James Dougal Fleming (ed), The Invention of Discovery, 1500-1700

James Dougal Fleming (ed), The Invention of Discovery, 1500-1700 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011), 228 pp. £55. ISBN 978-0-7546-6841-1.

This collection aims to provoke a variety of eponymous discoveries and inventions about meanings held by the book’s keywords in the early modern world. In so doing it raises questions not only about the salience of these concepts in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries but about the recent scholarly rhetorical reorientation favouring the idea of invention in place of the outmoded trope of discovery—a rhetorical shift characterized by Fleming, in a signature piece of provocation, as “rebranding.” With its origins in a panel at the 2008 Renaissance Society of America meeting, the collection is an apt fit for Ashgate’s now decade-old series on the Literary and Scientific Cultures of EarlyModernity, where Fleming’s earlier work on Milton’s hermeneutics of secrecy also found a home. The focus of this collection expands the terms of his first book in order to put his expertise to use in shepherding into being eleven essays, each in its own way offering evidence related to Fleming’s founding hypothesis.

Fleming’s framing thought, to which the essays under its rubric offer varying degrees of attention and substantiation, is that discovery itself needed to be invented in this period. That is, discovery was not valued before New World conquest; such conquest, instead, endowed discovery with value as a method for obtaining power (8). In support of this boldly counter-intuitive arrangement of chickens and eggs, Fleming rapidly tours the dilapidated landscape of the “Age of Discovery,” in which new worlds, earthly and celestial, were populated by newly re-read texts (through humanism), new scriptural meanings (through Protestantism), and new sense experiences (through science). The introduction thus aptly starts at these very beginnings, for the beginner, while the editor’s afterword forcefully and vividly continues to advance his argument about the invention of discovery only to end by turning it, inevitably, back upon both his and all other attempts to understand the world. The self-questioning epistemological attitude in which the book comes to rest does not, strange to say, subtract from the confidence with which that scepticism is expressed. Fleming has a talent for nearly paradoxical yet intriguingly plausible, and sometimes memorably pithy, formulations; yet his aim to unpack knowledge-making rhetoric and rationales occasionally seems compromised by a fondness for antithesis and the quick chiasmic twist.

Fortune-cookie-length assessments will do no justice to the diversity of essays Fleming has shaped in collaboration with their authors. Nonetheless: Piers Brown persuasively identifies commonplaces of the early modern travel narrative—especially positive characterizations of wandering, error, and accidental finds—as governing epistemological metaphors in the astronomy of Kepler and (less substantially) Galileo. Steven Matthews elegantly locates the roots of Bacon’s familiar inductive process of elimination in an unexpected theological source, the via negativa of the Neo-Platonic Pseudo-Dionsysius. Michael Booth, whose essay begins with a lucid addendum to Fleming’s introduction, argues that Thomas Hariot’s encounters with Algonquin linguistics and economics resonated with (if they did not yield) his algebraic innovations; as technical as it is imaginative, the essay is itself an example of the “conceptual blending” it posits and lauds in Hariot’s work. Fleming contributes an extremely and perhaps excessively dense analysis of the fates of the scholastic category of the occult, or the categorically unintelligible, when it met early-modern Neoplatonic and Paracelsian esotericisms. One factual error (Levinus Lemnius lived in the early-sixteenth century, not the late seventeenth; the confusion might derive from the 1658 date on the English translation of his work cited here) undermines an otherwise formidable fortress of erudition. Anthony Russell’s study of self-reflexive creativity deriving from Ficino connects natural magic with Donne’s poetics in the Anniversaries; the essay feels somewhat tangentially related to the collection’s main concerns, but stands on its own merits. Pietro Omodeo argues, by closely reading the astronomy of Kepler, Bruno, and the less well-known Benedetti, that no single standard Copernicanism united them. Jacqueline Wernimont reads recent “possible worlds” theory back into The World Descartes wrote (but did not publish), a fabulous alternate reality invented as a site for discovery, in which possibility itself was the enabling condition of inquiry and knowledge. Ryan Netzley detects a conflation of discovery and invention behind the numbers, numerological and chronological, that structure and give meaning to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Travis DeCook explores a rejection of discovery, motivated by a commitment to ecclesiastical moderation, in Thomas Fuller’s antiquarian work. Louise Denmead’s treatment of the dramatic device of the ‘bed-trick’ similarly explores the rejection of discovery through a kind of willed forgetting (in this case, of the blackness of a concealed substitute lover). Vincent Masse compiles examples in early French printed books of a new selling point: not comprehensiveness, or accuracy, but novelty itself.

As an interdisciplinary contribution to the historiography of hermeneutics and knowledge-making practices, The Invention of Discovery participates vigorously through closely argued and carefully edited essays in the ongoing renovation of our understanding of early modern ways of understanding, a task that Fleming calls us to set at the centre of all cultural work. Given the commitment to interdisciplinarity required to fulfill this demand, it is interesting to note who heeded his call here: eight of the eleven contributors are specialists in early modern English literature. What might this mean for the Age of Interdisciplinarity?

Leah Knight, Brock University