Early Modern Scientific and Intellectual Biography (seminar)

For more past programming from the Folger Institute, please see the article Folger Institute scholarly programs archive.

This was a spring 2004 faculty weekend seminar.

This seminar aimed to introduce historians and literary scholars to some relatively unfamiliar sociological and philosophical resources for re-thinking how biographers—past and present-write about the lives of scientific and philosophical truth-speakers. Part of the exercise was devoted to explicating the codes and conventions used by early modern commentators to talk about their contemporaries: e.g., Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, Hobbes, Boyle, Hooke, Locke, Newton. Another part assessed how traditions of telling such lives have changed from the early modern period to our own. Topics addressed included: asceticism and the moral and physical constitution of scientific and philosophical thinkers; the relationship between conceptions of individual authenticity and the idea of truth; the relationship between ideas about knowledge and the mental and moral make-up of knowers; the social role of scholars and its bearing on the moral, social, and intellectual characteristics attributed to them; the uses of intellectual biography in constituting the authority of knowledge; how individuality and the social state figure in such biographies and how motives come to be attributed; and the differences between telling the lives of those who speak truth about reality and those whose cultural products are recognized as works of the imagination.

Director: Steven Shapin is Professor of Sociology and Science Studies at the University of California, San Diego. His books include A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England (1994), The Scientific Revolution (1996), and Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (1985, with Simon Schaffer). He is currently working on a book about the ideas of scientific knowledge and personal virtue in late modernity.