Interfacing Philosophy ○ Nils Röller

Executed in a Very Beautiful Small Hand, observes the description of a medieval manuscript [1] that became known for a visual representation of Philosophy, considered the first of its kind. [2] The remark refers to a drawing of “Lady Philosophy,” the personification of philosophy, which during the Middle Ages commonly appeared on the walls of imperial palaces, in monastic rooms, and later also in schools. For a long time, her representation was supposed to encourage studies of the artes liberales (liberal arts); today’s academic degrees in the liberal arts (“Bachelor of Arts” and “Master of Arts”) still reflect this intention.
Referring to Philosophy as a Lady is in itself a methodology for articulating a mediated and gendered set of concepts , with a particular purpose. [3] The following article aims to show that an understanding of this process is relevant also for digital approaches to philosophy, approaches made possible by the digitisation of historical documents and their subsequent accessibility via online and interconnected databases. Those considerations are initially based on a research establishing which visual representations of Philosophy are accessible by internet search engines. This text invites to speculateon how access to philosophy might be organised in the future and how philosophy may invent itself, now and in the future, when manifold digital means for disseminating, archiving and organising artefacts are available. I argue that equal consideration be given to the modes of access and potential deadlocks, thus, to balance the existing possibilities by speculating about limitations and impassibilities. For this purpose, I suggest pursuing two consecutive approaches: first, to consider an article in the New York Times of 20 September 2020, in which the newspaper’s designers invited readers to interactively explore Dürer’s self-portrait from around 1500. After that, we may let our further considerations be guided by the hand at work in St Augustine’s monastery in Canterbury.
Look at… Look how On 20 September 2020, the online edition of the New York Times carried Jason Farago’s article “Seeing Our Own Reflection in the Birth of the Self-Portrait.” [4] The renowned critic divided his article into short paragraphs, resembling a set of basic propositions. Like theses or axioms, the passages are designed to initiate action. Farago unmistakably asks his readers to shift their attention from the critic’s words to the image of a self-portrait of Albrecht Dürer, a German painter from Renaissance times. When I open Farago’s article on my desktop computer, the text takes up one fifth of the screen of my desktop, while four fifths are devoted to images. His text seems reduced, just as if he took a step back, contenting himself with a few poignant assertions. [5] A virtual camera zooms into the digital image. Following the camera, the reader’s eyes are guided to the corners of the images, and back to the centre, then continuous to the letters next to the artist’s face: Dürer’s monogram. Changing the medium, from analogue to digital, throws into relief the altered function of writing. [6]
Birth of the Self-Portrait Scrolling up and down the browser window, the viewer is put in charge of the camera’s gaze which initially zooms in and out of Dürer’s self-portrait before it eventually moves to show works by other artists. The emerging comparison shows that Dürer’s self-portrait is based in a tradition of depictions of Jesus Christ. Thus, text and image sequences of Farago’s essay build the argument that the Nuremberg artist’s self-portrait documents an epochal step: around 1500, an individual, the artist Albrecht Dürer, stages himself as Jesus Christ, and thus as the creator not only of works of art, but as the saviour and preserver of all things. The article’s persuasive argument rests on expertise in art history and philosophy, and thus captures the current state of science journalism, which creates a tension between image and text, methodically and argumentatively, and employs this force field to arrest the viewer’s attention. It demonstrates how, in interactive digital design, image and text can be used complementarily to convey cultural and historical contents, and hereby strongly guide the viewers’ focus. The fact that Dürer based his work on representations of Christ may be said to indicate that philosophical and theological arguments are brought together in his self-portrait. [7] It also indicates that careful and purposeful coordination of the perception of text and image are very much capable to convey a coherent argument.
Anonymity Farago’s article also documents another shift: from keeping the designers anonymous to naming them, a change concurrent to the information offered. Dürer represents the shift from anonymous image makers to artistic personalities who also independently publish and market their works, particularly in editions. Iconically, Dürer also represents the revaluation of the artistic image, its creator and its detachment from ecclesiastical and political authorities. We know that Dürer also depicted Lady Philosophy, but his attribution by name is exceptional; other artists who illustrated Boethius’ text with a visual personification of Lady Philosophy remained unnamed.
Personification This tradition of personification establishes a link to the iconography of philosophy, i.e., to images that convey philosophical positions and generate philosophical knowledge. [8] To explore this potential further, I propose following the hand at work in the Canterbury monastery; indeed, we may assume the hands of several monks were involved in visually representing Lady Philosophy for the preface of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy (Consolatio) between 975 and 999. At the time, producing a manuscript like this of the Consolatio involved a division of labour resulting in innumerable anonymous figures who collaborated in its transmission by copying the text in monasteries, first in southern Italy and later in the far north, since roughly the year 550, when the first scholarly edition of the text was furnished. [9]
Continuity These hands ensured that the writings of renowned philosophers were preserved and commented on for centuries. They established the material conditions for speculation about God and the world he created. Let’s delve into this in a bit more detail: the image and the text of by the very beautiful hand go back to the late antique philosopher Boethius. Before his execution by Theodoric, King of the Goths (453–526), Boethius wrote the Consolatio (see above) on the estate where he was held captive. The work is conceived as a dialogue between Boethius and Lady Philosophy, a personification of philosophy.
Texture within the Text Lady Philosophy, writes Boethius, wears a particular robe: “Her clothing was made of the most delicated threads, and by the most exquisite workmanship; it had — as she afterwards told me — been woven by her own hands into an everlasting fabric. Her clothes had been darkened in color somewhat by neglect and the passage of time, as happens to pictures exposed to smoke. At the lower edge of her robe was woven a Greek Π, at the top the letter Θ, and between them were seen clearly marked stages, like stairs, ascending from the lowest level to the highest. This robe had been torn, however, by the hands of violent men, who had ripped away what they could. In her right hand, the woman held certain books; in her left hand, a sceptre.” [10] Boethius points to the materiality of the garment (vestes). Boethius, the author, has his Boethius character specifically note that Lady Philosophy “afterwards told me” that she woven the robe herself (suis minibus texuerat). Thus, Boethius, the author, concludes that philosophy expresses itself by different means: on the one hand orally but also weavingly, through a material that dresses and carries foreign letters.
Changing focus Two alternative focuses present themselves for going into further detail: we could focus on the stylistic device of personification; that is, we could consider the garment of philosophia in material terms (the violence inflicted upon it, the temporal tension created between “everlasting” and “ripped away,” between duration and change); or, on the other hand, we could concentrate on the historical Boethius, the Roman politician, poet and philosopher (475–526). He lived in a time of political transition: the collapse of the Roman Empire and, as a result, a succession of foreign rulers. Shifts of power in the empire lead to conflict between Boethius and his sovereign, which subsequently resulted in his captivity and execution. Throughout this, Boethius saw himself as a translator and thus also as a conveyor and preserver of historical and philosophical texts, in particular those dealing with logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. His intention to translate all of Plato’s and Aristotle’s writings from Greek into Latin is well known. [11] These traditions are evidence that an author who is respected as a unique voice today rose to prominence because he devoted himself to the writings of other eminent authors and vigorously honoured the works of those before him. Yet, this focus on his life also captures Boethius’ progressive mind: Boethius organised the methods of other authors such that they could be used in teaching and by this were given a future: as arts belonging to the artes liberales, the seven liberal arts.
Tracking Shots For this future to happen required a mediating figure who himself merits attention: Cassiodorus (485–580). Such concentration demands tracking shots. After Boethius’s execution, Cassiodorus became the most important Roman official in Theodoric’s state administration. He later went into exile in Byzantium, devoting himself to politics, in conversation, but also in writing: he carefully copied the text of Boethius by hand and prefaced it with an image — for political reasons, as Fabio Troncarelli suggested. [12]  That image has not survived. But presumably, it showed a female figure together with the Boethius.
Politics of the Image However, according to Troncarelli, the female figure in Cassiodorus’s edition differed from Boethius’s description. Boethius describes the figure as the personification of Philosophy, whereas Cassiodorus makes her appear as Wisdom (Sapientia). Lady Philosophy guides us to the limits of knowledge and argumentation. [13] She leads us from the objects of the world to general concepts and an understanding of creation. Yet, she cannot herself answer the final questions. This, however, is what Wisdom (Sapientia) promises. With Sapientia, Cassiodorus introduced an image that visually persuaded the court of Byzantium that philosophising with Boethius frames ways to the wisdom of the creator. Thus, a unity of religious and philosophical knowledge exists, and this unity is the central message of the Consolatio. Such position, in turn, presupposes that theological and philosophical knowledge are distinct, yet not contradictory. This mattered because at the time, Christianity was internally torn, and after all Boethius had been executed for treason in Ravenna. Divisive tendencies were plainly evident also between religious factions at court and thus dangers abounded for the Christian ruler in Byzantium.
Copyists Later, Cassiodorus trained monks to copy manuscripts at his estate, the Vivarium, in southern Italy. He established rules for copying texts. This is relevant in the case of the Consolatio as the text requires distinguishing poetry from prose. Troncarelli (1987) has shown that copying texts is not a mechanical process but creates worlds full of signs that take on lives of their own. Signs marking the distances between passages with reduced squiggles are transformed into tendrils, grow into leaves and trees, and once again become abstract signs (e.g., the pilcrow “⁋”, the sign used in today’s digital texts to mark the end of a paragraph). The materiality of the medium plays its part too: the brittleness of the parchment or the pores of the skin onto which writing is committed settle the writer’s hand on the surface and guide his utensils.
Continuity II Cassiodorus also prescribed where annotations and comments should be positioned on the page. Because of these rules even the copy produced in Canterbury, in a different geographical and cultural habitat some 440 years later, kept different kinds of texts separate and so clearly marking what was added by the copyist’s hand and mind, against what came from the text’s original author. The “very beautiful hand” is an example of how stable punctuation was preserved in the monasteries of Western Europe while social institutions dissolved and reformed through migrations and changes of power.
Personification II Let us return to the Consolatio: Boethius the author has Lady Philosophy appear after Boethius the character has written an elegy. Several muses, the Camenae, assisted him. [14] Boethius the character “silently” writes this elegy and then introduces a second character: “there appeared standing above me a woman of majestic countenance whose flashing eyes seemed beyond the ordinary wisdom of men.” [15] Boethius and the woman, who is introduced as Lady Philosophy, begin a conversation that eventually constitutes the entire book. Remarkably, while Lady Philosophy offers consolation and is acting therapeutically, she also answers certain questions in ways that ruin her own argument. [16] Why are righteous people punished whereas wrongdoers go unharmed. Why was a world created in which people suffer? Who is responsible for this world? The ways of this world are incompatible with faith in a good, true and just God, who could have foreseen and prevented human suffering. Boethius text makes plain that philosophy is a readily comprehensible creation of thought, which can be represented by a drawn figure. It is a work of thought, moreover, that is attained through an orderly approach, similar to a ladder whose rungs are climbed one after another.
Foresight The dialogue between Lady Philosophy and Boethius focuses on the extent to which an absolute creator can grant freedom, for example, how far he can allow humans to sin and cause suffering to others. Philosophia argues that God eludes human concepts and ideas. While humans ask for causes that produce effects, God cannot be grasped with temporal relations such as later and earlier. The word “foresight” points to a distinction with which Philosophia sacrifices its own argumentation within a few lines. [17]
Timeless How God planned and created the world: such formulations allege that God is temporal, yet such action does not befit him. He is “timeless,” whereas human knowledge is time-dependent: what is perfect in the overall view, in the absolute perspective, appears as a flawed intermediate step. Once more, the terms “overall view” and “absolute perspective” are inaccurate qualifications of God. They suggest that God sees, that is, favours the sense of sight, in his relation to the world. This formulation transposes human perception and knowledge onto God. He thereby becomes human-like. This, however, is but one aspect of God, albeit not a defining one.
Futures This reflection on the ways of naming qualities of god captures one aspect of the futures of philosophising: namely, the opportunities that arise from exploring conditionality. By addressing its conditionalities and dependencies philosophising can change and reinvent itself. Renouncing access to absolute knowledge opens up possibilities: of abysses, limits and impasses.
Naked Truth “Foresight” (providentia) is a metaphor. It activates notions of visibility to denominate the unimaginable: the timeless knowledge of a supreme being or deity. Exploring metaphorical speech is on the one hand historically rooted in hermeneutics and rhetoric, while on the other it marks an impulse in twentieth-century philosophy, the impulse to examine the cultural and historical contingency of philosophising, also in terms of the history of ideas. This, for instance, includes being conditioned by linguistic images and metaphors, such as the talk of a “naked truth.” [18] This establishes a fundamental tension between philosophy on the one hand, and art and the natural sciences on the other. This tension has been transformed by the various turns (linguistic, iconic, performative, spatial) in the 20th century and has created new approaches to philosophy. Signs of this include chairs of philosophy at art academies, the philosophy of science or an inscrutable spectrum of book titles promising a “philosophising about” something. Yet they have also a changed the forms of philosophising. It is true that philosophy has, ever since the first documents were produced in the ancient Mediterranean world, been co-determined by the question of what distinguishes philosophy from techniques (arts), knowledge or faith. What is new in the text of the Consolatio, however, is that this question is not only oriented towards objects, but that the methods of philosophising are expanded non-discursively.
Computer Interface Medieval illustrators gave philosophy a face, due to their standards of iconography. The image they depicted usally was placed at the beginning of Boethius’ text and prepared the literate or the non-literate recipient for Boethius’ argumentation. The function of the image invites a reflection of the illustration as an interface between recipient and the text. Thus, the question: is the title “Interfacing Philosophy” for this essay well chosen? [19] Well, it rests on the claim that exploring interfaces is fruitful for philosophical speculation. As Johanna Drucker shows, the history of the computer interface is a history of methods that have been designed to make programmes easier to handle, that is, of software that enables controlling increasingly complex machines. Neoplatonic philosophy offers analogies for this idea. In this tradition, Boethius wrote the Consolatio. The Consolatio — and its reception history — offers various approaches to this problem. These approaches take shape against Johanna Drucker’s reflections on how far a “humanistic” turn makes it possible to control machines.  She argues for studying historical graphics to make established human-computer interaction (HCI) more human. Her argument rests on the idea that HCI is impregnated with statistical dispositifs, and thus with the management of quantities (i.e., control). Hence, alternatives to the widespread practices of control and display need to be developed. [20] One such alternative involves generating knowledge by means of graphics, and thus strengthening the relevance of images for knowledge acquisition. Not, however, in terms of mapping and imaging, but in terms of constructivity. Drucker emphasises constructivity in the context of her plea for the “humanistic,” which she highlights in her critique of the “digital humanities.” [21]
Constructions Thus, we ought to think of space and time not as stable containers in which things happen, but instead as constructive, that is, they vary depending on specific conditions: “The experience of temporality, like that of space, is already inflected by cultural circumstance.” [22] While no experience can be perceived without space and time, how space and time shape perceptions is culturally determined. Or as Drucker puts it: “Both space and time are constructs, not givens. As constructs they come into being in a codependent relation with their discursive or experiential production. If I am anxious, spatial and temporal dimensions are distinctly different than when I am not. When the world was bounded by the Mediterranean it was a different world than the one seen from space.” [23] This is transcendental in that Drucker reflects on how experiences are structured in graphic interfaces. It also raises a basic question: does the interface consider that the objects it represents are based on cultural assumptions? Does this perhaps suggest that experience is organised in a specific way? Or that it is postulated as universally valid, yet is constructive, and depends on technical and thus on cultural preconditions? For example, does the reflection with Boethius on “timelessness” change with the technical and material conditions of the book?
Interface Critique This complicates matters inasmuch as the human (and humane) contrasts with statistics and thus with the handling of quantities. Which, in turn, raises the question of the extent to which administration and thus wielding power over quantities is an aspect of humanity. [24] Drucker develops her agenda by reinforcing the oppositions between production and representation, interpretation and determination, opening and closure. She distinguishes the qualitative and the quantitative, to delimit the humanist agenda as the working out of qualities versus the digital humanities as the administration of quantities. This agenda becomes understandable as an objection to the digital humanities, that is, to deploying quantitative methods in the humanities. Her book Graphesis suggests that these dichotomies are not rigid: in Drucker’s view, historical findings based on intercultural comparisons prove that gathering numerical data (e.g., in the production of calendars) is impregnated with religious ideas. This agenda becomes productive if the term humanist is not used to refer to a fixed image of the human being, but rather to a philology of crisis, and thus as a commitment to the scientific, critical edition of suppressed traditions; and secondly, as a plea to valorize material aspects and thus artistic and creative practices.
Consolatio So, what does the Consolatio show us? We might understand it as a plea to study the artes and thus to develop an expertise in dealing with magnitudes and quantities, both static and moving. Such expertise prepares one to understand creation and, depending on one’s reading of the Consolatio, also leads to wisdom or to the aporias of rationality. At the same time, it expounds the limits of the artes and of philosophising as a form of thought that moves within spatial and temporal references.  And yet, reducing the Consolatio to a mere description of boundaries and limitations does not do any justice to the text nor to its outstanding reception history. We also need to realise that the text gathers the limits of poetic expression, the rhetorical designing of arguments and drawing logical conclusions so as to produce a faculty: the capacity of human — i.e., cultivated — thought to move beyond the confines imposed by external force. In this way, Boethius the author also confirms a turning away from the Platonic condemnation of poetic and artistic forms of expression.
Liberal Arts In another text (Institutio arithmetica), Boethius speaks of the “four ways.” This is how he translates a Greek terminology by which four mathematical methods are designated to investigate magnitudes and quantities: geometry, arithmetic, music, and astronomy. [25]  These are four of the seven liberal arts, the artes liberales. The other three ways are dialectic, grammar, and rhetoric. Lady Philosophy favours the artes liberales over the Camenae, the poetic muses, as ways that provide access to knowledge about created physical world. The Consolatio can be described as an open dialogue about whether creation (i.e., the programming of the overall event) is rationally feasible. Lady Philosophy’s argumentation sets out to reveal rational approaches to creation. Yet her argument does not remain consistent in the course of the dialogue conducted by Boethius the author. This suggests two further answers.
Chasms One answer could be that the cosmos is not well programmed as it allows irregularities and grievances. The other answer may be that wisdom (sapientia) enjoys privileged access to the cosmos. An appropriate conduct of life and opinion may lead to wisdom. Interestingly, both answers are compatible with oneanother; also, they both subordinate the artes (leading to philosophy) and therefore philosophy to wisdom. Philosophy, after all, is granted the authority to prepare rational approaches to help understand the programming. Chasms, however, loom between its understanding and insight into the true nature of creation.
Space Andreas Kirchner analysed the spatial relations in the Consolatio. He shows that considering the “spatial turn” is productive for interpreting Boethius’s text. His analysis also reveals that the text plausibly argues how philosophical speculation abolishes spatial boundaries existing for real (e.g., imprisonment in a cell). At the same time, Kirchner’s analysis, following the Neoplatonic tradition of Consolatio interpretations, suggests that human thought reaches methodological limits when it attempts to radically dispense with spatial (and temporal) references. Nevertheless, God may be conceived as a supreme being beyond these limits, that is, he “is inconceivable in spatial metaphors.” [26]
Time Within the boundaries of time, Boethius’s strategy indicates how diversity and quality emerge from within conceptual limits. He wrote the Consolatio partly as prose, partly as poetry. The poems are written in different metres, that is, sequences of long and short syllables. The metre varies from poem to poem, as if he sought to design his poetry distinctively, so as to reveal diverse approaches to philosophy. Presumably already his first editor, Cassiodorus, named these different metres, as they subsequently are maintained in most following copies. Scholars have assessed the function of Boethius’s poems within his overall concept differently: as “accessories,” as “teaching aids,” as “thought poetry,” [27]  as an aspect of philosophising, and as a way of exploring the boundaries of philosophising. [28] For Helga Scheible, the poems serve to structure Boethius’s argumentation so as to counteract the “fatigue caused by the difficulty of the material.” As such, they function as “incisions in the flow of thought.” [29] Thus, Boethius’s metric organisation, the rhythms of speech or song, is relevant to approaching philosophy.
Communicating Christian Kiening has shown that medieval texts, which also include the various manuscripts and illuminations of the Consolatio, oscillate between the “ostentation” and “transcendence” of materialities. [30] Between the poles of these categories, manuscripts are not mere carriers or repositories of textual information, but artefacts that were produced as unique specimens and that served both everyday purposes and transmission, that is, the articulation of power or worship, and thus communication with transcendence. Current research is valorising the materialities of communication, which lead to an interface where words and philosophical conceptualisation reach a limit. Addressing materialities philosophically seeks to capture in words what remains beyond words: what is seen, what is touched and what is heard (the rustling sound of paper). Thus, words are used to register those factors that fix (i.e., give permanent form to) words in texts. This, however, involves factors that elude the text while inviting us to grasp them. This attempt distinguishes philosophising. Historically, it was oriented towards the ineffability of transcendence. We must now ask whether materialities are relevant to interpreting the text and thus to philosophical argumentation. Do they represent ineffablity, for instance, of communicating artistically with materials? This is not relevant to an understanding of philosophy that regards the text as information that prompts discursive speculation. It is, however, relevant to an understanding of philosophy that seeks to connect with the non-conceptual, the unsayable, yet demonstrable and thus with aisthesis, in order to conduct a philological or philo-iconic critique of philosophy.
Wax The notion that organisation may be relevant also concerns the relevance of interface critique for philosophy as it reflects the spatio-temporal organisation and thus the contingency of approaching philosophy. In saying this, I would like to focus on the relationship between materiality and philosophy, rather than on how philosophy speculates about matter. By this I follow Boethius’ invitation to shift attention towards the weaven clothes, Lady Philosophy wears. Thus, I feek invited to concentrate on the materialities through which philosophy finds expression. Here, the Consolatio provides us with some starting points: it was written in an era when wax tablets and styluses were used to produce temporary transcriptions. These were transferred onto papyri, which were rolled up. However, this particular practice changed in late antiquity (aka the time of Boethius): as a result of the division of the text into columns, the characters changed from being arranged in parallel to the longer side of the papyrus to being aligned with the shorter side of the medium. This format change facilitated binding together several media, and thus eventually to create book blocks. Like a few other ancient documents, the Consolatio remained relatively stable during its preservation and transmission despite the enormous changes in media technology: the shift to the codex, the introduction of word division (dissolution of scriptio continua), [31] printing evolution in its many facets, and eventually digitisation.
Parchment So far, I have considered neither the fact that nor how the hand utilised the material unevenness of parchment to make the drawing of Lady Philosophy appear as a figure that gradually fits together by ascending the page from the wavy lines at the foot of the body. Her contours emerge almost seamlessly from the materiality: the slightly undulating concavely and convexly bent skin of the parchment. The contours of Lady Philosophy seemingly emerge from the materiality, from the slightly concave and convex skin. We would have to travel to Trinity College Library (Wren Library) to have this experience, as it eludes digital replication. This would be a point for interface critique to address. Digitisation focuses on the flat, two-dimensional nature of the page rather than on its material components, which will usually induce haptic, spatial perception. Is this relevant? Well, it leads me to claim that the representations of philosophy in Canterbury are oriented less towards a lost archetype, and thus perhaps towards representations of philosophy with Sapientia. And yet, they arise from the material conditions of production, which adhere closely to the text and to figurations that are oriented, for example, towards Pallas Athena and thus to a different repertoire of forms, one that attributes philosophy precisely not to biblical wisdom but to the knowledge of the Greek goddess Athena. The argument that the figure’s contours have emerged from the dialogue with the materiality of the medium conveying the drawing coheres with the dialogue that contemporary artistic works also engage with materialities or with the “means of painting.”
Sounds The digital copy of the copy produced by the “very beautiful small hand” ensures that we can more easily access the manuscript and see the different colours and signs used by the hand to distinguish Boethius’s text from the commentaries. Also visible are the neumes, which indicate how to sing Boethius’s poems. Thus, besides reading the text aloud, musical performance was also given consideration in this manuscript. The manuscript thus carried two auditory dimensions: reading aloud and singing aloud. The work thus addressed the eyes, mouth and ears. The manuscript is thus an artefact that organises multi-sensory approaches to the Consolatio: it is designed such that the text initiates different forms of interaction. In terms of present-day media, [32] the manuscript presents itself as an analog interface, which shapes how we understand the text of the Consolatio. It becomes readable as an innovation that makes virtuoso use of the established method of personification, [33] and thus displays innovative forms of philosophising. Pierre Courcelle’s research [34] helps to explain the visual agency of the text, which turned Philosophia into a productive figure for communicating philosophy. This process lasted just over half a century, from 975 to around 1500, when also Dürer is known to have depicted Philosophia. [35] 
Digital Consolation Let me bring together, in a digital context, the trains of thought that I kept separate at the beginning: the work of the presumably beautiful, collaborating hands at Canterbury monastery and the interactively designed article published in the New York Times. Both documents are digitally accessible and thus can be juxtaposed on a screen. Zooming in enables comparison and reveals that the New York Times’ designers direct the viewer’s gaze in rigid fashion. Their gaze guidance takes the form of a flush and strictly directed argument. In contrast, the Wren Library’s interface enables users to view manuscripts in five different sizes and to relatively freely select whatever they wish to view in detail. It does not, however, allow viewing the document in its original size (30.5 x 23.5 cm). The digital possibilities for studying the Consolatio vary, and thus also the possibilities for viewing or experiencing the materiality of the artefact. [36] What becomes clear is that digitisation flattens the medium, irrespective of the digital interface. Other boundaries shift and contribute to dynamising approaches to philosophy. The presentation in the New York Times follows that of later book scrolls: it is oriented towards the vertical axis, with items presented one below the other, [37] whereas the digitisation carried out by research centres in association with libraries also permits horizontal juxtaposition.
Beside, Beneath, After Successiveness takes on a different quality. Clicking enables changing pages in the Wren Library’s interfaces. This is different from actually turning the pages of a printed book (which allows us to experience the sound and feel of paper as a medium). It also different from juxtaposing open documents on a screen, which enables us to “slide” glances from one document to another. Clicking makes a document disappear or enlarges and moves it into the centre. The distinction between documents placed one beneath the other, side by side and one after the other leads to a fundamental problem: how are movements organised on the surface that we encounter on the screen interface? Do our eyes jump or glide? Are they guided to noticeable changes on a surface or to changes that happen so smoothly and steadily that they are not perceived? Noticeable changes are unobtrusive and mark distinctions, whereas steady changes suggest a continuum. How and why are changes set or continuums suggested? Are they oriented towards compositions, towards an open-ended kinetics? Do they generate change, that is, a turning away from the familiar? Or are they oriented instead towards fixation, towards pattern formation?
Leaps These questions help us to understand that evaluating interruptions, stagnation and hesitation offers an opportunity for reflection and thus for valorising such instances as relays that enable changes in direction, and thus also in action. [38]  The interruption or leap imposed by the graphic arrangement of characters and images on the eye becomes aesthetically relevant against this background: if, for example, the reader’s gaze jumps from the left edge of a line to the centre, and back, this reveals a difference between poetry and prose. Poetic texts require the reader’s eye to leap and to depart from the perceptual pattern with which we read lines from left to right and from top to bottom. This idea became poignant in postmodernism, at the latest since Charles Olson’s essay “Projective Verse.” Looking back, this results from rhythmic oral speech, which entails a specific management of time, of being transferred onto the surface and thus to an organisation of spatiality. In poetry, the challenge of representing temporality on a surface leads to alternations and leaps, in the case of the New York Times to an eye that lies closer to the hand than to the mind.
“Flashing Eyes” Briefly recapitulating gaze guidance is worthwhile. As viewers, we are quickly guided to the area around the eyes in Dürer’s painting. This creates the impression that we are looking into Dürer’s eyes, those of the self-portraying artist. If our reception interrupts the programmed alternation of image and text, then we perceive a line that finely cuts through Dürer’s right eye, as if it were split, ambivalent or struck by lightning. In Neoplatonic understanding the eye was conceived traditionally as a window to the spirit or soul, which is subtly ruptured, pierced. This corresponds to another perception occuring after the “camera’s gaze” in the New York Times contribution has moved across the exposed tableau, and from there to the face, mouth and beard, as well as the fur trimming, and eventually to the hand. This guided gaze suggests that the hand is connected to the heart and the body, [39] and the eyes to the spiritual realm. Werner Beierwaltes discusses Dürer’s self-portrait against this background. This reading presupposes that we understand the eye as as a window to the soul. Further, it establishes a connection between Neoplatonic philosophy and Dürer, and in turn with Boethius.
The Colour of the Hand The eyes don’t appear like the window to the soul in the New York Times. Its designers direct the viewer’s gaze from the eyes to the hand, thus establishing a contrast with the accompanying text. The colour of the eyes aligns with the fleshy hand. The eye, hair, hand and flesh form an assemblage of colours. This is congruent with the valorisation of the body in twentieth-century philosophy. It also encourages us to consider the hand (that organ that organises materialities and colours), and also a bit more: to accept thinking with the hands. This provokes philosophy to contemplate its limits.
Interface Thomas Jürgasch has suggested that Lady Philosophy changes size in Boethius’s text: at times, she appears larger, at others smaller. Unlike the prisoner, she can scale her size. [40] And unlike the divine, she can still be grasped in spatial terms. Although she shatters the boundaries of outside and inside, she is bound to space and time as forms of thought. If she were not, she would be transcendent. With this figure, Boethius discreetly devalues philosophy vis-à-vis what can be called God. And yet, this points to a future of philosophising: in turning towards the concrete, for instance, the materialities of the signs, and of the paper, plants and skins on which its texts are taken down, it also experiences its limits and thus what the arts are capable of: communicating with materialities. Philosophising, limited both towards the absolute and the concrete, discovers itself in distinction to the arts as a movement in between, as an interface that develops and reinvents itself by recognising itself as “neither nor” and by acknowledging that it has nothing to say about this matter, that its speaking and comprehending is one of impasses and aporias. Pointing these out is a way of communicating boundaries and of allowing what lies beyond those boundaries to express itself.
Translation by Mark Kyburz [41]

[1] “… in a very beautiful small hand,” states The James Catalogue of Western Manuscripts about the Cambridge manuscript, Trinity College, Ms. 0. 3.7 (1179), (last accessed December 2020); I wish to thank Rainer Walter of the Manuscripts Department at Zurich Central Library and Steven Archer, Trinity College Library, for providing useful background information. I am also indebted to Daniel Irrgang, Thomas Jürgasch, and Christian Kiening for their constructive commentaries to this essay.

[2] Lucien Braun, Philosophes et philosophie en représentation: l’iconographie philosophique en question(s) (Strasbourg: Presses Universitaires de Strasbourg, 2010), 279: “Prenons la plus ancienne image de la philosophie …” (“Let us take the oldest image of philosophy”).

[3] As a rule, personified terms in Latin end in the letter “a,” the feminine form.

[4] Jason Farago, “Seeing Our Own Reflection in the Birth of the Self-Portrait,” New York Times, 20.9.2020 (produced by Alicia DeSantis, Gabriel Gianordoli, Laura O’Neill and Josephine Sedgwick), (last accessed February 2021).

[5] This is also evident quantitatively: while the text comprises 10,832 characters including spaces, 17 times as many characters were needed to organise the image and text on screen in HTML code (184,146 characters including spaces).

[6] By comparison, New York Times Timesmachine (last accessed February 2021) shows how the analogue edition of the New York Times changed appearance from its first issue to 2002.

[7] Werner Beierwaltes, “Visio facialis – Sehen ins Angesicht, Addendum: Cusanus und Dürer,” in: ibid., Fussnoten zu Platon (Frankfurt/M. 2011, p. 228f.). While Beierwaltes points out a “factual connection between Dürer’s self-portrait and Cusanus’s philosophical-theological speculation on the correlation of absolute and finite vision,” he emphasises that no historical connections have been proven so far (1988/2011).

[8] Susanna Berger, The Art of Philosophy: Visual Thinking in Europe from the Late Renaissance to the Early Enlightenment (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017). Discussing the frontispiece of Hobbes’s Leviathan and Dürer-Pirckheimer’s Triumphal Chariot, Berger observes that ”… during this historical moment … thinking was understood as a form of artistic production, the act of generating particular concepts materially or mentally … was valued as a way to analyse those concepts” (173). For the consulted literature, see: Nils Röller, “Image Protocol – Concept and Context,” Cubic 5: Alternative Knowledge – Communities – Creativity – Narrations, in print.

[9] Fabio Troncarelli, “Boethius from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages,” in: Thomas Böhm, Thomas Jürgasch and Andreas Kirchner (eds.), Boethius as a paradigm of late ancient thought (Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, 2014), 224; on England or Ireland, see 226.

[10] Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy (translated by Richard Green, Mineola (NY), Dover, 2014), p. 2 (I, pr. 1).

[11] Christian Vogel, Boethius’ Übersetzungsprojekt – Philosophische Grundlagen und didaktische Methoden eines spätantiken Wissenstransfers (Wiesbaden: Harrasowitz, 2016).

[12] Fabio Troncarelli, Boethiana Aetas – Modelli grafici e fortuna manoscritta della Consolatio philosophiae tra IX e XII secolo (Alessandria: Edizioni dell’Orso 1987) observes that “an initial miniature, inspired by Byzantine styles, in which philosophy appears with the features of Sapientia-Sofia” (31).

[13] I am following John Marenbon’s Boethius (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 161ff. Marenbon, in critical contrast to Relihan, argues that the Consolatio explores the limitations of philosophy. These are worked out through representations in poetry and prose, i.e. by exploring different forms of linguistic expression. John Marenbon, Pagans and philosophers: The problem of paganism from Augustine to Leibniz (Princeton 2015) finds the dialogue between the characters “genuine.” Using examples from three manuscripts and one print, the research project Iconography of the Consolatio (last accessed February 2021) examined how illuminators in the period 975–1501 constructed the spatial relations of Lady Philosophy and the figure of Boethius and thus their hierarchy or equal status. One focus lay on the glances exchanged by the figures. On whether they are emphasised by sceptres, writing tools or distract the viewer from possible dialogue, see Vera Kaspar’s and Barbara Ellmerer’s contributions to this issue. Thomas Jürgasch, “Boethius – The first Christian philosopher in the Latin West?,” in: Mark Edward, The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Philosophy (London: Routledge, 2021) argues that Boethius (the author) adopts logical methods, i.e. rational procedures to theological questions, with the aim to show how far the human ratio can eleveate. Jürgasch distinguishes between human ratio and divine intellegentia. Human understanding is limited and also Lady Philosophy’s argumentation is “not indipendent of our limited human perspective” (Jürgasch 2021, 593). In the Consolatio both (Boethius the figure and Lady Philosophy) need to invoke assistance of God for their argumentations (594).

[14] The text remains cautious about the concrete design of the room. Numerous later illustrations show the figure of Boethius in a kind of cell. The text mentions the absence of a library, but cites metres and text passages.

[15] Boethius, Consolatio, 2 (I, pr. 1). In describing this appearance, Boethius presumably used precepts in Homer, who describes the dialogues between gods and men, in Plato, who has Socrates talk about a priestess called Diotima, in Cicero and in Martianus Cappella, who has a Philologia enter the scene.

[16] Marenbon, Boethius, 145.

[17] John Marenbon distinguishes divine foresight and divine foreknowledge (143–145). The question of whether God foresees or foreknows all human actions leads to the fundamental contradiction that, on the one hand, God has determined human actions in advance and, on the other, he grants humans the freedom to choose actions or not, e.g. to sin. Marenbon distinguishes two discussions in the text of the Consolatio: first, that God foresees everything, meaning everything is determined in advance; second, that God knows everything in advance, i.e. is prescient. Here, Boethius the author introduces a principle that points to the different conditions of knowledge. Humans think in cause-effect relations, i.e. in temporal relations, whereas God is free of such thinking. Marenbon refers to this conditionality as the “Modes of Cognition Principle” (135).

[18] Hans Blumenberg, Die nackte Wahrheit (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2019). I am grateful to Ludger Schwarte for sharing his insights into the iconography of this topos.

[19] I am grateful to the journal Interface Critique and its editors Florian Hadler, Daniel Irrgang and Alice Soiné for encouraging me to resume my speculation on “interfaces,” initially formulated with Siegfried Zielinski in 2001, see: Nils Röller and Siegfried Zielinski, “On the difficulty to think twofold in one” (2001), in: Siegfried Zielinski, Variations on Media Thinking (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2019).

[20] Florian Hadler and Daniel Irrgang, “Editorial: Navigating the Human,” in: Interface Critique 2 (2019), 9. The authors point to the scientific literature on ergonomics that emerging in the 1950s. This prompted a change in terminology. In industrial processes, there is no longer mention of “doers,” but of “controllers.”

[21] Drucker, “Humanistic Theory,” in: Matthew K. Gold (ed.), Debates in the Digital Humanities (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press: 2012) (last accessed December 2020). Drucker suggest that we “consider how to serve a humanistic agenda by thinking about ways to visualize interpretation.”

[23] Drucker, “Humanistic Theory.”

[24] Alternatively, Röller and Zielinski refer to Brecht’s Organon to conceptualize the interface as a site for articulating differences; see Röller and Zielinski, “On the difficulty …” 79ff.

[25] Ilsetraut Hadot, Arts Libéraux et Philosophie dans la Pensée Antiques (Paris: Études Augustiennes, 1984), 69. John Marenbon distinguishes the four arts as follows: “Arithmetic studied multitude (discrete units of quantity) in itself; music studied relative multitude, since its concern was with the arithmetical ratios of harmonics. Geometry studied magnitude (continuous quantity) at rest, and astronomy, in charting the movements of the stars, studied magnitude in motion”; see Marenbon, Boethius, 14.

[26] Andreas Kirchner, “Die Consolatio Philosophiae und das philosophische Denken der Gegenwart. Was uns die Philosophie heute noch lehren kann,” in: Thomas Böhm et al. (eds.), Boethius as a paradigm of late ancient thought (Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, 2014), 185.

[27] Helga Scheible, Die Gedichte in der Consolatio Philosophiae des Boethius (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1972), 10ff.

[28] Marenbon, Boethius,146ff and 159ff.especially162. For a review of the literature until 2006, see Joachim Gruber, Kommentar zu Boethius, De Consolatione Philosophiae (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2006), 18ff.

[29] Scheible, Die Gedichte, 10.

[30] Kiening, Fülle und Mangel, 288.

[31] Bruno Reudenbach, Die Kunst des Mittelalters, vol. I 800–1200 (München: Beck, 2008), 39: Ancient texts were written in so-called scriptio continua, i.e. uninterrupted running text without any punctuation or spaces. These texts were therefore not only difficult to read, but also cumbersome to handle. It is one of the great achievements of the medieval scriptoria that they developed a rich set of instruments for producing clear writing and methods for the visual structuring of texts. … From about the 7th century onwards, word division became common instead of scriptio continua.”

[32] Christian Kiening, Fülle und Mangel – Medialität im Mittelalter (Zürich: Chronos, 2016) discusses the question of “how to use categories that have a specifically modern index to describe phenomena for which these categories are foreign?” (14). Many thanks to Martina Stercken and Christian Kiening for their insights into the work of the Center for Historical Mediology at the University of Zurich (last accessed February 2021).

[33] Gruber, Kommentar, 33ff.

[34] Pierre Courcelle, Histoire littéraire des grandes invasions germaniques (Paris: Institut d’Études Augustiniennes, 1964); see especially Pierre Courcelle, La Consolation de Philosophie dans la tradition littéraire. Antécédents et postérité de Boèce (Paris: Institut d’Études Augustiniennes, 1967).

[35] The monographic studies by Courcelle, Braun and von Berger, as well as Elisa Winkler’s Die Personifikationen der drei bildenden Künste: Funktionalisierungen eines frühneuzeitlichen Bildpersonals (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2018) would need to be discussed elsewhere as regards whether, to what extent, why and where the paradigm of the visual representation of Philosophia is dissolved.

[36] Hanna Wimmer et al., “A Heuristic Tool for the Comparative Study of Manuscripts from Different Manuscript Cultures” (published in March 2015; last accessed December 2020). I am grateful to Michael Friedrich’s Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMS) at the University of Hamburg for references (last accessed February 2021). The CSMS uses the term “artefact” for manuscripts and thus enables contextualising manuscript studies in Raymond Williams’s concept of culture.

[37] Until the middle of the fifth century, papyrus rolls were mostly rolled horizontally.

[38] Judith Butler, “When Gesture becomes Event,” in: Anna Street et al. (eds.), Inter Views in Performance Philosophy (London: Palgrave, 2017), 171–192, DOI 10.1057/978-1-349-95192-5_15. They can be interpreted as “messianic moments.” They give rise to the possibility of understanding the world differently, or of adopting a different attitude. This can be grasped succinctly in Judith Butler’s account of Walter Benjamin’s reception of Brecht’s epic theatre. The context is the accessibility of cultural offerings, namely, those revealing possibilities for action in society, especially for workers at the time. Butler establishes that the interruption of patterns of action is central to Benjamin’s thinking. It is also relevant for the construction of gender ideas today. They develop “fragmentarily.”

[39] Farago, “Seeing…,“ also takes this cue: “It’s his left hand — though in the mirror it looks like his right. It’s raised over his heart, and he has even highlighted the veins that pump blood from one organ to the other.”

[40] Thomas Jürgasch, “Statura discretionis ambiguae. Eine Betrachtung der wechselnden Grösse der Philosophia in Boethius’ Consolatio Philosophiae,” in: Jahrbuch für Religionsphilosophie 3 (2004). I wish to thank Thomas Jürgasch for his expert advice during the research project Iconography of the Consolatio (last accessed February 2021). 

[41] Translation with funding of ZHdK Publications and ZHdK Institute for Contemporary Art Research.

Dr. Nils Röller is a professor at the Zurich University of the Arts. His research focuses on the relation between text, image and philosophy (Iconography of Philosophy). 

Recent publications in English and German language include “Hermes”, in Beat Streuli – Fabric of Reality (Zurich: Lars Muller Publishers, 2019), “Oswalds Hubble“, in Interface Critique 2 (2019), also in Beate Geissler/Oliver Sann (eds.), Oswald Wiener –The Bio-Adapter (Berlin: Kadmos); “Organon“, in Donatella Berardi (ed.), Art, Self & System (Berlin: Sternberg, 2019).

materiality; manuscript culture; history of philosophy; Boethius’ Consolatio; Dürer’s self-portrait

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