Spolsky, Ellen. Satisfying Skepticism: Embodied Knowledge in Early Modern Europe. Aldershot, Hampshire; Ashgate, 2001. 239pp. ISBN 0 7546 0374 1.

Pramod K. Nayar
University of Hyderabad

Nayar, Pramod K. "Review of Ellen Spolsky, Satisfying Skepticism: Embodied Knowledge in Early Modern Europe." Early Modern Literary Studies 10.2 (September, 2004) 6.1-8 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/10-2/revspol.htm>.


  1. Ellen Spolsky, working with cognitive science, philosophies of knowledge and iconology, suggests that skepticism and knowledge were two important axes along which writers-artists as diverse as Caravaggio and Philip Sidney arranged themselves.

  2. In her introductory chapter Spolsky outlines the forms of skepticism (Pyrrhonic and academic/intellectual), and her basic approach - to see how art forms such as Caravaggio's realism, the tragedy, and the pastoral actually contain within them important comments on circulating ideas of knowledge. Her basic argument occurs in chapter 7: "the particular dilemma of the early modern skeptic, then, is to be caught between the need for and the recognition of the power of evidence from all the senses, just at the time when the movement toward religious reform was declaring them illegitimate, banning and widely destroying them" (137).

  3. Reading Shakespeare's Coriolanus, Spolsky argues that Coriolanus's refusal to "exhibit" his wounds is rooted in prevalent systems of cultural knowledge. Drawing on the figure of Doubting Thomas in Shakespeare's own time, she shows Coriolanus to be a "failed saviour". Reading Othello, Spolsky argues that the woman's body becomes the source of knowledge. Iago, notes Spolsky, generates visual imaginings for Othello. Spolsky concludes: "Othello is the victim of his own powerful ability to go beyond simple misinterpretation of visual interpretation" (68).

  4. Spolsky argues that Renaissance erotic pastoral (she takes Tasso, the minor playwright Lewis Machin, and Longus' Daphnis and Chloe as examples) was actually an attempt to negotiate the tension between country and city. Spolsky's virtuoso reading demonstrates how the country was seen as the site of knowledge - primarily sexual - different in quality from the city's book-learning. Pastoral art promises rare knowledge and this accounts for its popularity in the early modern period: "the pastoral genre argues that baring nature to vision, although it allows sin, can also teach, and not just about sex" (129). Spolsky looks at numerous visual representations of the Susanna tale, and notes the significance of Daniel's role in constructing a whole epistemological model. Pastoral conventions contribute significantly to the way in which Susanna's body (and that of the old voyeuristic elders and the youthful Daniel) becomes a space of knowledge organization. Moving on to Dutch landscape art, Spolsky draws a link between pastoralism, seventeenth-century iconoclasm and skepticism. She suggests that each of these relies on the viewer's ability to make analogies through her/his body.

  5. According to Spolsky, in the Arcadia Philip Sidney was attempting the movement from unknowing to knowing. Sidney, writing when Catholic-Protestant tensions ran high, offers a 'Protestant utopia' (172), where the sensual and the erotic image could be used to teach moral behaviour. This argument is extended to what Spolsky calls "Protestant tragicomedy": Sidney and other pastoral artists of his time were unable to resolve the paradox that while images can teach, they cannot always control what they teach.

  6. Spolsky's is a valuable addition to cultural studies of the early modern period. Her attention to textual evidence, larger "processes" of historical change, and the resolute interdisciplinarity make this a fascinating read. Textual readings of Othello or the comic pastoral, for instance, demonstrate how early modern epistemology informed - and was in turn informed by - by theological debates, considerations of public good, monarchic and aristocratic needs and prejudices. Spolsky's work explores the discursive limits of early modern epistemology and skepticism while locating them in the historical conditions that constructed these limits.

  7. This historical consciousness makes it puzzling as to why there are, at least in my reading, three significant omissions in Spolsky. First, there is almost no discussion of the arrival of printing and its impact on theories of knowledge in early modern Europe (Elizabeth Eisenstein and Nigel Wheale's work are crucial here). Spolsky refers to the private "readings" of Sidney and the massive public spectacles of London shows, but ignores, for instance, the large increase in printed material available for consumption, or the changes in literacy patterns. Secondly, in a book on "embodied" knowledge there is no mention of the increased medicalization of the body and the emergent notion of the body-politic in early modern Europe (Jonathan Gil Harris' work is exemplary in its reading of this aspect of early modern "body politics"). Thirdly, the rise of political arithmetic in the early modern period marked a significant move in the way the counted/counting body was viewed. These are useful additional contexts for Spolsky's otherwise remarkable readings.

  8. In any case, Satisfying Skepticism, with its engaging readings of theological tracts, literary texts and visual art signifies a large step forward in our understanding of the early modern period.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2004-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).