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Learning to know: the educations of Richard Hakluyt and Thomas Harriot

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Richard Hakluyt (1552?–1616), cosmographer and clergyman, and Thomas Harriot (1560–1621), ethnographer, mathematician, natural philosopher and polymath, were explorers and discovers in their era’s newly-opened territories of study. Both were consumers of learning and producers of knowledge and both sought the truth insofar as human reason could grasp it. Both also contributed to the formation of what we know as modern science with its distinctive ethos of debate and proof. This paper focuses on their educations and experiences, mainly in Oxford, as they began their careers of inquiry into the ‘Book of Nature’. Along with considering the role played by humanist learning in shaping their studies of the natural world, attention will be given to Oxford’s conflicted religious and cultural climate relates and how it relates to their goals, which Hakluyt defined as ‘the certain and full discovery of the world’. For Hakluyt the ‘world’ was the earth as divinely created. For Harriot, who contributed to a diversity of fields, the ‘world’ was the universe, a new usage in the period, which took in the heavens as well as the earth. Both men shared an eirenical religious outlook, encouraged by their experiences in Oxford as well as their teachers, and both came to understand their studies of nature to represent a realm of intellectual peace where doubts could be overcome, disagreements could be reconciled, and it would be possible to know the truth with certainty using the senses as well as reason.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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