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Pictures of Knowledge


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A Visual Philosophy

Pictures of Knowledge is an art/science project I started in 2001. The goal is to develop a set of symbolic pictures, diagrams, or symbolic models representing contexts or frames of reference which are adequate to describe all of human experience and knowledge.

Thus, Pictures of Knowledge falls within the traditional realms of the philosophical disciplines of ontology (the study of the nature of being) and epistemology (the theory of knowledge), as well as that of the sciences in general.

In the process, I've had to develop a library of symbols which are adequate to represent the universal phenomena of human experience, while remaining simple enough (stick figures) to be created by anyone.

What we know about human experience is expressed in our public discourse. So Pictures of Knowledge is essentially about making our public discourse visible, to leverage the power of pictures as an aid to speech and a tool for exposing hidden connections and revealing new insights – what scientists sometimes call "emergent properties".

Pictures of Knowledge are intended to be descriptive, not prescriptive, but if we can reach consensus on what we want our experience to look like, they can help us focus on healthy lifeways. Although pictures remain helpful, we must also acknowledge the centrality of speech. Oral culture and storytelling are the foundation of communal or species knowledge. Since my stories and pictures, and the knowledge they represent, gradually became comprehensive and stable during the course of my lengthy research, my project eventually came to represent not just human knowledge, but human Wisdom.

"...the glyphs...continually remind the reading body of its inherence in a more-than-human field of meanings. As signatures not only of the human form but of other animals, trees, sun, moon, and landforms, they continually refer our senses beyond the strictly human sphere." David Abram, Philosopher-Magician

"A drawing or carved figure is a communal source of images synthesizing new thought...Thus do we approach reason and insight...with words as handles, the arts as whole-makers, and the images that words summon. This recall of the past as a series of images is a public as well as a private experience. It is made public by art." Paul Shepard, Ecologist-Philosopher


Pictures of Knowledge are intended to be created collaboratively in a workshop format, via Socratic dialog, with the facilitator asking a series of fundamental questions and prompting the group through a circular process of filling in the essential pictures with details from their own lives. A group with diverse life experience is recommended. All the essential pictures, and their component topics, are inter-related, so the process involves continually zooming in on the details, backing off for a broader view, and moving from context to context to trace connections and relationships. A minimum of three days is recommended to get a sense of the process.

Basic Principles:

  • Cycles as Primitives
  • Benchmarks
  • Direct observation
  • Necessary & sufficient
  • Parsimony
  • Communal Memory

Process Conventions

  • Modeling
  • Scale: backing off, zooming in
  • Recursion: Circling back, feeding back

Picture Conventions

  • Birdseye View vs. Landscape View
  • Sunwise succession
  • Segmentation
  • Start simple; can add next level of detail after picture is complete at highest level of abstraction

Symbol Conventions

  • Start drawing pictures to identify symbols you need
  • From stick figures to elegant pictographs
  • Normalize symbols to the same dimensions as much as possible; the sun, an insect, and a human are shown the same size
  • Strive for symbols that indicate the ecological and/or social implications of the phenomena being represented
  • Reuse simple symbols to create compound symbols
  • When necessary, complex abstractions can be signified by complete pictures or by composites of simple symbols


A sample from hundreds of early pictures, beginning in 2001:


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