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


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.


Net EU contribution
€ 1 499 775,00
Yliopistonkatu 3
00014 Helsingin Yliopisto

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Manner-Suomi Helsinki-Uusimaa Helsinki-Uusimaa
Activity type
Higher or Secondary Education Establishments
Non-EU contribution
€ 0,00