Thesis ID: CBB322645098

Making Experience Literate: Poetry and New Science in Early Modern England (2019)


Studies of early modernity have noted that seventeenth-century intellectual and artisanal cultures respond in innovative ways to questions about experience as a source of learning: how it may be properly acquired, validated, organized, and communicated for the making of knowledge. For sixteenth-century Renaissance humanists, experience is a contentious term, at times cited in positive opposition to the abstractions of scholastic philosophy, at others regarded as a contingent, dangerous, and unreliable way of learning relative to the authority of books, school, and tradition. By the seventeenth century, learning from experience is a recurring theme across multiple fields and practices. What also emerges in the seventeenth century is the modern scientific experiment, a kind of artificial, intentional, deliberative experience conceived as a newly disciplined method for reading the Book of Nature. The words “experience” and “experiment” are fraternal twins in early modern English, often used interchangeably; in the seventeenth century, they begin to diverge from each other into their present-day meanings. As my dissertation explores, this divergence has a rich, complicated history in which literary and scientific responses to questions about knowledge from experience intersect, revealing productive correspondences between early modern models for scientific experiment and poetic experience as sources of learning. My project traces the intertwined lexical and discursive histories of “experience” and “experiment” through the works of Francis Bacon, John Donne, Thomas Browne, and John Milton, all writers who engage explicitly with the methods and discoveries of “New Science.” I argue that in their respective engagements with new sciences, these writers generate new philosophical and poetic models for “making experience literate” to address mutual epistemological concerns about how and what kinds of knowledge can be learned and made from a world of fallen perception and fragmented experience. My project continues the ongoing conversation between studies of early modern literature and science, and asks how early modern perspectives about literary experience and scientific knowledge might inform current discourse about the value and reliability of literary education and scientific authority.

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Authors & Contributors
Anstey, Peter R.
Boyle, Frank
Burchell, David
Cordell, Jeffrey Ernst
Cormack, Bradin
Cummins, Juliet
1650--1850: Ideas, Aesthetics, and Inquiries in the Early Modern Era
Annals of Science: The History of Science and Technology
Early Science and Medicine: A Journal for the Study of Science, Technology and Medicine in the Pre-modern Period
History of European Ideas
Cornell University Press
Oxford University Press
University of Chicago
Brandeis University
Indiana University
University of Virginia
Science and literature
Poetry and poetics
Experiments and experimentation
Natural philosophy
Natural history
Science and religion
Milton, John
Bacon, Francis, 1st Baron Verulam
Shakespeare, William
Donne, John
Boyle, Robert
Browne, Thomas
Time Periods
17th century
Early modern
15th century
16th century
18th century
Great Britain
Royal Society of London

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