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The Scientific Use of Travel Literature in Early Modern Europe

Wann 15.04.2010
von 09:00 bis 13:30
Wo FRIAS Seminarraum EG, Albertstr. 19
Kontakttelefon +49 (0)761-203 97377
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Concept and Organisation: Michael C. Carhart, Junior Fellow


The Scientific Use of Travel Literature in Early Modern Europe

In the twenty-first century it is no longer adequate to practice intellectual history (the history of ideas) by recounting the theories and systems of canonical great men. In their own day, contemporary rivals quickly identified their opponents’ premises and subverted their theories at the foundations, collapsing the entire edifice. Yet the building blocks remained, could be rearranged and placed on new foundations, and new theories erected from the rubble of the first.

We are interested in the building blocks themselves – in the rubble of evidence, in data, in the hard daily activity of science: assembling evidence, imposing meaning on it, ordering and arranging – that is, in the totality of work of scholarship, which might or might find fixed expression in publication.

Moreover, canonical thinkers did not stand alone and isolated. They walked with colleagues. Their evidence was not of their own construction but consisted of the observations and reports of others who had seen more and farther than the grand theorists themselves. The scholar’s existence as such depended on a vast network, of which the scholar was fully aware: a few local colleagues known directly; a circle of correspondents, some known only through letter-writing; informants whom the scholar never met in person; as well as the published observations of travellers that might be used in ways never intended by the traveller himself. It is the work of these individuals, bound loosely into a republic of letters, that interests us in this workshop.

Few of the scholars who developed universal histories ever ventured into the field. They were men of letters, who sat in libraries and read the reports of men of action. Explorers, diplomats, merchants, and missionaries who travelled to specific places published accounts of what they had seen and experienced. Men of letters appropriated those reports, extracting particular facts from one report and juxtaposing them with facts extracted from others. Data taken from modern travel reports, in turn, were juxtaposed with data similarly excerpted from ancient authors - Homer, Hesiod, Herodotus, Dionysus of Halicarnassus. Thus modern sciences like ethnology, historical chronology, and linguistics worked hand-in-hand with humanist methods of philological interpretation. From such compilations of decontextualized data, a narrative of world history was constructed.

This workshop assembles scholars from three continents, whose rigorous examination of the conditions of scholarship in the eighteenth-century offer new models of historical methodology.

Program (pdf-file)