Shapiro vs Schaffer on Newton’s Prism Experiments, Pt. 2 March 24, 2011Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility, Schaffer Oeuvre.
Tags: Alan Shapiro, Bruno Latour, Edme Mariotte, Isaac Newton, Louis Pasteur, Robert Hooke, Robert Koch, Simon Schaffer
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In Pt. 1 of this post, I discussed Alan Shapiro’s 1996 criticism of Simon Schaffer’s 1989 piece “Glass Works” (first discussed on this blog here). Shapiro argued that deficiencies in Schaffer’s portrayal of objection to Newton’s experiments derived from Schaffer’s “constructivist” methodology, which made him pay too much mind to disputes over experimental results, and not enough to others’ apparent ability to replicate Newton’s experiments, nor to the theoretical context of those experiments. Per Shapiro, these factors actually led to a record of reasonable success in securing assent around Newton’s work, even among Newton’s intellectual competitors. I argued that taking Schaffer’s paper to constitute a fully adequate history of the reception of Newton’s work spoke past the point of Schaffer’s commentary, which was intended to elucidate historical strategies specifically surrounding instances of failure to attain assent over experimental results.
In this post, I want to expand on the key strength of Shapiro’s criticism: the importance he ascribed to synthetic accounts of history, which contrasts with the historiography of commentary espoused by Schaffer.
Shapiro vs Schaffer on Newton’s Prism Experiments, Pt. 1 March 20, 2011Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility, Schaffer Oeuvre.
Tags: Alan Shapiro, Harry Collins, Isaac Newton, Richard Westfall, Robert Boyle, Simon Schaffer, Steven Shapin, Thomas Hobbes
This post is a response to this comment by Michael Bycroft on a 2009 post on Simon Schaffer’s well-known 1989 “Glass Works” paper, which brought to my attention a reply published seven years later by historian of optics Alan Shapiro: “The Gradual Acceptance of Newton’s Theory of Light and Color,” Perspectives in Science 4 (1996): 59-140.
“Glass Works” was itself a commentary on a large body of Newton scholarship, most especially Richard Westfall’s biography, Never at Rest (1980). It explicitly made use of Harry Collins’ sociology of “calibration”, which pointed to the necessity that instruments and experimental procedures gain trust before assertions based on experimental results can be accepted. Schaffer and Steven Shapin had previously used this insight in Leviathan and the Air Pump (1985) to call attention to the basis of Thomas Hobbes’ criticism of experimental philosophy as well as to the intellectual, literary, and sociological strategies Robert Boyle used to gain assent over experimental results.
Unlike Schaffer’s commentary, Shapiro assembles a synthetic history of the acceptance and replication of Newton’s important experiment showing the elongation of the light of the sun when passed through a prism, as well as his two-prism experimentum crucis, which demonstrated that white light was composed of differently refrangible rays. (more…)
Schaffer on the Hustings, Pt. 3: Fragmentation and Consensus August 29, 2010Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
Tags: Arnold Thackray, Arthur Lovejoy, Barry Barnes, Casper Hakfoort, Charles Rosenberg, Crosbie Smith, David Kaiser, Geoffrey Cantor, Jack Morrell, James Secord, Jan Golinski, Jed Buchwald, Lorraine Daston, Martin Rudwick, Mary Douglas, Norton Wise, Simon Schaffer, Steven Shapin
This is the third and final part of a look at two of Simon Schaffer’s 1993 works, 1) “Augustan Realities: Nature’s Representatives and Their Cultural Resources in the Early Eighteenth Century”, and 2) “A Social History of Plausibility: Country, City and Calculation in Augustan Britain”. In Pt. 1 and Pt. 2, and now here in Pt. 3, the focus is on the papers’ mode of argumentation and this mode’s significance within the historiographical culture of the early 1990s.
In these papers, a historiographical malignancy is identified: an insistence on seeing a rise of reasoned polity and society, and of spaces of free inquiry; this rise is attended by a decline of false belief. This is considered a malignancy because it ignores the extensive and persistent controversies over various beliefs. The remedy, thus, is taken to be what I call “insultography”: a charting of commonalities in the polemics used to secure the boundaries of belief about what exists, or at least what is plausible. Historical “polemical work” consistently references widely acknowledged sources of credit-worthiness and discredit (in Pt. 1 these pervasive opinions are referred to as “grand cultural ideas”): religious piety, superstition, the vulgar crowds, the emotional manipulation and illusion of the theater, courtly society, bourgeois society, investment schemes, the legacy of Isaac Newton… Historians’ failure to acknowledge the historical importance of this polemical work as they chart the history of knowledge is taken to stem from their own selective credulity toward of these same polemics.
The current goal is to understand why the identified historiographical issue is considered an important malignancy and why the remedy is considered apt. As suggested in Pt. 2, portraying historiographical issues as malignancies could be used to explain a gnawing problem of historiographical craft: fragmentation. In his (free, and well worth reading) 2005 Isis article on this fragmentation phenomenon in the historiography of science, David Kaiser traced complaints about it as far back as a 1987 article by Charles Rosenberg in Isis, a 1991 Casper Hakfoort article in History of Science, and a 1993 James Secord article in BJHS. Kaiser suggested that the fragmentation was akin to specialization that occurred within the natural sciences as they expanded in the 20th century, pointing to similar patterns of growth in the recent history of the history of science discipline. (more…)
Tags: Adrian Wilson, Allon White, G. M. Trevelyan, Gaston Bachelard, Ian Watt, Joseph Ben-David, Karl Popper, Peter Burke, Peter Stallybrass, Simon Schaffer, Steven Shapin, Terry Eagleton
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Pt. 1 of this post began a discussion that stems from (but extends well beyond) two works of Simon Schaffer: 1) “Augustan Realities: Nature’s Representatives and Their Cultural Resources in the Early Eighteenth Century”; and 2) “A Social History of Plausibility: Country, City and Calculation in Augustan Britain”. These works identified misleading narratives within a broader social and cultural historiography: a rise of reasoned polity and culture, and a decline of superstition and enchantment. I suggested that in critiquing these narratives Schaffer had taken to the hustings to show how these narrative faults could be remedied by making use of then-recent insights in the historiography of science. According to Schaffer, in order for all historical beliefs (scientific or superstitious) to survive and proliferate, their proponents had to engage in polemics that portrayed the beliefs as beneficial — and opposed beliefs as dangerous — to the social order.
In a sense, Schaffer was playing a role that is quite similar to the people he was writing about. As he wrote in (1), “Representations about nature were stabilized … because … natural philosophers made their representations grip key interests within culture.” His diagnosis of a historiographical ill and offer of a remedy from the historiography of science should invite us to consider why the diagnosis and remedy were deemed apt by the critic, and why he thought it would be received as apt by his intended audience. Also, as Aaron suggested in the comments to Pt. 1, we should likewise be open to questioning who this audience really was. (more…)
Schaffer on the Hustings, Pt. 1 August 24, 2010Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
Tags: Adrian Wilson, Allon White, Ian Hacking, Michel Foucault, Nick Jardine, Peter Stallybrass, Simon Schaffer, Thomas Kuhn
This post looks at two works from the oeuvre of Simon Schaffer:
1) “Augustan Realities: Nature’s Representatives and Their Cultural Resources in the Early Eighteenth Century” in Realism and Representation: Essays on the Problem of Realism in Relation to Science, Literature, and Culture, ed. George Levin, 1993, pp. 128-157.
2) “A Social History of Plausibility: Country, City and Calculation in Augustan Britain” in Rethinking Social History: English Society 1570-1920 and its interpretation, ed. Adrian Wilson, 1993, pp. 279-318.
Both papers find Schaffer on the hustings. As historian of medicine Adrian Wilson puts it in the introduction to the Rethinking Social History volume, “Simon Schaffer’s chapter … can be read as a plea to social historians to concern themselves with the history of science.” This appeal is made by identifying certain misconceptions about the role of science in history prevalent in a broader historiography. According to Schaffer:
Received history has it that the eighteenth century was a crucial period for the establishment of [realist] regimes. The novel and the experimental report appeared as legitimate means of representing the moral and the natural order…. Somehow or other, older, courtly forms of making knowledge failed or were thrust aside. (1; 283/5)
The social history of [stories about claims about things like humans giving birth to animals, perpetual motion, and the inverse square law of gravity] has typically been described in terms of the ‘decline of magic’ and the ‘disenchantment of the world.’ (2; 128) (more…)
Schaffer on Metrology May 10, 2010Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
Tags: Bruce Hunt, Charles Piazzi Smyth, Graeme Gooday, Harry Collins, Horace Darwin, James Clerk Maxwell, John Herschel, Lord Rayleigh, Norton Wise, Richard Glazebrook, Simon Schaffer, Thomas Henry Huxley, Werner Siemens, William Clifford
This post discusses four articles that Simon Schaffer published in the 1990s on the development of standards of measurement in Victorian Britain, focusing especially on work done at Cambridge University:
1) “Late Victorian Metrology and Its Instrumentation: A Manufactory of Ohms,” in Invisible Connections: Instruments, Institutions, and Science, ed. Bud and Cozzens (Bellingham: SPIE, 1992).
2) “Rayleigh and the Establishment of Electrical Standards,” European Journal of Physics 15 (1994): 277-285.
3) “Accurate Measurement is an English Science,” in Values of Precision, ed. M. Norton Wise (Princeton UP: 1995).
4) “Metrology, Metrication, and Victorian Values,” in Victorian Science in Context, ed. Bernard Lightman (University of Chicago Press: 1997).
The rise of metrology at Cambridge coincided with the establishment of the Cavendish Laboratory in 1871 (beginning work in 1874). Schaffer emphasizes the importance of accepted standards for industrial development, the creation of telegraph networks, the fostering of trade, and the growth of Empire. However, he also places special emphasis on the specific questions involved in the particular history of the Cambridge standards program. When James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) became the first director of Cavendish, the use of the laboratory to develop precision instrumentation required strict group discipline from students, which ran against the grain of the liberal intent of Cambridge’s mathematical tripos, then in its heyday, as discussed in the video above.
Schaffer on Bodies, Evidence, and Objectivity February 21, 2010Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
Tags: Ian Hacking, Lorraine Daston, Martin Kusch, Peter Galison, Robert Darnton, Simon Schaffer, Steven Shapin, Ted Porter
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In 1983′s “Natural Philosophy and Public Spectacle in the Eighteenth Century,” Simon Schaffer set himself the task of determining whether “some of the more fashionable themes in current historiography” could be made to yield real explanatory gains. Among these themes was “the notion of scientific production as performance”. The gist of that piece was that natural philosophical arguments, as illustrated through public demonstration, had trouble fostering social agreement because of the requirement that the audience be able to interpret the performance and its implications correctly. Here was a tension that, especially when connected to the social and political dangers of rationalist Jacobin politics, could help explain the nineteenth-century rise of contained scientific communities.
Much of Schaffer’s output in the 1980s and early 1990s filled out various instances where natural knowledge was linked to problems of maintaining proper behavior, and, thus, political order. He especially concentrated on the cases of pneumatics (and the related practice of eudiometry), and cometography. He also highlighted pointed criticisms of the idea that experimentally-gained knowledge could solve problems of social order, particularly those of Hobbes, Burke, and Whewell.
“Self Evidence,” Critical Inquiry 18 (1992): 327-362 returns us to 1983′s general point—the problematic relationship between experimental evidence and its implications for knowledge—and returns to some of the same electrical experimenters. There is however a new wrinkle: the emphasis now is on self-experimentation and the difficulties of evidence produced specifically through the experimenter’s body. How could a savant or an audience trust in reports of the medical benefits of electrical therapy, for example? Accordingly, Schaffer does not point to the rise of the contained community. Instead the consequence of the identified tension is the rise of mechanical instrumentation designed to measure physiological effects. “The lesson of the story of self-evidence may … be that there is an intimate relationship between the trust placed in evidence of self-registering scientific instrumentation and the moral authority of the scientific intellectual” (362). (more…)
Schaffer on Latour December 7, 2009Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
Tags: Bruno Latour, Harry Collins, Jan Golinski, Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch, Simon Schaffer, Steven Yearley
Some of Simon Schaffer’s more interesting pieces are his essay reviews, which we ought to discuss more often in this series. The most important, though, is the confrontational “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Bruno Latour,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 22 (1991): 174-192, a review of The Pasteurization of France. Schaffer discusses Latour and this piece in this video (approx. from 28:15 to 35:30):
The discussion in the video, and the one it segues into about the characteristics of science studies/history of science, provide an unusually explicit discussion about what scholarship should be like, and it’s useful to have it, because I disagree with it. Schaffer cites Latour’s arrival with a bottle of his family’s best wine to work out their positions as a testament to Latour’s personal qualities as a scholar: Latour takes the time and effort to reconcile differences rather than engage in petty infighting. Nevertheless, the tensions brought up in “Eighteenth Brumaire” are extremely interesting, and I view it as unfortunate that the dispute was apparently resolved socially in private, rather than intellectually in public. (If I’m missing some crucial source, as usual please correct me in comments; to my knowledge Jan Golinski comes closest.)
Schaffer acknowledges that their positions were never fully resolved, comparing the product of the tensions between their points of view to the interference fringes produced by overlapping light sources. He goes on to discuss how our field is highly unusual in its ability to support perspectives arising from different disciplinary backgrounds.
Yet, I tend to view the persistence of unresolved perspectives as a weakness. It is important to note that the products of unresolved intellectual tensions can exist only in the minds of those scholars who resolve the differences between perspectives on their own. Such individuals constitute a fairly narrow group that Chris Donohue has called a “court of understanding” (see also my discussion of “perspective layering” last February). (more…)
Schaffer on Language and Proper Conduct November 16, 2009Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
Tags: Daniel Defoe, Michael Faraday, Robert Boyle, Roderick Murchison, Simon Schaffer, William Whewell
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One of the clearest findings in my long-term exploration of the oeuvre of Simon Schaffer, is the centrality of Schaffer’s use of the idea that a thinker’s personal understanding of the arrangement of the cosmos, their process of inquiry, and their ideas about proper social order were often intimately interrelated in philosophical inquiry in the 17th and 18th centuries. This insight provides a powerful tool for investigating different facets of the wide field of “natural philosophy” as it intersected with other realms of intellectual activity.
It is clearly the case that natural philosophy had no defined form nor any clear boundaries with other kinds of literature. In today’s post we step slightly outside the bounds of natural philosophy with two pieces that examine writings at the beginning and the end of natural philosophy’s golden age:
1) “Defoe’s Natural Philosophy and the Worlds of Credit,” in Nature Transfigured: Science and Literature, 1700-1900, edited by John Christie and Sally Shuttleworth, 1989.
2) “The History and Geography of the Intellectual World: Whewell’s Politics of Language,” in William Whewell: A Composite Portrait, edited by Menachem Fisch and Schaffer, 1991.
In (1), Schaffer observes the novelty of natural philosophy in Defoe’s time (c.1659-1731) and notes similarities in literary strategies between it and another new form of writing, “the news journal,” both of which “appealed to a new authority relation—that of the circumstantiated report of the novel and unprecedented event…” In (2), at the other end of the time frame, we find a portrait of Whewell (1794-1866) as a critical writer on scientific work, (more…)
Schaffer and Golinski on Enlightenment and Genius November 4, 2009Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
Tags: Jan Golinski, Simon Schaffer, Immanuel Kant, Joseph Priestley, Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, Humphry Davy, Jeremy Bentham, Edmund Burke, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Thomas Beddoes
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This post looks at two articles by Simon Schaffer:
“States of Mind: Enlightenment and Natural Philosophy,” in The Languages of Psyche: Mind and Body in Enlightenment Thought, ed. G. S. Rousseau, 1990, pp. 233-290.
“Genius in Romantic Natural Philosophy,” in Romanticism and the Sciences, ed. Andrew Cunningham and Nicholas Jardine, 1990, pp. 82-98.
It makes comparison with some related points in Jan Golinski’s book Science as Public Culture: Chemistry and Enlightenment in Britain, 1760-1820, 1992. Unlike the last post integrating Schaffer’s and Golinski’s analysis of eudiometry, this one distinguishes the (complementary) positions of the two authors.
Since his earliest pieces (especially his 1983 piece on natural philosophy and spectacle), Schaffer had been exploring the tensions between natural philosophical inquiry and the forces leading to professionalized specialties. In pieces circa 1990, Schaffer further explored the relationship between enlightenment political ideals—which stressed rational assent as a path away from enthusiasm and despotism toward a proper polity—and natural philosophy and the political pressures it created and to which it was subjected.
In “States of Mind”, in a move not unlike his and Steven Shapin’s analysis of Hobbes’ critique of experimental philosophy, Schaffer stresses objections, particularly that of Edmund Burke (1729-1797) that the politics of rational assent proffered by people like Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) simply cloaked alternative religion-like claims to political authority.
The transformation of politically important elements of cosmology—rather than the elimination of their significance—is once again central to Schaffer’s argument (see also the transformation of comets from omens to source of physical disaster). Here Priestley’s objection to the pneumatic philosophy of souls and spirits (as in Disquisitions on Matter and Spirit, 1777) brushes away the idea of mind as guided by spirit to allow the mind to be seen as a material organ with its own relationship (more…)