Brown Bag Lecture: “ ‘What’s in the Box?’: Religion, Secrets, and Epistemology in Later Islamic Alchemy”

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Date: April 29, 2014
Time: 12:00 to 1:00 p.m.

315 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106

Event Type: Open to the Public
Fee: Free
RSVP Online: No Registration Required

A talk by Nick Harris

Understanding the air of secrecy in alchemy, East or West, has always presented challenges for scholars, so much so that alchemy and secrecy have become almost synonymous with each other. But in an Islamic context the rhetoric of secrecy and the desire for revelation is poorly served by appeals to mysticism, esotericism, and other supposedly secret activities. In the works of a 14th-century Egyptian alchemist we will see that esotericism, usually understood as a literary tactic of obfuscation, masks what can be dubbed an “erotic epistemology,” a special relationship of humans to knowledge.

Too little attention has been paid to the rough-and-tumble world of epistemology in Islamicate intellectual history, and we will see how an alchemist was in a peculiar and potentially fruitful position to reimagine how human beings can know, interact with, and change both the material and less-than-material worlds.

Nicholas Harris is a PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania in the Department of Religious Studies. He has been finishing his dissertation, “Better Religion through Chemistry: Aydemir al-Jildakī and Alchemy under the Mamluks,” as the Price Fellow for 2013–2014. His dissertation aims to “resurrect” (in a scholarly sense only) the 14th-century Egyptian alchemist Aydemir al-Jildakī and to situate him within the broader frameworks of medieval Islamic history and the history of chemistry.

About Brown Bag Lectures

Brown Bag Lectures (BBLs) are a series of weekly informal talks on the history of chemistry or related subjects, including the history and social studies of science, technology, and medicine. Based on original research (sometimes still in progress), these talks are given by local scholars for an audience of CHF staff and fellows and interested members of the public.

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