Objectives and approach

 

The 17h century transformation of natural philosophy into modern science has been studied along various lines. From the mid-20th-century mechanisation and mathematisation thesis of Koyré and Dijksterhuis to the more recent sociological and cultural perspectives on science, numerous historians and philosophers have attempted to understand the epistemological changes in knowledge claims and practices among all actors concerned. The study of the Scientific Revolution has thus given rise to an interdisciplinary approach, bringing together historians, philosophers, sociologists, scientists and many others in a fertile dialogue on the nature and development of science.

During the last decades of the 20th century, novel approaches in science studies have put forward new and interesting methodologies to analyse the interaction between science and society. It has generally become accepted that any form of knowledge (including natural philosophy or modern science) should be considered as a cultural entity, embedded in a set of cultural values. The range of historical resources has been expanded to include objects and practices, which can be considered as embodied knowledge. One of the advantages of this approach is that it makes the boundaries between science and ‘opinion’, between learned philosophers and artisans, between institutional settings and informal networks, much more fluent. It also asks new questions, such as, how did the codes for scientific knowledge emerge from social practices and cultural stratification? Attempts to answer such questions resulted in an abundance of microhistories which bring into focus the local conditions of knowledge practices.

 

Circulation

 

The multiplicity and diversity of the microhistories produced over the past decades resulted, however, in a crisis, because microhistories proved difficult to bring together in a macrohistory which allows historians/philosophers/sociologists to communicate with and among each other. Even worse, the discipline might find itself trapped in a paradox. If science is necessarily constituted in and by local contexts, how is it is nonetheless able to transcend its local context to become a 'universal' or ‘shared’ body of knowledge? This apparent contradiction disappears as soon as the circulation of knowledge and practices becomes the centre of our attention. Although it is conceded that scientific knowledge is indeed produced in a local setting, it has the ability to move from one setting to another. This raises fundamental questions: (1) to what extent is the content of science – as opposed to the circumstances and cultural values to which it owes its existence and development – shaped by circulation? Is knowledge appropriated and disciplined? (2) which terminology was used to refer to practices in the early modern period which, today, we would associate with ‘science’? Which criteria of validity did regulate the use of this terminology?

A methodological focus on the circulation of knowledge may thus be an excellent way to integrate localized and universal narratives. Circulation should not, however, be understood as the result of an intrinsic feature of some ‘universal’ scientific knowledge, as it was with older generations of historians; on the contrary, for the modern historian it is a puzzling phenomenon to be studied and to be analysed. The aim of this research network is to bring forward the processes by which scientific knowledge can reach its transcultural position. Among the conditions for this circulation of knowledge is the possibility for scientific knowledge to be standardised. Other conditions might be the co-migration of cultural values from centre to periphery, the existence of intermediaries or overlapping territories, the embodiment of knowledge in objects and cultural goods, the codification in educational practices, … The research network will encourage comparative studies of these conditions (rather than localized case studies). It will also try to clarify how such comparative studies might re-orient less recent 'grand narratives' on the development of science.

 

A focus on the Low Countries

 

The research network will focus its attention on the Low Countries in their interaction with other European regions. In older narratives on the development of science the Low Countries are typically under-represented. However, in the approach that we propose here they will gain in importance, because they are a particularly well equipped region to study the circulation of knowledge. During the early modern period, the Low Countries were a particular interesting trading place of knowledge. Its universities and courts attracted scholars and artisans from all over Europe. It becomes also increasingly evident that a constant exchange of learned expertise and people (and the criteria of validity for ‘scientific’ knowledge that they shared) took place between the universities, courts and cities of this region.

In an approach that stresses the circulation of knowledge it is of course undesirable – and even impossible - to limit the focus to the Low Countries. Knowledge travelled easily from and to the Low Countries. There were many networks linking the Low Countries to Italy, France, Germany and England. Scientific books and instruments, as well as botanical and zoological specimens, served as carriers of knowledge. The widespread study of mathematics, in its many guises, became the centre of innovating conceptions of (natural and social) order and mechanical stability. The Dutch Revolt against the Spanish authorities resulted in the establishment of the Calvinist Dutch Republic, based on new social structures and intellectual forces. The comparative analysis of the diverging intellectual evolutions in the Republic and the Catholic Spanish Netherlands, offers many interesting opportunities to explore the circulation of knowledge. From this perspective, the Low Countries are indeed an extraordinary laboratory to study the circulation of knowledge.