The Invention of Discovery, 1500 – 1700

The early-modern period between Columbus and Newton used to be called "the Age of Discovery." This was the era when European Man (invariably, Man) found the world anew. Or rather, he found new worlds—two of them. One was geopolitical: the Indies, east and west. The other was epistemological: modern natural science. The significance of these […]

"That full-sail voyage": Travel Narratives and Astronomical Discovery in Kepler and Galileo

In the prefatory epistle to his Astronomia nova (1609), Johannes Kepler uses a series of related allegorical images to celebrate his discovery of the elliptical orbit of the planet Mars. He begins by announcing to his Imperial master, Rudolf II: "I am now at last exhibiting for the view of the public a most Noble […]

Francis Bacon and the Divine Hierarchy of Nature

In Aphorism 70 of the Novum Organum, Sir Francis Bacon famously insisted that "experiments of light," or discovery, must precede "experiments of fruit," or those inventions which would follow. The rush to invention before discovery, for Bacon, was one reason for the lack of both knowledge and useful invention in ages past. Moreover, it confused […]

"Invention" and "Discovery" as Modes of Conceptual Integration: The Case of Thomas Harriot

"Inventing" something, nowadays, means causing it to be; "discovering" something means perceiving that it already is. The logical opposition that currently pairs these terms, however, seems not to have done so consistently in early-modern usage. There, "discover" primarily meant uncover or reveal—as often a matter of showing to a second party as perceiving for oneself. […]

The Undiscoverable Country: Occult Qualities, Scholasticism, and the End of Nescience

The doctrine of occult qualities, as articulated and defended in early-modern scholasticism, remains imperfectly understood.1 The doctrine correlates cognitive with empirical failure. In other words, it posits that phenomena such as magnetism, which frustrate or elude causal sensing, are to that extent beyond the possibility of knowledge. Scholars have tended to conflate occult qualities with […]

Spirits, Vitality, and Creation in the Poetics of Tommaso Campanella and John Donne

In discussions over the meaning of "genius" in the Renaissance, there is at the very least agreement that the term was associated with heightened powers of perception and creativity. Whether defined in terms of Neoplatonic notions of inspiration, Aristotelian/Galenic theories of the humors (and of melancholy in particular), or rhetorical theories of invention, ingegno is […]

Perfection of the World and Mathematics in Late Sixteenth-Century Copernican Cosmologies

The sixteenth-century astronomical debate began with Nicolaus Copernicus’s discovery of the planetary heliocentric (or rather "heliostatic") system.1 After the first reception of this work by German mathematicians, who were primarily interested in the calculation of planetary positions,2 the debate focused on general hypotheses and geometrical models, on cosmology and natural philosophy, and also involved the […]

Discovery in The World: The Case of Descartes

Asked to characterize Cartesian discovery, one might immediately turn to Descartes’s works on mechanics, optics, mathematics, or even metaphysics. In each of these cases, the object of discovery would be something actual, something that, theoretically at least, obtained in Descartes’s early-modern world. While the Cartesian mind and body might challenge how we use the word […]

Numbering Martyrs: Numerology, Encyclopedism, and the Invention of Immanent Events in John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments

Non poena sed causa: the cause, not the penalty, makes the martyr. All early-modern martyrologies, Protestant and Roman Catholic, at least pay lip service to this notion. Readers and even witnesses must discover—and ultimately approve— the cause for which someone dies before enrolling him or her in the ranks of the faithful. The problem with […]

Unearthing Radical Reform: Antiquarianism against Discovery

In Hydriotaphia (1658), Thomas Browne takes the discovery of ancient funeral urns in Norwich as an occasion to meditate on the diversity of burial customs across a wide array of historical periods and cultures. Despite the text’s bravura display of antiquarian learning, and the excitement it conveys about the discovery of these ancient and bizarre […]