Ovanes Akopyan

Field of Research: Description and Explanation
Frontispiece of Ptolemy’s Geographia (Venice, Biblioteca Marciana, MS Gr. Z 388, f. VI, c. 1453). 

Early modern science presented its audience with plenty of new facts and circumstances that were inherently difficult to imagine and to grasp. Scientific authors therefore faced the challenge of imparting their findings as simply, clearly and graphically as possible. This was partly achieved through images, diagrams and mathematical formulas (e.g. S. Kusukawa, Picturing the Book of Nature. Image, Text, and Argument in Sixteenth-Century Human Anatomy and Medical Botany, Chicago 2012). But to produce good images was difficult and costly, and many disciplines were not (yet) amenable to mathematisation. Precise description and explanation in words was therefore indispensable. Theoretical guidance was provided by the rhetorical system which comprised both functions under the heading of docere (teaching). Precepts for description were primarily given under the headings of narratio (report), evidentia (graphic depiction) and ékphrasis (exhaustive account). Help for explanation was offered by instruction for the genus humile (plain style) and for the stylistic virtue of perspicuitas (clarity). The sub-project will study how this theoretical apparatus was put to different uses in three kinds of scientific writings: Natural historians were as a rule not concerned with explanation, but exclusively with vivid and unequivocal description. Astronomists, physicists and mathematicians, by contrast, whose reasonings were highly abstract and removed from everyday experience, had to put a lot of effort into explaining what they actually meant. While both of these groups primarily wrote for their peers, authors of popular genres such as dialogues or didactic poems addressed a lay audience and had to adjust their descriptive and explanatory techniques accordingly.

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