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PhD defence

Abstract patterns and representations: the re-cognition of geometric ornament

Thursday 17 May 2018
Academy Building
Rapenburg 73
2311 GJ Leiden

Art historians, anthropologists and psychologists have long since been fascinated by the presence of surprisingly similar geometric patterns in the decorative traditions of different eras and cultures from around the world. During the nineteenth century these patterns were increasingly on display in international arts and crafts exhibitions and were described and analysed, for example, in encyclopaedias of ornament. From the moment the emergence and use of similar geometric patterns in different and remote cultures was recognized, scholars have tried to explain how such patterns could have developed independently in these different cultures. Cognitive scientists have recently found empirical evidence, indicating that humans share the same cognitive resources which could be conditional for the recognition of certain formal aspects of visual artefacts. Cognitive psychologists working within the core knowledge paradigm assume that humans have innate systems allowing humans to make mental representations, for example, of objects, number and spatial relations.1 Given the assumption that these systems will develop in each human being, regardless of cultural background and education, core knowledge of geometry and number might be used to explain, at least partly, how it is possible that humans in different and remote cultures could have created such similar geometric patterns. Still, core knowledge can only explain the formal conditions for making and recognizing geometric patterns. Anthropological and art historical studies, however, show that in many cultures geometric decorative patterns function as representations: an important aspect often neglected in cognitive research whereas the observation that geometric shapes and patterns are exactly applied in linguistic and symbolic contexts indicate that geometric shapes and patterns apparently function exceptionally well as signs. In this study, the formal conditions and constraints underlying the recognition and making of geometric decorative patterns are therefore analyzed within the context of the constraints and conditions under which those patterns become endowed with the potential to function as a representation. This analysis allows a more in-depth understanding of how the formal aspects of visual artefacts relate to the ways in which these artefacts, embedded as they are within a cultural context, can function as representations of, and references to, bodies, objects and phenomena outside the artefact itself.

1 Hauser & Spelke 2004, p. 853. 250


  • Prof. C.A. van Eck
  • Prof. J.E.C.V. Rooryck


PhD defences are free; you do not have to register.

PhD dissertations

PhD dissertations by Leiden PhD students are available digitally after the defence through the Leiden Repository, that offers free access to these PhD dissertations. Please note that in some cases a dissertation may be under embargo temporarily and access to its full-text version will only be granted later.

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