Reordering the World: Note-Taking and Natural History during the Late Scottish Enlightenment

Lead Research Organisation: Durham University
Department Name: Philosophy


The history of systematic natural history has traditionally given priority to the hierarchical picture of the world intimated by the canon of texts used by evolutionary historians. This project offers a fresh view that complicates the picture painted by such sources. In particular, I challenge the notion that late Enlightenment naturalists viewed the world through a set of fixed categories overtly linked to concepts like the 'chain of being' or 'species'. More specifically, I concentrate on the prelude to order, that is, the sorting, extracting, and insertion of words and definitions evinced in manuscript notes and educational settings (especially schools and universities). These ubiquitous practices were malleable and, crucially, they were reinforced on a day-to-day basis in classrooms, libraries, lecture theatres, studies, and museums, as well as in natural settings. Viewed from this perspective, I use notebooks to argue that conceptions of 'mind', 'body' and 'world' were flexible in a manner that gives new meaning and relevance to the dynamic nature of knowledge formation during the late Enlightenment.

Planned Impact

Professional or Practitioner Groups
Over the past decade, leading medical schools in North America and Europe have introduced medical humanities modules into their curricula. In these settings historical examples are used as a tool to analyse the assumptions and practices of medicine as a discipline. My work is directly relevant to such modules because it traces how a student experience, especially note-taking, played a role in shaping how Edinburgh's medical students were taught to categorise the world as well as the human body (especially in chapter 7).

The 'Third' Sector
My project includes a public exhibition of scientific notebooks that will be displayed in the Royal Society of London. I chose this venue for my exhibition because I wanted to maximise the public impact of my project. The RS plays a central role in the scientific research culture of Britain and throughout the world. By running a publically accessible exhibition there, it is highly likely that government officials, policy makers, scientists, journalists and the many other visitors who frequent the Society will be exposed to an exhibition designed to raise awareness on the importance of scientific manuscript culture. It is my hope that such a display will inspire them to think about the value of preserving and exhibiting these kinds of sources.

The Media
A possible future benefit of this project is a documentary based on my book. It is tentatively titled 'Experiencing Enlightenment' and it addresses the role played by visual culture in relation to three objects: 'the notebook', 'the sketch' and 'the collage' (specimens pasted on paper with written descriptions). Following in the spirit of John Berger's classic 'Ways of Seeing' documentary, this work will use the interaction between words and images to emphasise the many different ways that Enlightenment naturalists experienced the natural world through artefacts. At present I am in discussions with a documentary production team in the United States that has worked with CBS News and National Geographic.

Local Communities
A local community that will be impacted by my project will be my students at Durham University. I consider this a very important group, as many of today's students are tomorrow's leaders. I teach three undergraduate History of Science modules, with the first year introductory module attracting well over one hundred students per year. Half of these students come from the science faculty and the rest are either from the Arts and Humanities or Social Science faculties. Various aspects of my book's conclusions, as well as its figures, will be used in the Enlightenment sections of my undergraduate modules, as well as in my MA module on 'Science and the Enlightenment'. These will work in conversation with other teaching aids that I use which seek to instil a sense of awareness about how scientific ideas are developed within communities by real people whose motivations and training were shaped by interesting historical conditions. Finally, outside the university, I plan to explore the feasibility of putting on my Royal Society exhibition in the north of England; either in Durham University's recently renovated public exhibition space in Palace Green Library, or possibly in Newcastle University's Hancock Museum.


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