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

Apr 03, 2024 - Apr 05, 2024
“… that is the Question”

“… that is the Question”

International Conference of the romanistic project A07 Erotema. The Question as an Epistemic Genre in the Learned Societies and the Periodical Press of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

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 has received rather little scholarly attention as such. 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 conference sets out to explore the changing epistemic status of the question or rather the multiple forms of questions in early modern scholarly culture. In doing so, we want to give 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 circle of scholars, in treatises, journals and letters. A crucial factor in the development of the question is actually 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 seeks to contribute to a history of the question as an epistemic genre in the early modern age. Questions to be discussed include: 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 genres and media? What was the relationship between oral and written forms of debate, especially those which emerged with the periodical media of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries? Finally, how does the question relate to the emerging forms of critique from the seventeenth century onward?

Conveners: Anita Traninger, Martin Urmann (Freie Universität Berlin, Collaborative Research Center “Episteme in Motion”)


Wednesday, 3 April

Anita Traninger, Martin Urmann (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

17:00–17:15 Coffee break

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)

Rudolf Schüßler (Universität Bayreuth)
Questions of Morality in the Early Modern Period

Thursday, 4 April

Arjan van Dixhoorn (University College Roosevelt, Middelburg)
To the Question”: Intellectual Exercises in Early Modern Flemish-Dutch Rhetorician Culture

Déborah Blocker (University of California, Berkeley)
“Questionare, Velare e Burlare”Uses (and Misuses) of the Quaestio Among the Alterati of Florence (1569–1630)

12:00–12:15 Coffee break

Kathryn Murphy (University of Oxford)
Questions and the Emergence of the English Essay

13:15–14:45 Lunch Break

Dmitri Levitin (University of Oxford/University of Utrecht)
Disputations, Questions, and Free Speech in the Confessional University: A Remarkable New Discovery

Flynn Allott (University of Oxford)
On Questionnaires as Textual Ghosts and Social Forms: The Case of Seventeenth-Century Antiquarian “Quare Sheets”

16:45–17:00 Coffee Break

Anita Traninger (Freie Universität Berlin, CRC 980 “Episteme in Motion”)
Astonishing Answers: Paradox and the Affective Corollaries of Questioning the Status Quo

Gianna Pomata (Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore)
TheoremataProblemataParadoxa”How to Frame Open Questions in Early Modern Epistemic Cultures

Friday, 5 April

Nicolas Schapira (Université Paris Nanterre)
The Question as a Political Tool in Absolutist France

Jan Lazardzig (Freie Universität Berlin)
Lost and Found. The Labyrinth as Epistemic Trope in the Seventeenth Century (Andreae, Comenius, Bacon)

11:00–11:15 Coffee break

Martin Urmann (Freie Universität Berlin, CRC 980 “Episteme in Motion”)
The Question at Stake. The Content of the Form in the Prize Contests of the French Academies

12:15–13:15 Lunch Break

Gideon Stiening (Universität Münster)
“What Can I Know? What Should I Do? What Can I Hope For?” Kant’s Questions

Daniel Stader (Freie Universität Berlin)
What is Enlightenment? On the Greatest Prize Question Never Posed

Concluding Remarks


Time & Location

Apr 03, 2024 - Apr 05, 2024

Freie Universität Berlin
Villa Engler
Altensteinstr. 2
14195 Berlin-Dahlem

Further Information

Please register with Colleen Troise: colleen.troise@fu-berlin.de