The view from above (part 1)

How often do you use the expression ‘bird’s-eye view’? Chances are a lot. Although we have never seen the world through the eyes of a bird – a GoPro camera attached to the back of an eagle does not count -, we like to imagine birds looking down on the world, taking a distanced and dispassionate picture of the situation on the ground – although an airborne predator never looks down dispassionately. We favour this perspective because it is the scientific perspective, the ideal of objectivity, the hands-free approach. It is what we have today.

We owe the birds-eye view to science, and we owe science, ultimately, to writing. Scholars have observed that while an oral culture is empathetic and participatory, writing and literacy promote a sense of objective distance and dispassionate gazing. Science evolved due to the human ability to imagine the distance between observer and object, and to devise a formalised code. Writing accomplishes both tasks.

While writing appears in the 4th century BC, as the recent exhibition at the British Library so wonderfully showed, science really takes off during the Middle Ages, while literacy continues to challenge the oral societies of Western Europe. One of the earliest symptoms of the scientific mind is the ability for abstract, birds-eye view of visible and invisible objects. This means having the ability to draw plans and create two-dimensional diagrams used to describe concrete or abstract objects.

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This diagram illustrating the subdivision of philosophy into the seven liberal arts provided an overview of human knowledge which was easy to commit to (visual) memory, Harley MS 2637, f. 15v


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