The Light Year Public Lecture Series - How Representation Became a Problem: The Rise of an Optics of Vision in the Seventeenth Century

7th October 2013, 18:15 to 19:15, Kingsley Barratt Room, Calman Learning Centre, Durham University, South Road, Professor Stephen Gaukroger, University of Sydney

This is the first lecture in the series 'The Light Year.'


The lecture explores the internal complexity of the notion of representation in the early seventeenth century, by exploring four streams that flow into the epistemological discussions of representation. The first is a rhetorical theory of how to engage an audience by means of vivid representations, as conveyed through the writings of Quintilian, which were a basic ingredient of educational programmes in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The second is the emergence of a theory of vision, above all with Kepler, whereby optics takes on a crucial role, as it is realized that refraction is the key to vision; refraction yields an optical image, however, and this image represents the world in a mediated way, provoking new questions about the representational nature of vision. The third is late sixteenth and early seventeenth scholastic discussion of the nature of ideas, in particular on the question of the relation between our ideas and what they are the ideas of; crucial to this discussion is the question of the representational nature of ideas. Fourth, there is the concern among some early seventeenth century natural philosophers to transform physical enquiry; to adopt the kinds of explanations that those concerned with practical physical questions had invoked, above all the recourse to picturing the behaviour of parts in understanding the behaviour of the whole. The inherent tensions caused by the different problems that the diverse sources brought with them created immense problems for the subsequent understanding of representation in the early-modern era.


Stephen Gaukroger is Research Professor in the History of Philosophy and History of Science at the University of Sydney, and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen. His primary research interest centres on the question of how a scientific culture—a culture in which cognitive values generally come to be shaped around scientific ones—emerged in the West. This is a long-term research programme, and two volumes of a projected five have already appearted. Among his recent publications are: The Emergence of a Scientific Culture: Science and the Shaping of Modernity, 1210-1685 (Oxford: OUP, 2006); The Collapse of Mechanism and the Rise of Sensibility: Science and the Shaping of Modernity, 1680-1760 (Oxford: OUP, 2010); Objectivity: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: OUP, 2012); and Le monde en images: Voir, représenter, savoir, de Descartes à Leibniz, with Frédérique Aït-Touati (Paris: Garnier, forthcoming). He is currently working on the question of the naturalization of the human and the humanization of nature, 1750-1830.

The venue for this series is the Calman Learning Centre. Directions can be located at here. Alternatively on the University map, the CLC is denoted at building number: 43.

Contact for more information about this event.

Contact for more information about this event.