In April I shall have the pleasure of participating in the 2017 Scientiae conference at the University of Padua.
‘Plain truth and common sense’ in Joseph Priestley’s 1765 Chart of Biography
Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) contributed significantly to visual historiography, developing forms of information visualisation in which events in time are organised diagrammatically in preference to textual tables or metaphoric figures. The emerging aesthetic was one of mechanisation, mathematisation and – influenced by geography and cartography – an increasing tendency to treat time as though it were directly analogous to space. Abstemious presentations of events in a temporal space were preferred to rhetorical, metaphorical presentations of the shape of history. This raises the question: why did Priestley’s 1765 Chart of Biography take the form it did? The paper will trace answers through contemporary changes in visual and intellectual culture and by examining Priestley's personal disposition – informed as it was by a mix of his non-conformist religious convictions, his suspicion of rhetoric (‘sooner would I teach the art of poisoning than that of sophistry’1), and his beliefs concerning the nature of human knowledge. The paper will investigate the roots of Priestley’s optimism when he anticipated that ‘plain truth’ if presented to our ‘common sense’ would lead inevitably to right understanding.2 He assumed that if knowledge is presented through ‘the language of the naked facts’ then they ‘cannot but be understood wherever they are known.’3 The argument will be articulated through analysis of the visual artefacts created by Priestley and his contemporaries, together with texts authored by Priestley in a range of disciplines including biblical exegesis, pedagogy and natural philosophy.
1. Joseph Priestley. 1777. A Course of Lectures on Oratory and Criticism. London: Johnson. Page 54.
2. Joseph Priestley. 1782. A History of the Corruptions of Christianity. London: Johnson. Vol.1. Page 171.
3. op. cit. p.114