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Verbal picturing and aesthetic experience in natural history, 1650–1720

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Margaret Carlyle.

In this talk I will offer a new interpretation of the work of representing nature in the 17th-century Royal Society of London, focusing on the verbal descriptions made by the botanist John Ray (1627-1705) and his immediate contemporaries. Long considered to be plain and passionless, I will show that Ray’s descriptions were highly rhetorical, intended to provoke mental pictures that were as pleasurable as they were vivid.

My purpose, however, is not simply to argue that the rhetoricality of Ray’s descriptions has been overlooked. Instead I will explore the sources of Ray’s conception of powerful picturing, drawing on rhetoric, art theory, theories of mind, and neurological models. Through this exploration I will show that the verbal descriptions of natural history were – in a manner of speaking – just as pictorial as the pictures that accompanied them. They may therefore serve as a powerful source for rethinking Ray’s conception of experience, revealing the role that he assigned to its irreducibly affective dimensions in the communication of knowledge.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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