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2006-07 Humanities Research Groups

"Nature's Disciplines "

Sponsor: Cogut Center for the Humanities

Coordinators: Evelyn Lincoln, Department of the History of Art & Architecture and Italian Studies

Tara Nummedal, History Department

Nicolás Wey-Gómez, Hispanic Studies

The research group on “Nature’s Disciplines” will explore the production, practice, and implications of early modern science in an interdisciplinary context. In the early modern period scientia, or certain knowledge, depended on a vast terrain of assumptions and philosophies, practices and interests that were integral to the demands and contingencies of a way of life completely different from our own.  The structures by which knowledge was produced and the questions that seemed most urgent to put to rest occupied early modern scholars and practitioners in ways that it is difficult to recover with much subtlety.  Burning questions of the day were not whether there was a philosopher’s stone, but rather how to find it, and the same goes for such mythical beasts as dragons.  Were statues dug out of the earth to be considered to share properties with fossils, similarly found?  Is there anyone who can parse Vitruvius’ disappointingly vague Latin with enough delicacy to figure out how he said to carve an Ionic volute while maintaining the same proportions all the way through, as the Greeks did?   Did the earth rise in some seasons because, being warm, it managed to dissipate some of its heavier, more melancholic humors?  The last question was hotly debated in the middle of the sixteenth century by two men passionate about the pursuit of natural knowledge:  one was a fencer, the other a poet, and the conversation took place in a papal palace in Rome.

Like the subjects of their scholarship, historians of early modern science – or rather of natural knowledge, to use a much broader term that can encompass the extraordinary range of practices and participants associated with understanding nature in the early modern period – need to understand the early modern value of playing music (harmony of the spheres), of making maps (discovering new lands to plunder for riches, or people to convert to Christianity), of alchemy and astrology (particularly in a courtly context).  We have had to become cognizant of the many disciplines that produced knowledge in the early modern period, and also interpreters of why such knowledge was necessary. 

We wish to come together to think about how interdisciplinary work in historical studies is different from, or compatible with, interdisciplinary work in the sciences and Renaissance/Early Modern Studies (REMS).  Would the History of Science best be located as the historical arm of Brown's Committee for Science and Technology Studies, or as the “science” arm of the REMS, thereby defining our work historically and having it take its place among the humanistic disciplines usually associated with the Renaissance and Early Modern periods? 

We will begin this conversation by inviting two scholars whose work is particularly interdisciplinary – Paula Findlen and Janice L. Neri – to come to Brown in the spring to share their work and spark our thinking about creating an interdisciplinary community of scholars here. We will also meet several times during the semester to discuss how interdisciplinary studies of the history of science could best be researched and taught at Brown within existing structures, or else to come up with ideas for how to modify those structures to accommodate the course of study we define during our semester.

Finally, we will turn our attention to organizing the New England Renaissance Conference, which we are sponsoring here at Brown in October 2007 on the theme of “Nature’s Disciplines.” The New England Renaissance Conference is a regional interdisciplinary meeting of New England based scholars (including faculty, graduate students, and independent scholars) who meet for a day every year to present their work. The conference is a tradition that was begun at Brown in 1939 by Leicester Bradner, and has rotated through New England universities ever since.  We hope that framing this year’s conference around the theme of “Nature’s Disciplines” will help us identify and draw in people interested in the interdisciplinary study of early modern natural knowledge at Brown.

For an update of events related to this project, click here.