NEH Summer Institute: Experience and Experiment in Early Modern Europe (seminar)

NEH Summer Institute

Center for Shakespeare Studies

June 25 through August 3, 2001

Institute Website: PDF of Website

Promotional Materials

Directed by Pamela O. Long, senior research fellow at the Dibner institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Pamela H. Smith, Associate Professor in the Department of History at Pomona College, Claremont and Director of European Studies at Claremont Graduate University

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.

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)