colin f lane

Practical Knowledge: NYRB

Grafton, Anthony. 'From Lived Experience to the Written Word: Reconstructing Practical Knowledge in the Early Modern World'. The New York Review of Books, vol. LXIX, no. 14, September 22, 2022, pp. 41-43.

The knowledge that underpins our world of things, by contrast, has been discovered over centuries, through trial and error, two steps forward and one step back. It has been produced and improved by collaboration: the work of talented, largely anonymous groups, generation after generation, rather than identifiable individuals. And it is less verbal than embodied. Most of the experiments involved in forming a craft and the practices used to teach and further develop it go unrecorded, as do those who carried them out.

Albrecht Dürer wrote of his docta manus -- his learned hand. Every real craftsman has learned hands. But artisans and artists must also master materials -- the complex and sometimes confounding works of nature ...

in [the European Renaissance] Europeans witnessed something new in the world of letters. Artisans and patrons, artists and scholars set out to capture in writing the endlessly elusive crafts. To some extent, this enterprise involved a new sense of the central part that embodied knowledge has in human life -- of the new prestige of arts and crafts.

Cellini told his readers clearly that they could never emulate him by reading. The sculptor's skill could be gained only with chisel in hand in the studio. Yet books, Smith argues, when properly chosen and studied, can reveal some of the secrets of embodied knowledge. As Smith and other historians -- including Wendy Wall, Elaine Leung, and Melissa Reynolds -- have shown, one particular kind of book, the recipe collection, offers considerably more. Those who compiled them did not try to systematize their knowledge to make it look, in a period sense, like an art: a neatly organized discipline with hierarchically ordered objects and methods. Instead, they continued a tradition that had become popular in the later Middle Ages, recording their experiences -- their recipes, along with the advice of colleagues and their own successes and failures in applying it -- in rambling, repetitive collections. These offered detailed, unpretentious instructions on everything from how to transmute metals to how to bake a pie. Such works are impressive in their insistence that they rest on direct experience: that their contents have been tried in the kitchen, the workshop, or the laboratory, as is clear from the phrase probatum est, "it has been tried."

Artisans came to understand their work as a key to natural processes more generally: not a modern discipline, systematic and skeptical in its approach and aiming at conceptual clarity and clear results, but something older, richer, and more complicated. Craftsmen connected the elements with the heavens, their work with their health, the metals that grew in the earth with the temperaments that governed their bodies. Their enterprises had a religious side: hence their frequent use of prayers for everything from invoking divine help at the beginning of a test to timing a process in the middle of an experiment. Their conceptual schemes mixed experience with learned categories such as the powers of the stars and the four humors...

Still, their clearest proof of concept was usually not verbal but material: the things they made, given form by skilled hands and endowed with meaning by the larger systems of correspondence they embodied. Only a collaborative inquiry -- one that toggles back and forth between textual and material evidence, using each to illuminate the other -- can make the vision of the makers visible again.