Aesthetic Epistemology: A Review of Erna Fiorentini’s Article “Inducing Visibilities…”

By Jesse Jinna Ruiz

Original article:Inducing visibilities: An attempt at Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s aesthetic epistemology” / Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 42 (2011) 391–394 1 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22035711

Fiorentini’s study on the scientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the father of neuroscience, introduces the idea of “aesthetic epistemology” to describe the method by which Cajal studied histology. Histology is the study of the anatomy of cells and tissues of plants and animals using microscopy and hence by its very nature it is a field of study where we cannot directly observe the thing studied.

“Aesthetic epistemology” describes a form of knowledge production where visualizations are created to make something visible that was hidden to the observer and also improve the sensibility of the observer. Around 1887 Cajal improved upon a staining technique to make visible the neuronal structures of the human cerebral cortex, a part of the body so densely packed with neurons that it cannot be viewed with standard microscopic tools. By using this staining method and creating extensive detailed drawings of his findings, Cajal was able to “induce visibility” or create visualizations of test results that he then pieced together to represent deeper knowledge about them. Hence, Cajal created drawings that represented the information found in the staining technique results as posited visualizations of the actual (invisible) neurons. His aim was not to show what a neuron in the cerebral cortex looked like but also to explain the whole system and its functions.

This process of extracting and visualizing data to form knowledge is what Fiorentini terms “aesthetic epistemology”. In her own words, “Cajal’s highly sophisticated drawings do not reproduce a given three-dimensional visibility, but rather induce an advanced form of it.” (Fiorentini, p. 393) Hence, Fiorentini argues, the induction of visibility requires not only advanced visualization techniques but those visualizations are constitutive of forms of knowledge production. “Cajal’s strategy of visibility induction referred to rational and aesthetic visual sensibility likewise, and considered both to be constitutive elements of knowledge production.” (Fiorentini, p. 394) Part of this process entails an aesthetic of sorts because the artist-scientist rendered drawings by hand, teasing out knowledge through the very process of drawing.

Looking at Cajal’s drawings side by side with recent brain imaging visualizations shows the surprising accuracy by which Cajal was able to induce visualizations of the neurons in the cerebral cortex.

(1) & (2) From Erna Fiorentini’s Article “Inducing visibilities: An Attempt at Santiago Ramon y Cajal’s aesthetic epistemology”1(3) Golgi-stained neurons from somatosensory cortex in the macaque monkey. 2007. brainmaps.org

The concept of inducing visualizations is an implicit part of data visualization within data science. Data is typically divorced from the things that they quantify, and typically data visualizations are representations of the numbers but not the subject described by those numbers. In other words, merely maps, graphs and charts. Hence, data visualization specialists typically rely on writing to create meaningful stories about data.

Cajal’s work shows the promise and possibility of using art as a form of knowledge production. It is apt for data visualization specialists to use the concept of inducing visibilities and aesthetic epistemology to incorporate aesthetics and art practices into their work whenever possible. It is also highly encouraged that artists learn to become not only data literate but experts in data science in order to pave the way for advancement in the field of data visualization.