Historia: Explorations in the History of Early Modern Empiricism

Cooperation Partners: 

Professor Gianna Pomata (Universitá  di Bologna, Italy), Professor Nancy Siraisi (Hunter College, New York, USA)

In June 2003 a group organized by Professor Gianna Pomata (Università di Bologna, Italy) and Professor Nancy Siraisi (Hunter College, New York, USA) on the topic of “Historia in Early Modern Europe” met at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science to prepare a volume on the subject, to be published as Historia: Empiricism and Erudition in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005). A Table of Contents for the book follows this prospectus. The project was part of Department II’s ongoing research on the history of scientific experience; a new research project on the History of Scientific Observation ran in 2005-8.

Writing about the prominence of natural history in the seventeenth century, such a deep connoisseur of the early modern "life sciences" as Jacques Roger noted that "the history of the word historia itself would deserve an accurate study" ("The Living World" in GS Rousseau and Roy Porter, eds., The Ferment of Knowledge, Cambridge 1980, p.264). This project went in the same direction: the members investigated the various meanings that the term historia had in the early modern vocabulary of knowledge, and the roles that historia played in early modern encyclopedism. Loosely meant as a truthful, or supposedly truthful, narrative of the results of an inquiry—any inquiry—historia featured prominently in disciplines ranging from antiquarian studies and historiography to medicine and natural philosophy. In striking contrast with the modern use of the term, the early modern "history" straddled the distinction between human and natural subjects; from the Renaissance to the eighteenth century, nature was fully part of the field of research called historia. However, most studies of early modern intellectual life have focused exclusively on historia as civil history, the sense closest to modern usage. Well known and much studied are the humanist revaluation of the rhetorical and moral uses of political and civil history, as well as the new attention to methods of writing about the past signalled by Bodin and the artes historicae. The emerging importance of disciplinary histories, the new genre of confessional history, and the institution of chairs or lectureships of history in universities and academies have also been studied as signs of the increasing significance attached to historia in this period. But these studies concentrate on historia as civil history, which was only one aspect of the intellectual currency of the term in the early modern period.

By contrast, the role historia played in early modern natural philosophy and medicine has been much less studied. Here, as also in the humanities, the term covered a variety of meanings. It is well known that a prominent feature of early modern science was the rapid and exponential growth of historia naturalis, but it would be more correct to talk of a proliferation of natural histories—in the plural—all with different philosophical pedigrees and correspondingly different notions of what historia was about. Aristotelian and Plinian models of natural history, to give the most obvious example, implied very different concepts of historia. In medicine also—a discipline whose connections with history were long ago noted by Arnaldo Momigliano—historia enjoyed a special vogue. A veritable explosion of clinical and anatomical reports written in the historia format began in the sixteenth century, genres that proliferated still further in the following century. Case histories (called historiae or observationes) and autopsy narratives multiplied, while in anatomy the term historia acquired a specific and even technical meaning. When Fabricius of Acquapendente or William Harvey, for instance, wrote the results of their anatomical investigations, they regularly started with what they called a historia, meaning a thorough description of the structure of bodily parts, preliminary to an understanding of their function, or "use." The anatomists' historia in this sense clearly differed from historia as casus, the report of an individual case-history, a usage circulated by Renaissance commentators on Hippocrates' Epidemics. Thus, within the field of medicine, too, historia could have different meanings, signalling different intellectual practices and objectives.

A first goal of the project was to reconstruct and compare the various meanings and uses of historia in both natural knowledge and the humanities (including legal language) from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. The project team hoped to bring into focus the cognitive role played by historia across a wide range of disciplinary practices. In this respect, the project was much indebted to the late Arno Seifert‘s (Cognitio Historica, Berlin 1976) investigation of historia as an epistemological category, and his survey of early modern definitions of cognitio historica. Seifert argued that the epistemological status of historia underwent a momentous change in the transition from Scholasticism to Humanism. In Scholastic philosophy, historia had meant incomplete knowledge—the Aristotelian apodeixis tou oti (or Scholastic demonstratio quia)—that simply offered a description of "how the thing is," without explaining why it is so. Historia in this sense was ancillary to philosophy, the humble prelude to the philosophical knowledge of causes. In contrast, the humanists rediscovered the ancient Greek (pre-Aristotelian) usage of the word as knowledge in general—an intellectual turning point stressed by Seifert as the premise to historia‘s triumph in Renaissance intellectual life. The project team chose to revisit Seifert‘s thesis, but with a primary emphasis not just, as in his book, on philosophical definitions of historia, but rather on its actual uses across disciplinary practices.

In all its varieties, historia carried a strong empiricist connotation: it meant sensata cognitio, knowledge based on sense perception, as well as the report thereof. Historia was an epistemological category but was also what we could call an "epistemic genre," a specialized way of writing down knowledge. In early modern medicine, for instance, historia and observatio were semi-interchangeable terms: they both indicated a new genre of medical writing containing a condensed report of first-hand observation. The notion of historia as direct observation (plus a critically examined tradition of observational reports) seems to have been exported from medicine into general philosophical parlance: in the philosophical lexicons, for instance, the paternity of historia as sensata cognitio is attributed to Galen. In general, in the early modern descriptive sciences—among which much of medicine and its ancillary disciplines may be included—the use of narrative historiae served to support claims to empiricism. Investigating meanings and uses of historia, in consequence, means to explore the varieties and specificities of early modern empiricism and of early modern concepts of experience. In seventeenth-century experimental literature, as argued by Peter Dear, experience moved from indicating "a general statement about how things habitually behave" (as in the Aristotelian/Scholastic sense) to "statements describing specific events" (Discipline and Experience, Chicago 1995, 24-25, 85-92, 125). There seems to have been, in other words, a "historicization" of the concept of experience. Was this new concept of experience related to historia‘s new currency as a favourite format for the recording and communication of knowledge? A goal of the project in this respect was to locate historia within the early modern vocabulary of experience, comparing it with other key words such as casus, factum, res, particularia, experimenta, phaenomena, observationes. Variations in the meaning and diffusion of these terms probably signal important changes in the intellectual practices constituting early modern empiricism.

A closer study of historia also helped the project members bring into sharper focus the peculiarities of the early modern system of the sciences. The versatility of the early modern notion of historia, equally applicable to the domain of natural knowledge and to the study of human action, points to a salient feature of early modern encyclopedism: the lack of a clear-cut boundary between the study of nature and the study of culture. The early modern system of knowledge was a far cry from the sharp distinction of nomothetic versus idiographic disciplines envisaged by nineteenth-century historicism. The historicist legacy has often had a restrictive impact on studies of early modern culture, for instance by keeping the history of historiography and the history of medicine separated. By focusing on historia as a trait-d‘union between different disciplinary practices and conceptual domains the scholars of this project hoped to move beyond such restrictive and anachronistic assumptions. Among other things, they looked to re-examine and more fully explain a phenomenon often noticed by studies of early modern intellectual life but not yet fully described and accounted for: the very close proximity of antiquarian studies with medicine and natural philosophy (as shown for instance by Giuseppe Olmi in the case of Italy, and Barbara Shapiro in that of England). Although antiquarianism and descriptive natural sciences were of course distinct from one another and some of the latter involved a significant degree of specialization, yet those engaged in these various branches of knowledge nevertheless shared the common culture of late humanism. In several cases, they were in fact the same person. Learned physicians and naturalists not only incorporated historiae into their own disciplines but were often active contributors to the antiquarian and historical culture of their age. A focus on historia was meant to imply, by intention, also a focus on that peculiar figure of early modern intellectual: the polyhistor.

In recent years, all these aspects of early modern historia have been the subject of new, and exciting, scholarly work, but they are seldom considered together. This project and the resulting book brought together scholars working in some of these different fields (from the history of medicine and natural philosophy to that of antiquarianism, legal studies and historiography) to examine the entire range of uses of the term, with a common focus on historia as a key epistemic tool of early modern intellectual practices.


  • Gianna Pomata, Nancy G. Siraisi (Ed.): Historia: Empiricism and Erudition in Early Modern Europe. (Transformations: Studies in the History of Science and Technology.) viii + 409 pp., illus., figs., bibl., index. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005.