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“… that is the Question” – Towards a History of the Question as an Epistemic Genre in the Early Modern Age

Internationale Konferenz des romanistischen Teilprojekts A07 „Erotema. Die Frage als epistemische Gattung im Kontext der europäischen Sozietätsbewegung und der periodischen Presse des 17. und frühen 18. Jahrhunderts“, 03.–05.04.2024


“… that is the Question”

“… that is the Question”

The question is certainly one of the oldest and most common techniques in the history of knowledge. It is precisely this ubiquity which makes it difficult to grasp as a distinct object of study. In fact, the question as such has received rather scarce scholarly attention. Nevertheless, the importance of this central epistemic practice and its quintessential longue durée history is undisputed. Based on Aristotelian logic as defined in the Topics the question played a pivotal role in ancient rhetoric and dialectics where it was conceived as leading to a choice between two alternatives. The agonistic tradition of the either-or question was carried forth in the scholastic culture of the quaestio, which featured most prominently in the disputations at the medieval universities. It continued to evolve in various genres and forms in the early modern age from public disputations to declamations, rhetorical discourses in the genus demonstrativum and the literature of paradox, which deliberately defended the position commonly held to be improbable. Moreover, there was the powerful tradition of the question-and-answer dialogue, prominently established by Cicero in the Partitiones Oratoriae, which remained very popular in early modern learned and religious discourse. The question was thus a crucial means, implicit or explicit, of pre-modern knowledge transfer.

In dealing with the question we are notably interested in the specific epistemic status attributed to the texts produced and the contexts of reception asking what should be shown to whom and by using which argumentative patterns. A genre like the quaestio disputata would assert a different epistemic claim than the thesis of a university disputation or the multi-perspectival mode of dealing with a question in a dialogue. The grammatical form of the question itself, however, seems to be of minor importance.  A fruitful approach is thus the one that especially Gianna Pomata has opted for by employing the notion of “epistemic genre” in her studies on astronomical and medical observationes (2011/2013).

The question as an epistemic genre hence does not only designate a specific pattern for the production of scholarly texts. It is rather considered to be embedded in a larger social context implying institutional settings, epistemic and literary traditions, groups of actors and in particular rules of inclusion and exclusion. Nevertheless, a more in-depth discussion of the notion “epistemic genre” is pending, in particular as regards the specific case of the question. Against this backdrop, the participants explored the changing epistemic status of the question or rather the multiple forms of questions in early modern scholarly culture. In doing so, they gave special attention to the various institutional and medial contexts in which this particular epistemic genre was employed in the Republic of Letters, from universities and schools to academies, literary societies and private circles of scholars, in treatises, journals and letters.

A crucial factor in the development of the question is the transition from oral towards written communication and printed media, which fundamentally changed the conditions of public and scholarly discourse and the ways of engaging in it. In this context, the rise of the periodical press in the second half of the seventeenth century is of particular importance. Journals became the foremost medium of critique and expanded the boundaries of discourse in the Republic of Letters considerably. In this participatory process, the question played an important part: prize contests based on the rhetorical and dialectical tradition of the question mobilized thousands of participants all over Europe in the eighteenth century. At the same time, journals engaged in direct conversations with their audiences and submitted questions for their readers to answer by writing in, from moral philosophical dilemmas and collectively debated scholarly problems to comments on recent novels and theater plays. These developments indeed marked a caesura in the history of the question as traditional rhetorical patterns opened up to new modes of debate and the frequency of questions asked as well as the size of the audience addressed changed significantly with the emergence of the periodical press.

By exploring these developments and traditions (including their prehistory in classical antiquity and the Middle Ages) the conference marked an important step towards a history of the question as an epistemic genre in the early modern age. Questions discussed included: What was the epistemic status attributed to the questions and the answers elicited in different institutional and medial contexts? How were questions raised and distributed, who asked them and who was supposed to answer them? What was the status of answers given across various institutions, genres, and media? And what was the relationship between oral and written forms of debate?

The contributions in detail:

Wednesday, 3 April, 2024


Anita Traninger (Freie Universität Berlin, CRC 980 “Episteme in Motion”)

Welcome and Introduction


Eva Cancik-Kirschbaum (Freie Universität Berlin, CRC 980 “Episteme in Motion”)

The Question: The Emergence of an Epistemic Practice in Ancient Mesopotamia

The lecture delved into divination practices in Ancient Mesopotamia, a topic chosen due to divination's pervasive presence in both written and oral media of the cultures, making it one of the richest material sources of antiquity. As an institutionalized practice, the reading of animal sacrifices' livers developed a complex epistemology, enabling the formulation of precise questions to solicit the gods' approval for one's intentions. These questions served various functions: they facilitated observation, thereby generating testimonial knowledge; they managed expectations by minimizing randomness; they fostered consensus on specific projects, and they established an experimental system, designed for reproducibility.


Rudolf Schüßler (Universität Bayreuth)

Questions of Morality in the Early Modern Period

Rudolf Schüßler introduced in the practice of the moral quaestio in scholasticism. Medieval scholasticism dealt mainly with short questions implying a thesis like ‘Is the will free?’ Such questions were discussed in academic classrooms as well as in ‘public’ debate. In early modern (or second) scholasticism, a practice of moral casuistry evolved both in catholic and protestant traditions. In the seventeenth century, huge moral case collections were published, e.g. Antonio Diana’s Resolutiones morales (1633) with 20,000 questions or Andreas Prückner’s Manuale mille questionum (1668) with 1,000 questions. The tradition allowed for a regional, confession-wide or even global coordination of moral demands. The beginning of the Enlightenment saw a change of orientation towards virtue ethics.


Daniel Stader (Freie Universität Berlin)

What is Enlightenment? On the Greatest Prize Question Never Posed

The presentation focused on the origins of the German term ‘Aufklärung’ and its development in German discourse. Taken from Descartes’ formula ‘clare et distincte’, ‘klar und deutlich’ became epistemological terminology in Christian Wolff’s logic. The term ‘Aufklärung’, therefore, had a strict epistemic sense referring to the discovery, improvement and dissemination of true knowledge, the eradication of errors and prejudices. At the beginning of the 1780s, the term was used in an inflationary manner, which strayed from the original epistemic sense. As a consequence, the question of what Enlightenment actually was arose in the secret Berliner Mittwochsgesellschaft as well as in the Berlinische Monatsschrift. Immanuel Kant’s answer from 1784 shows that the term had acquired a social meaning that does not address epistemic contents, but rather social relationships.

Thursday, 4 April, 2024


Arjan van Dixhoorn (University College Roosevelt, Middelburg)

“To the Question”: Intellectual Exercises in Early Modern Flemish-Dutch Rhetorician Culture

Arjan von Dixhoorn explored a Dutch tradition of prize questions dating back to the late fourteenth century, reaching its zenith from the 1470s to the 1490s. This tradition bears similarities to prize questions from academic institutions but distinguishes between internal competitions exclusively for members of scholarly chambers and external contests open to all. The underlying purpose of this practice he interpreted as fostering community-building through dialogue with and within the arts.


Déborah Blocker (University of California, Berkeley)

“Questionare, Velare e Burlare”: Uses (and Misuses) of the Quaestio Among the Alterati of Florence (1569–1630)

Déborah Blocker discussed the use of the quaestio-form among the Alterati of Florence, providing a comprehensive overview of discourse practices to illustrate how various forms of interlocution synergized to create a sophisticated system of collective expression within the academy. Through this analysis, Blocker demonstrated that while the disputative model remained prevalent in seventeenth-century Florence, the pro-and-contra-form was uniquely employed among the Alterati, diverging from its usage in dialectical disputes at the University of Pisa. Notably, it was also utilized in the context of poetry and fiction development. Blocker showcased how question-like formats facilitated the staging of inconclusive debates, allowing for a focus on the hermeneutical aspects of all deliberative exchanges, thereby enriching the intellectual discourse within the Alterati community.


Irene van Renswoude (University of Amsterdam)

Yes and No, What was the Question? Pedagogy, Dialectic and Disputation before the Rise of the Universities (800–1200)

Irene van Renswoude explored a collection of apparent contradictions in the Holy Bible, which were examined through the question format of "Sic et Non" by Abelard. Beginning with the hermeneutical notion that “through doubting, we arrive at questioning; in questioning, we perceive the truth," van Renswoude examined examples such as "Must human faith be completed by reason, or not?" This led to a discussion of Abelard's technique, revealing that while innovative, it was not entirely ground-breaking, as similar approaches had been employed by Boethius and others. In an aside, van Renswoude investigated the emergence of the question mark, tracing its origins to musical notation, where it began as a mere squiggle above a point. Through various examples, she explored questioning practices and their significance in theological discourse.


Dmitri Levitin (University of Oxford/University of Utrecht)

Disputations, Questions, and Free Speech in the Confessional University: A Remarkable New Discovery

Levitin started with an introduction to the confessional influence on the transformations of universities in the early modern period. While protestant and catholic institutions competed for hegemony, they resorted to the same methodology to educate theologians. Levitin laid out the standard procedures of disputation as an epistemic practice, the understanding of which is of course hampered by the lack of sources. Up to now, there have been no known word-to-word records.  Levitin then presented a spectacular discovery, the Helmingham Hall Manuscript, which offers a verbatim transcription of a complete disputation, including ad personam insults and digressive remarks.


Flynn Allott (University of Oxford)

On Questionnaires as Textual Ghosts and Social Forms: The Case of Seventeenth-Century Antiquarian “Quare Sheets”

Flynn Allott introduced an early form of questionnaires. They were used as a means to collect knowledge from different sources and printed questions with blank spaces beneath in order for the prints to be filled out and sent in. Allott focused on the case of Edward Lhwyd, who was among the first to use this technique on a large scale. He printed up to 4,000 queries in single sheet prints, seeking information on geographical particularities in Wales. The questionnaires served the purpose of creating detailed surveys without having to travel the country.


Anita Traninger (Freie Universität Berlin, CRC 980 “Episteme in Motion”)

Astonishing Answers: Paradox and the Affective Corollaries of Questioning the Status Quo

Anita Traninger showed that despite the affective corollaries associated with arguing against common opinion – what was called a paradox in the early modern period – the practice’s roots are to be found not in rhetoric, but in logic. Students of rhetoric have, for a long time, sought to determine the precise place of paradoxes in the rhetorical system, whose popularity in the Renaissance and beyond was felicitously termed ‘paradoxia epidemica’ by Rosalie Colie. Since a certain self-contradictory and thus a-logical quality has been held to be at the core of the notion (and by extension, the genre), it used to be conceived of as a being related to figures of speech such as oxymoron, antithesis, or ambiguity. Traninger showed how the phenomenal rise of the early modern paradox went hand in hand with a reconfiguration of dialectics, and in particular with a terminological renewal in the wake of new translations of the Aristotelian Organon. The talk focused on both scholastic and humanist dialectical textbooks, including texts by Petrus Hispanus, George of Trebizond, Agostino Nifo, and Johannes Eck.


Gianna Pomata (Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore)

“Theoremata, Problemata, Paradoxa”: How to Frame Open Questions in Early Modern Epistemic Cultures

Gianna Pomata presented three ways in which open questions could be framed in early modern epistemic cultures. First, she gave a historical overview of reflections on the contrast between theory and observation and then offered historical examples for the intension and extension of the notion of ‘theoria’. She demonstrated how the genre of ‘Problemata’ developed towards offering an early version of the literature review. In conclusion, Pomata drew attention to the variety of ways in which Aristotle was referenced in concepts of theory in the early modern period, both in the affirmative and the negative.

Friday, 5 April


Nicolas Schapira (Université Paris Nanterre)

The Question as a Political Tool in Absolutist France

The talk focused on asking and answering questions at the court of Louis XIV, focusing on the tensions emerging from the king’s claim to having absolute knowledge while at the same time needing to be informed about current developments. Among the exemplary case studies Nicolas Schapira presented was the acquisition of information on the famine of 1661–1662, as well as an audience of Marie du Bois. The extant records on the audience highlight the problematic relationship between absolutist reign and the communicative form of questioning. The reconstruction of the protocols of addressing the king and, in turn, the king’s prerogatives of approaching courtiers were at the heart of the discussion, which also touched upon the problematic double function of information that was communicated to the king, as he was curious about gossip, but also the highest judge.


Jan Lazardzig (Freie Universität Berlin)

Lost and Found. The Labyrinth as Epistemic Trope in the Seventeenth Century (Andreae, Comenius, Bacon)

Jan Lazardzig dealt with the metaphor of the labyrinth in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Case studies included Jan Amos Comenius’ Das Labyrinth der Welt und das Paradies des Herzens, as well as several works by Johann Valentin Andreae, Hermann Hugo, and Francis Bacon. Lazardzig presented the labyrinth as a model of knowledge and cognition and showed how the characteristic layout of the labyrinth as a decision-making structure shifted from monovial to multivial. In the seventeenth century, the labyrinth was approached in a variety of ways: it stood for faith and the need for divine orientation or allegorised the unknown which has to be revealed by science.


Kathryn Murphy (University of Oxford)

Francis Bacon, Thomas Browne, and the ‘Continuation’ of Aristotle’s Problemata

Kathryn Murphy drew a line of tradition from Aristotle’s problemata to Francis Bacon and Thomas Browne. Bacon explicitly mentioned the worth of the problemata as an epistemological technique and highlighted the importance of doubt. In addition to his Calendar of Doubts, Bacon drafted a Calendar of Popular Errors. Thomas Browne continued this tradition by referring to a catalogue of doubts and putting lists of questions at the end of a text to invite readers to consider them. The tradition of the problem was thereby transformed into a technique of doubting, and errors were equally turned into doubts, whereby they gained a different position in discourse.