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Visual Episte--What Now?

As I promised last week, I am going to share a bit about how work is going for my philosophy seminar: Visual Epistemology. But what is a philosophy seminar? And what is visual epistemology!

The first question is easier to answer. Seminars exist at Luther College to give students a taste of what they will experience if they go on to graduate school. In short, that means that we meet long, late, and not very often. Once a week, 6 PM Monday night, I straggle into class after eating dinner for a three-hour discussion of the week’s reading.

Now for the tougher job: visual epistemology. Well, the “visual” bit isn’t so hard to tackle; it just has to do with seeing. “Epistemology,” on the other hand, is a philosophical term for the study of knowledge. An epistemological question is one that asks “What can we know, and how can we know it?” So, when you jam the two words together, you end up wondering about what can be known from the things we look at.

A major component of the seminar is a term paper, worth fifty-percent of the grade; but how, exactly, does one go about writing such a monstrosity? First off, you need the barest hint of an idea, something that really eats at your mind and won’t leave. Once you find a question or observation like this rattling around in your brain, the slow process can get underway.

For my part, a specific set of graphs has stuck with me since mid-September. They were mentioned in one of our course books, Visual Explanations. The long and short of it is that they are two graphs of sun spots constructed from the same data, but on different scales, such that one scale makes it clear to the viewer that sunspot activity will increase quickly but decrease slowly.

I know, I know!— So far this sounds less than enthralling.

The question that troubles me, though, concerns whether or not information can really be said to be in a graph, and, extending from this, can there be visual representations that contain information? Sure, most people would be comfortable enough admitting that an abstract painting contains little information unless a viewer “reads some into it,” but if graphs turn out to be no different from abstract paintings, then what!

So now that I have an important question, what’s in store next? Well, it is useful to turn to thought experiments to help uncover questions fundamental to understanding the larger puzzle. For example, I came up with an odd scenario involving button pushing, flashing lights, and the magical transportation of a person from one side of a curtain to the other. (It’s precisely for reasons like this that philosophy must be the best discipline to study. In what other major can you write about anything so wacky and still have it count as legitimate argumentation?)

Thoroughly prepared with questions and thought experiments, the time has come for me to hit the books. It is important to learn about what other thinkers have said on the topic, because oftentimes they will have addressed the same question, and in so doing raised bigger, even more exciting questions that need answers.

This is the point in the process that I am at, and I already have a hefty stack of resources. All that’s left is to write the paper, itself. How much trouble can that be…

These graphs raise questions about the presence of information.
Is there information in the Library's art?

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