Transformations of Ancient Modes of Thought: Technology, Mental Models, and Deductive Reasoning
Subproject 1: Transformations of Mechanical Thought from Antiquity to the Beginnings of the Mechanical Worldview (Pietro Daniel Omodeo)
Subproject 2: Transformation of the Interrelation Between Theoretical and Practical Knowledge: The Example of Renaissance Pneumatics (Matteo Valleriani)
Based on a comprehensive history of the development of theoretical and practical mechanics from antiquity to the emergence of the mechanical worldview, this project analyzes the processes involved in the transformation of knowledge.
During the first project phase, we performed an exemplary study of central concepts of mechanics (weight, motion, and force) in order to examine changes in the conceptual structure of ancient knowledge as it was transmitted. On the basis of our results, we developed a theoretical model to describe the interaction between technological knowledge and the emerging theoretical mechanics as a process of development. We were able to show that the transformation of ancient natural philosophy into the mechanical worldview of early modernity was a process not purely internal to theory; rather, it was decisively shaped by the experience gained in connection with the key technologies of the era (artillery, architecture, shipbuilding, and the construction of hydraulic systems).
During the second project phase, the main focus will thus be on the question of the interrelation between the practical knowledge gained in the domain of technical application, and the theoretical knowledge accumulated in the theories put forth since antiquity. This question will be pursued in two subprojects.
Subproject 1 will examine the ways in which the early modern application of ancient patterns of theoretical interpretation to new ‘challenging objects’ transformed these patterns. Most of these ‘challenging objects’ to which early modern scholars turned, such as the pendulum or the shape of the trajectory of a missile, originated in early modern technology. We will develop an approach that will permit us to understand in which ways the practical experience, gained in the interaction with these objects in a technological context, conditioned and influenced the transformation of theoretical knowledge. At the same time, we will examine the role played in this process by the emerging figure of the engineer-scientist, who was both professionally engaged and familiar with the practical problems of technology, while also possessing knowledge of the mechanical theories of his time.
In subproject 2, we will examine a field of practical knowledge that, as a demonstration of the highest technological capability, was the focus of courtly attention in the early modern era: pneumatic and hydraulic technology. Both in antiquity and then, in a new way, in early modernity, this technology posed a challenge to theoretical mechanical conceptions. Already in antiquity, pneumatic machinery occasioned attempts at theoretical interpretation comprising considerations on the constitution of matter and the nature of heat, but also particular explanatory principles of hydrostatics. Such attempts at explanation, however, showed only a limited ability to keep step with the technological complexity of the machines that were actually built.
In order to define the particular tensions between technological and theoretical knowledge during the Renaissance in comparison with the situation in antiquity, we will examine how the ancient technological knowledge was itself transmitted and transformed. Building on the analyses we have already conducted of textual sources, such as early modern translations of and commentaries on Heron’s Pneumatics, we will devote the second grant period to an examination of the character and mode of operation of Renaissance pneumatic machines and their interactions with early modern theoretical pneumatics, as manifest in the writings of engineers and mathematicians since the second half of the 16th century.