Conference wrap-up: Medieval Thought Experiments

New College quadrangle shortly after Easter. I kept doing double-takes because that was not a jacaranda tree.

New College quadrangle shortly after Easter. I kept doing double-takes because that was not a jacaranda tree.

This is rather belated, but the week after Easter I had the delightful pleasure of attending a two-day conference at New College, organised by a group of early career scholars there, entitled ‘Medieval Thought Experiments’. I wasn’t giving a paper – in fact, they’d turned my paper down, but I went anyway because it looked like fun. And it WAS fun, and I could see why my proposal didn’t fit with their vision (or I didn’t sell it right – I think I am interested in very similar things). I had to leave at 3pm on Tuesday to return to Geneva in time to teach on Wednesday morning, which was a bit hectic, but worth it.

Some highlights, for me, included:

  • A panel on scientific literature, featuring Zita Toth, Arianne Margolin and Alice Lamy. Arianne discussed the “ship experiment”, a thought experiment used by Gallileo to illustrate that the earth could move while appearing to remain still – but which did not originate with Gallileo; Arianne’s focus was on Nicole Oresme’s use of the same idea, where she argued that he was responding to Dante’s Paradiso. None of this panel was related to anything I work on but it was fascinating, and I haven’t seen anyone so excited about Neo-Platonism as was Alice Lamy since, oh, 2007 or so.
  • A fascinating paper by Jordan Kirk on the House of Fame’s “tydings” as deliberate reworking (/destruction) of the staple philosophy of language taught over the preceding century (although in Chaucer’s day the standard approach was changing), radical for collapsing spoken sound with percussive, animal with human, and semantic with non-semantic. Discussion time also had a lot to say about possible meanings of the eagle, which had also come up in Jane Griffith’s paper on that panel.
  • Vincent Gillespie’s keynote speech on syllogism and literary imagination, which covered a lot of ground relating to the relationship between literature and reality. My interest in this conference was less to do with thought experiments proper and more to do with the possible uses of literature as an exploratory medium, and Gillespie had lots of exciting things to say about Enargeia esp in Quintillian (vividness, pertaining to imagination and affect). Apparently I also need to read Hermanus Allemanus’ translation of Aristotle’s poetics via Averroes & others, where Gillespie says something interesting happened in the translation process (and not in other Latin translations of same) where instead of the author having intense affective experience and transmitting it via poetry, the author got elided in favour of the audience’s emotionality.

This was the first of a series of conferences for me between Easter and Leeds, of which only two are really in my field at all. It’s been very nice touristing in other people’s theoretical and historical frameworks, and definitely energising. I’ve not had a great time healthwise since December (none of us have, thus the radio silence on the blog) and it’s been one of those times when I find it very energising to be the academic butterfly for a while, flitting around and talking to a wide range of people.

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