Spatial Thinking and External Representation

Spatial Thinking and External Representation

Other involved Scholars: 

William G. Boltz
Peter Damerow
Pietro D. Omodeo
Jürgen Renn
Donald Salisbury
Wulf Schiefenhövel
Martin Thiering
Irina Tupikova


The working-group volume Spatial Thinking and External Representation: Towards a Historical Epistemology of Space documenting the research group’s results is currently in preparation. It contains the following contributions:

“The Historical Epistemology of Space” (Matthias Schemmel) provides a survey of the overall topic, specifying structures of spatial knowledge under different historical and cultural conditions and characterizing their epistemic status.

“Spatial Concepts in Non-Literate Societies” (Martin Thiering and Wulf Schiefenhövel) addresses questions of universality and the culture-dependence of spatial thinking in societies that codify spatial knowledge almost exclusively by means of spoken language and joint action. These questions are approached by comparing spatial languages and practices in two independent non-literate societies, Eipo and Dene Chipewyan. The analysis of these two societies is largely based on fieldwork that had previously been carried out by the authors themselves.

“The Impact of Notation Systems” (Peter Damerow) investigates changes in collectively shared spatial knowledge, when signs conveying arithmetical and semantic meaning emerge as a further means of knowledge representation. Such change took place in the early civilizations; this chapter pursues the development in Mesopotamia from the practical knowledge of surveyors at the beginning of the third millennium BCE to Babylonian geometry in the middle of the second millennium BCE.

“Theoretical Reflections on Elementary Actions and Instrumental Practices” (William G. Boltz and Matthias Schemmel) addresses the independent emergence of theoretical knowledge on space in ancient Greece and China.

“Cosmology and Epistemology” (Pietro D. Omodeo and Irina Tupikova) compares the different approaches in arguing for the centrality of the earth of the two major classical “authorities” on cosmology, Aristotle and Ptolemy, and discusses aspects of their reception up to early modern times.

“Space and Matter in Early Modern Science” (Peter Damerow) argues that, notwithstanding their insistence on the priority of experience, the early modern scientists had to take recourse to philosophical speculation in their attempts to formulate alternatives to replace the Aristotelian world system. In particular, the chapter examines attempts to distinguish matter from space by assuming that its essential property is impenetrability.

“Beyond the Myth of Universal Space and Impenetrable Matter” (Jürgen Renn, Donald Salisbury, and Matthias Schemmel) delineates the fundamental changes in the concept of space brought about by the advanced formalism of twentieth-century physics, which enabled the integration of a growing corpus of experiential knowledge. In particular, the chapter describes the worlds of general relativity and quantum theory. As far as the physical processes and the objects they describe are concerned, these worlds overlap but are nevertheless incompatible in what concerns the basic concepts of space, time, matter, and force they imply.