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Geo-Referencing Early Modern Science

Published on 30th January 2020

My goal is to construct a general methodology of telling visual geo-referenced stories in early modern natural philosophy. This project relies on the principle that historical events always happen in space. This means that it can be given a geolocation, and thus can be part of a geo-referenced visual story. 

This principle is not trivial. In fact, the main approach to visualizing philosophical and scientific development remains to be "conceptual maps". They seek to represent the way in which ideas or authors are related to each other in virtue of their concepts. However, in isolation this method presents a view of scientific development which is ahistorical and disregards the constraints of real space and time.

Otherwise, a historian of science who does pay close attention to historical detail beyond purely conceptual development (cf. Mercer 2019) is left without visual story-telling devices. This is the niche of this project. Using modern geo-referencing techniques it is possible to map data-sets of authors, books, institutions, publishing houses, confessions, correspondences, and almost any other affiliation on a historical map.

In fact, almost any narrative in history of philosophy and science can be geo-referenced, giving it spatial coordinates as well as a succession and a variety of informational layers and relations. Moreover, this could be done using already existing data sets.

Below I present a geo-referenced map with small samples of two data sets - G.W. Leibniz's correspondents' list in the Akademie Ausgabe bibliography; and the Westfall Catalogue of early modern scientists. The selection of figures was arbitrary. The map also includes major scientific academies. Another layer represents Leibniz's approximate itinerary on his trip to Italy in 1688-1690. At the bottom there is a time-scale slider that allows the user to filter a relevant period. The time-scale is based on the date on which an author was 40 years old (this bias comes only from the fact that I do not currently know how to represent time ranges in this app).

The background map has been warped and scaled to fit modern measurements. The original is by Thomas Kitchin, Europe divided into its empires, kingdoms, states, republics, &c., 1787. Modernization is by David Rumsey. The borders and states do not really match my period under analysis but most 17th Century maps do not scale well enough to accommodate geo-referenced data.

As an example, some of the nodes in Leibniz's Iter Italicum contain the location of a prominent scientist or a correspondent. This is potentially informative. However, a larger data set would prove to be much more useful.

Mercer, Christia. "The Contextualist Revolution in Early Modern Philosophy." Journal of the History of Philosophy, vol. 57 no. 3, 2019, p. 529-548. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/hph.2019.0057.