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Ornamental Mind: Optical Illusions and Design

Project by Prof. Dr. Omar W. Nasim

This project aims to unearth and clarify a set of historical, cultural, and epistemic conditions that overlapped between an early nineteenth century discourse on the ornamental arts, and the late nineteenth century use of visual, paper tools in the human and mental sciences. Throughout its history, psychology has used different means to access its subject matter. In the 16th century the soul was studied by way of anatomy. In the 18th century philological and hermeneutical methods were used to access the mind through text. By the end of the 19th century many psychological and human sciences began to use visual images to access and assess the workings of the human mind. Broadly accepted and widely dispersed, many of these visual, paper tools (e.g., Mach bands, Hermann grids, Necker cubes, Zoellner illusion, etc.) continue to be used and remain persuasive today. This interdisciplinary project provides a historical, cultural and conceptual landscape by which to understand the shift from the text to the image in the mental and human sciences. To properly understand the shift the project investigates the theories of the ornamental and decorative arts. After all, when we search elsewhere for well-developed and operational overlaps between mind and image we inevitably find it in an extensive discourse around the ornament that dominated the long nineteenth-century. This novel interaction will reconfigure historical and cultural, intellectual and epistemological landscapes between these disparate sectors, and has the potential to transform our understanding of this formative period in the history of several sciences.


“Ornament and the Mind Sciences: A History of Lines, Flatness, and Race,” Kunsthistorische Objektwissenschaft, LMU (Munich), November 20, 2017

“The Ornamental Mind,” at the Oberseminar Perspektiven der Wissenschaftsgeschichte, LMU (Munich), July 6, 2017

“The Ornamental Mind: Ornamental and the Mind Sciences” at the Chair for the History of Science, University of Regensburg, May 18, 2016

Seminar on the Ornamental Mind, Visual Studies Program, University of Pennsylvania, April 16, 2015

  1. Fakultät für Philosophie, Kunst-, Geschichts- und Gesellschaftswissenschaften
  2. Institut für Philosophie