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The Collation

Interview and excerpt: Debapriya Sarkar, Possible Knowledge: The Literary Forms of Early Modern Science

Title page of Sir Philip Sidney's
Title page of Sir Philip Sidney's

At the Folger, we are proud to sponsor research inquiry within a vibrant and intellectually generous community. Periodically, as that research is published, we circle back to talk with recent authors to showcase the role of collections-based inquiry on their methods and arguments. Today, we pose a series of questions to 2016-2017 long-term fellow Debapriya Sarkar, followed by an excerpt from her new book Possible Knowledge: The Literary Forms of Early Modern Science (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2023).

Dr. Sarkar is Assistant Professor of English and Maritime Studies at the University of Connecticut. In addition to Possible Knowledge, she has co-edited, with Jenny C. Mann, a special issue of Philological Quarterly on “Imagining Early Modern Scientific Forms” (2019). Her work appears or is forthcoming in SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, English Literary Renaissance, Shakespeare Studies, Spenser Studies, Exemplaria, and in edited collections including The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare and Race, A Cultural History of the Sea in the Early Modern Age, and Teaching Social Justice Through Shakespeare: Why Renaissance Literature Matters Now.


When you started this research project, how much clarity did you have about what you were looking for, both in terms of number of examples and specific materials?

I conceived Possible Knowledge as an attempt to stage a dialogue between literary criticism and intellectual history based on the following question: what role did English poesie (or literature) play in an era of intellectual uncertainty (as the early modern period is often characterized)? Intellectual historians and historians of science have typically focused on the emergence of probabilistic and empirical methods to explain how English thinkers dealt with loss of philosophical certainty. My research project built on these explanations by asking a different type of question: could we uncover a literary prehistory of scientific probability? These questions were sparked by connections I had noticed in the formal elements of literary genres—romance and utopia in particular—and methods (such as induction and experiment) that are cornerstones of the so-called Scientific Revolution. Thus, when I started this project, I imagined I would read Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Bacon’s New Atlantis, and Cavendish’s Blazing World alongside the natural philosophical works by Bacon, William Gilbert, Robert Boyle, and Robert Hooke. However, the realization that questions of literary form and genre were central to the project ultimately led me to engage an expansive corpus of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literary texts, including epic poetry (Milton’s Paradise Lost), tragedy (Shakespeare’s Macbeth), and lyric poetry (Cavendish’s Poems and Fancies). And as I examined the intellectual apparatus undergirding literary works, the corpus of “scientific” texts I studied also grew—for instance, Possible Knowledge engages with vernacular and practical methods (like manuscript recipe collections), esoteric and occult knowledge (such as works on prophecy), and preternatural knowledge (such as studies of wonders and marvels).

Double page opening showing the title page of Aldrovandi's Monstrorum historia. Both the title page and the facing page have early modern handwriting all over them.
Ulisse Aldrovandi, Monstrorum historia, 1642 Folger 167114, title page

Once you started working with the Folger collections, did your research questions change? Did your assumptions about what arguments were going to be supported by the evidence change?

I arrived at the Folger thinking that I was going to tell a prehistory of scientific probability—and thereby enter into conversations about the emergence of modern disciplines—and I left with a project that aimed to demonstrate what is gained when literature, and by extension the critical labors of literary studies, occupy a central place in our approach to the history of ideas. As I started spending more time with materials that we would now classify as either literary or scientific,  I realized that I needed to take what poets and dramatists were saying on their own terms: that poesie—the art that dealt most prominently with the unverifiable, the intangible, and even the non-existent—offers distinctive ways of thinking and has its own conceptual, methodological, and ontological terrain. Sidney’s Defense of Poesy—where he posits that poets deal with “what may be and should be”—thus became a foundational text for my project, and its provocations about literary existence, truth, and knowledge offered me a fresh entry point into questions of early modern epistemology. While initially I thought I was contributing primarily to literature/science studies, during my time at the Folger it became clear that Possible Knowledge could also intervene in debates about poetry and poetics: by arguing that literary form can reshape our understanding of intellectual history, as well as histories and philosophies of science.

Title page of Sir Philip Sidney's
Sir Philip Sidney, An apologie for poetrie Folger STC 22534, copy 1, title page

What couldn’t you find that you expected to find? Can you give us examples?

As I had been conceptualizing what “possible knowledge” means, I had hoped to find more direct usage of terms such as “possible” and “possibility” as categories of early modern knowledge production. I realized soon, however, that “possible” was not a term that circulated in the same way as others (such as “experience,” or “probable”) whose intellectual meanings evolved in this period, and whose critical histories scholars have been tracing the last few decades. Instead, I had to gather ideas and concepts from different discourses and disciplines to define possible knowledge. Thus, I looked at grammatical manuals (particularly discussions of the potential mood) and logical treatises (which discuss modal claims of possibility and necessity, for instance), and I examined a series of neighboring concepts—like the potential, the predictive, and the counterfactual—in various works. I also explored in more detail how different practices of literary worldbuilding (Spenser describes his allegorical worldmaking as the construction of what “might best be,” for example) intersected with concepts circulating in other disciplines and media. Looking back, I can now say that the archival silence around the word “possible” was evidence of the problem itself: “possible knowledge” was not merely a keyword but was rather a multivalent concept from which various knowledge-making practices emerged, and around which literary innovation clustered.

In what ways did the Folger scholarly community advance your work?

The Folger community shaped the work in both formal and informal ways: from tea time conversations to exchanging chapters with other fellows to the first presentation of the material that now forms the central argument of the book. I received formative advice about how to structure the book and feedback on key conceptual issues from the other fellows in residence. Informal conversations with readers, as well as the local scholarly community, expanded the range of materials I looked at in the archives and reframed several ideas about texts I thought I knew well. The curators and staff members at the Folger were extremely helpful in guiding me to things I would not have thought to study otherwise; their expertise and knowledge were instrumental shaping the contours of my book and also sparking ideas for new projects.

Double page opening of an early modern book in blackletter type
William Lily, A shorte introduction of grammar, 1568 Folger STC 15614.3, sig. B2v-B3r

What advice do you have for early career scholars working at the Folger or peer collections?

From my first visit as a graduate student, I have found the Folger to be an incredibly welcoming space for early career scholars—you experience this most clearly in the Folger Institute’s various programs, so I’d encourage early career scholars to take advantage of these offerings (especially programs geared towards graduate students, like the Dissertation Seminar). These events offer wonderful ways to learn about new topics and connect with others who have similar interests. I’d also encourage early career scholars to interact broadly with other readers, to meet with the library staff, and to explore the collections widely. It is such a gift to be in the library itself: so, whenever possible, try to explore things beyond your immediate projects, and let the materials drive your ideas.

Do you have other illuminating questions that we should be asking?

I am grateful for this opportunity to reflect on how the Folger and its varied communities shaped my research. As someone who benefited from access to the library’s resources at an early stage in my career, I am very excited by the ways in which the Folger has tried to reimagine its fellowship program and made it more accessible and flexible. I hope the library continues to think in new ways about broadening its community to those who might have varied needs and require different kinds of support and resources, and who might not have the capacity to be in DC for extended periods of time. It’s exciting to imagine the new kinds of knowledge such expanded opportunities might make possible, and to see how the expansive resources of the Folger can enhance and reorient an even wider range of projects.

double page opening of a hand written recipe book. the recipes on each page are written in different handwritings.
Cookbook of Susanna Packe, 1674 Folger MS V.a.215, p.222-223


Below find an excerpt from the Introduction to Dr. Sarkar’s book Possible Knowledge: The Literary Forms of Early Modern Science (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2023), pp.1-4.

Living through the slow collapse of the Aristotelian cosmos, early modern thinkers felt long-prevailing ideas of truth and reality shifting under their feet.1 The expressions of skepticism, doubt, and even bewilderment that pervade Renaissance writing (in discourses ranging from natural philosophy to theology to political theory) convey the unease of a culture struggling to cope with this widespread sense of incertitude. The stakes, after all, were immense. Not only were novel theories like Copernicus’s heliocentrism aggravating feelings of uncertainty by remodeling the cosmos, they were also displacing both earth and humans from the center of the universe. Even as early modern thinkers gradually developed techniques to reckon with a world that might remain essentially unknowable (English naturalists, one familiar argument goes, thrived amid this period of epistemic uncertainty by embracing probabilistic and empirical methods to manifest the workings of the physical world), they had to confront an even more fundamental—and profoundly more disturbing—prospect: that their own existential status in the cosmos was, in consequence, precarious. This dual crisis of epistemological uncertainty and ontological precarity could not be resolved merely by studying what was manifest, perceivable, or even probable. Instead, as this book shows, writers and thinkers became fascinated by the capacious domain of the “possible.” Possible Knowledge studies the radical ingenuity of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English writers who mobilized acts of literary worldmaking to forge new theories of physical and metaphysical reality during this period of intellectual ferment. By treating poesy—a general early modern term for literature—as the engine of a dynamic intellectual paradigm,2 this book explores how the imaginative allure of the “possible” reshaped central problems of Renaissance thought, including relations between words and things, between form and matter, even between self and world.

Possible Knowledge approaches the “possible” not as a singular keyword but as a pluralistic concept that incorporates notions of contingency, open-endedness, suspension, incompletion, and futurity. Simultaneously ubiquitous and ungrounded, everywhere and nowhere, the term “possible” is one of those untheorized concepts that pervades Renaissance discourse.3 Period linguists defined “possible” simply as “that may be.”4 The term, however, adumbrates non-actualized states of being ranging from the potential to the hypothetical, and from the counterfactual to the predictive and the prophetic. The “possible” is an assemblage of imaginative habits of thought and action that enabled writers to grapple with the challenges of constructing knowledge in and about an incomprehensible world. While there was no unified early modern theory of the possible, my phrase “possible knowledge” evokes the shared epistemology that is crafted in and through literary form. Writers including Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, Margaret Cavendish, and John Milton negotiate the loss of philosophical certainty that pervades early modern intellectual culture by marshaling the knowledge-making potential of poesy, an enterprise that claimed this mosaic of the “possible”—in all its variety—as its ontological compass.

Philip Sidney’s The Defence of Poesy (ca. 1581) is a foundational text for theorizing possible knowledge. Sidney’s writing and figure loomed large in the English cultural imaginary in the years after his death in 1586, and his treatise outlined an influential series of claims about poetic existence, truth, and knowledge that offer a provocative intervention in the problem of early modern uncertainty. In the epigraph that opens this introduction, Sidney describes the labors of poiesis by carving out a special ontological status for poetry: the poetic world is opposed to what exists or will be proven to exist, since poets “borrow nothing of what is, hath been, or shall be” and deal, rather, with the “consideration of what may be and should be” (26). In this formulation, poesy does not merely represent or explain reality. Instead, at its most ambitious, it envisions a reality that could be otherwise, suggesting a literary epistemology that understands knowledge as conceivable rather than verifiable, practical rather than theorized, ongoing rather than perfected, particular rather than universal. The Defence further insists that such possible and ideal spheres of existence cannot be disentangled from how they come into being. It is the poet’s act of “freely ranging only within the zodiac of his own wit” (24) that enables them to “grow in effect another nature” (23). The poet’s peculiar deed of “rang[ing]” beyond what “is,” “hath been,” and “shall be” is therefore instrumental to “figuring forth” (25) entities that have an asymptotic relation to actuality. Yoking together the activities of poetic making and the worlds they produce, Sidney hints that the ontology of poesy is inseparable from its methods of becoming.

Written at the cusp of the so-called Scientific Revolution,5 Sidney’s “pitiful defence of poor poetry” (18) defines literature as an intellectual pursuit by comparing the poet’s scope and practices to the work of other knowledge producers. This method of definition by comparison prompts Sidney to claim the domain of the “possible” as the space in which literature asserts its authority. The Defence compares the work of the poet to that of the historian, moral philosopher, musician, arithmetician, geometrician, astronomer, logician, rhetorician, lawyer, grammarian, metaphysic, and physician, and as scholars have demonstrated, Sidney’s poet is interested in topics and methods of inquiry that also occupy contemporary natural philosophers.6 He compares physical and poetic realms, and he argues that the poet’s ability to exceed the “brazen” world of “Nature” to “deliver a golden” (24) one liberates them from the limits within which all other artists and philosophers have to work.7 While figures such as the astronomer, the geometrician, the arithmetician, the musician, the natural and moral philosopher, and the physician are “tied” to the “subjection [of nature],” the poet, “lifted up with the vigour of his own invention, doth grow in effect another nature, in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in nature” (23).8 This capacity to produce “another nature” characterizes the compass of an art that professes a practical ethics—poesy operates “with the end of well-doing and not of well-knowing only” (29). Aiming toward praxis (“well-doing”) and not merely gnosis (“well-knowing”),9 poesy’s conjuration of what “may be” and “should be” is, in Sidney’s formulation, directed toward reshaping the actual world. At a moment when the epistemic value of poesy was at best unsettled, and at worst summarily dismissed,10 the Defence flaunts the art’s audacious intellectual ambitions by indicating that while disciplines like natural philosophy might explain the physical world, imaginative writing could remake reality.

My book constructs the paradigm of “possible knowledge” by turning to works of English poesy that are as unabashed about their ambitions as Sidney’s Defence; writers from Spenser to Milton mobilized the ontological affordances of literary form to generate methods of learning that were coextensive with the kinds of worlds they engendered.11 The “knowledge” of my title is not one static concept that exists across, or a singular idea to be extracted from, different forms of literary writing. Instead, “possible knowledge” encompasses the mobile and unpredictable energies that constitute varied practices of literary worldbuilding. “Knowledge,” in other words, refers to methods of poiesis rather than to a perfected artifact. I excavate this polyvalent paradigm from notions and practices that are embedded in, and that morph across, the generic forms of romance, tragedy, utopia, lyric, and epic. The abstract definition of “possible knowledge” thus emerges from the diverse structures and techniques (stylistic, rhetorical, formal, and discursive) intrinsic to literary texts themselves. I treat imaginative intellectual modes—such as hypothesis, prophecy, prediction, probability, conjecture, conditionals, and counterfactuals—as instruments of possible knowledge that span these genres: epic events in Paradise Lost serve as units of learning that ex- pose the limitations of probabilistic experiments, for instance, while the certainty of prophecy in Macbeth remains contingent on the teleological unfolding of tragic form. In particular, I illustrate how formal techniques typical of different genres of literary writing undergird the imaginative dimensions of scientific experiment, induction, and theories of probability. For instance, I show how the error and endlessness that govern Spenserian romance are at the heart of Baconian induction, and I trace how Cavendish’s utopian thought experiment rewrites premodern physics. The phrase “possible knowledge” constellates the ways in which literary writing generated forms of thinking vital to the exchange of ideas about natural and imaginary worlds at a moment when astronomers and natural philosophers were grappling with new accounts of the cosmos. By arguing that we cannot separate the ontology of literature—what literature is—from the ways of thinking that govern poetic production, this book prompts literary scholars to reclaim poesy as a philosophical mode of being and knowing. And by documenting the deeply literary life of early modern uncertainty, a topic that has long fascinated scholars across disciplines, Possible Knowledge offers a defense of poiesis as a vibrant philosophical endeavor.

  1. On the intellectual climate “when the settled Aristotelian, Galenic, and Ptolemaic accounts of how the universe worked began to fall apart and the new ideas that would replace them were still inchoate and in flux,” see Mary Thomas Crane, Losing Touch with Nature: Literature and the New Science in Sixteenth-Century England (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), 2. On how there was no swift reorientation of knowledge or an immediate embrace of new phi- losophies in the period, see Katherine Eggert, Disknowledge: Literature, Alchemy, and the End of Humanism in Renaissance England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), esp. 2–3.
  2. I use the terms “fiction,” “literature,” and “imaginative writing” interchangeably to refer to what early moderns term “poesy” or “poesie.” I draw on Philip Sidney, who states that “it is not rhyming and versing that maketh a poet” but “feigning notable images.” A Defence of Poetry, ed. Jan Van Dorsten (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966), 27. All citations of the Defence are from this edition and hereafter cited parenthetically by page number. Francis Bacon echoes this claim: while “verse is but a character of style,” poesy is “feigned history or fables.” De Augmentis, in The Works of Francis Bacon, ed. James Spedding, Robert Leslie Ellis, and Douglas Denon Heath, 15 vols. (London: Longman, 1857–64), 4:292.
  3. Although I do not pursue a cultural keywords or critical semantics approach, “possible” does fit into the category of ordinary words that Roland Greene speculates can “produce a fresh and compelling version of the period.” Five Words: Critical Semantics in the Age of Shakespeare and Cervantes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 12.
  4. John Florio, A VVorlde of Wordes, Or most Copious, and Exact Dictionarie in Italian and English (London: By Arnold Hatfield for Edw. Blount, 1598), s.v. “possible,” Early English Books Online (hereafter EEBO); Claudius Hollyband, A Dictionarie French and English: Published for the Benefite of the Studious in that Language (London: Imprinted at London by T. O. for Thomas Woodcock, 1593), s.v. “possible,” EEBO. The OED’s first definition elaborates on this formulation: “That is capable of being; that may or can exist, be done, or happen (in general, or in given or as- sumed conditions or circumstances); that is in a person’s power, that a person can do, exert, use, etc.” Oxford English Dictionary Online (Oxford: Oxford University Press, March 2022), s.v. “possible, adj., adv., and n.” For the definition of “possibility” as the “condition or quality of being possible,” see OED Online, s.v. “possibility, n.”
  5. Steven Shapin deconstructs the term in the first line of The Scientific Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996): “There was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution, and this is a book about it” (1).
  6. For representative examples of Sidney’s importance in literature/science studies, see Elizabeth Spiller, Science, Reading, and Renaissance Literature: The Art of Making Knowledge, 1580– 1670 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 24–44; Henry S. Turner, The English Renaissance Stage: Geometry, Poetics, and the Practical Spatial Arts, 1580–1630 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 82–113; and Eggert, Disknowledge, 206–10. There is a rich body of scholarship on the philosophical influences and resonances in the Defence. For instance, whether Sidney’s theories of poetry are Aristotelian or Platonic, or a mixture of both, has occupied critics for a long time. See S. K. Heninger Jr., Sidney and Spenser: The Poet as Maker (University Park: Penn- sylvania State University Press, 1989); A. C. Hamilton, “Sidney’s Idea of the ‘Right Poet,’” Comparative Literature 9, no. 1 (1957): 51–59; John P. McIntyre, “Sidney’s ‘Golden World,’” Comparative Literature 14, no. 4 (1962): 356–65; and Morriss Henry Partee, “Sir Philip Sidney and the Renais- sance Knowledge of Plato,” English Studies 51, no. 5 (1970): 411–24.
  7. For the golden world as an idea, see Michael Mack, Sidney’s Poetics: Imitating Creation (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2005), 124–26, 139–56. For the relationship of the golden world to England, see Spiller, Science, Reading, and Renaissance Literature, 24–45. See also Ronald Levao, “Sidney’s Feigned Apology,” PMLA 94, no. 2 (1979): 223–33, for the relationship between the ideal and the actual.
  8. In The Art of English Poesy, ed. Frank Whigham and Wayne A. Rebhorn (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007), George Puttenham offers a slightly different understanding of the poet’s relation to other thinkers. He elaborates on the topic: “How the poets were the first philosophers, the first astronomers, and historiographers, and orators, and musicians of the world” (98).
  9. See also Sidney, A Defence of Poetry, 39.
  10. Criticisms took various forms, ranging from Stephen Gosson’s The Schoole of Abuse (London: By [Thomas Dawson for] Thomas VVoodcocke, 1579) to Theseus’s declaration in A Midsummer Night’s Dream that the poet “gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name” (5.1.16–17). The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al., 3rd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 2016). All citations of Shakespeare’s plays are from this edition and given by act, scene, and line number in the text.
  11. I draw on Caroline Levine’s definition of affordance as “potential uses or actions latent in materials and designs.” Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015), 6.