Deception as a Way of Knowing: A Conversation with Anthony Grafton

Historians in the News

Anxiety about deception runs deep in the philosophical and religious traditions of Europe, and new techniques for mastering this fear mark episodes in the history of the modern world. Over the course of the nineteenth century, both the playfulness and the peril of deceit came to be distanced from the sphere of rational inquiry: the sciences ceased to have much use for legerdemain; metaphysicians lost interest in the theater. But it was not always so, as the conversation below with Anthony Grafton suggests. Grafton is the Henry Putnam University Professor of History at Princeton University and the author of a shelf of major works on the Renaissance, classical scholarship, and the history of science, including Forgers and Critics: Creativity and Duplicity in Western Scholarship (Princeton University Press, 1990). D. Graham Burnett, editor at Cabinet and also professor of history at Princeton, sat down with Grafton to discuss his work on deception and forgery .

Tony, let’s play name that tune. “We have also houses of deceits of the senses, where we represent all manner of feats of juggling, false apparitions, impostures, and illusions…” I have a feeling you’ll recognize this wonderfully strange passage from one of the hallucinogenic masterworks of the early modern period.

I do indeed.

In The New Atlantis, written around 1624, the English prosecutor-cum-epistemologist Francis Bacon dresses up his new theory of knowledge as a sensational travelogue, in which a shipload of Englishmen, having gone astray somewhere in the vast reaches of the southern Pacific, find themselves towed into the harbor of a mysterious island...

And they discover a kind of utopia there, a community built around the continuous pursuit of power over nature. At the center of the life of the island is a huge quasi-religious institution called Salomon’s House where a priestly caste of investigators pursue mastery of natural forces in a suite of dedicated laboratory-like spaces. ...

Read entire article at Cabinet (Spring; exact date uncertain)

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