Experimental Fire. Jennifer Rampling at the Recipes and Enactment Research Seminar

In this meeting we discussed Jennifer Rampling (Princeton University)’s concept of “practical exegetics”, as exposed in her book,  The Experimental Fire (University of Chicago Press, 2020). We focused on chapter two (“Medicine and Transmutation”) and three (“Opinion and Epxerience”) of the book, alongside the text of a scholarly debate between Rampling and William Newman (Indiana University).

Professor Rampling began her presentation with the problem of decknamen, i.e. the issue that in the alchemical literature allegorical names were attributed to different substances, which makes it difficult for the reader to understand what is precisely meant in an alchemical text. This, as professor Rampling showed both in her book and in the presentation that she prepared for us, engenders a philosophically fascinating way of reading these texts, a hermeneutical approach that encompasses both practical and theoretical knowledge. In order to understand this process we could ask how would one learn from the alchemical texts. There are, one Rampling’s account, a few important steps: the alchemy apprentice can start, for instance, from acquiring practical knowledge by working for another person (a craftsman). Then, this practical knowledge has to be somehow related to the books written by the forerunners of alchemy. At this point, we notice that different people bring to the fore different sorts of practical knowledge, but also different education or religious confessions. Thus, when one writes one’s own treatises of alchemy, one realizes a “feedback loop”, in which the way of reading is influenced by one’s practice, while one’s practice is in turn influenced by the readings. This process of balancing practical (performative) knowledge and textual analysis is termed by professor Rampling “practical exegetics”. Moreover, focusing on the persona of George Ripley, a 15th century alchemist, Rampling identifies a tradition forged by practical exegetics, the tradition of “sericonian” alchemy (a way of reading alchemical texts that is built around a mineral/vegetable solvent). The adequacy of this tradition is further called into question by William Newman, who proposed as an alternative an alchemical tradition based on the writings of Roger Bacon. As Rampling has shown, this scholarly debate is itself a perfect example of practical exegetics at work.

The audience had several notable questions and comments that were discussed at large during the seminar. How can we know if the materials used and advocated by different alchemists were the same? Can we divide the alchemical practices according to their end (medical use vs. the transmutation of metals)? Which are the tacit theological assumptions behind the positions of different alchemists? Can there be a moral reading of the alchemical texts (especially focusing on the idea of bettering oneself)? Was there ever the case that alchemy apprentices started from theory rather than from practice? If the alchemical processes and their terminology are not standardized, how about operations (e.g. distillation)? Is there a noticeable difference between natural magic and alchemy when it comes to the issue of testimony and authority?

More on the Recipes and Enactment Research Seminar can be found here: https://danajalobeanu.com/research-seminar-recipes-technologies-and-experiments-enactment-and-the-emergence-of-modern-science/