Eric Solomon


Figure 1. Artist Unknown, “An alchemist receiving the Donum Dei,” (Ca. 1652), From Thomas Norton’s “The Ordinal of Alchimy,” Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.

Epistemology is a subarea of philosophy which concerns itself with the study of knowledge. The discipline of epistemology has traditionally focused on three questions: (1) what is knowledge; (2) what can we know; and (3) how is knowledge acquired. In an attempt to answer these questions, epistemologists have split into two groups: empiricists and rationalists. Empiricists tend to believe that knowledge is derived from sensory experience, and rationalists tend to think that true knowledge is a priori (existing prior to experience).1 Epistemology has remained a somewhat isolated discipline because both these groups have been focused on the individual, and have historically not been open to the idea that knowledge is socially constructed.

However, developments during the mid-twentieth century shifted the discipline of epistemology away from the individual by putting forward the idea that knowledge is socially situated. The German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein pioneered this approach by claiming that knowledge’s social situatedness is what gives it certainty. He writes:

It is not single axioms that strike me as obvious, it is a system in which consequences and premises give one another mutual support…Bit by bit there forms a system of what is believed, and in that system some things stand unshakably fast and some are more or less liable to shift. What stands fast does so not because it is intrinsically obvious or convincing; it is rather held fast by what lies around it.2

Wittgenstein’s claim is that propositions become knowledge when they work within a network of mutually supportive ideas which together form a paradigm. This idea would later be taken up by the French philosopher Michel Foucault who would go on to use this concept of paradigm to structure history.3

Wittgenstein’s and Foucault’s work has created interdisciplinary applications for epistemology in the field of art history. Art history has long held that art is a social document which gives historians insight into how societies functioned. However, the application of these epistemic ideas has allowed art historical practices to go a step further and analyze the ways in which art was used by patrons to generate what epistemologist Miranda Fricker has labeled epistemic credibility.4 Epistemic credibility is essentially representative of the authority one has as a knower.

Fricker’s work therefore represents an interesting development in the intersection of epistemology and art history. Previously, the ideas of Wittgenstein and Foucault had been used to analyze how patrons used art to establish and reinforce power structures in society. Now, however, an epistemic approach to art history could be applied to show how patrons used art to socially situate themselves qua knowers. While admittedly nuanced, this is an important distinction because it delineates the ways in which knowledge and power work to support each other.

An application of this idea can be seen in Tara Nummedal’s Alchemy and Authority in the Holy Roman Empire (2007). Nummedal argues that alchemy was a very real science in the early modern period precisely because it had the mutual support and paradigmatic structure that Wittgenstein and Foucault described. She writes:

Whatever we think of alchemy today, it is essential to remember that many people accepted the basic principles of alchemy in early modern Europe, even the transmutation of metals, and could point to religious and natural philosophical justifications for their belief….Thus when we read in the newsletter of the Fugger banking family, for example, that the alchemist Marco Bragadino “changed a pound of quicksilver into gold some days ago,” in Venice, we must accept that, in the eyes of early modern Europeans, he did indeed transmute metals.5

Nummedal goes on to analyze the ways in which alchemists styled themselves so as to generate epistemic credibility and thereby support their authority in the courts of the Holy Roman Empire. An example of this self-identification can be seen in the alchemist Thomas Norton’s ordinal on alchemical practices. The frontispiece of the book shows Norton being ordained with the sacred alchemical knowledge [Figure 1]. In the image, Norton describes his authority qua knower by depicting alchemical knowledge as a gift of god which was only available to a select few people.

The image shows Norton bowed down before before his teacher George Ripley and accepting alchemical knowledge in the form of a sacred book.6 The Latin inscribed banners floating above the figures describe the first figure as saying, “I will watch over the secrets of the knowledge of Alchemy in secret,” and the second figure as responding, “Accept the gift of God below the sacred image.” This is of note because the figure’s epistemic authority is doubly asserted. First, he is writing in Latin and not the vernacular which implies that he is educated; second, he is equating his knowledge with god, thereby giving it more authority. The sacredness of his knowledge is further supported by the angels hovering above the interaction as if to signify God’s acceptance of this transfer of knowledge.

Further iconographical elements in the image also add to the ways in which Norton depicts his epistemic authority. The border of the frontispiece is engraved with blooming flowers which implies a blossoming of knowledge just as Norton takes control over the symbolic book of knowledge. Further, at the top of the frame there is an apple which has traditional biblical associations with knowledge.

What is important to note about the frontispiece is that all the elements work together to cement Norton’s epistemic authority. An epistemic reading of the image shows that the religious symbolism works to situate his alchemical knowledge within a larger system (or paradigm), thereby giving it authority. This is what makes this image such a powerful example of the ways in which modern epistemological philosophy works to enhance art historical practices.


  1. Andrew Brook and Robert J. Stainton, Knowledge and Mind: A Philosophical Introduction (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2001), 3.
  2. Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty (New York: Harper and Row Publishing, 1969), 21.
  3. Michel Foucault, The Archeology of Knowledge (New York: Random House, 1994), 3-17 and Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (New York: Random House, 1994), 344-373.
  4. Miranda Fricker, Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 9-30.
  5. Tara Nummedal, Alchemy and Authority in the Holy Roman Empire (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007),16.
  6. Ibid., 28.