Science from Sight to Insight: How Scientists Illustrate Meaning

Science from Sight to Insight: How Scientists Illustrate Meaning

by Alan G. Gross, Joseph E. Harmon

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John Dalton’s molecular structures. Scatter plots and geometric diagrams. Watson and Crick’s double helix. The way in which scientists understand the world—and the key concepts that explain it—is undeniably bound up in not only words, but images. Moreover, from PowerPoint presentations to articles in academic journals, scientific communication routinely relies on the relationship between words and pictures. In Science from Sight to Insight, Alan G. Gross  and Joseph E. Harmon present a short history of the scientific visual, and then formulate a theory about the interaction between the visual and textual. With great insight and admirable rigor, the authors argue that scientific meaning itself comes from the complex interplay between the verbal and the visual in the form of graphs, diagrams, maps, drawings, and photographs. The authors use a variety of tools to probe the nature of scientific images, from Heidegger’s philosophy of science to Peirce’s semiotics of visual communication. Their synthesis of these elements offers readers an examination of scientific visuals at a much deeper and more meaningful level than ever before.  

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226068343
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/25/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 328
File size: 47 MB
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About the Author

Alan G. Gross is professor of communication studies at the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities. He is the author or coauthor of several books, including The Rhetoric of Science and Starring the Text: The Place of Rhetoric in Science Studies. Joseph E. Harmon works as a science writer and editor at Argonne National Laboratory. He is the coauthor with Alan Gross of several books, including Communicating Science, The Scientific Literature: A Guided Tour and The Craft of Scientific Communication. 

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How Scientists Illustrate Meaning

By ALAN G. GROSS, Joseph E. Harmon


Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-06820-6


A Framework for Understanding Verbal-Visual Interaction

[Natural] Philosophy is written in that vast book which stands forever open to our eyes, I mean the universe; but it cannot be read until we have learned the language and become familiar with the characters in which it is written. It is written in mathematical language, and the letters are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures, without which means it is humanly impossible to comprehend a single word.

—Galileo Galilei, The Assayer (1623)

Our assumption that scientific communication is a consequence of the interaction between words and images requires us to erect a framework for analysis that takes verbal-visual differences seriously into consideration, and that makes the explanation of their interaction a central concern. Our first task is to provide a philosophical justification for our endeavor. For this we turn to Martin Heidegger, the first philosopher to emphasize the central place of visualization in the sciences. Heidegger's philosophical perspective forms the initial component in our framework. For the second, we rely on the dual coding theory (DCT) of the Canadian cognitive psychologist Allan Paivio. We do not know whether the central premise of DCT, the hardwired dual coding of the verbal and the visual, will survive the test of time, but it is a plausible explanation of the facts currently available, and a plausible translation into the language of cognitive psychology of Heidegger's concern with the epistemic primacy of the visual. The final component in our framework of analysis stems from a limitation we perceive in DCT: it lacks a viable hermeneutic capacity. Its level of abstraction is such that both the fine and the more encompassing structures of scientific communication escape its grasp. In the absence of a well-established hermeneutic theory of verbal-visual interaction on which we can rely, we have called for assistance from the resources of Gestalt psychology, scanning-and-matching theory, Peircian semiotics, and argument and narrative theory. To indicate its relationship to DCT, we call our synthesis enhanced dual coding theory (EDCT). According to EDCT, we perceive images as patterns ordered in accord with Gestalt theory; we identify their components by means of scanning-and-matching theory; we interpret these and the wholes of which they are a part by means of Peircian semiotics; finally, we integrate these interpretations into semiotic wholes by means of argumentative and narrative structures.


It is impossible to exaggerate the influence of Heidegger's phenomenology in twentieth-century philosophy; one need only mention Hans-Georg Gadamer, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Emmanuel Levinas. Even in philosophy of science, still dominated by the analytical tradition, Heidegger has his firm adherents: Patrick Heelan (1983), in his writings on modern physics and visual spaces, and Don Ihde (1991, 1998), in his writings on the visual hermeneutics of technology, acknowledge their debt on virtually every page. And the debt may be there, even if unacknowledged. In Bruno Latour's Science in Action (1987), while Heidegger is not in the index, he is in the wings, superintending the production, despite Latour's protestations to the contrary. And how different are Kuhn's paradigms and Heidegger's Ge-Stell, or En-framing?

Still, there is a barrier to untrammeled use: scholars wishing to rely on Heidegger's philosophy cannot ignore the question of whether his unrepentant Nazism infects those portions of his work they intend to employ (Faye 2009). Gottlob Frege may seem like a parallel case. Are his obnoxious political views to prevent us from acknowledging his fundamental contributions to the philosophy of language? At least one eminent philosopher, Michael Dummett, did not think so, though his discovery of Frege's racism shocked his conscience. But Heidegger's case is importantly different, as there is little question that he saw the Nazi movement as the realization of central aspects of Being and Time (1962a) or that his views of science were harnessed to a polemic whose target was the technological supremacy of a modern world founded on capitalism and democratic principles (Wolin 1991; Fleischaker 2008). But to say this is not to say that many of his insights into hermeneutics in Being and Time (1962a) and into science in his later essays are necessarily expressions, respectively, of his Nazism and his reactionary views. In our view, they are not; Heidegger's Nazism is irrelevant to the case we wish to make.

In another sense, however, the disruptions of the Nazi era are relevant to our argument because they concern the split between phenomenology, with its highly specialized vocabulary and emphasis on the interaction of consciousness with the world, and analytical philosophy, with its distrust of metaphor and emphasis on the derivation of fundamental principles by mathematics and logic. It would be unrealistic to expect phenomenologists and analytical philosophers to agree on fundamentals. But it would not be unreasonable to expect that they would treat each other with respect, that they would converse with the expectation that their conversations might be mutually beneficial. At least one analytical philosopher, Michael Friedman, feels that the 1929 encounter between Heidegger and Ernst Cassirer in Davos, Switzerland, an encounter at which Rudolf Carnap was present, was characterized by such mutual respect. It was a rapprochement that was not to last: only four years later, the rise of Nazism left Heidegger as the only philosopher of distinction in Germany.

In Friedman's view, a contingent circumstance led to what now seems like an unbridgeable divide: "the thoroughgoing intellectual estrangement of these two traditions, their almost total lack of mutual comprehension is a product of the National Socialist seizure of power" (2000, 156). While our ambition does not extend to healing this breach, its contingent origin encourages us to harness to our own purposes any insights into our subject, regardless of their source. We take from Heidegger the epistemic and ontological primacy of the visual to modern science, a primacy in which the analytical tradition has no interest; we take from the analytical tradition the reconstruction of science as a network of propositions, an enterprise in which Heidegger had scant interest. Only in this way do we think that we can do full justice to scientific communication as the argumentative and narrative product of the interaction of the verbal and the visual.

Heidegger's philosophy of science seems to us a good choice when the object of study is scientific visuals: his is a phenomenology centered on sight and insight (Glazebrook 2000). We do not mean that Being and Time and subsequent works are dominated by visual metaphors, although that is certainly the case; we mean rather that the significance of Heidegger's philosophy is inseparable from these metaphors. For most philosophers, these are, like Kant's dove, merely illustrative. Like the philosopher tempted by the snares of pure reason, Kant's dove "might imagine [wrongly] that its flight would be still easier in empty space" (1787, 47). For Heidegger, however, metaphor is a philosophical tool, a means of reaching beyond the conceptual prison of denotative language. In Heidegger's case, this procedure has an unfortunate result: it leads to prose that is equally rebarbative in German and in English translation. We will deal with this problem by providing a commentary that, we hope, illuminates the passages we quote, followed by Heidegger's prose in translation as a check on the validity of our commentary. We are under no illusions that our exegesis will result in a consensus on the part of all readers. We claim only that our interpretations are plausible, and that they support our claims for the relevance of Heidegger's philosophy of science to the task we have set for ourselves.

Meaning, for Heidegger, is conceived in terms of sight. In typical fashion, he weaves literal and metaphorical discourse into a single philosophical configuration, playing on the German for "seeing" (sehen) and for "the visible" (sichtig). In order to reach a point where something is explicitly understood, he asserts, we must take apart what is "circumspectively [umsichtig] ready-to-hand," that is, whatever is available for use, until we reach a point where it has "the structure of something as something." It is at that point "explicitly understood." As Heidegger elaborates,

all preparing, putting to rights, repairing, improving, rounding-out, are accomplished in the following way: we take apart in its "in-order-to" that which is circumspectively [umsichtig] ready-to-hand, and we concern ourselves with it in accordance with what becomes visible [sichtig] through this process. That which has been circumspectively [umsichtig] taken apart with regard to its "in-order-to," and taken apart as such— that which is explicitly understood—has the structure of something as something. (1972, 148–49; 1962a, 189; emphasis his)

This position has the important consequence that the correspondence theory of truth must be discarded. According to this theory, a proposition is true when it matches the way the world is. According to Heidegger, truth is a consequence of seeing; we bring it to light not through a process of matching, but through a process of revelation: "To say that a statement is true means that it discovers the beings in themselves. It asserts, it shows, it lets beings 'be seen' (apophansis) in their discoveredness. The being true (truth) of the statement must be understood as discovering. Thus truth by no means has the structure of an agreement between knowing and the object in the sense of a correspondence of one being (subject) with another (object)" (1972, 219; 1962a, 201). Since, for Heidegger, truth is revelation (Entdecktheit), "to say that an assertion 'is true' signifies that it reveals the entity as it is in itself" (in seiner Entdecktheit).

There is a second reason for choosing Heidegger's philosophy for the investigation of scientific visuals, one indissolubly linked to the first: it does not privilege propositions. This is a consequence of Dasein, Being's constant existential encounter with the world. Rojcewicz's explanation of the existential nature of this key Heideggerian term cannot be bettered:

What is most decisive ... in Heidegger's understanding of humans as Dasein is the precise meaning of the "there." The exact sense in which humans are called upon to be the place of a self-revelation of Being. This sense of "there" (as also of da in German) is expressed very nearly in a colloquial use of the word in a context admittedly quite foreign to the present one. In the interpersonal domain, a parent may promise a child, or a lover a beloved, to "be there" always for her or him. That is of course not a promise simply to remain at a certain place in space. Nor, at the other extreme, is it a claim of domination. Instead, it is a promise to be available in a supportive way; it is an offer of constant advocacy and nurture. (Rojcewicz 2006, 6)

Heidegger regards science as an ongoing activity whose existential encounters with the world are necessarily the primary focus of philosophical investigation. In Being and Time, he says that

assertion is not the primary "locus" of truth. On the contrary, whether as a mode in which uncoveredness is appropriated or as a way of Being-in-the-world, assertion is grounded in Dasein's uncovering [im Entdecken], or rather its disclosedness. The most primordial "truth" is the "locus" of assertion; it is the ontological condition for the possibility that assertions can either conceal or reveal the truth—can either be true or false. (1972, 226; 1962a, 269; translation modified; Heidegger's emphasis)

Not only are theoretical statements derivative of prior unconcealments, but interpretation exists even in the absence of words: "Interpretation is carried out primordially not in a theoretical statement but in an action of circumspective concern [umsichtig-besorgenden]—laying aside an unsuitable tool, or exchanging it, 'without wasting words.' From the fact that words are absent, it may not be concluded that interpretation is absent" (1972, 218; 1962a, 261; see also 1972, 157; 1962a, 200). Indeed, all communication, including scientific communication, is a communion simultaneously with others and with the objects of our concern: "when we are explicitly hearing the discourse of another, we proximately understand what is said, or—to put it more exactly—we are already with him, in advance, alongside whatever it is the discourse is about" (1972, 164; 1962a, 207; translation corrected).

Science, however, is a specific way of looking at the world. In "The era of the world picture," Heidegger remarks that "the fundamental event of the modern age is the conquest of the world as picture (als Bild) (1950, 87; 1938, 134), a "structured image (Gebilde)" (1950, 87; 1938, 134). This "does not mean a picture of the world but the world conceived and grasped as a picture" (als Bild begriffen; 1950, 82; 1938, 129; emphasis added), one that permits us to see the world in "its entirety ... as a system." What is the source of this view? The modern age itself. It and its keystone, modern science, were inaugurated by two nearly coincident moments in the early seventeenth century, a philosophical moment, beginning with René Descartes and culminating with Immanuel Kant, and its scientific counterpart, beginning with Galileo Galilei and culminating with Isaac Newton. Heidegger explains this Cartesian-Galilean transformation in terms of his distinction between the "present-at-hand" (vorhanden), the system of concepts available to thought, and the "ready-to-hand" (zuhanden), whatever is available for use. Science is what is present-at-hand. What is ready-to-hand is its twin, technology. We are not here concerned with the well-known fact that technology has its own history, separate from science; we are concerned only with the marriage of science and technology that characterizes modern science, what Latour calls "technoscience" (1987, 174–76).

It is Descartes who engineers this revolution in our attitude toward the world; it is he who shifts the guarantee of its objectivity from our existential encounter with it to an experience wholly within the self. It is this shift, as we shall soon see, that accounts for the startling eruption of the adverb "mathematically" in the second sentence of this passage:

Until Descartes every thing present-at-hand for itself was a "subject" but now the "I" becomes the special subject, that with regard to which all the remaining things first determine themselves as such. Because—mathematically—they first receive their thingness only through the founding relation to the highest principle and its "subject" (I), they are essentially such as stand as something else in relation to the "subject," which lie over against it as objectum. The things themselves become "objects." (1962b, 81–82; 1935–36, 105)

For Heidegger, this paradoxical guarantee of objectivity by means of subjectivity defines modern science, which "is supposed to be based on experience. Instead, it has such a law [as Newton's first law of motion, which posits not real but unrealizable conditions] at its apex. This law speaks of a thing that does not exist. It demands a fundamental representation of things which contradict the ordinary" (1962b, 69; 1935–36, 89).

But the philosophical heirs of Descartes inherited a central puzzle: the link between mind and the world lacked a satisfactory explanation. For Heidegger, therefore, the philosophical moment of modern science culminates not with Descartes but with Kant. According to Kant, since neither pure reason nor its purely empirical counterpart can account for our knowledge of the everyday world or its derivative, the world as understood by science, we must have within us a set of categories and intuitions that permit us to see the world as extended in space and time and causally determined, that is, "mathematical" in the broad sense:

The mathematical is that "about" things we really already know. Therefore we do not first get it out of things, but, in a certain way, we bring it already with us. From this we can now understand why, for instance, number is something mathematical. We see three chairs and say that there are three. What "three" is three chairs do not tell us, nor three apples, three cats nor any three things. Moreover, we can count three things only if we already know "three." In this grasping the number three as such, we only expressly recognize something which, in some way, we already have. This recognition is genuine learning. (1962b, 57; 1935–36, 74)

Excerpted from SCIENCE FROM SIGHT TO INSIGHT by ALAN G. GROSS, Joseph E. Harmon. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Verbal- Visual Interaction in Science

1. A Framework for Understanding Verbal- Visual Interaction
2. Understanding Scientifi c Visuals and Tables: A Taxonomy
3. Visual Evolution and the Heideggerian Transformation
4. Verbal- Visual Interaction and Scientifi c Argument: The Contexts of Discovery and Justifi cation
5. Visual Argument and Narrative in the “Historical” Sciences: The Example of Geology
6. Verbal- Visual Interaction in the Victorian Discovery of Deep Time
7. The Public Science Lecture: PowerPoint Transforms a Genre
8. Weaving the Web of Scientifi c Knowledge: Visuals on the Internet


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