Time’s Arrow and the Vastness of Space: Huw Price and the Ekpyrotic Model of the Universe

As Price indicates in his work Time’s Arrow and Archimedes’ Point, in the modern cosmological picture there exists a “basic dilemma” when it comes to trying to steer a path between two possibilities that most physicists find unacceptable. These two “pillars”, as it were, are the idea of a Gold universe, in which the “smooth” or low entropy Big Bang is understood in relation to the temporal symmetry of nature; and the question that if this were not the case then how could either end be expected to be smooth in the first place? As Price says, he wants to: “discuss some of the ways in which cosmology might be able to avoid the dilemma—to steer a middle course, in effect”. In steering this course between the two pillars Price leans decidedly on the side of a Gold universe in order to argue his point, despite the fact that he also wishes to present a view of the universe in which time is also symmetrical.

While Price was writing in 1996, another theory which could explain the relative smoothness of the Big Bang would be the Ekpyrotic model, or its descendents, which was first proposed by Cosmologists Paul Steinhardt and Neil Turok in a paper published on August 15th 2001. It may be that these models of a cyclic universe would not be mutually exclusive, and indeed, would perhaps even allow for the kind of time symmetry that Price has been arguing for all along.

The Gold universe was first proposed in the early 60s by Cosmologist Thomas Gold. It establishes that the smoothness of the Big Bang could be explained if we accept that the expansion of the universe allows for more possibilities for the arrangement of matter, thus resulting in something that looks like the thermodynamic arrow of time. In a contracting universe, however, “the reverse would happen: entropy would decrease, because the contraction reduces the total stock of possibilities”. Price ultimately finds this explanation untenable; however, he does see the model itself as asking the hard question of how the original smoothness of the Big Bang makes sense. For if it were symmetrical, at least, we would only have to deal with why the two “points” of the expansion and contraction were special, rather than also trying to explain why time is fundamentally asymmetric in a universe were almost all other natural phenomena are symmetrical.

This is the point Price wishes to make from his introduction of the basic dilemma: it makes much more sense, given the symmetry of physical laws, that time should not be seen as an asymmetric phenomenon. Yet there is another pillar to his basic dilemma that Price occasionally touches upon, but does not treat as rigorously as his main project of proving the symmetry of time. That is the possibility that the smooth Big Bang could be the result of chance in a higher order universe; probability alone in such a universe would then account for the phenomenon we observe. A difficulty that Price sees in Ludwig Boltzmann’s attempt to explain the smooth Big Bang in terms of this probability is that “it depends on there being a genuine multiplicity of actual ‘bits’ of a much larger universe, of which our bit is simply some small corner”. This is very odd given Price’s introduction, namely that the virtues of the “Archimedean view from nowhere” is directed towards the ideal of knowledge in a sort of onwards and upwards motion: “at once exciting and terrifying, as a familiar view of our surroundings is revealed to be a limited and self-centered perspective on a larger but more impersonal reality”. Donna Harraway’s critiques of this view from nowhere aside, searching for internal consistency in Price’s thought, how can he present an argument against a theory because “it requires that there be vastly more ‘out there’ than we are ordinarily aware of—even as long range astronomers!”.

To be fair, Price does address this issue sporadically through the text. He points out that this may be the case given some versions of the inflationary theory. Furthermore, his account of the anthropic principle directly addresses this issue. The anthropic principle, in its weak form, states that given the random possibility of configurations for the universe only those that can produce life that will lead to sentience can be observed. Thus these types of universes will appear to be the only possibility for those creatures living within universes that possess smooth beginnings. As Price says, if this is the case then the random prerequisites for such a universe as our own may be extremely unlikely, but it wouldn’t matter as long as “(1) there is enough time in some background grand universe for them to be likely to occur eventually, and (2) it is guaranteed that when they do occur a universe of our sort arises, completely with its smooth boundary”. This is the strongest argument Price raises for the second pillar of the basic dilemma. As he says: “It depends heavily on the right sort of assistance from cosmological theory, but if this were forthcoming the anthropic approach could turn out to explain why we find ourselves in a universe with a low entropy history”. This attempt to steer through the two pillars of the basic dilemma, then, would not imply that there must be a low entropy future for our universe, but it would mean that “there is hugely more to reality than we currently imagine, and even the vast concerns of contemporary astronomy will pail into insignificance in comparison”.

This is the point at which I believe that Price falls into a double standard of his own. The apparent vastness of perspective that he praised in relation to time seems to narrow noticeably when he turns his sights on the spatial limits of existence. In a way this is understandable. Once he has set up the two pillars of his basic dilemma they begin to represent opposing poles of time asymmetry and time symmetry. Given his project then, it is no wonder that he brushes aside the former in favour of the latter. However, in doing so he is making the same mistake in regards to space that he criticizes his opponent for in regards to time.

In the February 2004 issue of Discover Magazine Michael D. Lemonick presents the ideas arrived at by Cosmologists  Steinhardt and Turok. In their view there is in fact a higher order universe in which our own is situated like a two dimensional towel on a clothesline in three dimensional space. As Lemonick states: “string theorists describe our observable universe as a membrane—“brane” for short—flapping in the breezes of the actual 10-dimensional cosmos”. In the Ekpyrotic theory the points of singularity in the cyclic universes of inflationist models are criticized. Lemonick quotes Steinhardt saying: “‘Cyclic-universe models were popular in the 1920s and ’30s,’ Steinhardt says. ‘But they were based on the idea of a Big Bang followed by a Big Crunch followed by another Big Bang’”. The problem that Steinhardt sees here is that the same matter is endlessly recycled, still resulting in an increase in entropy over time which causes each cycle to get longer, and still requires a beginning of the universe. Yet it may be possible to also posit an argument similar to this one in relation to the Gold-like model proposed by Price to “steer” a path in the basic dilemma.

The question then becomes: in a spatially finite universe what began the temporally two-way reaction we know as time? Since Price leans towards the Gold model to the exclusion of the “vastness model” he still has two very strange points with which to deal. Even though neither can be properly thought of as the beginning or the end, it still posits a set polarity to space at both ends of time. Given the unity of space-time, it seems appropriate to argue that the infinity of time would have to be explained using entirely different terms than we presently use if space is still to be understood as finite. The picture changes, however if one considers both space and time to be infinite.

This is the key factor changed in the Ekpyrotic model of the universe. Our universe can be understood as a three dimensional membrane “brane” in a higher dimensional space which itself contains an infinite number of other branes. By the very enormity of these other dimensions we are able to exist right beside another brane much like our own. In this model: “Every trillion years or so, the two membranes collide, unleashing a firestorm of energy analogous to the Big Bang. As in the earlier model, the universe cools, gives rise to galaxies, and eventually expands to near emptiness”. This process never ends for “another collision between membranes then restarts the whole cycle of creation. Thus, time and space are both infinite”. In this model, like the variations of the Gold universe model, thermodynamics has to be understood in a different light. On the scale dealt with by Steinhardt, entropy doesn’t increase, let alone decrease, for “[i]n this new cyclic model, the universe starts essentially empty each time. That means virtually no matter gets recycled. So entropy doesn’t increase, and there is no beginning or end to time”.

In this case, rather  than trying to show how the second law of thermodynamics as a statistical model still allows for what we would consider to be decreasing entropy in one direction (as in the Gold model) a different approach seems more appealing. For is it not both more economical and more likely that the second law of thermodynamic is a law whose strength, like gravity’s in light of quantum physics, only holds given a certain scale? Furthermore, by accepting something akin to the Ekpyrotic model or its offspring, it in fact does not exclude the symmetry of time that Price was defending. The movement of the three dimensional membranes back to one another after their gravity-like forces overcame the forces of the “Big Bang” may look very similar to Price’s argument for the non-directionality of time.

Price’s reinterpretation of Penrose’s astronaut thought experiment is particularly pertinent in understanding this process. Having entered into a black hole (which emulates the physical properties of the theoretical end of the universe) Penrose’s Astronaut appears to produce decreasing entropy in the “universe” of the black hole. As Price writes:  “he is simply a ‘miracle’—an incredibly unlikely chance event. The same goes for his apparatus– in general, for all the ‘foreign’ structure he imports into the hole”. Like the astronaut, each point of the universe at which we have a singularity (the traditional beginning and end) if seen in terms of an Ekpyrotic existence, can be understood in terms of this “miracle” from outside. Each point of singularity can be understood as a point at which the rules governing the larger dimensions affect the three dimensional brane in which we inhabit, resulting in an ultimate symmetry of time in an existence that is also vastly larger than we have ever imagined.

If this is the case the very notion of the basic dilemma itself is a problem for those who wish to try and understand the singularities of symmetrical time in terms of a higher dimensional space. Instead, a reinterpretation of the meaning of the Ekpyrotic universe, or of others like it, would be able to unify both the pillars of “vastness” and the Gold model in Price’s basic dilemma. In this case Price’s double standard of spatial finitude has replaced the double standard of temporal asymmetry. While his positing of basic dilemma sought to steer a course between these two problems, it favours time symmetry, and restricts the vastness of the universe to a role as something very similar to the problem it was intended to counter. The view of existence resulting from an attempt to synthesise these two positions, however, would involve a leap, as Price said “at once exciting and terrifying, as a familiar view of our surroundings is revealed to be a limited and self-centered perspective on a larger but more impersonal reality”. It would mean, as Lemonick suggested, that “everything that astronomers have ever observed is just a speck within the higher dimensions, and all of history since the Big Bang is but an instant in the infinity of time”. Thus it seems that the pillars of the basic dilemma first mentioned at the beginning of this discussion are nothing less than the Pillar’s of Hercules themselves. They represent the final departure point between the universe as cosmologists have hitherto perceive of it and present possibilities that seem to land outside the bounds of all human reason, sense and understanding, but are nevertheless tantalizing, and inviting.

For More Information:

Price, Huw. Time’s Arrow and Archimedes’ Point: New Directions for the Physics of Time. New York: Oxford University press, 1997.

Lemonick, Michael. Discover Magazine, Vol. 25, No. 2, Before the Big Bang (Feb., 2004), 1-5. Discover Media LLC.





Ruby Gloom: The Bright Side of the Dark Side

For those with children, or child-like proclivities, such as myself, I would have to recommend the cartoon Ruby Gloom. I was delightfully surprized by this charming, refreshing Canadian production.

Playing on the tropes of gothic culture and music, while also making frequent literary references, the series encourages its viewers to be creative, face their fears, make the best of a bad situation, and look on the bright side of life (and if the dark side is their bright side, well, that’s ok too).

For More Information:



Emblemata: An Iconographic Overflowing

The emblematic world view, a modern term for the ways in which late medieval and Renaissance scholars saw the intertextuality and symbolic elements of the natural world, was popularized among historians of science by William B. Ashworth in his essay “Natural History and the Emblematic World View”. Here, he attempted to ascribe the fall of the emblematic world view near the end of the 16th century to its inability to account for certain aspects of human experience, such as the discovery of the new world, or the discovery of a new kind of history. While these factors most likely played a part in its decline, this explanation closes the door on several important considerations that would apply to other kinds of taxonomies as well.

Perhaps the decline of the emblematic world view was caused by a mechanism which was not particular to it alone. It is possible to imagine that when those working within a specific method of taxonomic interpretation come to feel that it has no end in sight, through either its increasing age and complexity, or when it finds itself presented with an abundance of intermediary forms or anomalies, the general body of its adherents could begin to grow disillusioned with the hope that that method of interpretation would lead to a kind of conclusive knowledge. In this instance, then it would seem that knowledge is only truly accepted as knowledge if it is believed to have an end.  This can apply to both its purpose and its progression to some ultimate goal. Conversely, the rise of the literal view of natural science wiped the slate clean, so to speak, giving early modern natural scientists a new hope for an exhaustible source of knowledge through observation. The seat of authority for this new standard of knowledge could be attributed to its ability to be reproduced numerous times, something to which the previously inexhaustible emblematic system of knowledge had less of a claim.

Conrad Gessner memorial at the Old Botanical Garden, Zürich

As Ashworth points out, the essence of the emblematic world view “is the belief that every kind of thing in the cosmos has myriad hidden meanings and that knowledge consists of an attempt to comprehend as many of these as possible”.  Furthermore, these hidden meanings are connected symbolically to other things in the cosmos, making it necessary to be constantly searching for the interconnectedness of as many signs and symbols as possible. For example, Konrad Gesner (1516-1565), in his zoological encyclopaedia History of Animals, includes an exhaustive study of the signs and symbols associated with the animals under discussion because he “believed that to know the peacock [or any other thing] you must know its associations”. It would be fair to say that Gesner was not doing this because he was uncritical or obtuse, but because emblematic knowledge required such exhaustive measures in order to have the complete picture of the natural world.

Two things are at first noticeable from this account. Firstly, emblems make their ultimate appeal to be representative of reality through their meanings in relation to their parts and to each other. As Ashworth states: “In the ideal emblem, each element was necessary, but not sufficient, for comprehension”. Sometimes they point to God for authority, sometimes they point to the ancients, but they always demand that the reader return back to the structure in which they are presented, namely, each other. For example, a creature such as the bee could be understood in a variety of ways depending upon what other symbols were placed alongside it. In one English emblem they are a symbol of prosperity in peace: “Which doth declare, the blessed fruites of peace, / How sweete shee is, when mortall warres doe cease”, or in one German emblem it could be said to be a symbol of a well-ordered society. These two emblems taken together could then indicate that a well-ordered society is one that is benefiting from the fruits of peace. In such a way the emblems could be built upon each other to create more complex layers of meaning. Furthermore, because these meanings are hidden, they are necessarily subject to diverse interpretations.

When combined with the removal of any sort of earthly authority over the interpretation of the nature of symbols, this trend allowed a wide proliferation of emblems with a variety of meanings. Indeed, God himself could be understood as the ultimate emblem maker. In Huston Diehl’s article “Graven Images: Protestant Emblem Books in England” he points to two different emblem maker’s opposite assessments of the meaning of the same biblical brass serpent: “the image of the brass serpent, […] is neither inherently good or bad. Rather, what the viewer makes of the image, how he uses it, determines whether it is an idol to be condemned or a sign to be remembered”. Fundamentally, the emblem book asked the reader to interpret it and to see as many relations as one can, both among the emblems themselves and in the natural world.

This is further seen in the intentions of their original maker, Andrea Alciati, who wanted to “devise epigrams that were especially enigmatic, so that the readers would get a sudden and pleasing illumination when they figured them out”. Yet their being enigmatic would only add to the multiplicity of meanings that were derived from them. The emblem books could be open to such a wide array of interpretations because nature was seen to work through correspondences and patterns which were directly related to the understanding of human beings.

“Mind, not outward form, prevails.”

This extreme multiplicity of symbolic interpretation makes itself apparent if we examine one of the most theologically understood animals in the emblematic world view. The generally accepted symbolic role of the Pelican in the moral language of the Middle Ages was that its act of self sacrifice for the sake of its young reflected Christ’s sacrificing himself for all mankind. As it says in the Encyclopedia of the Scientific Revolution: “There are different versions of this emblem, but the pelican is always shown pecking open its breast to allow the young to feed on its own blood. […] the pelican represents Christ’s mercy”. With a precursory glance at some of the examples of pelican symbolism, however, we see the self-sacrifice of the pelican go through a number of transformations.

As per the generally accepted symbolism there are those, like the example from the Encyclopedia of the Scientific Revolution, which show the Christian importance of the pelican. However, there were many associations drawn from the pelican other than this interpretive norm. The pelican, it seems, can also serve as a symbol of the king who sacrifices himself for his people in emulation of Christ. While this is not too far from the generally accepted iconography of the pelican there are others that diverge significantly from this symbolic norm. One emblem in particular “Pelikan baut sein Nest auf dem Boden” Pelican: builds its nest on the ground. This diverges from almost every other pelican emblem, only preserving the nest in its symbolism. Rather than espousing the virtues of self-sacrifice, as even the more secular emblems of its kind tend to, it warns against hubris, citing the placement of the pelican’s nest (which itself varies from emblem to emblem). Furthermore, this warning against arrogance is also reincorporated in another pelican emblem that depicts a mother holding her infant carelessly above the ground by one leg, while the pelican in the foreground moves to protect its young from their flaming nest. It condemns mothers who hold their own well being above that of their children. The nest in this emblem is also, incidentally, placed on the ground. It is no wonder then, that when Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) tried to make an encyclopaedia of the emblematic knowledge of his time, he did not finish until he had compiled thirteen massive folios on the subject. As Ashworth states: “It is one thing to talk about a ‘web of associations’; it is much more impressive to see this web laid out, strand by strand, as Aldrovandi does”. What allowed this massive swelling of emblematic knowledge was in part the extreme fluidity of meanings, which was shown to be the case with the pelican example above.

If the rise of the emblematic interpretation of the world first seemed to correspond with the Protestant Reformation, it would be that same Reformation that would set up the conditions for its downfall. As Peter Harrison discusses in his work The Bible Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science: “The demise of allegory […] was due largely to the efforts of Protestant reformers, who in their search for an unambiguous religious authority, insisted that the book of scripture be interpreted only in its literal, historical sense”. This search for an unambiguous authority worked its way into all forms of knowledge both sacred and secular, and was the start of a process that would spell the end of the emblematic world view.

“To insist now that texts be read literally” writes Harrison, “was to cut short a potentially endless chain of references in which words referred to things, and things in turn referred to other things”. The Protestant reformers, in their efforts for a single textual authority with a fixed meaning and unambiguous understanding, could not coexist with a view in which there was no one textual authority, no fixed meanings and that thrived on these very ambiguities. The Bible needed to be the only authority on matters of religious doctrine and thus it would necessarily be interpreted in such a way so as to remove all doubts and ambiguities. “Only a literal method, or more strictly a method which allowed but a single meaning to be assigned to each passage of scripture, could serve this purpose”. When taken into the realm of natural science this approach was incompatible with views based on ancient authorities or traditional symbolism. Interpretations of natural entities could no longer look to each other for their justifications, but could only appeal to the final authority left in the literal world: the senses. More than any other force, the disillusionment with the possibility of a set end to the emblematic understanding of nature served to discredit the possibility that meaning could serve as any solid basis for knowledge, for as a product of human convention it had no end but itself. This threw the entire view that meaning was the measure of knowledge into question, and helped set the stage for a view of observable truths to take its place. As Harrison writes:

A disturbing implication of this development was that the purportedly natural representative functions of living things were in fact merely conventional, that the things bore no universal, God-given, significance, but instead had been arbitrarily given meaning by human agents.

It is important here to note the difference in language used to describe what constituted knowledge in the emblematic and literal world views. When discussing the knowledge of the emblematic world Ashworth does not mention the word “truth” until he arrives at Thomas Browne’s (1605-1682) attempt to demystify the symbolic associations of several animals in his section entitled: “Browne and the quest for truth in natural history”. In this section Ashworth recounts how Browne held the emblematic account of animals to the test of repeatable experimentation and observations, as he says about one of his works: “in the Pseudodoxia [Epidemica], Browne asks the remarkable questions: Are these stories true? Can they be demonstrated?” In this section Ashworth implies, if he does not state, that the measure of knowledge in the emblematic view is not truth, but meaning.

These two concepts are also paired off against each other in Harrison’s account, in which he describes St. Augustine’s focus on spiritual truths (the theological meaning beyond the literal sense of a text) as being elevated at the cost of literal interpretations. Mapping St. Augustine’s approach to scripture onto accounts of the natural world, he goes on to argue how the meaning of the “spiritual truth” undermines the truth of the literal interpretation of the natural world. What is perhaps more interesting, in a later section Harrison goes on to describe how Thomas Browne sought to demystify the mythological representations of animals. He did this with an account based on observations that explained where the mistaken belief about the animal’s behaviours may have come from. This shows a reversal of St. Augustine’s original evaluation in which the meaning is actually a misinterpretation of the truth of a particular creature. As Harrison states: “Thomas Browne, for example, suggested that the allegory of the pelican might have arisen from observations of the birds scratching their breasts during preening, and drawing blood”. This is the exact opposite of the earlier accounts of the natural world and is evident in the word choice of “meaning” as opposed to “truth”, a distinction that arguably did not exist until the rise of the literal view. Thus it could be summarized that meanings are variable, of uncertain authority, and potentially endless in their permutations, whereas truths as seen to be pinnacle of certainty, appealing to one firmly established authority and above all a limited number of viable permutations. In the decline of the emblematic world view a new concept of “truth” had displaced “meaning” in providing the conceptual framework under which nature was studied.

John Ray (1627-1705), in his preference to The Ornithology of Francis Willughby states that the chief error of previous natural philosophers trying to document the physical world was that they multiplied, unnecessarily, the number of species. This new focus on facts above meanings also necessitated a different ordering principle than that which had dominated the emblematic world view.  Harrison states that even with the emergence of Baconian empiricism, there was no set structure guiding observational knowledge: “Physical collections of objects bear witness to the same taxonomic anarchy […]. Vast amounts of new data might have been accumulated, but in the absence of an alternative conception of natural order, these could not constitute a new science”. What provided this order in the case of the literal world view was both the thesis, or hypothesis, and the developing science of taxonomy. As Harrison notes: “An overarching ordering principle is conspicuously absent in critical and constructive humanist works on natural history”, though arguably this lack of an overarching principle was part of the point of the humanist approach to knowledge, it does provide a key insight into the differences and similarities of the two. The emblematic world view could not have a thesis because that would require some end to the process of associations; it could not have a taxonomy based on the smallest parts of animals because its form of knowledge was based on building them up in associations, rather than breaking them down. In comparison, the literal world view needed a thesis and a set taxonomical language around which to structure it as its ordering principle to some observable end.

Thus the need for some set thesis led to the new pressure to develop a uniform taxonomy of the natural world, so that it could be discussed in definite terms that allowed for conclusive answers. Ray, commenting on his deceased colleague Willughby describes in his work the mentality that would be necessary to develop such a taxonomy:

Now that he might clear up all these obscurities, and render the knowledge and distinction of Species facile to all that should come after, he bent his endeavours mainly to find out […] certain Characteristic notes of each kind. But if in any kind no singular mark occurred whereby it might be certainly distinguished from all others, he did minutely and exactly describe all its parts, that at least a Collection of many accidents, which all together could not be found in any Species else of the same kind, might serve for a Characteristic.

At first glance this method could be seen as being similar to the “taxonomic anarchy” of the emblematic world view. However, one must keep in mind that the reason why such exhaustive detail was needed was to fulfill the set task of ready identification and separation of species, instead of the more general task of “accumulating vast amounts of new data”. Furthermore, we see that this massive accumulation works downwards to more minute details, rather than upwards to more complex meanings. Harrison argues that this taxonomical process is the offspring of the attempt to find a universal language capable of filling the gap left by the death of the emblematic world view. As he states:

[N]o-one thought any longer that such universal languages would somehow unlock the secrets of Adam’s encyclopedic knowledge. The best of the schemes offered a way of ordering and symbolizing what human ingenuity had discovered, [and gives us] a glimpse of the future direction of such systems – taxonomy.

In considering the comparison between these two world views it seems wise to offer an alternative explanation for one of the main changes seen in the shift from one to the other. While it is argued by Harrison that such an account shows a turn to a demand for more “useful” knowledge, it is more elucidating to consider that the question is not one of use as opposed to uselessness, but rather of what was considered useful to the various practitioners of these interpretive methods. The medieval interpretations of nature as allegory served the use of spiritual enlightenment, the emblematic interpretation of nature served the use of holistic wisdom, both of these concepts were more highly valued in their times than what we would today consider practical use. In contrast the literal world view was the only one of these interpretive methods to focus on practical uses, whether they were coming to know God or being able to describe more accurately the anatomy of a pelican. If anything, this trend shows a greater intolerance for uncertainty than a turn away from supposedly useless knowledge.

The effort to develop a set taxonomy described here is the literal equivalent of the expanding series of relations that had developed in the emblematic tradition. Ashworth quotes François Jacob’s comment that: “Living bodies were scraped clean, so to speak. They shook of their crust of analogies, resemblances and signs, to appear in all the nakedness of their true outer shape”. If this was the beginning of the literal world view, it certainly was not its end. What the efforts at taxonomy show is the literal world view’s alternative, or renewed, quest to build itself up, not through a web of associations, but by a chain of facts that would point to the ultimate knowledge of natural entities. If in the emblematic view creatures were systematically expanded into a growing web of associations, then the literal one could be said to have systematically stripped creatures down in a sort of reductionist taxonomy. This method had the new goal of identification, which itself served the purpose of expanding the literal knowledge need for a single, specific, unambiguous language with which to address the natural world.

Ultimately then, the mechanism most likely to have caused the demise of the emblematic world view and the rise of the literal one was the growing feeling that knowledge based on meanings could potentially continue forever. In contrast, knowledge based on observable truths promised a specific end with definite results. The shift was caused by a change from valuing the holistic knowledge of nature as associations to valuing the repeatable and observational knowledge of nature as sensations over and above human history and meaning. One could not repeat the “experiment” of a symbol or emblem, and their uses were discredited in light of their potential for endless ambiguities and interpretations. What is present in the one case is the valuing of knowledge as being incomplete without those necessary uncertainties that make psychological relationships possible, as opposed to the very definite demand for certainty present in a literal account of the world.

As such, meaning and their symbolic representations were eclipsed by a notion of truth and its association with observable facts as the measure of knowledge. The new interpretive tools provided by the literal world view, however, in their need to fill the space left by the receding emblematic tool set, demanded some new descriptive standard. That standard was taxonomy. The physical taxonomy of things being interpreted in terms of their more minute physical components is a method not dissimilar in kind to that of the emblematic world view, yet it benefits from being younger and having the renewed promise of a definitive end. Yet understood this way, the door is open for the possibility that the literal world view could succumb to the same pressures that were the ruination of the emblematic cosmos. The processes may be slowed somewhat by the specialization of knowledge, but one must eventually ask oneself the question: What would happen if this method of interpretation were to encounter the same explosion of “facts” and the same seemingly endless pursuit that led to the demise of the emblematic world view? That is, however, a question for another time. For as has already been stated, when operating under the literal world view, the demand for a thesis under which to organize a collection of information contains within itself the demand for a recognizable, definitive end.

For More Information:






Geoffrey Whitney. A Choice of Emblems 1586 Yorkshire: The Scolar Press Limited, 1973.

Henkel, Arthur, Albrecht Schöne, Ed. Emblemata: Handbuch zur Sinnbildkunst des XVI. und XVII. Jahrhunderts.

John Ray, Francis Willughby. The Ornithology of Francis Willughby London: Printed by E. Cotes, 1658.

(Accessible online at: http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2003&res_id=xri:eebo&rft_id=xri:eebo:citation:12589921)

Ashworth, William B., Jr. “Natural history and the emblematic world view”, in Reappraisals of the Scientific Revolution, ed. David C. Lindberg, Robert S. Westman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990, 303-325.

Diehl, Huston. “Graven Images: Protestant Emblem Books in England”, Renaissance Quarterly 31 (1986): 49-66.

Harrison, Peter. The Bible Protestantism and the Rise of Natural Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Tapp, Kevin. “Emblematics”, in Encyclopedia of the Scientific Revolution: From Copernicus to Newton, Ed. Wilbur Applebaum. New York: Garland Publishing, 2000, 203-205.