The Normalisation of Natural Philosophy

How teaching practices shaped the evolution of early modern science
(ERC Starting Grant 2019-2024)

Principal investigator: Andrea Sangiacomo
Postdoctoral researcher: Raluca Tanasescu
PhD Student: Silvia Donker (social networks)
PhD Student: Hugo Hogenbirk (semantic networks)

See our bios on the Team page.

Early modern natural philosophy underwent dramatic transformations that completely reshaped its conceptual framework and set of practices. The main contention of this ERC project is that teaching practices had a decisive and ‘normalising’ impact on the progressive dissemination, adaptation and selection of rival conceptions of natural philosophy. Normalisation occurs when historical actors collectively present certain tenets as crucial for the study of a discipline, and thus prescribe them as a necessary subject for teaching and learning.

The overall aim of this ERC project is to determine and explain how the process of normalisation embedded in teaching practices shaped the evolution of early modern natural philosophy. To study normalisation, it is necessary to operate a systematic comparative investigation of hundreds of works through which natural philosophy was taught, learned and reshaped, both within and outside universities. The size of this corpus defies the traditional method of close reading used by historians of philosophy and science.

The project meets this challenge by organically integrating close reading with digital ‘distant reading’. We digitally transcribe a corpus of approximately 500 early modern works on natural philosophy, published in Britain, France and the Dutch Republic. Using digital tools to investigate how the networks of authors and concepts of natural philosophy co-evolved over time allow the team to identify textual excerpts that are representative of historical trends. By analysing these excerpts with close reading and assessing them against the digital results, it becomes possible to determine and explain how normalisation shaped the evolution of natural philosophy.

This project boosts the integration of digital approaches in the history of philosophy and science by producing a newly digitised corpus, tools customized for analysing early modern texts, and methodological reflections on their implementation.

This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program, grant agreement No. 801653 NaturalPhilosophy