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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751


SWANEPOEL, Piet. The semiosis of the (un)natural and the (ab)normal: on wonder and disenchantment in the cognitive semantic definition of the category HUMAN. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2011, vol.51, n.4, pp.698-715. ISSN 2224-7912.

Daston (1998) concludes her macronarrative of the rise and fall of the categories of the natural and unnatural between the Early Modern Period and the Scientifi c Revolution (15001700) with the remark that this narrative should be supplemented with local conceptions (i.e. micronarratives) of these categories. The main goal of this article is to indicate what contribution two works within the neglected corpus of Dutch natural histories can make to "fill in" the local details of such a macronarrative. The focus falls on how Adriaen Coenen (1514-1587) could have perceived these categories as evidenced by his marine encyclopaedia Visboeck ("Fish book"; 1577-1579). Florike Egmond and Peter Mason (cf. Egmond & Mason 1992, 2000) have indicated that Coenen prioritised an empirical epistemological approach to the (un)natural and (ab)normal, and not an emblematic one such as his forerunners of the bestiary tradition of the Dutch Middle Ages. Egmond and Mason therefore conclude that Coenen should be seen as a forerunner of the Early Modern Period of the Scientific Revolution. As is argued in this article, although Coenen did not have an emblematic world view (as defined for example by Ashworth 1990), he did read nature as a "book" (general revelation) to determine what it revealed about God to humankind. To place Coenen's epistemological and ontological perspectives on these categories in the right perspective, an analysis is provided in Section 3 of the typical bestiary approach as evidenced in the first bestiary in Dutch, namely Jacob van Maerlant's Der naturen bloeme ("The best from nature") (ca.1270). The focus falls on Van Maerlant's treatment of the (un)natural, the (ab) normal and the wonderful in God's creation. Entries from Der naturen bloeme are provided to debunk the myth that natural historians of the bestiary tradition had no regard for the materiality of objects but simply tried to fathom their symbolical meanings. The process of "interpreting" the semantic layers of natural-kind categories is discussed in line with the theoretical approach outlined in Section 2 of this article, namely the semiological, hermeneutic and cognitive semantic aspects of the semiosis of categories. It is indicated how the categories of the (un)natural, (ab)normal and wonderful are defined relative to the hierarchy inherent in the Great Chain of Being, its associated theory of the essences of kinds, and local, temporal and culture-specifi c sets of, for example, religious, moral, and aesthetic values. Adriaen Coenen's epistemological and ontological approach in Visboeck to the categories under discussion are discussed in more depth in Section 4. Despite the fact that he prioritised an empirical epistemology, it is also indicated that Coenen relies on a number of epistemological strategies: the principle of auctoritas (like his forerunners from the Middle Ages) and simple referential procedures. He also acknowledges the fact that the evidence of vision itself could be highly fallible, and that whatever interpretations one may make of natural categories they could also be the work of the devil himself. Obsessed with all that is strange and wonderful, Coenen devotes a number of the articles in his "encyclopaedia" to monsters of all kinds, also stressing their role as "warnings from God". Above all, Visboeck is evidence of Coenen's ability to see in nature how God, as almighty Creator, reveals himself to man. The final conclusion is that the hypothesised macronarrative of (clear) epistemic breaks between historical periods does not hold up when one analyses micronarratives such as that of Van Maerlant's Der naturen bloeme and Coenen's Visboeck. In the cross-over from one period to the other (Middle Ages, the Early Modern Period and the Scientifi c Revolution) a variety of ontological and epistemological positions were possible, all positions finally aimed at trying to fathom the category HUMANKIND.

Keywords : Semiosis; (un)natural categories; (ab)normal categories; wonder(ful) categories; bestiary; Middle Ages; Early Modern Period; Scientific Revolution; macrohistory; microhistory; macronarrative; micronarrative; Jacob van Maerlant; Der naturen bloeme; Adriaen Coenen; Visboeck; epistemology; ontology.

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