William Harvey, Exercitationes de generatione animalium. Quibus accedunt quaedam de partu: de membranis ac humoribis uteri: et de conceptione, Amstelodami: Lud. Elzevir 1651, frontispiece.

Max Planck Research Group (Premodern Sciences)

Experience in the Premodern Sciences of Soul & Body ca. 800–1650

Research Group Leader Katja Krause

T +49 30 22667 186

Between ca. 800–1650, the Aristotelian sciences of soul and body and Galenic-Avicennian medicine spread from the Islamic World to Europe, on to the Americas, and to East Asia. Most histories suggest that the empirical method, encapsulated in the terms “experiment” and “observation,” began later, in the early modern period. The Research Group “Experience in the Premodern Sciences of Soul and Body,” reconsiders the conventional assumption that experience played a minimal role in premodern natural knowledge making by studying experience in the sciences concerned with plant, animal, and human life. Our objective is to reveal the ideals and practices associated with premodern experience, and the material artifacts, cultural conditions, and circulation processes informing and transforming these ideals and practices.

One aim is to develop a new appreciation of the ways in which experience factors into the rich epistemological debates of the historical actors in the period we study. What was the epistemic role assigned to experience in the Aristotelian life sciences and Galenic-Avicennian medicine that allowed premodern scientists to rely on it as scientific method? To what extent did the ideals and practices of experience in these different life sciences converge or diverge with the local knowledge traditions, and why? What were the epistemic foundations of experience as scientific method: the mind or the world? How did these foundations shift or vanish with changing disciplinary ideals (e.g., from natural philosophies to natural histories), skeptical underpinnings, unreliability of sources, humanism, and local epistemologies?

Another aim of the Research Group is to study premodern experience in the Aristotelian life sciences and Galenic-Avicennian medicine in context. Inextricably linked to its material artifacts, cultural conditions, and circulation processes, experience did not transcend history. Rather, it was embedded into these material, sociological, and cultural contexts, and reflected, in particular ways, actors’ ideals and practices. While the Aristotelian sciences of soul and body and Galenic-Avicennian medicine shared common or overlapping frameworks of ideals, their contexts stimulated particular emphases, tensions, and utilizations of experience within these. The different meanings that experience assumed in the different spaces of the Islamic World, Europe, the Americas, and East Asia, and also across time in each of these spaces, are subject to our investigations.


Experience in Narboni's Commentaries on Maimonides' Treatises
Vegetation and the Understanding of Life
The Experiential Dimension of Matter
Jesuit Aristotelianism in Europe and China
Hortus Indicus Malabaricus
Alfarabi and Averroes on What is Known Prior to Scientific Demonstration
Knowing the Observable and the Unobservable
Writings of Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179)
Surgery and Vision in Early Modern Europe


CANCELED: Premodern Conversations


Publications & Media


Research Scholar position, Research Group “Premodern Sciences of Soul and Body” (deadline March 31, 2019)


Visiting Postdoctoral Fellow Jonathan Morton Receives Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Scholarship