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Toward a cognitive history of pre-modern rhetoric as mathematical thinking

Since the publication of On Viewing Rhetoric as Epistemic (1967), Scott’s claim that truth cannot be seen as disconnected from specific, situated rhetorical acts has spurred a great deal of scholarship – and as many critiques. Scott’s theory has been contested for his elusiveness and lack of concrete applications (Harpine 2004; Allen 2017) as well as for its one-sided reduction of knowledge to a social construction.

This proposal argues that looking at the pre-modern world can partly help overcome these pitfalls, showing not only how rhetoric can practically scaffold scientific discourse but also how rhetoric itself can be conceptualized in scientific terms. Byzantium in the 12th century offers a fertile ground of investigation, as intersections between scientific and rhetorical discourses become more visible. Besides mining new data from manuscripts, this proposal aims to look at such intersections from a cognitive perspective, focusing on the learning processes of pre-modern users and stimulating at the same time reflections on our current scientific practices. Interdisciplinary cooperation with colleagues working on learning theories and data visualization as well as actual practitioners of science is therefore crucial.

The inquiry will concentrate on two main axes:
  1.  Metaphors underpinning scientific/rhetorical discourse and self-representation. In the period under consideration, rhetoricians styled themselves as mathematicians or geometers. Further, rhetorical concepts and concepts organizing mathematical/geometric reasoning often overlap. The Greek term kataskeué, for instance, can alternatively mean artistic elaboration, demonstration (of a theorem) or construction/solution in geometry and mechanics. This speaks, as we argue, to the appraisal of rhetoric as akin to scientific subjects such as mathematics and geometry.

  2.  Visualization, geometrical diagrams and maps: explaining rhetoric through graphs was common practice since antiquity. From the 10th century onwards we see a contamination of rhetorical and mathematical materials (illustrations from Euclides’ treatises for instance) in the margins of rhetorical manuscripts. In the 12th century visualization tools in the form of diagrams borrowed from mathematics, geometry and map making become more common.

Implementation The project will unfold in two phases: 
  • Phase 1
    Data collection from edited works and unedited manuscripts. Most of these manuscripts are digitized and therefore easy to access. In other cases, we have already acquired digitizations. Should the need for further digitizations arise, I will use my allowance to cover the expenses. This phase will be the most labor intensive. We will rely on cooperation from Chiara D’Agostini and the new hire, Anna Bistaffa. I supervised Chiara D’Agostini during her PhD (on geography and cartography in Byzantium) and she is now employed as project manager on two different projects, a position that allows her also some time for research. I was external supervisor for Anna Bistaffa’s MA-dissertation and I was impressed by the her proficiency and skills – already at doctoral level. Both D’Agostini and Bistaffa will work on a joint paper presenting their findings.

  • Phase 2
    Using the data collected by D’Agostini and Bistaffa, working with Nina Bonderup Dohn, Zhiru Sun and Benjamin Jäger, we will co-author two interdisciplinary papers mapping out the findings from our sources according to current theories of cognition and learning design.


Methodology The present proposal situates itself within the field of cognitive history and history of science. While data will be scooped through historical-philological methodologies (1), their interpretation will be based (2) on a distinction between the emic and the etic. The etic will be investigated through the tools of (3) conceptual metaphor theory and (4) situated cognition. As for interdisciplinarity we embrace a non-summative, modal concept of interdisciplinarity, which has already successfully implemented by the “Ordered Universe” project: https://ordered-universe.com (5).

Outcomes and strategy

Main outcome will be a) one paper written by D’Agostini-Bistaffa; b) two papers co-written by the DIAS fellows. They will work as stepping-stones to broader investigations, proving our interdisciplinary approach viable. The aim is to demonstrate feasibility within larger proposals to be submitted in the fall: Gerda Henkel Foundation (History of Science); FKK2; and Carlsberg Foundation (if eligible). In turn these applications will be designed to be expanded into an ERC grant proposal (2022). We also plan a series of thematic DIAS-talks, both virtual and in presence (to be funded through my DIAS allowance), on the intersection between rhetoric and mathematics, with key actors and rising stars in the field:

Editing was completed: