I am a PhD candidate at Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge, working on my Wellcome-funded research project “The Doctrine of Signatures in Early Modern Medical Practice.” My project explores the doctrine of signatures as a practical method in medical recipes, alchemical experiments and natural-historical information management in early modern Europe, and its survival into modern science. It approaches questions concerning Renaissance analogical worldview and early modern magic-science transition from the perspective of practice, and pays particular attention to the temporalities behind our conventional image of “the doctrine of signatures” today. In addition to the early modern era, I also study twentieth-century intellectual history, particularly in the circle of art historian Aby Warburg (1866-1929), and have a broad interest in anthropology, media theories and contemporary philosophy.

Before coming to Cambridge, I have been a curator and researcher of contemporary art in Beijing. I have worked as convenor of New Media Research Group at Center for Visual Studies, Peking University, and have published several journal articles and reviews on contemporary art, media theories, and laboratories in art and science. I hold a BPhil in philosophy and classical studies from Peking University, and an MPhil in history of science from Cambridge.

I am also a Cambridge Data Champion and I provide training and advices in research data management (RDM) and digital humanities. As Data Champion I seek to explore how techniques of data management shaped our perspectives, methodologies, and construction of research objects. I am the founder of the History of Science Library, a public Zotero library for history of science and a resource hub for data management in humanities.

Email: xw360@cam.ac.uk

Blog Posts


    The Doctrine of Signatures in Early Modern Medical Practice (Wellcome Trust Doctoral Scholarship, 221115/Z/20/Z)

    A walnut looks like a brain, and therefore could cure brain diseases — in pharmaceutical science and natural remedies today, a traditional medicinal idea “doctrine of signatures” is widely cited, which holds that plants’ morphological resemblance to human organs indicate their curative effects. While this doctrine was often described as an ancient, traditional and even pre-historical idea, it was only first conceptualised as a full-blown theory by Swiss physician Paracelsus and gained its name, the “doctrine of signatures (Signaturenlehre),” from Paracelsus and theologian Jakob Böhme. From the historical introduction of John Ayrton Paris’s Pharmacologia (1822) to Philippe Descola’s “Analogical Ontology” (2013 [2005]), the doctrine of signatures has been constantly constructed as a premodern paradigm of thoughts that connected plants, animals and men with analogies, in opposition to any scientific world view. Today in historical scholarship, the doctrine of signatures has been frequently mentioned as a medical philosophy, an emblematic world view or allegorical reading of nature; yet it has not been systematically examined in early modern therapeutic practices, from chymical laboratories to household recipes. Meanwhile, despite being famously rejected by some influential scientists such as John Ray, this doctrine’s persistent influence on late seventeenth-century botanical and medical sciences has often been undermined.

    This project aims to penetrate layers of myths concerning the doctrine of signatures, and historicise this doctrine in practices of early modern alchemy, medicine and natural history. It primarily focuses on German-speaking areas and England in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, while taking the broader temporal and geographical scale into consideration. It will challenge the treatment of this doctrine as a monolithic cosmology, and instead approach it as a fluid, malleable set of ideas and practices developed and transformed throughout the time. In the first chapter, it will present an “archaeology” of the invention of our common conception of the doctrine of signatures today, following a reversed timeline from nineteenth-century colonial medicine to the “survival of antiquity” in Renaissance. In the second chapter, it will examine the doctrine of signatures against the dynamics between pathologies and therapeutics in medical practitioners from Paracelsian chymists to household recipe authors. In the third chapter, it will identify the influence of this doctrine in late seventeenth-century sciences from microscopy to plant physiology, and discuss its Janus face as both science and superstition.

    Upcoming Talks and Conferences

    The Doctrine of Signatures in Early Modern Medicine,” Public Lecture available on YouTube. British Society for the History of Pharmacy, 25 April 2022.

    Xinyi Wen

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