Debapriya Sarkar

This page reflects a scholar's association with the Folger Institute.

Long-term fellowship

"Possible Knowledge: Forms of Literary and Scientific Thought in Early Modern England" (NEH Fellowship, 2016-2017)

Speculative habits of thought—from hypothesis and conjecture to prophecy and prediction—were at the core of Renaissance poetics, fascinating writers from Spenser, Bacon, and Shakespeare to Milton and Cavendish. I call these ways of thinking “possible knowledge,” and I use them to show how literary writing helped to re-imagine the landscape of epistemic uncertainty at the time of the Scientific Revolution. It is a scholarly commonplace that scientific probability was an Enlightenment-era phenomenon. Possible Knowledge, however, uncovers a prehistory of scientific probability that had a deeply literary life, one that was sparked by the imaginative allure of possibility—what Philip Sidney terms the “may be and should be”—in early modern poetics. Revealing the importance of these creative modes to innovations in scientific thought, I show how the imaginative techniques that characterize major genres of literary writing (such as utopia, romance, tragedy, and epic poetry) undergirded natural inquiry. Literary techniques modeled new ways of exploring relations that were foundational to Renaissance accounts of physical and metaphysical reality: between words and things, for instance, or between form and matter, or even between self and world. Engaging with scholarship in analytic philosophy and the history of science, Possible Knowledge ultimately offers a defense of poiesis as a vibrant philosophical endeavor: at a moment when astronomers and natural philosophers were grappling with new accounts of the cosmos, literary writing was generating the forms of thinking vital to the early modern exchange of ideas about natural and imaginary worlds.