4. Robert Hooke's Apparatus

Object : Robert Hooke's “An Instrument of Use to take the Draught, or Picture of any Thing,” from Robert Hooke, Philosophical Experiments and Observations (London, 1726).

Materials: Ink on paper

© Photo by curator, with kind permission of University of Michigan Special Collections

Location in MIAC: DESIGN

I recently ran across the wonderful word "thinkering."  The coinage is Michael Ondaadje's, and it names the act of "collecting a thought as one tinkers with a half-completed bicycle."  In the simplest sense, the word means to capture the way that thoughts, like words, seem to work analogously to a worker in a workshop.  This insight would not have been lost on John Locke, who remarks that our powers in an intellectual realm are the same as those in the material (in Book II, Section XII of the Essay), being limited to combining, dividing, and comparing.  But, in a related sense, "thinkering" ends up isolating the centripetal motion of noodling around with things, be they words, ideas, material models, plastic arts, or what you please.  Melding "thinking" with "tinkering," it names the irreducible mangle of practice, the way that thought is inevitably part of networks of persons and things.  In other words, thinkering names the normal process of thought, calling attention to the way that thinking is only ever partly our own.

It is hard to think of a better thinkerer than Robert Hooke.  Hooke was the late seventeenth-century dogsbody and general factotum of the Royal Society, the single organization most important in the development and advancement of the New Philosophy.  The Royal Society was the most important research center for what we would now simply call "Science," and Hooke was there from the start.  Hooke was central to the project in many ways, serving as the curator ("Keeper") of its Repository, the first working museum of the modern scientific sort, and rising to become its secretary.  Book-keeping was never his strength, so he ended up leaving the post of secretary under some disgrace, turning over a mess of documents to his inheritor.  But he was a brilliant instrument-maker and chemist, tirelessly inquisitive and devilishly clever.  He was a surveyor, mapmaker, and minor architect, who helped lay out the City of London after it was lost to fire in 1666.  It is no use trying to isolate all the things he invented (or claimed to have invented) but a partial list would involve new forms of the pendulum clock, the sash window, various surveying instruments, and so on.  No doubt he would have been even more highly regarded in his own time and ours had he been of better birth-- or had he been even the least bit likable.  

I have recently been working on a series of papers on the prehistory of the thesis of extended cognition.  Extended cognition is the claim that most, or even all, of our thought is extended beyond the boundary of skin and skull.  It takes different forms, but in the sense elaborated by Edwin Hutchins, the argument points to the ways that we think through various sorts of tools, whether these are technical implements like hammer and saw, or office instruments like pen and paper.  Robert Hooke had a name for these sorts of activities, for extended cognition.  He called it "excogitation."  Excogitation is the process of thought that starts in the mind, proceeds to the hand, makes its way back to the mind, and so on.  (See also Frank Wilson, The Hand, 1998).  It deploys experiments; it builds models; it scribbles notes and consults the notes of others.  

Hooke's design for a portable camera-obscura-- the strange, beaklike object above-- spells out some of these complications, the mind as it looks to an excogitator.  The camera obscura was a powerful figure for eighteenth-century philosophy (see Exhibits 4a4b, and 9); it offered a technical model for a dualist epistemology.  That is, just as an observer might sit in the theater of a camera obscura, witnessing the images it produced without being involved with them, so, too, philosophy might imagine a mind that has its own internal theater, witnessing the ideas of things as they passed on review.  Hooke subscribed to just such a view of the mind (see Exhibit 11), but he also clearly insisted on the involvement of the hand in the space of the intellect.  For the camera obscura he presented to the Royal Society was an object of use, which folded the work of the drawer's instruments into the space of the intellect.

It is worth noting that the camera obscura was never intended, even as an object of use, to aid painters in capturing light or darkness, or in reproducing color.  Instead, it was almost universally understood to be useful in rendering a complex scene into its outlines, reducing a landscape, for instance, into a series of lines, zones, or bands (see Exhibit 4b).  This is what is meant by a "design" or a schematic; it is an ideal arrangement of parts, the idea that lurks behind things.  So, too, Hooke's design for the camera obscura seems to show us the camera obscura at work.  It positions its operator-- perhaps Hooke himself?-- against a landscape, as that landscape might have been drawn in the darkened space of the object.  The artist is in fact just beginning a dark double border which recalls the dark double border of the design itself.  

The exhibit catalogue has much more to say about how the world looks in a camera obscura, including touching on how it is that the English aesthetic was apt for such device.  For now, I just want to notice that Hooke comes up again in this museum, for he offers one of the most strikingly material models of imagination that the age produced.  It is the central paradox of the mind as a collection that the period's most potent thinkers, the people most likely to think of thinking as a product of handwork, are also the people most likely to imagine the mind through some material model of division.  It is because of his investment in models like the camera obscura that Hooke came to identify with them, imagining himself through the vocabularies of difference, of outline and design, that the objects provide.