Observation in Early Modern Europe (seminar)

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

This was a late-spring 2008 faculty weekend seminar led by Lorraine Daston.

How to look (and hear, smell, taste, and touch), how to record and recall, and how to describe were new challenges that confronted European naturalists from circa 1490 to 1785. New lands, new objects (often in the form of market commodities), new inventions and discoveries, and, above all, new forms of empirical inquiry exploded older frameworks for ordering knowledge. Knowledge itself was redefined to include the close study of particulars as well as the formulation of universal generalizations. Scholars trained to read books attempted to transfer some of these skills to the reading of nature; artisans who had once protected their empirical knowledge about materials and techniques as trade secrets published their observations in handbooks and treatises in the hopes of attracting princely patronage and customers. A narrow medical genre, the observationes, expanded and ultimately transformed writing about nature, society, and the arts. Twelve faculty participants described their own research projects as they relate to the growth of observation as an epistemic and publishing genre in early modern Europe. Special topics included: the history of cognitive practices associated with observation (especially economies of attention and memory), the transfer of literary techniques such as excerpting and note-taking to observation, the refinement of the senses, the role of drawing and literary description in the cultivation of observational acuity, and the persona and ethos of the observer.


Director: Lorraine Daston is Director at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin and Visiting Professor at the Committee on Social Thought, University of Chicago. Her publications include Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150–1750 (with Katharine Park, 1998), Biographies of Scientific Objects (2000), Eine kurze Geschichte der wissenschaftlichen Aufmerksamkeit (2001), and Things that Talk: Object Lessons from Art and Science (2004).