When Leibniz wrote to his friend, Bierling, on July 7th 1711 and asked what Dr. Kaempfer was up to, anxious to read his latest work, he was probably referring to Amoenitates Exoticae of 1712. A German naturalist and physician, Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716) traveled Holland, Sweden and Russia amongst other places, and he had been compiling the book for publication for over two decades now. That Leibniz was much interested in learning about his travels can be seen from another letter written to Leibniz by Nicolaas Witsen where he informed Leibniz “he had read the work with pleasure.”
Like Linnaeus in Sweden, Krasheninnikov on Kamtschatka and the Academy of Sciences in Russia, Kaempfer’s aim was to collect factual data in the native islands and compile them in an encyclopedic manner what people practiced, believed and knew in the regions. Just as Linnaeus was systematically gathering data on botany, Kaempfer, although not a systematist like him, also collected and valued each piece of information in its own light. His observational writing style perhaps resembles that of Krasheninnikov in that he not only states facts objectively but also inserts his impressions on the subject matters. In these sense, Kaempfer’s project was much the same as those who came decades after him: expansion, and consequently accumulation, of factual data as scientific knowledge so the later generation could benefit from it. What is of a particular interest to me is his The History of Japan, published posthumously in 1727 in London. He had traveled to Japan from 1690 to 1692, and recorded what he saw in a great detail. His two years residence in Japan afforded him with a rich account of how people lived their everyday life in the minutest detail, supplying “more detail on this topic than any Japanese source, for he describes the commonplace, which no Japanese bothered to record at the time.” The nature of observation made is compatible with the interests of scientific institutions throughout Europe, that is, a record of anything that could be of any use. For instance, he records of how Japanese people believed the “bony little sword at the tail” of a sting ray to be “an antidote against snake bites,” and that “Japanese carry it in their breast pocket for this purpose with other house medicines.” On another occasion, he tells us that Japanese believe turtles to be “an auspicious and the most noble animal among the amphibians with shell and feet” for their longevity. What may seemingly be a frivolous observation can, however, reveal quite a lot about the society in the region. For instance, from the former quote, we can learn not only that the tail of sting ray was used as an antidote against snake bites, but also that it was something people carry around with them. Especially since there are so few writings on the 17th century Japanese medical practices, his information about how a certain fish (i.e. Funa) was used for a cure against worms, how the empty shells of cicadas are “collected and used for medicinal purposes,” and how specific types of snakes (i.e. Hibakari, or natrix vibakari; boie) are “preserved in close-up pots, calcined, [so] it produces a famous powder, daoso, which is used internally for a variety of illnesses” is particularly valuable for scholars working on early modern Japanese medical history. That consuming fugu fish is a potentially dangerous thing is commonly known to us, but we could not have known unless we are in the culture that “[p]eople who are weary of life because of an incurable illness prepares themselves a final meal from the unwashed meat of the fish” for its being kind of delicacy food.
In the ways in which he compiled what he saw, hence, was very much in line with, and also was at the very heart of, any natural philosophers’ project at that time to discover and understand other parts of the world that had not previously been explored. Kaempfer, in this sense, might have been the pioneer in ‘periphery science.’
Beatrice M. Bodart-Bailey, ed., Kaempfer’s Japan, trans. Bodart-Bailey (USA: University of Hawai’i Press, 1999), 1. Leibniz to Bierling, 7 July 1711 in C. I. Gerhardt, Die Philosophischen Schriften von Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (Hildesheim, 1961; facsimile Berlin 1890 edition), 7:499. (translation by Bodart-Bailey)
 Ibid., 7. Nicolaas Witsen was a learned mayor of Amsterdam.
 Malcolm Oster, ed., chapters 12-13 in Science in Europe, 1500-1800: A Primary Sources Reader and A Secondary Sources Reader, (NY: The Open University, 2002).
 Bodart-Bailey, Kaempfer’s Japan, 10.
 Ibid., 80.
 Ibid., 81. It’s hard to imagine if this means anything, for instance, how just how many ‘amphibians with shells and feet’ are there, other than turtles?
 Ibid., 79.
 Ibid., 73.
 Ibid., 73.
 Ibid, 78-79.