This project investigates an important phase in the pre-history of modern science; a phase in which ideas, techniques and strategies coming from natural history, natural magic and medicine fused in the melting pot of the seventeenth century natural philosophy giving birth to the early modern experimental science.
Our goal is to investigate the complex and gradual transformation of what was called the “recipe format” – a way of writing characteristic for the sixteenth century – into something new, “the experimental report.” We focus on 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.
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.
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.