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Reviewed by:
  • Ways of Making and Knowing: The Material Culture of Empirical Knowledge ed. by Pamela H. Smith, Amy R. W. Meyers, and Harold J. Cook
  • Rienk Vermij (bio)
Ways of Making and Knowing: The Material Culture of Empirical Knowledge. Edited by Pamela H. Smith, Amy R. W. Meyers, and Harold J. Cook. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2014. Pp. 430. $60.

This volume explores the intersection between making and knowing, in particular the ways in which tacit, artisanal skills influenced the formulation of scientific or scholarly “higher learning.” Though this is not mentioned in the title, the book limits itself largely to the early modern period. The cases are taken from western Europe, with some emphasis on Great Britain, and New England. The various contributions offer mostly case studies, though some of them are more programmatic. Given the wide and somewhat protean character of the general theme, the cases are quite varied and the same is true for the background of the contributors. Some topics appear obvious. Surgery and mining, for instance, long have been recognized as taking an intermediate position between art and science, and indeed they are included here (in articles by Alisha Rankin and Pamela Smith, respectively). So is pharmacy: Patrick Wallis and Catherine Wright discuss the testing methods of apothecaries’ guilds, trying to uncover an “artisan epistemology.”

However, the skills that pass in review are much more heterogenous. Some authors focus on traditional crafts seemingly unrelated to the production of knowledge. Glenn Adamson discusses the art of cabinetmaking, showing how the techniques of the carpenter put constraints on the display, ordering, and interpreting of objects in cabinets of curiosities. Others deal with the manual skills specific for certain scholarly activities, such as the techniques for the preparation of anatomical specimens. The latter are discussed by Harold Cook, who argues that developments in this field determined the possibilities of gaining anatomical knowledge, especially concerning internal body structures.

Topics relating to natural history are well represented. Two articles, one by Mark Laird and Karen Bridgman and the other by Joel Fry, deal with the packing and trading of specimens of plants for the service of botanists. Elizabeth Yale describes how questionnaires functioned in gaining knowledge about natural history. Alicia Weisberg-Roberts discusses the trade in and knowledge of logwood, an important dyestuff at the time, and Lisa Ford uses an annotated copy of André Michaux’s 1808 book on American oaks as a window on the naturalist’s practice.

Some contributions focus on the role of objects rather than skills. So, Sachiko Kusukawa writes on a nature cast described by Conrad Gessner. The aesthetic aspects of such objects frequently turn up as well. There is also an interesting article by Mary Brooks on the question of to what extent decay is an essential part of museum objects. Horst Bredekamp summarizes [End Page 977] his argument, explained in greater depth elsewhere, about Darwin’s tree of life as a coral.

The contributions are generally of a high quality and are a real joy to read. The introduction presents the volume largely as a contribution to the history of science, putting its approach against a traditional interpretation whereby the emergence of the sciences in the early modern period is seen as an affair of the mind only. The editors do recognize that there were earlier attempts to link the sciences and the crafts, but do not discuss that work. Robert Merton and Edgar Zilsel are mentioned only to point out that their work was dismissed; Leonardo Olschki is not mentioned at all. Nor do they mention in the introduction the work done by historians of medicine, pharmacy, mining, engineering, or other technologies. In a word, historiographical understanding is sacrificed to programmatic clarity. Also, the introduction does not mention parallel developments in art history, e.g., the study of Rembrandt’s painting from a craft perspective, although in this case, an epilogue by art historian Malcolm Baker partly makes up for the omission.

The broadness of themes and subjects makes it hard to draw a general conclusion, but of course it is exactly this variety that is the main point of the volume. By demonstrating the many interactions between...


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pp. 977-978
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