Research

I work on the history of science in early modern Europe, focusing on Britain in the period 1650-1750. My main intellectual concern is the place of sensory experience – bodily, affective and aesthetic – in the production of knowledge.

Aesthetic Science

I address these themes in my book, Aesthetic Science: Representing Nature in the Royal Society of London, 1650-1720 (University of Chicago Press). The scientists affiliated to the early Royal Society of London have long been regarded as forerunners of modern empiricism. Aesthetic Science challenges this interpretation, arguing that key figures such as John Ray, Robert Boyle, Nehemiah Grew, Robert Hooke and Thomas Willis saw the study of nature as an aesthetic project. Seeking to obtain knowledge of the natural world through their senses, they practiced a science that depended on harnessing the embodied pleasures and pains arising from sensory experience.

Aesthetic Science is one of the first books to bring the full range of disciplines and practices at stake in early modern attempts to build knowledge on the foundation of sensory experience. These ranged from natural philosophy, optical theories and medicine, to rhetoric, theology and even antiquarianism. To bring these disciplines into a single focus, I gather them together under a category that I term ‘aesthetic,’ mobilizing both the term’s early 18th-century reference to matters concerning sensory perception, while at the same time tracing and explaining its later emergence as a term referring to the judgment of works of art and literature.

With this uniquely integrative approach, Aesthetic Science demonstrates that judgments of taste and the pleasures of aesthetic experience had a central role in the emergence of what we now understand as scientific objectivity. I show that scientists of the later 17th century sought to obtain consensus not only about facts, but also about the pleasures and pains arising from embodied encounters with nature. I thus conclude by calling for a new approach that pays close attention to the role of aesthetic experience in the history of science. Indeed, I argue not only that the sciences of the 17th century had a far more significant role in the emergence of aesthetics and art criticism than has so far been recognized, but also that the conceptual resources of taste and aesthetic judgment can make a major contribution to our understanding of the formation of consensus in scientific communities.

If you would like to set Aesthetic Science for one of your classes, I would be more than happy to drop in to discuss it with your students, whether remotely or – if I’m close enough – in person.

Medicine and the Origins of Aesthetics

I am now working on a new project the reconsiders the role of ideas about the body’s capacity for involuntary responses to sensory experience in the worlds of medicine, physiology, the arts, and aesthetic theory during the first half of the 18th Century. Entitled The Medical Origins of Aesthetics, 1700-1750, this project uses the theme of involuntary motion across a range of fields – from diet and medicine to physiology, moral philosophy and the arts – to offer a new history of the interconnections between medicine and aesthetic theory. In addition, this project explore how broadly medical arguments about the body’s (in)capacity for highly refined forms of sensory experience shaped changing discourses about the similarities and differences between humans and other animals.