Structures of Practical Knowledge

Working Group: The Structures of Practical Knowledge

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Fabrica di galee. Archivio Proprio Giacomo Contarini, 1592–1593. Busta 25, 12r. Graphic solution by Simone Rieger

Subject and Objectives of the Working Group 

Practical knowledge is the knowledge needed to obtain a certain product, for instance, artistic or mechanical artifacts or a certain defined output such as healing practices that follow an established series of actions. It is externalized by means of specific rules that indicate, for instance, how a certain tool is used on a specific material; it is a series of accumulated experiences that causally link an action to a material output. Practical knowledge is always in part tacit and in part explicit. Tacit practical knowledge is, for example, the skill that enabled shipwrights to judge the quality of raw materials by using tactile experience. Explicit practical knowledge involves those rules, for example in construction procedures, that can be explicitly transmitted orally. One of the most evident developments in the framework of practical knowledge in the early modern period is the increasing codification of explicit and tacit practical knowledge in form of written texts and drawings.

Most historians of science agree about the fundamental role played by practical knowledge during the early modern period. According to general historical understanding, practical knowledge represents the background against which the early modern scientific revolution took place. Historians, however, described several different ways in which practical knowledge influenced early modern scientific developments: these are termed here 'sharing processes.' The first goal of the working group is to investigate how and why sharing processes took place during the early modern period.

As the early modern period was the era of technological boom, the question emerges of whether the continuously increasing number of technological enterprises required ever more elaborated practical knowledge and skills, so that the typical structures and actors that encompassed, developed and transferred such knowledge were no longer adequate to deal with it. Practical knowledge was accumulated, but the process of accumulation also depended on the way the knowledge was codified and transferred.

The second objective of the workshop is the analysis of the intrinsic structure of the practical knowledge and of the process of its codification: how practical knowledge was organized; which rules governed its production; how it was codified, accumulated and transferred; and whether these processes fundamentally changed its characteristics during the early modern period.