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Schaffer on Spectacle, Pt. 2 September 19, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Having gone over Schaffer’s specific argument about the relationship between public spectacle and the need to police natural philosophy in the late-18th-century, I want to talk a little more about how I perceive his historiographical project at this point in his oeuvre.  Basically, he says, he wants to “experiment” on the utility of three “fashionable themes”.  These are (1) scientific production as performance, (2) the relationship between natural philosophy and natural history “(with its effect on a possible taxonomy of eighteenth century sciences)”, and (3) the shift from entrepreneurial deployment to political control of natural philosophy.

I discussed (1) and (3) last time, and Schaffer barely deals with (2), but, at the same time, I get the sense that (2) is a project Schaffer got started on but never really finished.  It relates to what looks like a fairly small historiography relating to “what Geoffrey Cantor calls ‘the eighteenth century problem’—the search for a convincing description of the variety of sciences at this period.”  I think this taxonomical project was important to Schaffer because it was essential to his accounting for important transitions in some disciplines but not others in the period in question.

Last time, I mentioned that Schaffer seemed to be testing the ability of then-recent sociological theory to chart the transition noted in fashionable theme #3.  However, whether sociological theory could adequately account for the transition was not clear-cut, because “political control” did not descend all at once or evenly over “the sciences”: institutionalization was a process that occupied most of the 19th century.  Thus it was necessary to have a sense of just which sciences would have been susceptible to the need for political control, and thus it was necessary to have a workable taxonomy of these sciences.  As Schaffer put it, “The ‘true [experimental] history’ of this paper is not purely chronological.”  To explain the transition from A to B, you first need to understand what A and B were, i.e., what the pertinent aspects of certain times and places were that can accept coherent accounts of change between them.

This gives Schaffer an opening to drive a conceptual wedge between the “complementary” but not “necessarily complementary” practices of natural philosophy and natural history.  As he explained (drawing on Foucault’s Order of Things) in his 1980 description of William Herschel’s use of natural history to inform his astronomical observations, natural history (at this time) involved an arrangement of objects according to their “natural types”, which, carefully studied, allowed observers to make more informed interpretations of whatever future observations they might undertake.

This is important, because it implies that natural history is a deeply personal enterprise, as opposed to the culture of demonstration surrounding unique cases that accompanied natural philosophy.  Schaffer spends very little time on the point (I assume he intended it provisionally), but he quotes Diderot on natural historians very effectively  (my translation of Schaffer’s direct quote): “There is no trace of charlatanry in their doings.  They tend to their aims, but without any care about those around them: if they amaze us, that is not at all their intent.”

Natural history, being a personal science, would not (yet) have been susceptible to the same pressures as demonstrative natural philosophy.  However (I speculate here; Schaffer has nothing to say about this), as the 19th century progressed and the temporal development in geological formations and in living things mimicked the cosmological descriptions of natural philosophy, these pressures would indeed arise (see, for instance, Rudwick’s Great Devonian Controversy).  But, at this point, the process of evolution through time (while percolating in some places) was not yet at the fore of natural history.  Natural history, in general, looked just like Herschel’s use of it as a guide for the mind and senses, rather than as a set of objects whose seeming relationships to each other (think layers of rock or anatomical resemblances) demanded mechanistic-historical accounts—and learned debates—of their actual relationships to each other in deep history (rather than merely in God’s plan).

Here we need to understand Schaffer as one of the few people actually taking Michel Foucault at his word.  In The Order of Things (1970), Foucault explicitly said that he was conducting an “archaeology” of human knowledge, that is, a sort of a preliminary survey of books that he used to chart out systems of thinking through time, without any attempt to overlay a “structural” account on the survey.  (Having been accused of being a “structuralist”, Foucault responded in his foreword to the English edition, “I should be grateful if a more serious public would free me from a connection that certainly does me honour, but that I have not deserved.”)

Now, Foucault’s book was path-breaking in 1970, but it’s also difficult to take him at his word, because, while modest enough in the foreword, he makes his accounts of “epistemic” shifts sound like actual ontological shifts rather than “after such and such a date the books I’m reading take a different epistemological approach”, and, in general, Foucault tended to be exceedingly reserved about what he had in mind when he was describing different epistemes.  In his account, people more-or-less just suddenly thought differently after the 1500s.  This is misleading, in particular, because Foucault offers no real institutional account of, say, the extended efforts to debate and distinguish between simultaneous traditions in Scholastic learning, natural magic, and practical knowledge, and to bring them into the mainstream literature of their day.

Thus, Foucault’s archaeological view, his textual analysis, is not only incomplete, but also mostly ahistorical.   Historians and sociologists of science, however, were beginning to be able to offer more structural reasons for the ascent and descent of ways of thinking through history, provided the intellectual content of knowledge, its epistemic basis, and its institutional context could be adequately described and taxonomized.  Schaffer (and probably a few others writing in the early 1980s) seem to have seen themselves as amending and extending Foucault’s project into a satisfying historical account, as, indeed, Foucault seems to have hoped would happen.

Thus, Schaffer’s study of William Herschel as a key figure mediating between the natural philosophy tradition, the non-institutionalized natural history tradition (which he uniquely applied to astronomical observation), and the highly institutionalized rational mechanical astronomy tradition provided the ambitious young scholar with an opportunity to generalize his conclusions about the key place of Herschel in the astronomical tradition to a far broader account of the significance of the late-18th-century in the institutional-intellectual development of some sciences (but not others).

(Concerning Hershcel’s status as a mediator, by the way, Schaffer’s 1981 paper, “Uranus and the Establishment of Hershcel’s Astronomy” Journal for the History of Astronomy 12, 11-26 is crucial).

All of this is wildly extrapolative from my reading of Schaffer’s work.  It is, if you will, a historiographical theory that needs further testing (and maybe at some point we can actually ask him about it).  However, already, it’s clear to me that there is an acute need to read Leviathan and the Air-Pump from two separate perspectives.  More soon!


1. Thony C. - September 19, 2008

“…William Herschel as a key figure mediating between the natural philosophy tradition, the non-institutionalized natural history tradition (which he uniquely applied to astronomical observation), and the highly institutionalized rational mechanical astronomy tradition…”

Will, I have at least two serious problems with the claims contained in the above quote; firstly Herschel was not unique in applying the natural history tradition to astronomical observation he is preceded in this by at least John Flamsteed if not by others and secondly I don’t think that the ‘rational mechanical astronomy tradition’ was highly institutionalized in the middle of the 18th century. Depending on what exactly is intended by both of these claims I could of course be wrong on either or both counts. I know that you are a busy man but if you could find the time to elucidate or to direct me to the places where Schaffer elucidates I would be grateful.
Apart from such “minor” (!) quibbles I am enjoying your Schaffer series very much although I am personally very sceptical about all schools/directions/methods of historiography*. I also think I might be learning something ;)

* My own personal guideline on the writing of the history of science is; “Methodology becomes dogma, dogma blinds” but maybe I’m just an aging cynic.

2. Will Thomas - September 19, 2008

I don’t think the argument is necessarily for uniqueness or innovation by Herschel in deploying the natural history perspective; only that he is a key figure at a moment when classification of celestial objects became a major concern heading into the 19th century. Most astronomers (as I gather from the first three articles in this series) had a professional interest in charting trajectories, and worked in suitably equipped observatories. They were interested in natural philosophy/cosmology as well, of course (what are comets, etc…) , but not so much classification of observations. Setting up Herschel as a key intermediary prevents the need for a technological determinist argument that increased telescopic power led naturally to classification.

I would tend to think of Schaffer’s methodology as general rather than prescriptive; he is interested in determining what does and does not constitute a satisfying historical explanation of change. These explanations, I would argue, are inherent to any historical account, whether acknowledged or not, so Schaffer is trying to find what ones work best. What disciplines are prone to accusations of social disruptiveness, where the concern with classifying celestial objects comes from, etc…

Certainly this kind of history would soon become less fashionable, and might be read as a disreputable attempt to uncover a grand narrative, but I would deny that. I would say it readily admits local contingency, and merely serves to make presumptions about reasons for historical change explicit and to subject them to tests of reasonableness within the bounds of local circumstance.

Finally, I’d emphasize the seemingly provisional nature of Schaffer’s claims. His ideas do seem to have been ambitious, and should be viewed as suggestions rather than as unquestionable claims. I’d like to see more boldness of this kind.

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