Disciplined observation is one of the few threads that binds together the various disciplines we call the sciences, and the concept of observation has played a central role in recent philosophy of science. However, the history of observation—the story of how observation came to occupy a central role in science, and how the concept has changed over time—has remained under-explored. The primacy of observation—who observes what and how the credibility of both the observer and the observed is assessed—evolved over centuries, “eventually becoming the cornerstone of all empirical sciences” (Daston and Lunbeck). The related issues of objectivity, interference, interpretation, proof, and persuasion are part and parcel of scientific discourse that carried into other realms of human activity as well, including the visual arts, atlases and cartographies, the records of voyages and exploration, and photography.
The questions at stake here are rich, interdisciplinary, and multi-faceted: How did the accepted route to knowledge of the world come to be restricted to the sense modalities, rather than unaided reason? Why do particular senses convince or persuade more than others? What is the relationship, historically and philosophically, between observing the world and experimenting on the world? Does either of these spheres hold more “value”? How and why do isolated observations, performed in independent laboratories or in the field, come to be aggregated into public knowledge? How are the boundaries maintained between what techniques count as genuinely observational, and between which observers count as capable of making reliable observations? How should technologies that extend the senses, such as the telescope, the microscope, and the camera, be understood in relationship to the observable? More generally, what do the distinctions between the observable and the unobservable, or between the observable and the theoretical, or between the observable and the experimental, amount to—and how have these lines been drawn in history? How does the notion of observation at play in the sciences relate to the notions at play in the visual arts and literature—and what have the historical relationships between these notions been? What material products—from lenses to processes of color photography, from urban planning charts to topographic maps, from stereoscopy to Surrealist works of art—have been produced that reflect these debates? And where do these relationships stand in the digital era?
If we wish to understand the role observation plays in modern science, we need to attempt to answer these questions. Answering them, in turn, is an inherently interdisciplinary affair. Our aim is to bring together visitors and faculty from across the disciplines, both from the University of Rochester and from other institutions, to stimulate a conversation we hope will extend beyond this particular project.