Dreams and Knowledge in Early Modern Societies

Dreams and Knowledge in Early Modern Societies

Albert Schirrmeister

This study dealt with scientific, scholarly, and philosophical opinions about dreaming and the uses of dreams. Albert Schirrmeister led his research with an historical anthropological questionnaire. The centers of attention were therefore the actors and their samples of acting and perceiving. The aim of this kind of project was to explain how fundamental human challenges could be managed in specific cultural contexts. For this objective, it was necessary to analyze the practice as well as the cultural objectivations offering the different options of acting as well as the social institutions, defining and restricting the possibilities to act. For that reason Albert Schirrmeister organized his project into three major parts.

  1. The first part discussed topics concerning in a wider sense the question of “justification” of scientific knowledge
  2. The second part analyzed questions concerning the topics of “discovery"
  3. The third and last section dealt with all kind of possibilities and attempts to control the dreams, the dreaming and the dreamer: social and political or psychological (self-) control and of the attempts to define a restricted ability to dream meaningfully

One major problem concerning the research of dreams and dreaming has been pointed out by Florence Dumora and by Anthony Grafton. It is not possible to study the dream; we can analyze only the dream-narration and, consequently, we cannot definitively decide if the object of our study represents a real dream or simply a fictional dream-narration. However, this precarious character of dreams could be not only a difficulty for the analysis but at the same time a precondition to understand them as divine messages. Since it is impossible to verify the message, other authorities must assure the acceptance of the message—and that might be besides the visionary character of the message, for example, the dreamer’s personal authority.

The most important method in early modern erudite contexts to consider the knowledge and dream problem deals with the difference between dream and reality. Michel de Montaigne (1533–92), René Descartes (1596–1650), and Blaise Pascal (1623–62) gave the crucial keywords and basis here. They opened for European culture a new perspective on anthropological opinions of dreams. Neither Montaigne nor Descartes or Pascal accepted a fundamental difference between the dreamed perception and state of wakefulness. Montaigne reflected the difficulties of distinguishing the valency of the dreamed insights and the daydreamed figments of imagination (rêveries). In a positive sense, Montaigne established the meditative reverie as a possibility to gain knowledge. It is quite clear that daydreaming and meditations on the one side, and visionary dreams on the other, must be distinguished. It is nevertheless evident and important to remark that the perception and the construction of daydreamed knowledge are fundamentally shaped by the vivid tradition of visionary dreams. Furthermore, it seems that the imprecise distinction between daydreaming and real dreams promoted the possibility to combine the traditional prophetic and visionary authority of dreams with the new individual and more corporal perception of dreams.

The recognition of this method to gain knowledge is, however, very unstable and precarious. For this reason, dream narrations in scientific contexts are in most cases introduced by a description of a respectable and accepted scientific practice, which the dreamer exerted before he fell asleep. The transitional situation (place, practice and time) was described very carefully.

  • Traum und Wissen in der Frühen Neuzeit. Erste Annäherungen, in: Zeitsprünge. Forschungen zur Frühen Neuzeit 5 (2001), S. 297-310. Rationalität und Geschichte. Zum Status von geträumter Wahrnehmung in spezifischen kulturellen Kontexten der Frühen Neuzeit, in: Zugänge zur Rationalität der Zukunft, hg. v. Nicole C. Karafyllis u. Jan C. Schmidt, Stuttgart / Weimar 2002, S. 95-111