Sensing the Truth: Changing Conceptions of the Perceptual in Early Modern and Enlightenment Europe

Sensing the Truth: Changing Conceptions of the Perceptual in Early Modern and Enlightenment Europe

September 1, 2021 – June 30, 2022


Yaakov Mascetti (Bar-Ilan University)


The proposed research group intends to provide an interdisciplinary framework for a scholarly debate and a further understanding of the relationship between the sensory sphere and conceptions of epistemology and of devotion in the early-modern and enlightenment periods. Our primary goal will be to present ideas of touch, sight, hearing and tasting against the background of the philosophical, scientific, religious and literary discourses from the 15th to 18th centuries. Such representations of the senses contributed to relocating the idea of truth from the objective to the subjective sphere, though the figures in our study often show the fundamental insufficiency of that dichotomy, challenging and at times proposing alternative models.

Motivated by the significantly growing scholarly interest in the cultural history of the senses, and by new trends in the history of science and philosophy, this group will address, problematize and challenge our understanding of the ways in which emergent philosophical and scientific conceptions of visual and aural perceptions played a role in changing devotional practices such as sacramental ceremonies, methods and forms of meditational attention, while they also fashioned exegetical practices and currents in the literary and visual arts of the 16th and 17th centuries. Despite the steady growth in interdisciplinary studies of the early-modern, circles of the kind we propose are rare, and which we believe can make a difference in the complication of our idea of what a field of research is. Our main contribution will thus be methodological, to historians, literary scholars and specialists in other disciplines, as we will show, from a number of perspectives, that a cultural matrix is composed of a variety of interacting idioms, modes of speech which provide specific utterances with a spectrum of diverse intentions. Thus we will present conceptions of taste as the relation between the physical sense of taste, and taste as a metaphorical term used to denote various forms of knowledge and judgement (including, but not only, aesthetic taste).

Early modern taste played a key role in the cultivation of humanist erudition, in the so-called ‘scientific revolution,’ in theological debates about how best to access divine truth, and in the experience and articulation of intersubjective knowledge and sexual desire. Similarly, between the late middle ages and the Renaissance, touching truth came to play a central role in conceptions of truth, knowledge and the conveyance thereof in visual arts. The centrality of vision for the philosophical, theological, and artistic spheres has been widely discussed and continues to occupy a primary role in the cultural history of the senses. This research group intends to bring these scholarly strands together and create an interdisciplinary platform within which the entanglements of discourses may lead to a more exhaustive understanding of the senses and their role in the perception of truth.