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Schaffer on Herschel, Pt. 1 July 14, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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One of the things this blog tries to do is to put history scholarship back in the context of its creation. One of the continuing themes I’ve been harping on is the need to uncover the historical reasons for the prevalence of narrow, disconnected case studies in our literature. What did they initially demonstrate, and are they doing as much work for us as they (presumably) used to do? Another thing I want to do in reconstructing the history of our writing style is to look at individual scholars’ bodies of work to try and reconstruct their approach. As in most fields, scholars who are just starting out have only a fragmentary knowledge of the field’s figures and their works, and no real sense of how they build on their prior works over the course of a career. With this in mind, I thought I’d start a continuing feature looking at the evolution of scholars’ works and interests. Since most people are at least aware of Simon Schaffer, and since his reputation is pretty rock solid, I thought I’d start with him. Here, by the way, is a fairly recent video of him from YouTube:

Are we high-tech around here, now, or what? So, the earliest publications of his that I can find come from the early 1980s, and deal with the work of the amateur astronomer William Herschel:

1) “‘The Great Laboratories of the Universe’: William Herschel on Matter Theory and Planetary Life” Journal for the History of Astronomy 11 (1980): 81-111

2) “Herschel in Bedlam: Natural History and Stellar Astronomy” British Journal for the History of Science 13 (1980): 211-239.

3) “Uranus and the Establishment of Herschel’s Astronomy” Journal for the History of Astronomy 12 (1981): 11-26.

Today I’d like to concentrate on (2), which I enjoyed a great deal. One of the reasons I like it so well is because of Schaffer’s deployment of Foucault, which is totally unlike almost every other use of Foucault I have seen. We should remember that this is 1980, before the toss-off reference to Discipline and Punish became a tactic that had truly out-stayed its welcome. In this case, Schaffer says nothing about knowledge and power, and instead uses Foucault’s ideas about the natural history tradition, out of The Order of Things (then a fairly recent work), to describe Herschel’s approach to astronomy (developed through work as a naturalist), as differing from the highly calculative approaches of most astronomers toward the end of the 18th century. Herschel felt that his viewing of nebulae would be aided by a theory-laden approach developed through an ordering of observations according to what he believed to be “natural types”, which supported self-consciously speculative interpretations of what he was seeing.*

The provisional status of Herschel’s observations was self-conscious, and Schaffer uses Foucault’s identification of provisional status as a typical feature of natural history as a way to critique prior interpretations of Herschel as switching back between the idea of a truly nebulous (cloud-like) nebula, and the interpretation of nebulae as difficult-to-resolve star clusters. This work took place just before astronomy turned firmly toward qualitative observations, and, thus, Herschel’s natural history was viewed by professional astronomers of the day as irregular (thus the “Bedlam” reference in the title).

The article is quite useful from a historical perspective, because it highlights a period when astronomy was about to turn back towards a natural historical tradition in developing a qualitative taxonomy of celestial objects, because it demonstrates the development of an alternative observational tradition rooted in the prejudicing of observations in speculative theory before telescopes were capable of definitively resolving phenomena. And because it, in conjunctions with (1) and (3) helps establish Herschel’s working methodology, which was unusual in astronomy at that time, but had deep connections to other practices in contemporary natural history and natural philosophy. Thus, the article establishes firmer reasons why Herschel was a transitional figure in astronomy that are not rooted in retrospective appreciations of the significance of certain discoveries (Uranus, infrared light), but in what was then, and is now, a pretty bizarre way of being an astronomer. While his working method never became standard, it did, I hope it is safe to say, play a role in cracking open the dominant 18th-century astronomical tradition.

*One difficulty I had with the article was, given that Herschel knew that “natural types” were basically what his instruments presented to his eye, I was unable to tell whether he felt these were really all actually related phenomena, or merely apparently related. Schaffer’s presentation of the topic leads me to believe that Herschel took no stand one way or the other, just as he took no immediate stand on the nature of nebulae. Still, I’m not 100% on that point.

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