Introduction 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 worlds was precisely that they were found, in the objective nature of their truth, rather than made. Discovery meant liberation from superstition and a positive encounter with decisive facts. The result was Jefferson, Lavoisier, Kant—in a word, Enlightenment.1

That story has few tellers anymore. Invention, as opposed to discovery, is now the academic leitmotif of the early-modern.2 That rebranding, moreover, carries a critical sense. Far from merely finding new aspects of the world as it was—it is now argued—the expansionist Europe of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries made its new worlds, in many aspects, as these have come to be. This is not only a trite observation about modernity and innovation. It is historicized skepticism about innovation in modernity. For the story of wondrous finding, as a model for what basically happened during the early-modern period, can be treated as both analytically suspect and ethically turpid. The resulting turn from discovery to invention, as a ruling trope for early-modern studies, owes much to phenomenological critique, even more to a Foucauldian notion of social construction; and is consistent with a broad current of postmodernist revisionism. The discovery of America, the anatomization of sexuality, and the empiricization of natural philosophy are just a few of the traditionally early-modern (alleged) objectivities that have been reconsidered in this way.3

No doubt, for early-modern studies, this is a long-term methodological advance. Yet it brings with it several dangers. For one thing, the analytic turn from discovery to invention—from objective finding, to cultural making—tends to be presented as an interesting peripeteia (or reversal of fortune). In other words, it is supposed to matter, more-or-less by definition, if discovery turns out to be invention: if a given early-modern finding, handed down as such since the Enlightenment, can really, and more properly, be understood as a projection or construction. This mattering, however, runs the risk of reifying the starting-position that the analysis was supposed to reduce: namely, the traditional hierarchization of discovery over invention. If the significance of early-modern invention is primarily that it results from deconstructing discovery, then it is discovery, and not invention, that grounds a claim on our interest. So it is with any peripeteia. Reversal of fortune depends upon, and re-projects as normative, that fortune. Ending the age of discovery, perhaps, is not quite as easy as it seems.

For another thing, early-modern European culture, as we know, did not even assume a stable distinction between invention and discovery, making and finding. This point is usually presented as a classicizing rhetorical one, on a semantic basis: Latin invenire means "to find," and in Renaissance rhetoric the first step is "invention," which means finding something to say—often, and indeed preferably, in a pre-existing and model text. In this respect, the old "age of discovery" model imposed an anachronistic discretion, from an Enlightenment perspective, on a highly synthetic and untidy early-modern category. Yet the new "age of invention" model runs the risk of re-imposing that discretion, just from the other way around. To place invention over discovery, as much as to place discovery over invention, is still to be dealing with opposing terms. But it is not clear that the early-modern period dealt with them in that way.

At the same time—and this, perhaps, we do not quite know—the Enlightenment got its idea of early-modern discovery from at least some aspects and motifs of the preceding period. It is possible to observe a diachronic process via which various departments of Renaissance culture, following motivations of their own, pried the idea of invention apart from the idea of discovery, and subordinated the former to the latter—historically, epistemologically, and hermeneutically.4 This became the binary that the Enlightenment inherited from the Renaissance, and handed down, in turn, as a triumphant legacy of modernity. For us postmoderns, thinking outside that legacy is likely to be difficult. Yet thinking about it, by that very token, becomes an urgent task. It may be that discovery, precisely as a period invention, remains the category we need to focus on, if we are to understand early-modern geopolitical and epistemological developments. The invention of discovery, in sum, may be the aboriginal version of all the "inventions" that have filled postmodern scholarship on the early-modern.

From Translation to Empire

Consider humanism. The translatio of classical letters, beginning in the fourteenth century, but extending well into the seventeenth, entailed the recovery of classical texts. This entailed, in turn, journeys to and excavations within far-flung and neglected libraries. Yet classical materials had not languished in these monastic collections just because people had not managed to find them. They had languished, rather, because people had, for the most part, not bothered to look. The potential discovery of classical originals had simply not occurred, at least not in a systematic or paradigmatic way, to a medieval culture that was frequently satisfied with the colorful misprisions of its own redactions.5

More to the point, humanism itself motivated discovery by translatio; it did not motivate translatio by discovery. Petrarch, one of the pioneers of the philological safari, nonetheless placed its signature activity very low on the intellectual totem pole. "The man who finds a gem inside a fish," he writes, "is not a better, but a more fortunate, fisherman." The discovery of antiquities by vinediggers and foundation-builders, "happily bedazzled by the unexpected brilliance of hidden gold," is no cause for wonder or admiration. Rather, it is the learned expert, recognizing the coin or text in its ancient and ongoing meaning, who is laudable.6 For Petrarch, discovery is contemptible insofar as it is accidental—in Aristotelian terms, non-substantial, not part of the way things are. Indeed, Petrarch’s image of dumb digging luck directly recalls one of Aristotle’s for ontological accidence (as opposed to substance): finding treasure while "digging a hole for a plant."7 Of course, Petrarch’s own famous discoveries, notably of Cicero’s letters, did much to establish the humanist trope of philology ad fontes (toward the sources).8 Nonetheless, his foundational insistence on the intellectual primacy of learned recognition—judgment and insight, based on foreknowledge—is an indication that the canonization of the discovery-trope was something that humanism itself had to work at.

Protestantism, in the sixteenth century, brought the secular trope into the sacred realm. Here, philology ad fontes came to mean (1) recovery of the Bible from beneath the accretions of ecclesiastical authority and patristic representation; and (2) recovery of Biblical intensions, in their original languages, from beneath the interpretations of canonical Latin (i.e., the Vulgate Bible). The latter move was then supposed to support the former, as the intensions of scripture could be universally vernacularized through new and, in principle, hermeneutically transparent translations.9 Against the Protestant project, and despite a sympathetic hearing from such figures as Erasmus, stood the Roman Catholic idea of tradition: the "dogmatic unity" of authoritative exegesis, handed down under the validating aegis of the Holy Spirit.10 At the Council of Trent, the Roman Church declared that the Vulgate Bible was to be considered authentically correct, and, indeed, incorrigible. Why? Because it had been "for so many ages allow’d of."11 The very thing that prompts Protestants to attempt the discovery of the unredacted or uninterpreted Bible—the historical fact of its attenuation through generational transmission—prompts the Tridentine Church to hold on to its established chain of redactions and interpretations. This is notjust a base or wicked refusal of a common-sense procedure—the procedure of discovery. Rather, the Tridentine position is a principled rejection of discovery, based on an alternative philology. For Rome, it is basically a good sign if a given scriptural reading, whether or not supported by ad fontes philology, has been handed down, without God’s prevention, throughout Christian history. Protestantism, a controversial (to say the least) innovation of the period, was controversial in part because of its countervailing commitment to the discovery-trope.

At the same time, as with humanism, we find a tension or confusion on this point within Protestantism itself. Philologically, the Reformers (Tyndale, Luther, Calvin) are zealous discoverers: they seek, and will only stop at, the authentic word of God. By that very token, however, that is where they wish to stop.12 Hermeneutically, the Reformers do not wish to prosecute discovery. Their watchword is the literal or "historical" meaning of scripture; and they excoriate the medieval Catholic allegorists, who claim to be able to divine (as it were) God’s occluded intensions.13 To be sure, Protestant literalism admits two traditional classes of exceptions: typology (New Testament revelation as the real meaning of Old Testament history); and accommodation (scriptural representations as what human beings can understand, rather than what really is).14 These exceptions, however, have strong theological and/or hermeneutic justifications. Absent any good reason to depart from the literal or self-evident sense of scripture—if it is neither incoherent on its face, nor impeding the glory of God—Protestant authorities are loath to do so.

Luther, for example, in his exegesis of Genesis 3:14 (God’s punishment of the serpent for his role in the Fall), asserts that there is no valid reason to read "dust shalt thou eat" allegorically or figuratively. Literally, the line records the Almighty’s curse on the luckless genus of snakes; and such a divine utterance, surely, must be totally and permanently effective, in exactly its own terms. Therefore, Luther concludes, as a matter of zoological fact, that snakes eat dirt.15 It has often been suggested that Protestant literalism, in one way or another, facilitated the emergence of modern natural science.16 Luther’s account of serpentine diet—and one could give many other examples—suggests an alternative view. In any case, the current point is that the discovered text of God’s word does not necessarily serve the Reformation mind as a site for further, interpretative, discovery. Protestantism does not provide a model of hermeneutics based on the signature trope of humanist philology.

That move is left to the third innovation we have to consider in the period’s intellectual culture: (early) modern natural science. Literalism (admitting the established exceptions), the hermeneutic accompaniment of Protestant philology, finds its scientific analog only in observation-reports: saying what was seen. The characteristic and transformative claim of the new science, however, is precisely that what was seen is no more than an index to what is true. Metals, for example, may seem like sui generis substances; but laboratory practice shows that they can best be explained as secondary functions of largely unobservable, and genuinely substantial, corpuscles. Similarly, a drop of water, though evidently lifeless, can be made to reveal a teeming micro-world. Even more startlingly—and far more radically than the hypothetical epicycles of Ptolemaic astronomy—geocentric impressions can be reduced to heliocentric facts.

The last two examples, admittedly, involve technological innovations (the microscope and telescope) that consist in nothing other than an augmentation of observation. That is to say, however, that the new-scientific trope of discovery, unlike its humanist and Protestant antecedents, does not stop at the clear determination of its data-set. Rather, the same process that brought the investigator to the data—the process of discovery—must be repeated upon and within the data, in order to find out its true meaning. The topic of nature, to adopt the ubiquitous period metaphor, must first of all be discovered; but then it must submit to further discovery of its intelligible structure—its sense, in semantic terms. The meaning of evidence, as a standing rule or expectation of scientific practice, must be recovered from within, and even against, its initial presentation.

In a word: allegory—not literalism—typifies the new-scientific conception of data-interpretation. The way things seem, even on close observation, is no better than an occluded guide to the way they truly are. Of course, the way things truly are, insofar as it can be grasped or known, must then be protected from further interpretative penetration, lest scientific factuality produce infinite regress. That is to say, however, that scientific hermeneutics leads to a conception of factuality that must exempt itself from its own generative procedures. It is striking that two giants of the new science, Galileo and Newton, when they involve themselves in what we would now consider a non-scientific area of interpretative activity—Biblical scholarship—insist (1) on highly allegorical or at least non-literal readings of crucial passages or issues (scriptural geocentrism, for Galileo; Trinitarianism, for Newton), even as they insist (2) on the absolute and literal factuality of the very non-evident, even paranoid, readings they thereby achieve.17 "This far—but no further" is the rule of their hermeneutics. Both its productivity, and its instability, are derived from a theoretical and methodological alignment, if not isomorphism, between valid data-interpretation and the penetration of evidentiary appearances.

We can call this general conception an hermeneutics of discovery1 It cannot be assumed for pre-scientific natural philosophy. After all, Renaissance scholasticism tended to place the recondite core of a natural phenomenon—its substantial form, or essential being—beyond empirical discovery.19 True, the period’s Neoplatonism opened up phenomenal essences to the possibility of natural-philosophical knowledge. It did so, however, precisely by conceiving of essences as engines of their own spontaneous manifestation.20 The same idea informs Neoplatonic psychology—which incorporates, by that very token, physiology and physiognomy (since the soul determines, and can therefore be read off of, the body); and even astronomy. The Ficinian cosmologist Patrizi, as Kepler complained, rejected both chief world systems (the Copernican and the Ptolemaic), not because he had a better one, but because he rejected the necessity of any. For Patrizi, the erratic and supposedly puzzling planets "move amongst the fixed stars … exactly as they appear to."21 Natural self-evidence produces an imperative to what we can call an hermeneutics of recognition: not the penetration of appearances, but their contemplation and integration.22 Perhaps this is somewhat like Petrarch’s emphasis on learned appreciation. It is very unlike Galileo’s, or Boyle’s, or Leeuwenhoek’s emphasis on empirical penetration.

And what, in the end, is the argument for such penetration? It is power and convenience. Practical and political motivations, as Bacon himself explicitly recognized, underwrote the allegedly transcendent standards of emergent science. This point has been reinforced, in recent years, from the somewhat surprising quarter of scholarship on the Iberian empires. Anglocentric narratives of the scientific revolution have tended to marginalize Spanish and Portuguese contributions, limiting them to a retrograde and intellectually tawdry militarism. It is now apparent, however, that the project of imperial conquest prompted Iberian adventurers to anticipate British technological innovations, in some cases, by centuries.23 Perhaps this is not really very surprising after all, coming from a culture that almost self-consciously invented discovery, as the category through which to make sense of the bizarre cosmographical accident that came to be called the New World.24 But the point is that an hermeneutics of discovery did not precede the conquests, as the established method for obtaining the kind of knowledge that is called power. Rather, it emanated from, and was validated by, the conquests, as the method by which power had been obtained, and therefore was called knowledge.

Obviously, the above sketch, necessarily both selective and generalizing, cannot establish that the early-modern period invented the hermeneutics of discovery. It can, however, open up that possibility as a question or hypothesis. Under the latter, early-modern science emerges as a crucial topic. Yet precisely because of the intellectual hegemony of modern natural science, critical examination of its hermeneutic origins entails wider intellectual and cultural intersections.

Inventions and Discoveries

This collection begins, accordingly, with a series of topics that juxtapose the new-scientific trope of discovery with some of its extra-scientific matrices. Piers Brown leads off, in next topic, by examining the role of travel narrative in both Johannes Kepler’s and Galileo Galilei’s presentations of their astronomical discoveries. Brown argues that a journey-trope does more to construct the natural-philosophical objectivity of the new astronomy than does the more familiar trope of the scientific hunt. For hunting or searching is teleological, to the extent that one has to know what one is looking for. But journeying can be accidental: one bumps up against the facts. To describe one’s findings in terms of travel, accordingly, is precisely to construct them as very strongly factual. Yet this construction depends on an almost ludic randomness that is in tension with the strict objectivity that it is supposed to support. Brown has illuminated a paradox in the relationship between the new-scientific astronomy and its data: on the travel-trope, it is precisely because the truth of the cosmos could have been discovered differently that the way it actually was discovered is the only way it can possibly be.

Steven Matthews, in the following topic, asks how and why new-scientific discovery itself came to be discovered, at least insofar as Sir Francis Bacon was concerned. Matthews’s answer is that Bacon discovered discovery in theology: specifically, the negative theology of Pseudo-Dionysius. This gave Bacon the original of his method of negative instances, canonized today as "eliminative induction." Although scholars have been dubious about the natural-philosophical efficacy of Bacon’s method—whether or not it actually helps the proto-scientist to understand any phenomena—Matthews argues that its real role is to ground natural-philosophical efficacy as such. Baconian science emerges by appropriating and displacing Pseudo-Dionysian contemplation of the celestial hierarchies. Matthews’s argument is a startling contribution to the recent trend of reading early-modern science and religion as coeval, rather than opposed. The effect is not to deconstruct Baconian discovery, subversively or reductively, but to show what it is in its own terms: a methodological innovation, directed toward science in a very broad sense, and relying on highly abstract, even transcendent, postulates.

Michael Booth, in this topic’s third topic, takes us back down to brass tacks—or grey matter. Booth approaches the work of the Elizabethan astronomer, mathematician, and comparative linguist Thomas Harriot through "blend-theory," a recent innovation of cognitive science. The implication of his analysis is that a binary of discovery and invention may be far too coarse a "blend" for the kinds of intellectual and period complexities that Harriot embodies. A man who deconstructed his own literacy in order to construct Algonquian grammar; whose mathematical innovations remained misunderstood until the twentieth century; and who made, but failed to claim, some of the period’s most significant astronomical discoveries is a man who challenges multiple modern and postmodern assumptions about the departments and hierarchies of knowledge. To meet Harriot’s challenge, per Booth’s argument, is not to go down the ever-dwindling paths of postmodernist constructivism. It is, rather, to recognize that neither discovery nor invention can fully map the productive terrain on which data turn to knowledge.

The doctrine of occult qualities, in neo-Aristotelian scientia, is a familiar topic to students of this area. I argue, however, (1) that the doctrine has been conflated with period esotericisms from which it is actually distinct; and (2) that its theoretical implications, as a result, have not properly been grasped. The occult-qualities doctrine draws a sharp epistemological line between limited and unlimited conceptions of natural-philosophical discovery. Scientia, I argue, is on the one side of that line; early-modern esotericism (whether Neoplatonic, Paracelsian, or alchemical) is on the other. Insofar as an unlimited writ of discovery suggests an unlimited scope for human knowledge, it propagates, arguably, epistemological incontinence. My topic, in sum, is an attempt to make neo-Aristotelian thinking about occult qualities look good. For the latter avoids the identity of the unknown and the knowable that is such a destabilizing feature of early-modern esotericism—and, perhaps, of modern natural science.

Of course, whenever one talks about what is science, and what isn’t, one runs up against countervailing modern conceptions of creativity or art. Anthony Russell, however, in next topic, reminds us of the continuity between poetics and proto-science in early-modern Neoplatonism. Examining the concept of ingegno or genius in Ficino, Persio, and Campanella, Russell finds that it is (supposed to be) an innate and visceral capacity of the spirit or pneuma. This allows the esoteric magus to perceive the cohesive dynamism of the created world. As such, ingegno is exactly what John Donne laments and craves in his gloomy visions of an incoherent world—shattered, it seems, by the premature death of an obscure young woman whom Donne never even met (Elizabeth Drury). Yet the bathos of Donne’s over-regretting, in the Anniversaries, perhaps suggests that the poet is drawing attention to natural magic as precisely what the early-modern world needs now. The poet and the proto-scientist, Russell’s analysis suggests, join hands in the early-modern conception of esoteric genius.

The period nexus of creative insight and empirical work also occupies Pietro Omodeo, in next topic. Omodeo takes a new look at the Copernican scene of the early seventeenth century. He finds it to be eclectic—composed of diverse and even conflicting "Copernicanisms"—and far from definitively committed to an epistemological rule of evidence. Picking up on Kepler’s well-known preference for aprioristic science, Omodeo turns to the relatively neglected Savoy astronomer Giovanni Battista Benedetti. For Benedetti, large-scale cosmological questions, such as the potential infinity of space, were highly tractable of rational, as opposed to empirical, solution. Indeed, he seems to have believed that "rational possibility," in such a case, puts the onus on disproof, rather than on proof. This quasi-idealist view, moreover, goes hand-in-hand with Benedetti’s position—shared, needless to say, with Galileo and other prominent Copernicans—that astronomers and mathematicians really counted as natural philosophers.

Jacqueline Wernimont, in next topic, turns to the period’s great genius of rational possibility: Rene Descartes. Wernimont considers Descartes’s early text The World as an exercise in what is now called possible-worlds theory. She argues, however, that the value of the exercise was precisely that it provided a template for empirical reality. Descartes’s reader is to "discover" the validity of natural-philosophical mechanism in The World; s/he is then to discover the validity of natural-philosophical mechanism in the world. Strikingly, Descartes took the category of fiction about possible world-systems seriously enough to suppress his text from publication—at just about the time that Galileo was publishing a text, which he probably should have suppressed, because it was only a fiction (a dialogue) about possible world-systems.25 Wernimont’s goal, however, is not to read The World as an example of Descartes’s cultural and political astuteness. It is, rather, to read The World as an example of "what ‘discovery’ entailed for the early-modern." For Descartes, as for Benedetti, empirical discovery entailed the mental production of "rational possibility." It entailed, in a word, invention.

With that, we leave any simplistic or reductive view of the period’s empiricism behind. In this collection, accordingly, we leave behind the category of science, in the modern sense. Yet the tangle of discovery and invention leads to other areas of early-modern intellectual culture. Ryan Netzley, in next topic, takes up the role of number in the Protestant martyrology, and apocalyptic eschatology, of John Foxe.The numbers Foxe comes up with are transparently invented. Yet the martyrologist seems to consider them significant—exegetic discoveries— precisely on the basis that they were invented. Foxe’s attitude is all the stranger, as Netzley points out, given that he completely ignores the esoteric or cabbalistic meaning that his invented/discovered numbers, in some cases, have. Far from finding the arithmetic of Providence concealed in scripture, Foxe prefers to find it manifest, and available for recognition.

Travis DeCook, in next topic, similarly opposes the modern hermeneutics of discovery to an early-modern, and English, and Protestant, hermeneutics of recognition. DeCook finds the seventeenth-century antiquarian and via media Protestant Thomas Fuller wrestling with discovery as productive of historiographic and theological error. On the one hand, Fuller criticizes radical Protestants for thinking they can—or need to—discover a pure or utopian state of the church. On the other hand, Fuller criticizes his own antiquarian profession for propagating an idolatrous fascination with discovery as such. His goal is to prevent belief, as DeCook nicely puts it, in "the pastness of the past." But what is the alternative? As Gadamer might say, it is genuinely hermeneutic: not mere discovery of the things that were, but engaged understanding of how they address the things that are—including the understanders.26

A number of the contributors to this topic use literary categories to examine early-modern discovery. In next topic, Louise Denmead examines discovery in early-modern (English) literature. Specifically, Denmead examines the popular dramatic device of the "bed-trick," in which a prospective sexual partner is swapped with an impostor, the subterfuge being subsequently revealed. Using as her main proof-text John Fletcher’s The Knight of Malta (1617), Denmead asks what happens to this comic anagnorosis when the sexual impostor is herself (or himself) occluded by race, class, and gender. The myth of Ixion, in which a would-be lover of Juno clasps only a cloud in her form, allows Denmead to unpack the full paradoxicality of bed-tricks involving black and (in almost all her examples) female servants. These involve both the dupe of the bed-trick, and the play’s putative audience, in an almost uncharacterizable mixture of sudden recognition, and willful ignoring.

Finally—or perhaps one should say, conclusively—we move from texts to topics. Vincent Masse, in next topic, treats the motifs of discovery and newness in the print culture of early-modern France. Masse finds these motifs in increasing proliferation as the period goes on; he also finds that "claims of revolutionary content," in the French topic trade, are far from reliable. From Masse’s impeccably-researched argument we can infer that the discovery of novelty, over the course of our period.We can also infer, however, that the topic trade itself actively and willfully participated in the construction of these watchwords. Furthermore, this strategy (if one can use such a word) entailed, at some point, the loss of its own self-consciousness. One of the strongest currents in Masse’s rich and complex account follows the serialization of the Amadis de Gaule into the invention of actual serials—newspapers. From the "incremental newness" of an interminable romance, to the interminable romance of the incrementally new: there could be no better example of the period’s invention of discovery.

Toward Hermeneutics

In the end, then, the topics in this topic offer a various collection of evidence for the hypothesis with which I began: that early-modern European culture offers us an hermeneutic scene in which discovery, as it were, was waiting to be invented. Organized around, but not limited to, the history of early-modern science, these essays meet in the busy contact zone between the empirical and the literary. To be sure, the arguments collected here are far from definitive; readers will think of many exceptions and confounds to the generalizations that a topic like this one, almost inevitably, entails. Yet even to open a space for questioning within the modern and postmodern rule of discovery is to perform, I think, worthwhile work.

The techniques with which that work is done here are, for the most part, philological and historiographic. They contribute, if at all, to our understanding of the early-modern period. Ultimately, however, this contribution leads to theoretical reflection. It leads to hermeneutics in something like Gadamer’s sense: to the understanding, if that be possible, of understanding itself.27 There can be little doubt that the hermeneutics of discovery, as the model of valid data-interpretation in modern natural science, controls and pre-determines what counts as valid data-interpretation generally, in the modern and postmodern intellectual culture that natural science dominates. Neither can there be any doubt—in my opinion—that the attempt to come to terms with these relevant aspects of the early-modern period necessitates a corollary attempt to come to terms with hermeneutics.For now, though, it is time to turn to the period-based arguments that make up The Invention of Discovery, 1500-1700.

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