Reading the Human Psyche: A History of Technologies

International Doctoral and Postdoctoral Seminar at Halle (Saale), Germany

Organized by the Francke Foundations in Halle  in cooperation with Dr. Simon Grote (Wellesley College) and Dr. Kelly Whitmer (Sewanee: the University of the South)

Advances in neuroscience, surveillance, and data-analysis offer the promise of unfettered access to the secrets of the individual human psyche. With the help of technology, our inner psychic lives — our mental habits, our linguistic patterns, our memories, our desires and tastes, our intentions — may become legible to ourselves and to others with unprecedented clarity.  To encourage a critical and historically well-informed perspective on this prospect, free from assumptions about the inevitability of humanity’s progress toward mastery over nature, the Francke Foundations in Halle will host a two-week summer seminar on the long history of technologies for reading the human psyche in the early modern period, broadly understood.  Doctoral candidates and junior scholars whose current research relates to this history, in any relevant discipline (including history, literature, religion, art history/visual studies, theater studies, philosophy, musicology, and the history of science and technology, among others), are invited to apply.

Conducted entirely in English, the seminar will consist of twenty-four sessions, usually ninety minutes long, involving discussion of pre-circulated readings and of relevant objects from the magnificent rare book and manuscript collections of the Francke Foundations.  The final three days will be devoted to the work-in-progress of the participants, each of whom will present to the group a technology for reading the human psyche central to their current research.  Throughout the seminar, discussions will be supplemented by cultural excursions; introductions to Halle’s other outstanding collections of early modern books, manuscripts, and objects; and time for individual research and study.

The seminar will begin with two days of intensive, critical discussion of foundational scholarship (by Michel Foucault, Bruno Latour, and Ian Hacking, among others), in which methods of reading the human psyche in the early modern period are described as technologies of self-cultivation and social control.  For the remainder of the seminar, participants will apply the insights of this and other, more recent scholarship to the investigation of actual technologies, aiming to understand each technology’s origins; the institutional and cultural contexts of its development and application; and its creators’ and users’ purposes, interests, world-views, and presuppositions about the anatomy of the human mind and body.  The result will be a large set of case studies, analyzed comparatively in light of the best current research in the history of early modern science and technology.  Applicable both to the participants’ ongoing research and to any relevant teaching they may have the opportunity to do, these case studies will be chosen by the conveners and the seminar participants from a vast range of early modern possibilities, including:

  • spiritual autobiography
  • visual and textual meditation
  • theories and practices of affective communication in music and theater
  • the history of costume
  • diary- and letter-writing
  • commonplace books
  • confession and penance
  • spiritual medicine and pastoral care
  • theories of the soul and anatomies of the passions
  • experimental and observational methods and regimens of self-cultivation
  • thinking machines and artificial life
  • pedagogical methods within educational institutions
  • interrogation methods in inquisitional and other legal contexts
  • psychoanalysis and other psychotherapeutic methods
  • asylums and the history of madness
  • physiognomy and phrenology
  • eugenics and other tools of social engineering
  • techniques of diplomacy and espionage
  • state surveillance and policing
  • commercial surveillance
  • advertising and consumer culture

The Francke Foundations will accept up to ten applicants for participation in the seminar. All will be offered dormitory-style lodging at the Francke Foundations free of charge for the duration of the seminar, a daily allowance of 30 Euros to cover the cost of food, and reimbursement of relevant travel expenses to and from Halle (as regulated by German law) up to 500 Euros.


Hosted and co-organized by the Administrative Department of Research and the August Hermann Francke Study Centre of the Francke Foundations in Halle, the seminar will be convened by Simon Grote, Associate Professor of History at Wellesley College, and Kelly J. Whitmer, Associate Professor of History at Sewanee: the University of the South.  Both are historians of early modern Europe with a special interest in cultural and intellectual history; the history of science, technology, and medicine; and the role of religion in modernity.  These interests are also reflected in their teaching, which includes undergraduate courses closely related to the subject of the seminar.

Simon Grote’s book, The Emergence of Modern Aesthetic Theory: Religion and Morality in Enlightenment Germany and Scotland (Cambridge University Press, 2017) explains why early eighteenth-century Scotland and Germany witnessed an explosion of interest in theories of beauty and the arts.  Grote presents these theories as outgrowths of a quintessentially Enlightenment project: the search for a natural “foundation of morality” based on empirically grounded theories of human psychology.  This book won the 2017 Istvan Hont Prize from the Institute of Intellectual History at the University of St. Andrews.  He has also published articles on other topics in Enlightenment intellectual history and is now working on a second book related to the seminar, provisionally titled Medicine for the Mind, or How Original Sin Became Modern.  The undergraduate courses he has developed, first at Princeton University and then at Wellesley College, include a research seminar called “Sentimental Education in Early Modern Europe,” about early modern European technologies for the cultivation of the mind and the senses, and a research seminar on mental health in European history. 

Kelly Whitmer’s book, The Halle Orphanage as Scientific Community: Observation, Eclecticism and Pietism in the Early Enlightenment (University of Chicago Press, 2015) argues for the importance of the German city of Halle’s Orphanage as a key institutional venue for the pursuit of collaborative scientific research. It focuses on the uses of models and visual pedagogies as tools for assimilating perspectives and educating able observers. Whitmer is currently working on a new book about the category of useful knowledge, youth and the pedagogies of innovation in the early modern world.  She was recently awarded a Humboldt Fellowship, which will support the completion of this project at the University of Göttingen in 2020-21. Before arriving at Sewanee she held a two-year post-doctoral fellowship at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. At Sewanee she teaches a range of courses on early modern history, the history of childhood and the history of science, technology and early modern collections, including upper-level undergraduate seminars called “Monsters, Marvels and Museums” and “Nature, Magic and Machines in the Early Modern World.”

Further Information (LINK)