Workshop1 - Stephanie Koerner 'Rethinking Art and Science’s Histories – Implications for Cautious Promethean ‘Ways of Knowing’'

Stephanie Koerner (University of Manchester) opened her presentation by arguing that until quite recently very few historians are likely to been receptive to the suggestion that materials hitherto eclipsed by canonical accounts of art, science and modernity might have very direct bearing upon challenges posed by changes taking place in the dynamics of research and teaching institutions, and wider public affairs.

She proposed that today the situation may be changing and that some argue that the depth of challenges posed may match those attributed to Renaissance and early modern times. Acknowledging that there is of course much variety amongst efforts to rethink art and science history, Koerner argued that it may be possible to illustrate with examples from 15th - 17th century Italy and the Netherlands, three features these efforts share with recent arguments for the relevance of 'cautious promethean' (Latour 2008) 'ways of knowing' for "needs of a world in which simplicity is a memory of a bygone age" (Funtowicz and Ravetz 1997).

Using examples from Italian and northern Renaissance art and science, Koerner identified a number of shifts in recent approaches:

  • from assumptions that the meanings of art and science are 'given' towards inquiries into the variety of forms they have taken,
  • from emphasis on intellectual history - the history of ideas - towards inquiries into social contexts of change in artistic and scientific techniques, objects, and meanings,
  • from assumptions that consensus on these meanings is somehow determined by necessity, towards inquiries into how agreements are achieved, how crises' are settled, and how it is possible for highly contradictory ideas to nevertheless endure.

Koerner argued that interdisciplinary contexts of change in approaches to art and science’s histories concerns with the scope of impacts of dualist ‘timbers of the modern cosmopolis’, then in turn asking:

'if such analytic categories as economics, totemism, kinship, politics, individualism, or even society, have been characterized as ethnocentric constructs, why should it be any different with the disjuncture between nature and society?' (Descola and Pálssen 1996:12).

Cosenquently, Koerner proposed that a focus on the making of images rather than the finished product:

  • enables us to rethink assumptions and categories that were at one time taken for granted (as ‘given’)
  • broadens our scope of study to include considerations of the importance of cosmological beliefs for the ways in which artists and scientists conceptualised ‘representation’ and ‘vision’
  • enables us to develop fresh approaches to similarities and differences in the activities of artists and scientists in 15th, 16th, and 17th century Italy and Northern Europe.

Further, Koerner illustrated connotations of ‘design’ and ‘redesign’ such as:

  • awareness that there is no such thing as a ‘clean slate’ – to say that something has to be redesigned means that we are not revolutionising or pursuing absolute beginnings, ends, certainties,
  • attentiveness to details, which goes against the grain of conceptions of what it means to act that have been grounded images of ‘mastery’ and the “Promethean, dream of action – Go forward, break radically with the past and the consequences will take care of themselves!”
  • humility, which is absent from vexed options of interpreting modernity as either absolute triumph or tragedy, and which facilitates reconnecting truth politics and ethics - as suggested by “good or bad design”.

She concluded her argument with Latour’s words: ‘A common world is not something we can come to recognize, as though it had always been here. A common world, if there is going to be one, is something we have to build, tooth and nail together’ (Latour 2004: 455).


Discussion arising from Stephanie Koerner’s presentation was directed at ‘big questions’ relating to the use of metaphysics and her methodology.

Mostly, the questions probed the problematic of how dealing with metaphysical debates might be compatible with Koerner's method of situating in socio-political context. Further, two methodological questions were raised: how can theological ideas be translated onto a flat surface?  What does the distinction between when the painting was done and when it was appropriated into the canon imply in terms of the biography of epistemic objects?

Koerner argued that applied metaphysics means keeping the objects of study and looking at them in applied sorts of ways, concluding that the crisis of representation is a critique of universal history.

Finally, debate considered the observations about the development of the particular type of metaphysics in terms of new versions of the two-cultures debate.