If you’ve come across this page hoping to find a large, all-inclusive history of technical communication, you’ll be disappointed. This page is for Professor Doss’s Sept. 25th British Renaissance Literature class on “The Emergence of Technical Writing in the Renaissance.” Please refer to Elizabeth Tebeaux’s and Bernadette Longo’s work in the References section at the bottom of this page for more thorough histories of technical communication.
Plan for the Class (9/25)
- Discuss technology
- Renaissance Tradition of technical communication
What is Technical Communication?
Before we get into the “communication” part of the phrase, let me ask you what you know about technical writing.
Definitions for today’s discussion:
- technical communication
- positivism: the theory that one can know the world, find truth in nature based on observation (this is what science privileges).
- vernacular: in Western culture, this refers to languages (English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, etc.) spoken by the masses as opposed to Latin.
For the rest of class, we’ll discuss some of the roots of technical writing in the Renaissance, a time of renewed pursuits of science and technology and expanded literacy. Be aware that the social (which always includes economic) changes influencing (I’ll say mediating) literature and the arts broadly will also influence pursuits and dissemination of scientific knowledge.
Consider what you hope to get, learn, research, etc. in your pursuits of knowledge in school. Is school the only place to receive or explore knowledge?
The elite European scholars followed the Scholasticism, which was an attempt to reconcile Aristotelianism with Christian dogma. During the Middle Ages, European universities used the dialectic method for instruction. Renaissance scholars, many of whom were instructed in scholastic techniques, found the system to be outdated and promoted new schools of thought. One of the biggest reformers was Francis Bacon (not to be confused with bacon or Kevin Bacon). Bacon believed that old ways of thinking were holding science and, especially, the mechanical (or useful or industrial) arts back–technology. In Bacon’s famous work The Great Instauration, he argues
Observe also, that if sciences of this kind had any life in them, that could never have come to pass which has been the case now for many ages — that they stand almost at a stay, without receiving any augmentations worthy of the human race, insomuch that many times not only what was asserted once is asserted still, but what was a question once is a question still, and instead of being resolved by discussion is only fixed and fed; and all the tradition and succession of schools is still a succession of masters and scholars, not of inventors and those who bring to further perfection the things invented. In the mechanical arts we do not find it so; they, on the contrary, as having in them some breath of life, are continually growing and becoming more perfect. (Preface, para. 1)
What does that mean? Below is a more efficient way to communicate Bacon’s words:
- Science isn’t advancing and has been fixed for centuries
- Science hasn’t been able to answer some questions
- Education is stagnant because scholars repeat the “wisdom” of the past without reflecting upon that wisdom or testing its usefulness
- Inventors are the ones attempting to bring forth new ideas and perfect old, stagnant knowledge
- Technology is advancing because those pursuing the “mechanical arts” continually innovate, leading to more perfect tools (or knowledge)
In the 20th Century, Thomas Kuhn explains that scientific revolutions come about when the prevailing paradigm can no longer answer questions scientists explore.
- Paolo Rossi, an important biographer of Francis Bacon, “described…Bacon’s overriding aim ‘was to redeem man from original sin and reinstate him in his prelapsarian power over all created things’’’(as cited in Noble 1999, p. 50).
- According to Rossi, Bacon assumed ‘‘[m]ost mechanical arts originate from
observations of nature or natural phenomena—for indeed nature is ‘art’s mirror’’’ (p. 155).
- ‘‘Because Bacon’s scientific method was grounded in biblical teachings, experimenters could explore natural phenomena without fearing that they blasphemed by seeking to upset God’s plan on earth’’ (Longo 2000, p. 41).
Bacon’s plan, therefore, is to convince audiences that nature can be directly conceived from an observer’s prose. Therefore, Bacon adhered to positivism.
Elizabeth Tebeaux’s History of Technical Writing
If I heard Professor Doss correctly, he wants us to focus on this more than the history above, but we needed to have some context. Elizabeth Tebeaux (1996) argues that technical writing emerges from the Renaissance due, in part, because of the social change from feudalism to a more market-oriented economy (p. 9). Below are select quotations for our discussion:
- Tebeaux argues ‘‘expanding literacy created a demand for books in the vernacular’’ (p. 4).
- Tebeaux found ‘‘The answer to the demands of the middle-class readers for practical information appeared in the form of the handbook, the manual or guidebook (p.10).
- Tebeaux noted that a small market existed for books for experts, but a larger market existed ‘‘for books that provided more general instructions for less skilled readers’’ (p. 118).
- Who were these experts? In what institutions might one find them?
- Who would have need “more general instruction”? To which specific occupations might these books be aimed?
- Tebeaux noted ‘‘Writing and printing helped disseminate knowledge to an ever widening circle of newly literate readers who came to depend on the text rather than orally dominated instruction for usable information’’ (p. 177).
- Tebeaux noticed ‘‘[T]echnology developed in response to need, and technology and literacy seemed to nurture one another’’ (p. 133).
- Both readers and writers of English Renaissance technical books had to assume language could transmit accurate perceptions of the natural (as in the case of science) and mechanical (as in the case of technology) worlds. Tebeaux argued ‘‘Renaissance technical writers, without question, had a universalist view of language’’ (pp. 244–245)
- Tebeaux argued ‘‘it was not science with its attempt to capture truth precisely in words which led to the rise of plain style but an increasingly literate public that needed books written in spoken English for self-enhancement’’ (p. 169).
- Tebeaux noted that ‘‘[a]llusions to God declined’’ as the Renaissance progressed, but ‘‘early Renaissance technical writing recognized the role of God’s grace in all work and asked God’s blessing on all forms of human endeavor’’ (p. 13).
- Such a commitment reflects hegemonic forces in the culture.
Remember, today’s discussion was mainly to get you to think about the origins of technical communication. The historical information doesn’t scratch the surface of how the Renaissance contributed to humanistic values we hold today. The more you pursue knowledge, the more you should realize what you don’t know…(if you were in class, you’d understand that last conundrum).
Longo, B. (2000). Spurious coin: A history of science, management, and technical writing.
Albany: State University of New York Press.
Noble, D. F. (1999). The religion of technology: The divinity of man and the spirit of invention. New York: Penguin. (Original work published in 1997).
Rossi, P. (1968). Francis Bacon: From magic to science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (S. Rabinovitch, Trans.).
Tebeaux, E. (1996). The emergence of a tradition: Technical writing in the English renaissance (1475–1640). Amityville, NY: Baywood.