What a wonderful world – aha-moments triggered by insights into a medieval thinker’s mind

Photo0044IMG_0032In the aftermath of Ordered Universe gatherings I find myself time and again struck by how little appreciation I normally give to the complexity of the natural world. So many fundamental properties of the physical universe I usually take for granted, without even giving it a thought that someone would have some sort of explanatory account for them. Through engaging with 13th-century models of physical phenomena, some of this fascination with the fundamental properties of the world around us has been unlocked for me. Furthermore, I keep being baffled by how science – in the sense of ‘groping for understanding’, as Tom McLeish sometimes puts it – is far from a modern-day phenomenon but has been with us throughout the ages. Given my psychology and philosophy background this constitutes a steep learning curve, and has certainly enriched my understanding of the nature and history of science.

Looking back, let me take you through the key aha-moments I’ve had so far thanks to being involved with the Ordered Universe Project. From the colour perception part of our first year psychology course I had already taken away that the world’s colourful appearance to us is mediated by complex physiological and neurocomputational mechanisms. But only through reading the group’s edition and commentary on the De colore I’ve developed a deeper appreciation of how one can abstract from the world’s phenomenological appearance to us in order to IMG_1900map dimensions of colour space. When first reading up on the De iride (On the rainbow) I was quite embarrassed admitting to myself that actually, I had no idea how these beautifully coloured and so often admired arcs come about. Until then I had simply gone by my rudimentary secondary school knowledge of it having something to do with splitting up different wavelengths of light – and no further thoughts had been spent on how exactly this would lead to coloured semicircular bows in the sky. As Richard Bower explained during the public lectures, in the De luce (On light) Grosseteste extrapolates from principles observed locally to the origin of the entire universe, and this ‘Newtonian leap’ in many ways parallels strategies employed by modern cosmology. Furthermore, the De luce crucially builds on the far from trivial realisation that matter has extension. During the public lectures, Tom McLeish wonderfully illustrated this ‘challenge of the obvious’, as he referred to it, by pointing out that we shouldn’t take for granted that we aren’t falling straight through the chair we’re sitting on. He went on to identifying this challenge with what has always attracted him to science. It seems that in this sense there’s certainly scope for parallels to be drawn between what drove and drives Grosseteste and modern-scientists in their efforts to understand the natural world.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADuring the collaborative reading sessions of Grosseteste’s De generatione sonorum (On the generation of sound) last week, I had some more aha-moments, this time related to the nature of sound, phonetics and the alphabet. Most striking I’ve found Grosseteste’s attempt to map written letters onto vowel sounds as well as onto a set of simple and complex, geometrically described motions that are taken to produce both the written letter-shapes and the associated sounds. In Grosseteste’s use of the word ‘littera’ (letter) we can recognise the associated tripartite understanding prevalent at the time: the label ‘letter’ subsumed the three properties of nomen (the conventional name of the letter), figure (referring both to the written shape and the shape of the vocal instruments producing this letter) and potestas (sound of the vowel / consonant). As far as I understood John Coleman’s further and very insightful explanations, this idea of a ‘natural alphabet’ was also put forward by others, such as Bishop Wilkins (1614 – 1672). Even though I wouldn’t have ever made that leap myself, I’ve thought the claim very intuitive that there should be direct resemblance (rather than merely symbolic correspondence) between written letter-shapes and the shape of the vocal tract when producing the associated sounds. Maybe feel for yourself the shape the vocal tract takes when saying ‘O’ and ‘A’, and then compare this to the shapes the written letters have! Even though this resemblance breaks down certainly when it comes to consonants (this was suggested as a plausible reason for why Grosseteste falls short of extending his unifying account to consonants), I do think that the parallels identified by Grosseteste are intriguing. His account again testifies to his aspiration to uncover the fundamental principles that underlie observable phenomena, and by doing so he yet again sets up a problem space that has made me think about aspects of the world that I so far hadn’t paid any special attention to.

Another revelation I had relates to the etymology of the word ‘consonant’ as being derived from the latin ‘con-‘ (with) and ‘sonare’ (to sound), giving ‘to sound together’. In Isidore of Seville, we can find the explanation that ‘a consonant is so named because it sounds together with a vowel’, and Grosseteste expands on this by saying that consonants can sound as a ‘murmur’ inside the mouth but only become audible when complemented with a vowel.


IMG_2260Taking a step back it seems that Grosseteste, a thinker from the Middle Ages, was led by deep fascination with and wonder about natural phenomena. To satisfy his inquisitive mind he developed explanatory models of mind-blowing complexity and coherence. Given that he made the crucial step from picking up features of the natural world to developing unifying accounts for them, it seems almost irrelevant that his models are in many parts false given modern-day science understanding. The world we live in and of which we’re part is wonderful in the true sense of the word – it’s full of wonders which we should do justice by wondering about them. Maybe through living in times of information overload many of us simply take for granted fundamental physical properties of the natural world. I think that by engaging with a medieval thinker’s thoughts, we can learn how to see the world with more open eyes.


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