The main goal of our project is to show that the road from recipes to experiments was long, complex and fascinating; with stops and turns that needs investigating. The starting point of the road was the recipe format and the books of secrets. At the end we can find “experimental reports.” But what is really fascinating is what lies in between. Our investigation focus on the intermediate forms of recordings but also inquires into the process of disambiguation through which tacit knowledge embodied in the recipes was gradually spelled out, tried, tested, reformulated and transformed. We call this process “enactment”.
Enactment is a process of progressive disambiguation of tacit knowledge encoded in a recipe. It is a complex process which includes a number of components. There is, first, the reading and the understanding of a recipe, a gradual process, extremely context-dependent. Then, enactment presupposes imagining experimental set-ups, imagining ways to spell out the tacit knowledge embodied in the recipes, imagining ways of “improving” the recipe, devising the trial and assessing the result, changing and adapting the material conditions, introducing new elements, devising material and conceptual instruments to tackle the phenomenon under investigation. Thus, enacting a recipe has a creative component, it exercises both the imagination and the judgment of the reader (and of the experimenter), it tests the expertise of the actor performing it and it is, therefore, highly context-dependent.
In order to enact a recipe, the reader has to recover some of the tacit knowledge embodied in it. In fact, recipes contain several layers of secrets. In some cases the secret unfolds only to those with a special training; in other cases, the secret is revealed in the process of enactment; finally, in other cases it lies in the result. Furthermore, enacting recipes is something which depends on and varies according to the skills, the knowledge and the training of the reader. Nonetheless, it will take the reader/enactor/experimenter to execute the instructions of the recipe again and again in order to establish causal correlations, eliminate, as much as possible, the sources of error, stabilize the entire process, and ensure the repeatability and predictability of the results.
Our claim is that through enactment, early modern investigators of nature transformed received recipes into two different kinds of products, with different functions in the structures of knowledge. One of these products is what we call “technology.”
We take “technology” to be descriptive for a particular kind of enacting and recording recipes in view of producing new (and sometimes miraculous) objects. This led to experimentation of a particular kind: experimentation directed towards spelling out the tacit knowledge embodied in the recipe, clarifying the desired result, stabilize the procedure of enactment so that the result would be obtained at each trial and – most importantly – find ways of recording that would make the technology transparent to the reader. We intend to investigate several such early modern technologies (of cider making, of distillation, of sounds, etc.). We will show that they are not scientific experiments; in fact, technologies are the very opposite of scientific experiments. By contrast to scientific experimentation, which also began with recipes and enactment, but in the process of enactment several open-ended questions directed the inquiry away from the envisaged result of the recipe (such as “why” and “how”), technologies encapsulate and codify practical knowledge; and sometimes they also produce theoretical knowledge; but it is a particular kind of applied knowledge, knowledge with expected results.
Goals and activities
A key goal of our project is to define and exemplify forms and strategies of enacting recipes in early modern philosophy and the sciences. We intend to investigate a large corpus of texts belonging to different early modern disciplines in an attempt to unveil and clarify the successive steps of enacting recipes in particular experimental contexts (the corpus contains works by Francis Bacon, William Gilbert, Hugh Platt, Thomas Browne, John Barlow, Henry Power, John Evelyn, Kenelm Digby and Robert Boyle). We aim to clarify and classify forms and strategies of enactment and introduce this subject into the current discussions in both history and philosophy of science and we will do that by bridging the gaps between textual analysis of records, material practices, and reconstructions.