CORDIS - EU research results

Medical Electricity, Embodied Experiences, and Knowledge Construction in Europe and the Atlantic World, c.1740-1840

Project description

Using 18th century electrotherapy data to learn more about scientific knowledge

Science is subjective and situational. It is shaped by experiences and cognitive perceptions, which are themselves affected by circumstances, knowledge, and beliefs. Being cutting-edge and meticulously recorded at the time, 18th century electrotherapy data offers a unique way of understanding these interactions and how they impacted scientific knowledge. The ERC-funded ELBOW project is an empirical study of how direct experience, cognitive perceptions, experiential knowledge, and the epistemological beliefs of ordinary patients impacted electrotherapeutic practices and scientific knowledge as a whole. In doing so, the project will offer a more complex and enlightened approach to the history of knowledge.


Scientific knowledge has long been understood to be subjective and situated. ELBOW examines this situatedness from a previously unexplored historical viewpoint by investigating the role of lay embodied experiences in eighteenth-century scientific knowledge construction. The project starts from the premise that knowledge is necessarily filtered through individuals’ embodied cognition and therefore tactile, sensory, and experiential. Using eighteenth-century medical electricity as an empirical case study, the project analyses how patients’ embodied and experiential knowledge influenced the medical knowledge emerging from electrotherapies, as well as whose experiences and ways of knowing ended up contributing to scientific knowledge. As a novel experimental therapy, medical electricity provides an exceptional window into practices of knowledge construction, authorisation, and marginalisation. Since electrical treatments and the bodily sensations they created were meticulously recorded by doctors and patients alike, these descriptions can be analysed as repositories of experiences and understandings of embodiment as well as epistemological beliefs regarding body, life, and matter. Medical electricity offers the perfect vantage point for examining popular epistemological understandings, their interaction with scientific epistemologies, and the way they manifested themselves in electrotherapeutic practices. ELBOW devises an innovative methodological approach to tease out patients’ embodied experiences and epistemological beliefs from a variety of sources, including scientific treatises, doctors’ casebooks, advertisements, fiction, and ego-documents. Combining phenomenology and cognitive science with history of medicine methods, the project proposes a new, theoretically sophisticated approach to analysing historical everyday experiences and embodied knowledge—and thereby a turn towards a new experiential paradigm in history of knowledge.

Host institution

Net EU contribution
€ 1 499 775,00
00014 Helsingin Yliopisto

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Manner-Suomi Helsinki-Uusimaa Helsinki-Uusimaa
Activity type
Higher or Secondary Education Establishments
Total cost
€ 1 499 775,00

Beneficiaries (1)