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Abstracts: Commerce and Knowledge

Dagmar Schäfer (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin)

Silks, sounds and the sky: A seventeenth century Chinese approach to making and knowing


My contribution introduces Song Yingxing (1587-1666?), an intellectual of the late Ming dynasty who bequeathed an exceptional set of writings to us. He compiled a work on eighteen selected crafts, dealing with agricultural tasks such as silk production as well mining or pearl diving. Furthermore Song wrote about the sky and explained sound, arguing that all were subject to, and thus revealing, universal principles. While Song was an
exceptional case within the complex cultural and social tapestry of the Ming world, his mirocosm exemplifies a sound view to this era’s approach to knowing and making. In particular I will tackle the role empiricism, understood here as practical engagement and observational practice meant to him when writing about silks, sounds, and the sky.


Paola Bertucci (Yale University)

Enlightenment and the secret knowledge economy: the abbé Nollet and the scientific manufacture of silk threads


The paper explores the networks of secrecy coordinated by the French state around the 1740s to acquire valuable information on the manufacture of silk threads. By following the secret career of the abbé Nollet as a consultant on silk manufacture for the Bureau de Commerce, it casts light on the productive intersections of natural philosophy, natural history and economy that took place outside the public sphere. It reveals how secret networks of exchanges proved crucial to the design (if not the implementation) of Royal Manufactures in France, with a special attention for a range of minor actors that made the circulation of sensitive knowledge possible. It also revisits received notions on the public culture of science, commonly associated with the Enlightenment, in light of such widespread secret activities.