The essay as a new form of prose writing emerges towards the end of the 16th century and gives expression to profound changes in the order and conceptualization of knowledge and truth. It not only manifests an insistent questioning of authorities and beliefs, but foregrounds the necessity for new ways of legitimizing knowledge that concern the parameters involved in the acquisition of knowledge as well as the mediality of knowledge. At the heart of the essay is an experience of provisionality that points to a fundamental ontological uncertainty and makes experience a central epistemological category. At the same time, the literary form of the essay itself provides an experience of provisionality by making knowledge dependent on a process of writing that refers to and engenders a new kind of subjectivity. Starting from the two decisive models of Montaigne and Bacon and ending with the essayistic textuality of Thomas Browne, the course aims at tracing these transformations of knowledge from the end of the 16th to the middle of the 17th century in their respective traditions of the personal and the scientific essay and at situating them in their political, media-historical as well as subject-philosophical contexts in order to analyze the essay as a literary epistemological enterprise.
Primary texts will be provided in electronic form on moodle, even though the acquisition of Francis Bacon’s Major Works in the Oxford UP edition by Brian Vickers (2008) and Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici in the edition by Stephen Greenblatt and Ramie Targoff (2012) is recommended.