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Schaffer on Spectacle, Pt. 1 September 12, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Continuing our first career overview series on the works of Simon Schaffer, we turn to “Natural Philosophy and Public Spectacle in the Eighteenth  Century” from History of Science 21 (1983): 1-43.  The topic of science and “performance” is now pretty well-worn.  In ’83 (a quarter of a century ago now), Schaffer referred to it as “fashionable”.  But rather than jump right into the argument, I’d first like to discuss the paper’s sense of historiographical purpose.

One gets the sense that there’s a definite project at work here, as Schaffer begins by drawing on a methodological distinction that the 18th-century natural philosopher Joseph Priestley drew between “true history” and “fiction”.  According to Priestley, “fiction” is illustrative of principles, where “true history” is interrogative and experimental in the same manner as science.  Here Schaffer allies himself explicitly with John Heilbron against the “physicist-historians who were more concerned with progress rather than process.”  This is written at a time when historians of science, inspired by sociological theory, were seeking to understand history as it happened, rather than to single out accomplishments based on a post-hoc assessment of them, and to criticize the usefulness of that kind of historiographical practice.

“Usefulness” is important to Schaffer, as he lays out his goal in an interesting way at the end of the first paragraph: “it is hoped that some of the more fashionable themes in current historiography will be placed in a context where their usefulness can be subjected to experiment.”  What I take Schaffer to be doing is taking historiographical methodology to be always based on implicit or explicit sociological theories concerning the processes driving human action.  These theories (embodied in the language, narratives, and arguments used in historical description) are tested in terms of their ability to provide satisfactory (useful) explanations for historical changes between defined states.  (I’m going to punt on defining utility here).

In this case, Schaffer hopes to test sociological ideas about the legitimacy of scientific knowledge as hinging upon the careful construction of institutions in which it is performed and communicated, rather than upon the method by which it is produced.  He identifies a late-18th century “change between an entrepreneurial deployment of natural philosophy and a political control of that natural philosophy” as a change capable of being explained in terms of efforts to reinforce the legitimacy of scientific (or natural philosophical) practice and knowledge through the construction of well-defined institutions.

Basically, this is a sophisticated treatment of the “science is legitimate because it can be shown to work” argument.  Without close access to knowledge, we are only able to judge whether specialists know anything by their ability to do what they claim they can do only on account of that knowledge.  In the 20th century, the successful construction of “high” technologies became the gold standard of demonstration, but in the 18th century, the production of “spectacle” was the key means of demonstration—the production of rare effects by means of knowledge gained through the construction of an apparatus on the basis of existing concepts.

But, as Schaffer shows, there were problems.  Only those who could properly evaluate knowledge within a natural philosophical explanatory scheme were in a position to attest to or argue about what knowledge was being demonstrated, as in the production of effects using electricity, the launching of hot air balloons, the production of medical cures, but also in providing explanatory mechanisms by which things like earthquakes occurred.  (There was a major natural philosophical tradition associating earthquakes with lightning.  On explanatory schemes concerning the construction of cosmologies of forces and powers, it’s useful to go back and look at Schaffer’s work on William Herschel’s construction of a cosmology to explain and reconcile various astronomical observations).

If spectacles were not witnessed by those intellectually prepared and in a sufficiently “free and calm” moral state to discuss them appropriately, there was a danger of the spread of charlatanism and even the fostering of mass delusion (which was a major concern in the French Revolution era).  To that point, however, public spectacle had been a common tactic among natural philosophers (“entrepreneurial deployment”), as demonstration supposedly fostered agreement.  As the danger rose of not being able to distinguish philosophical spectacle from ruse, the need to police the practice of natural philosophy (to exert “political control”) to defend it from accusations of social disruptiveness came to the fore, leading to a more closed and what we would call professionalized science, a movement closely connected to contemporary medical cameralism (which was already “well-studied” in 1983).

All this has become pretty boilerplate in the ensuing years, but here’s the really interesting bit: Schaffer seems to make a claim to a weak (i.e., contingent) form of sociological-philosophical structuralism.  In the 1780s, “The threat which natural philosophy had always posed implicitly was now made explicit.”  This claim needs to be considered in conjunction with the work that Schaffer was doing with Steven Shapin, Leviathan and the Air-Pump, which would appear in print in 1985, and which took Thomas Hobbes’ mid-1600s critique of experimental philosophy seriously.  If useful knowledge was said to be gained from witnessing experiments, that knowledge was inevitably tied to the social and intellectual context in which it was created (which Hobbes, writing in the context of the English Civil War, saw as fragile).  It took over 100 years, but social and political tensions ultimately indeed did necessitate taking the social institutions of natural philosophical practice and its communication seriously.

Sociological theory provided a means of understanding why natural philosophical borders had to be policed; historical circumstance provided a means of understanding why that policing came about when and where it did.  I want to claim that in the early 1980s, Schaffer was undertaking an ambitious and specifically historiographical (rather than sociological) project, which depended on sociological theory mediating between shifts in what ultimately had to be defined as appropriate historical taxonomies of scientific practice and institution-building, thereby striving toward a complete understanding of the process of constructing of a robust and legitimate (albeit ultimately destroyable) scientific enterprise.  More on this when we next return to this series.


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