Bodies of Ideas: Science and Classical Reception

  • December 11, 2014
  • Warburg Institute, London

This one day workshop explores the implications of the materiality of the classical tradition for the history of science and medicine. Our central question is: do scientific theories – insofar as they are theories of embodiment, transmission or transformation – reflect or determine different forms of classical reception within science and medicine? In particular, does the profusion of materialistic models associated with the development of science reflect or determine an equally profuse expansion of the ways in which ancient science is experienced and re-embodied? Does the classical tradition look or feel different if its material components are conceived of as vital spirits as opposed to substantial forms? What about effluvia, vacuums, humours, seminal reasons, pneuma, monads, ferments, influxus? Would Homer read differently if your brain were made of superstrings?

At first glance, perhaps, the mark of a scientific, or, at any rate, modernising, perspective on the past is the stripping away of the materiality of the classical inheritance in favour of a transcendent ideal of the classical. “There is nothing more ancient than the truth”, as Descartes insisted, while rejecting the classical tradition in science as it was then broadly conceived. The central preoccupation of classical reception studies – a discipline born out of German hermeneutics as a basically historicist undertaking – has long been the exposition of the material factors that both sustain and compromise such idealisations: the power dynamics, the fragmented objects, or the cultural practices onto and within which classical ideas and ideals are projected. Recently, however, some proponents of reception studies have moved even further in denying the primacy of the ideal and have sought to understand the materiality of the tradition (in a movement that bespeaks the contemporaneity of Aby Warburg) as the central factor underlying its transmission. Several recent writers on Lucretius, in particular, have attempted to account for the nature of his later influence in terms of the very physical processes that he describes (e.g. Kennedy, Goldberg, Passanante, Holmes and Shearin).

What are the potential fruits and flaws of such approaches? Can the study of the dynamics of cultural appropriation be rejuvenated by restoring forms of autonomy to the tradition itself? Or does the application of scientific models of materiality simply result in the privileging of another form of idealism, an “idealist materialism”? If so, we at least hope to pluralise this materialism by exploring such possibilities across a range of case studies and in as many forms as possible. The elements that constitute the materials of scientific theories are highly diverse, including, besides matter itself, metaphors, images, styles, technologies, techniques, structures, evidence, and examples. The materiality of the tradition can be considered at various levels – from atoms, to compounds, to organisms, to organisations – just as scientific theories occupy a spectrum from particle physics to social science. The bodies of ideas have thus affected or inspired scientists from Bacon to Darwin in complex and sometimes occult ways, even as the same scientists have sought to extricate themselves from them. It may be that no discourse has more to say about this process than that of science itself.

Organizers: Sam Galson (Princeton University) and Guido Giglioni (Warburg Institute)


Thursday, December 10



“‘Infinitely Material?’ Francis Bacon and Ancient Wisdom”
Sam Galson (Princeton)

“God or Nature, God and Nature: The Reception of Stoics Physics”
John Sellars (KCL)



“The Prehistory of Distraction: Unfelt Atoms from Lucretius to Locke”
Joe Moshenska (Cambridge)

“Michel Serres’ Nonmodern Lucretius and the Time of Reception”
Brooke Holmes (Princeton)



“Purging the Body and the Soul: The ‘Purgatio’ in the Sixteenth Century as a Treatment for Different Diseases”
Roberta Guibilini (Warburg)

“Sixteenth-Century Commentators of Aristotle’s De sensu on the Relationship between Medicine and Natural Philosophy”
Roberto Lo Presti (Humboldt Universität zu Berlin)

Tea Break


“The Material Subject of Ancient Experience”
Hamutal Minkowich (UCL)

“Time for Metaphysics? Reception after Bruno Latour”
Duncan F. Kennedy (Bristol)