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The impact of a scholarly image on scientific consensus

EU-funded research examined the role of an iconic picture of brain functions in the process of building scientific consensus on cognition in the early Renaissance. The image in question came into use in the 13th century, was preferred over other visual representations in the 15th century, and still featured in scholarly books as late as the 17th century.
The impact of a scholarly image on scientific consensus
This image is regarded as having had great epistemological value in the process of disclosing and interpreting cognition in Europe. Rather than focusing on how consensus has affected scholarly images, the project HEADLINES (Headlines. A historical study of the iconic transverse section of the head and the process of building a scientific consensus about the mind (1400-1550)) followed a different epistemological approach to learn more about the history of educational knowledge. It investigated how the visual paradigm affected research premises.

At the outset, work aimed to determine why this specific image dominated, how it was implicated in consolidating knowledge, and how it affected the working premises of scholarly investigation. The first phase of project work involved assembling 80 manuscript copies, 20 commentaries and 20 images that made up a corpus for HEADLINES research. The 20 diagrams were to date unknown and unpublished.

This exercise offered new knowledge, especially on the influence of the Parvulus philosophiae naturalis, which introduced young students to the main topics in physics at the time. It is a natural philosophical textbook believed to have been written by Peter of Dresden between 1405 and 1420.

Being the earliest university textbook that features the head cross-section rather systematically, this source presents itself as a point of departure for studying the role of an image in the process of scientific consensus. As such, instead of developing a new methodological approach to explain the role of visual images in grounding knowledge, the project's focus shifted towards an analysis of the manuscript sources.

Research also focused on the relation between the iconic and static pictures and the different, prevalent philosophies of the cognitive faculties. The team related teachings to local policy and schools of thought, and compared and analysed doctrinal content of the verbal and visual arguments in the images.

The typical image depicting the sensitive soul and faculties, in use for around 500 years, can be seen as a continuum lining the medieval and modern periods, carrying concepts of Aristotle and Galen into the modern epoch. HEADLINES has highlighted how one textbook assumed a central position in 15th century mainstream teaching and, as such, was a major factor in the eventual establishment of consensus regarding cognition.

Related information


Scholarly image, scientific consensus, cognition, Renaissance, visual representations, Parvulus philosophiae naturalis
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