Friday, August 2, 2013

Quick thoughts vs. Asprem on the historiography of "spiritual" alchemy

I like this post, admire Asprem greatly, but think he's mistaken to describe Principe's analysis as "simplistic." Of course attention needs to be paid to the spiritual side of alchemy, but to criticize Principe for not dealing with it misunderstands the scope of his project. Principe is arguing that the historiographical concept of alchemy being "not really" concerned with the physical chemistry is mistaken. He has adequately demonstrated that by showing that the chemical meanings can be found and the experimental results duplicated. He's not arguing that the spiritual side shouldn't be taken into account in order to give a thick description of alchemy, and if you read his recent book "The Secrets of Alchemy" you'll see that he's not trying to sweep spiritual meanings under the rug. He just insists as any good historian would that we must take the cultural context of any alchemical spirituality into account, ideally after first understanding the chemical significations of the text.

http://heterodoxology.com/2010/06/08/lawrence-principe-and-the-rehabilitation-of-alchemy-another-lecture-in-utrecht/

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for this very pertinent comment. I do think, though, that the 2012 Secrets of Alchemy book's increased emphasis on the broader cultural meanings in which alchemy has been embedded represents a genuine *development* in Principe's work. My worry about the "simplicity" of a direct translation of alchemy into experimental processes was in response to his 2010 lecture in Utrecht. I believe it was a justified response in that context.

    For more on this, also feel free to check out my write-up of the ESSWE-sponsored workshop on alchemy in Amsterdam that same summer of 2010, where Principe appeared alongside Stephen Clucas and Peter Forshaw. The same issue came up again in those discussions, especially in an exchange between Principe and Clucas that I cover in the blog.

    You may read it here: http://heterodoxology.com/2010/06/27/alchemy-and-how-to-write-about-it-esswe-thesis-workshop/

    Thanks again for taking interest, and you're very right that my criticism does not apply in the same way to Principe's latest book. What he appears to do there (I haven't read it, so this is based on circumstantial reading of ToC, abstract, etc.) is precisely the sort of thing that I had in mind.

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    1. Thanks for this helpful comment and the link. Boy do I wish I could have been at that workshop. I did get to hang out with Clucas, Forshaw, Principe, Newman, Obrist, Rampling, Clulee, Nummedal, Kahn, and others at the Philadelphia CHF Alchemy conference back in 2006. That was tremendously exciting and quite an initiation.

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