Unreal Nature

August 31, 2012

Just So

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:23 am

… his aim was not to render as skilfully and accurately as possible what he thinks he sees, but to grasp and illustrate the forces at play. As Kemp says, ‘Each painting is, in a sense, a proof of Leonardo’s understanding.’

This is from Curiosity: How Science Became Interested In Everything by Philip Ball (2012):

… it is a mistake (often made) to turn Leonardo into a modern scientist. For one thing, his experimental programme is incontinent: an outpouring of questions, apparently listed simply in the order in which they popped into his head. This is merely a ledger of phenomena, uncontained by any fundamental hypothesis about how nature behaves. It is well-nigh impossible to imagine emerging from this programme a unified picture of how [for example] fluid flow occurs, like the one that scientists possess today. Rather, if Leonardo had been at liberty to investigate each of his questions, he would have gathered together a roster of particulars, none of them obviously deducible from the others: a body of facts, not an explicatory framework.

Leonardo drawing [found here]

This is not because Leonardo had an ill-disciplined mind — at least it was not simply because of that. Leonardo could not draw up a coherent research agenda because there was no philosophical tradition of doing so. Worse, the prevailing (scholastic) tradition was to take precisely the route that Leonardo chose, to divide and subdivide, making ever finer distinctions between the categories of things and questions. What distinguishes Leonardo was not the method he used to approach the nature of water flow, but the fact that he considered these things worth studying in the first place: not that he was obsessive in drawing up his lists, but in the object of his obsession.

Leonardo was also set apart from the scholastics by having Neoplatonic sympathies. Thinking about the behaviour of the seas and skies and the circulation of water between them, he was constantly aware of the relationship that Renaissance champions of this ancient tradition perceived between the macrocosm and the microcosm: it was more than metaphor when he called rivers the ‘blood of the earth.’ This belief in an inner unity of the diverse forms and effects of nature encouraged his use of analogy: light becomes akin to rippling water, and water to hair and smoke.

Leonardo drawing [found here]

Leonardo’s Neoplatonism explains why he was not in the end quite the faithful recorder of nature that he is commonly made out to be. His flow forms are idealized, exaggerated so that they resemble more closely the patterns of wavy and braided hair — connections all but invisible to ignorant eyes, yet which reveal to the adept the deep structure of the world. To art historian Martin Kemp, these sketches are ‘an intricate synthesis of observations and theoretical constructions, with neither separate from the other.’ Leonardo’s fascination with hidden forms is not exactly that of the scientist as we would recognize it, but that of the philosopher who believes that nature is inherently creative and that the artist only mimics her inventiveness. Painting, said Leonardo, is ‘a subtle inventione which with philosophy and subtle speculation considers the nature of all forms.’ Particular phenomena — specific kinds of flow, for example — were to be understood not as explicit realization of some underlying mathematical process so much as capricious variations on it.

Leonardo believed that the artist can hope to make a convincing depiction of nature only by penetrating beneath the caprice — his aim was not to render as skilfully and accurately as possible what he thinks he sees, but to grasp and illustrate the forces at play. As Kemp says, ‘Each painting is, in a sense, a proof of Leonardo’s understanding.’ Recognizing that few artists will have the patience (or perhaps the aptitude) for such dedicated observation, Leonardo concedes that ‘At this point … the opponent says that he does not want so much scienza, that practice is enough for him in order to draw the things in nature.’ But that would leave one skating over the surface of the world, bewitched by arbitrary invention and ephemera: ‘The answer to this is that there is nothing that deceives us more easily than our confidence in our judgments, divorced from reasoning.’

Leonardo drawing [found here]

Leonardo doesn’t always mean what we might like to imagine. Take his reliance on ‘experiment.’ In the Renaissance this word was often more or less synonymous with ‘experience’: not the kind of carefully planned, often highly constrained and artificial procedure used by scientists to explore a particular phenomenon in isolation from others and to test a hypothesis about how it happens, but rather a simple raw observation of nature. From the seventeenth century, the scientific experiment came increasingly to be an abstraction from and a manipulation of what happens ‘naturally,’ precisely because the natural situation typically involves so many complicating factors and influences that interpretation becomes difficult. This widening gap between nature and the laboratory was to prove controversial.

And Leonardo does not propose to use experiment as we do today, for testing hypotheses. Rather, it supplies a means to identify what it is that reason must explain. ‘First,’ he declares, ‘I shall test by experiment before I proceed further, because my intention is to consult experience first and then with reasoning show why such experience is bound to operate in such a way.’ This could easily provide a prescription for the tautologies and Just So stories that hamper the natural philosophy of antiquity: although the theory must accord with what we experience, it can nonetheless be formulated with armchair logic and reasoning.

My most recent previous post from Ball’s book is here.



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