NEH Summer Institute: Experience and Experiment 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 summer 2001 seminar lead by Pamela O. Long and Pamela H. Smith from 25 June to 3 August 2001.

The institute opened up a wide-ranging investigation of the different understandings and contexts of experience in the early modern period. Changing views of experience affected many areas, including the conceptualization of human psychology and the human soul; artisanal knowledge; alchemical and neo-Platonic approaches to the material world; views of the body both as a subject of anatomy and as a source of agency; the nature and role of the five senses; techniques of visual representation; and new experimental methodologies. The institute gathered a distinguished visiting faculty and sixteen college teachers from across the country-each with their own expertises and perspectives-to examine a number of practices in these areas, including painting, architecture, cartography, alchemy, medicine, mechanics, and literature. It investigated the increasing significance that technical knowledge came to have in social and economic configurations such as court culture, urban culture, and the marketplace. It paid particular attention to the habits of mind-the "material understanding"-of the craftsperson out of which was shaped a new empirical "method of philosophizing" and a new way of viewing nature.

Institute Website

Directors: Pamela O. Long is an independent scholar who in 2000-2001 was a senior fellow at the Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology at MIT. Her recent publications include Technology, Culture, and Society in Late Medieval and Renaissance Europe, 1300-1600 (Washington: American Historical Association, 2001) and Openness, Secrecy, Authorship: Technical Arts and the Culture of Knowledge from Antiquity to the Renaissance (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), which won the Morris D. Forkosch Prize, awarded by the Journal of the History of Ideas for the best book in intellectual history published in 2001.

Pamela H. Smith is the Seth Low Professor of History at Columbia University and the author of books on alchemy, artisans, and the making of knowledge. Recent ones include The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution (2004) and Ways of Making and Knowing: The Material Culture of Empirical Knowledge (with Amy R. W. Meyers and Harold C. Cook, 2014). Her present research reconstructs the vernacular knowledge of early modern European miners and metalworkers.

Experience and Experiment in Early Modern Europe

Some of the most basic assumptions about the nature of the world and our means of experiencing it changed fundamentally in the early modem period. This institute's study is shaped by the most crucial result: a transformation of natural philosophy grounded in Aristotelian common experience--or experience everyone would agree upon without need for investigation into an experimental philosophy based on a central role for instrumentation and specialized material techniques used in the validation of knowledge claims.

But because experience remains such a touchstone of knowledge in our modem world, we readily believe that it is a stable and transhistorical-indeed a universal-phenomena: an empathetic way back into the mindsets of the past. This institute seeks first to trouble those easy assumptions about the nature of experience and then to open up a wide ranging and carefully nuanced investigation of different strands and shifting understandings of experience in the early modem period. These understandings include a new orientation towards experimentalism in the seventeenth century. The institute will gather historians of science, cultural historians, art historians, philosophers, anthropologists, sociologists, literary critics, and historians of technology for this work. It will draw upon and consolidate some of the exciting research that is currently being done in each of these disciplines (by our contributors among others). With cross-, inter-, and counter-disciplinary conversations, it will undertake a comparative investigation of key issues and texts that inform our understandings of the transformations of experience and the uses of experimentation in diverse fields. It will analyze at what points and in what ways experiment comes to function as proof in a wide variety of local circumstances. As a result, it will help reshape a common body of knowledge about the radical change in the nature of experience in the early modern period, a change that traditionally has been signaled by the term"scientific revolution."

Proposed Schedule and Faculty

The principal focus of the institute's meetings will be on selected primary texts of the period, read in such a way as to highlight the multiple conversations and contexts into which they were written. Participants will be encouraged to raise issues of audience, transmission, translation, and the nature of evidence-the foundations of the symbolic actions texts perform in their social settings. Participants will be further encouraged to explore the collections in the mornings and to make those explorations the bases of their own presentations to the group.

The institute will meet Monday through Thursday afternoons (with the exception of the week of 4 July). The average week will feature discussion with directors, faculty, and participants taking the lead at various times. Participants will also work collaboratively to incorporate new technologies into their own teaching. On a weekly basis, they will explore a range of digital resources, discussing how to structure assignments and how to provide students with strategies to make the best use of such resources. They will compile and evaluate a cumulative list of web sites that offer texts and images of primary sources. They will also collectively assemble and annotate a set of images of primary sources that they have consulted at the Folger Library. Together with the institute's syllabus and bibliographies, these will be the components of a multifaceted web posting.

Week I (25-29 June)

The Textures of Experience

Visiting Faculty: John Sutton (Lecturer of Philosophy, Macquarie University, NSW, Australia)

Week 2 (2-6 July)

Vernacular Epistemologies

Visiting Faculty: Mary Fissell, Associate Professor of the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology at the Johns Hopkins University, and Gail Kern Paster, Professor of English at George Washington University

Week 3 (9-13 July)

Mechanical Arts, Natural Philosophy, and Visual Representation

Visiting Faculty: David Summers, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of the History of Art at the University of Virginia

Week 4 (16-20 July)

Disciplining Experience

Visiting Faculty: Chandra Mukerji (Professor of Communications, Sociology, and Science Studies at the University of Califomia, San Diego) and Jim Bennett (Keeper of the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford)

Week 5 (23-27 July)

Objects of Art/Objects of Nature

Visiting Faculty: Paula Findlen (Director of the Science, Technology and Society Program, and Professor of History at Stanford University)

Week 6 (30 July-3 August)

Experience and Experiment in the Scientific Revolution

Visiting Faculty: Peter Dear (Professor of History and of Science & Technology Studies at Cornell University) and Adrian Johns (Professor of Sociology at the California institute of Technology)

Faculty and Weekly Schedule

Week 1 (25---29 June): The Textures of Experience

Visiting Faculty: John Sutton (Lecturer of Philosophy, Macquarie University, NSW, Australia)

In the first week, we will introduce a range of different kinds of experience and the

formative impact on them of various knowledge traditions. We will ask how the

conceptualization of experience is related to human perception, reason, and the acquisition of

knowledge. We begin with close readings of texts that give us a basis for understanding both traditional concepts of human experience and the revisions of those concepts that the institute will

investigate in ensuing weeks. With these readings, we establish a framework of select models for

further development and analysis. We will read Aristotle's De Anima (On the Soul) in which the

powers of the soul are described, including the place of the senses and of thinking, and the

relationships between them. We will read several shorter works from Aristotle's Parva Naturalis,

including his Sense and Sensibilia and On Dreams. We then move to several specific contexts of

knowledge and experience in the fifteenth century, reading parts of The Commentaries of Aeneus

Sy/vius Piccolamini, della Porta's Natural Magic, and Ficino's De Vila, considering the

relationship of body, soul, and experience. Such texts shed light on views of the human psyche

and the ways in which nature is experienced. The secondary sources for the week will help us

formulate generative questions. For instance, we will consult the influential work of Lorraine

Daston and Katharine Park on attitudes of wonder toward phenomena in the world and the

changes in such attitudes over time. Are things in nature perceived as marvellous or as instances

of order and regularity? Finally, we will read Descartes' Treatise on Man. John Sutton, who will

be this week's visitor, has extensively investigated the relationship of philosophy to structures of

cognition, especially in Descartes. He will help the seminar link issues ofthe senses and the

organic soul with the history of physiological psychology as he explores the ways views of the

natural world are affected by such structures.

Week 2 (2~ July): Vernacular Epistemologies

Visiting Faculty: Mary FisseIl, Associate Professor of the History of Science. Medicine, and

Technology at the Johns Hopkins University, and Gail Kern Paster, Professor of English at

George Washington University

Here we consider the ways in which everyday experience was conceived by ordinary

kinds of people, including millers, artisans, and other non·elites. We will also look at the

representations of that experience in drama on the English stage. Our readings wi ll include such

texts as Ginzburg's The Cheese and the Worms, which concerns the heresy trial of Menocchio, a

miller, together with the actual documents of his trial. We will also study the world of the artisan

as described in the goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini's Autobiography. A medical treatise of

Paracelsus's offers an opportunity to understand the ways in which this immensely interesting

figure related experience and healing. We will consider Professor Smith's argument that

Paracelsus articulated an "artisanal science of matter," and that by reading his texts alongside

artisanal objects and treatises, we gain insight not only into this science of matter, but into what

Mary Fissell calls a vernacular epistemology, in which nature and experience are primary,

knowledge is active; knowing is doing, and matter is alive. With Professor Gail Kern Paster, we

will tum to other views of the experience ofthe body, including bodies understood as operating

on principles of Galenic humoralism and the resulting subjective experience of being. in.the.body.

Our investigations of bodily experiences will include Francis Bacon's Sylva Sylvarum and at least

one of plays such as The Alchemist, The Family of Love, or The Wise· woman of Hogsdon. Finally

we will look at AriMo/Ie 's Masterpiece, and other popular health texts that were printed in

numerous editions and forms in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and which were

significantly directed toward women. These diverse sources serve as a basis for a comparative

consideration of the vernacular epistemologies under investigation. Participants will look

particularly at the ways in which lay people experienced their own bodies and the ways in which

female bodies, in particular, were constructed by women as well as men. These diverse sources

allow us to move from artisanal contexts to issues of popular health and healing. With their

extensive studies of primary source materials, Professors Fissel! and Paster will significantly

expand the scope of materials of investigation beyond the canonical texts and traditions treated in

the first week.

Week 3 (9-13 July): Mechanical Arts, Natural Philosophy. and Visual Representation

Visiting Faculty: David Summers, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of the History of Art at the

University of Virginia

This week we focus on one particular sensory experience, vision, to examine the complex

and resonant cultural revisions of vision in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. We will ask

about the changing status of visual representation and the mechanical arts. Recent scholarship in

the histories of astronomy, art, and anatomy has produced fascinating new insights. David

Summers, who has extensively investigated sixteenth~century art theory and the relationships

between vision and judgement, will join the group for this week. With him, participants will

compare recent research in these diverse fields. A study of optics and artists' perspective will

involve us in a consideration of the fundamentally significant changes in the role of visual

representation in this era. Painting was considered a "mechanical art" at the beginning of the

fifteenth century while at the end of the period it had become in some quarters a higher status

liberal art, partly as a result of writings such as Alberti's On Painting. in part by using

perspective to depict machines and other apparatus, books about engineering and machines

proliferated beginning with manuscript books such as Mariano Taccola's De Machinis and the

writings of Francesco di Giorgio and Leonardo da Vinci. We will investigate aspects of

Leonardo's treatise on mechanics, Madrid Codex J, as well as his writings on painting and

anatomy. One focus will be on how the "natural" and the "mechanical" came to be interrelated

and the ways in which observational experience, visual representation, and knowledge about the

world were closely linked in the work of Leonardo and other sixteenth-century figures . The

relationships among visual representation, the natural, and the mechanical will be explored

further in the writings ofVesalius and Ambroise Pare. The theme of the transition from

mechanical arts to mechanics will be introduced. At the same time, changing perceptions of

visual representations and the significance of sight and its relationship to reason and to the

understanding of the natural world will be explored.

Week 4 (16---20 July): Disciplining Experience

Visiting Faculty: Chandra Mukerji (Professor of Communications, Sociology, and Science

Studies at the University of Cali fomi a, San Diego) and Jim Bennett (Keeper of the Museum of

the History of Science in Oxford)

In this week we will shift perspective to look more closely at the way disciplines frame

experience. We will take case studies from several specific disciplines-including alchemy,

cartography, and surveying-to think about the influences that social, political, and economic

forces exert in a variety of settings. We then ask again what difference this makes to the practice

and definition of the discipline itself. Chandra Mukerji will guide participants in their study of the

many uses of cartography. She brings the methodology of an anthropologist to her work on

gardens, landscapes, cartography, and surveying-and their relationships to power-in early

modem France. The extensive holdings of the Library of Congress's Geography and Mapping

Division (including an extensive web posting project) will supplement the substantial materials at

the Folger. Also in this week, participants will look at the way disciplines are linked in oblique

ways by their tools and instruments. With Jim Bennett, they will examine the circumstances and

ways in which instrument making itself may become a site of knowledge. Bennett's work on the

London workshops of instrument makers has shown, for instance, that as the learned customers

visited workshops to place orders and request maintenance, the instrument makers came to

assume significant roles in those knowledge communities. We may also visit the American

History Museum for a close viewing of their collection of early modern instruments.

Week 5 (23-27 July): Objects of Art/Objects of Nature

Visiting Faculty: Paula Findlen (Director of the Science, Technology and Society Program, and

Professor of History at Stanford University)

In ancient times, theoretical knowledge about the world and practical knowledge about

construction were separate and usually unrelated entities. Made objects were not considered

particularly useful in explicating knowledge, in part because of the separation between the

artificial and the natural. This week, participants will study the ways this separation came to be

undennined in the early modem period. We will look at evidence that points to an increasing

closeness of objects of nature and of art around 1500. For instance, Albrecht DUrer's diary of his

trip to the Netherlands reveals a collapsing of the two categories of nature and artifact in his

collection. The great Kunstkammern that developed in the seventeenth century also often mingled

such objects. Paula Findlen, an expert on collecting in early modem Italy, will invite participants

to consider collections as sites of knowledge and to consider, too, their epistemological

significance and cultural meanings. The significance of objects can be seen in other ways, as well.

In some cases, the work of fabrication came to be seen as revealing of the natural world. Francis

Bacon's influential writings put forward a methodology for the investigation of the natural world

which utilized the mechanical and constructive arts. Participants will read the Novum Organum

for the way he makes this relationship explicit. They will ask what implications this proximity

between art and nature holds for experience and experimental investigation.

Week 6 (30 July-3 August): Experience and Experiment in the Scientific Revolution

Visiting Faculty: Peter Dear (Professor of History and of Science & Technology Studies at

Cornell University) and Adrian Johns (Professor of Sociology at Cal Tech)

The institute concludes with a study of the broad epistemological conflicts that developed

in the seventeenth century over the concepts of experience and experiment. These conflicts

threatened the dominant Aristotelian sense of common experience-that which was instantly

recognized by all and therefore required no demonstration (e.g., if you drop a brick it will fall

downwards). The new experimental philosophers argued instead that particular experiments,

often using complex apparatus that could be constructed and manipulated only by experts, were

required to validate claims about the natural world. Yet "experiment" meant different things to

different philosophers in the seventeenth century. Participants will analyse the role of experiment

in Bacon's New Atlantis and will compare accounts of experimentation by Blaise Pascal, Robert

Boyle, and Isaac Newton. Adrian Johns will remind participants of the need to situate what we

know about experimental communities in the context of print culture. Peter Dear will also

emphasize the need for a cultural history of communication; he will provide, too, a reminder of

other networks of communication, including extensive correspondence that exists among

experimental philosophers and mathematicians. Perhaps most importantly, he will encourage

participants to analyse in detail the differences in the ways experiment is utilized and

conceptualized even within relatively well defined learned communities.