Early modern “technologies”: some preliminary clarifications

Our claim is that enactment is the mechanism behind the transformation of early modern recipes. But we also claim that this was a complex transformation which did not lead in a straightforward or univocal way to scientific experiments. Sometimes, enacting recipes resulted in something different altogether, sometimes we are going to call “technology” (Jalobeanu 2016, Jalobeanu and Matei 2020). This term is not an actor’s category, but a useful historiographic tool.

We take “technology” to be descriptive for a particular class of enacting and recording recipes directed towards the production of new (useful or miraculous) objects. Technologies are interlinked with claims of expertise and with particular kinds of enactment. The experimenter constructing a technology is interested in spelling out the tacit knowledge embodied in a recipe in a way that would allow him to control the result, and to “stabilize” the procedure of enactment in so far it always yields the same result.

Recording technologies also has specific features; unlike recipes, they are much more “transparent” to the reader. They can circulate easier and get easily adopted to other contexts. In this project we intend to investigate a number of early modern technologies. We propose to work with quite diverse examples of technologies of grafting, vegetation and fermentation on the one hand, distillation and separation (including desalinization) on the other; showing how much they differ (and why) from scientific experiments.

What we aim to demonstrate in this project, starting from examples and case studies, is something of a general import, namely that far from being proto-experiments, technologies are the very opposite of experimentation. The knowledge they produced (practical as well as theoretical) is always oriented, depending on the expected result. By contrast, experiments are open-ended. Scientific experimentation begins with recipes, but it evolves by leaving it behind. In the process of enactment, open-ended questions distract the inquirer away from the promised result of the recipe. Instead, the enactment itself becomes something to be questioned and investigated. The experimenter still attempts to spell out tacit knowledge; but it is knowledge of a different kind, knowledge expressed in “why” questions relating to the underlying natural processes taking place in the laboratory. We intend to show, again making use of a large number of examples and case studies, that scientific experimentation began when the experimenter abandoned the recipe and started pursuing in earnest some of the why-questions which emerged in the process of enactment.

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