Biology and Philosophy

, Volume 18, Issue 3, pp 415–426 | Cite as

From theory to data: Representing neurons in the 1940s

  • Tara H. Abraham


Recent literature on the role of pictorial representation in the life sciences has focused on the relationship between detailed representations of empirical data and more abstract, formal representations of theory. The standard argument is that in both a historical and epistemic sense, this relationship is a directional one: beginning with raw, unmediated images and moving towards diagrams that are more interpreted and more theoretically rich. Using the neural network diagrams of Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts as a case study, I argue that while in the empirical sciences, pictorial representation tends to move from data to theory, in areas of the life sciences that are predominantly theoretical, when abstraction occurs at the outset, the relationship between detail and abstraction in pictorial representations can be of a different character.

Abstraction Diagram Idealization Neurobiology Neuron Pictorial representation Theory Warren McCulloch 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Abraham T.H. 2002. “(Physio)logical circuits: The intellectual origins of the McCulloch-Pitts neural networks,”. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 38: 3–25.Google Scholar
  2. Apter J. 1945. “The projection of the retina on the superior colliculus of cats,”. Journal of Neurophysiology 8: 123–134.Google Scholar
  3. Boring E.G. 1929. A History of Experimental Psychology. Century Co., New York.Google Scholar
  4. Brodmann K. 1909/1994. Localization in the Cerebral Cortex (Garey L.J.). Smith-Gordon, London.Google Scholar
  5. Cambrosio A. 2000. “Argumentation, representation, intervention: les roles de l'imagerie dans des discours scientifiques,”. ASp 27/30: 95–112.Google Scholar
  6. Campbell A.W. 1905. Histological Studies on the Localization of Cerebral Function. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.Google Scholar
  7. Dusser de Barenne J.G. 1924. “Experimental researches on sensory localization in the cerebral cortex of the monkey (Macacus),” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series B. 96:., pp. 272–291.Google Scholar
  8. Frank R.G. 1994. “Instruments, nerve action, and the all-or-none principle,”. Osiris 9: 208–235.Google Scholar
  9. Gombrich E. 1961. Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation. 2nd edn. Bollingen Foundation, New York, revised.Google Scholar
  10. Griesemer J.R. 1991. “Must scientific diagrams be eliminable? The case of path analysis,”. Biology and Philosophy 6: 155–180.Google Scholar
  11. Heims and Steve J. 1991. The Cybernetics Group: Constructing a Social Science for Postwar America. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.Google Scholar
  12. Klüver H. 1942. “Functional significance of the geniculo-striate system” Biological Symposia VII: Visual Mechanisms. J. Cattell Press, Lancaster, PA, pp. 253–299.Google Scholar
  13. Lettvin J.Y. 1989. “Warren and Walter,”. In: McCulloch Rook (ed.), The Collected Works of Warren S. McCulloch Vol. II. Intersystems Publications, Salinas, CA, pp. 515–529.Google Scholar
  14. Lorente de No R. 1933a. “The vestibulo-ocular reflex arc,”. Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry 30: 245–291.Google Scholar
  15. Lorente de No R. 1933b. “Studies on the structure of the cerebral cortex,”. Journal fur Psychologie und Neurologie 45: 381–438.Google Scholar
  16. Lynch M. 1991. “Science in the age of mechanical reproduction: Moral and epistemic relations between diagrams and photographs,”. Biology and Philosophy 6: 205–226.Google Scholar
  17. Lynch M. 1990. “The externalized retina: Selection and mathematization in the visual documentation of objects in the life sciences,”. In: Lynch Michael and Woolgar Steve (eds), Representation in Scientific Practice. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, pp. 153–186.Google Scholar
  18. Maienschein J. 1991. “From presentation to representation in E.B. Wilson's The Cell”. Biology and Philosophy 6: 227–254.Google Scholar
  19. McCulloch.S. 1989 [1974]. “Recollections of the many sources of cybernetics,”. In: McCulloch Rook (ed.), The Collected Works of Warren S. McCulloch Vol. I. Intersystems Publications, Salinas, CA, pp. 21–49.Google Scholar
  20. McCulloch W.S. 1965. “What's in the brain that ink may character?”. In: McCulloch W.S. (ed.), Embodiments of mind. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA (Originally presented at the International Congress for Logic, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science, Jerusalem, Israel, August 28, 1964).Google Scholar
  21. McCulloch W.S. and Pitts W. 1943. “A logical calculus of the ideas immanent in nervous activity,”. Bulletin of Mathematical Biophysics 5: 115–133.Google Scholar
  22. O'Leary J.L. and Bishop G.H. 1941. “The optically excitable cortex of the rabbit,”. Journal of Comparative Neurology 68: 423–478.Google Scholar
  23. Pitts W. and McCulloch W.S. 1947. “How we know universals: The perception of auditory and visual forms,”. Bulletin of Mathematical Biophysics 9: 127–147.Google Scholar
  24. Ramón y Cajal S. 1995 [1911]. Histology of the Nervous System of Man and Vertebrates. Oxford University Press, New York, Trans. from the French by Neely Swanson and Larry W. Swanson. 2 vols.Google Scholar
  25. Ramón y Cajal R. 1900. Die Sehrinde. Barth, Leipzig.Google Scholar
  26. Rudwick M.J.S. 1976. “The emergence of a visual language for geological science 1760–1840,”. History of Science xiv: 149–195.Google Scholar
  27. Sargent P. 1996. “On the use of visualization in the practice of science,”. Philosophy of Science 63: S230–S238.Google Scholar
  28. Turing A.M. 1936–7. “On computable numbers, with an application to the Entscheidungsproblem” Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society, Series 2. 42: 230–265.Google Scholar
  29. Von Bonin G., Garol H.W. and McCulloch W.S. 1942. “The functional organization of the occipital lobe,” Biological Symposia VII: Visual Mechanisms. J. Cattell Press, Lancaster, PA, pp. 165–192.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  • Tara H. Abraham
    • 1
  1. 1.Max Planck Institute for the History of ScienceBerlinGermany

Personalised recommendations