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Schaffer busts out the hickory October 3, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Before heading on to Leviathan and the Air-Pump, I’m heading back to some earlier Schaffer articles that I missed in my initial run-through.  This includes a couple of pieces from the late-’70s, as well as what should be required methodological reading: “Natural Philosophy” in The Ferment of Knowledge: Studies in the Historiography of Eighteenth-Century Science (1980), edited by G. S. Rousseau and Roy Porter (one of the more disciplined and useful edited volumes I’ve seen).

What fun!  Schaffer takes out a baseball bat and goes ape on the then-extant historiography of natural philosophy, moving from specific to general critiques of it, before moving on to confirm my prior guess that he saw himself as expanding upon Foucault’s “archaeological” examination of the sciences.

Schaffer places an emphasis on the need for intellectual (indeed, epistemological) conflict to resolve historiographical flaws:

…there is an important need for alternative attitudes to natural philosophy as an historical category, not merely revisions of one or other of the unifying assertions which contemporary historiography has made.  This necessarily involves a genuine confrontation with the philosophical debates on the discursive place of history of science which, significantly enough, in the work of Bachelard, Kuhn, and Foucault, have all drawn on natural philosophy in the eighteenth century for much of their evidence.  Such a confrontation is overdue.

It is far more overdue today.  I’ll explain why….

Schaffer is at his most directed, nuanced, and damning in his discussion of the way that the historiography in 1980 reduced 18th-century natural philosophical works to being extensions of Newton’s matter theory.  He is unsparing in his description of how anti-Newtonian and entirely orthogonal works were all jammed into a relationship with Newton’s works out of some “apparent need for the ‘tradition-seeking’ method”.  He finishes his discussion of Newton by asserting that “the same criticism can be made of ‘Leibnizian’, ‘Cartesian’, or indeed ‘Wolffian’ or ‘Kantian’ reduction bases in Europe-wide natural philosophy.”  Why?  “…the goal of the historian is not to assimilate these different categories into one vague field, but to delineate different discourses and their articulations.”  Every work has its own goals and concerns, and deserves to be taken seriously as an intellectual entity within the broad discourse of natural philosophy.

Schaffer thinks Bachelard was partially right in his characterization of natural philosophy as something pre-scientific.  He thinks that Bachelard’s description of how natural philosophy worked in practice was generally accurate—“[Bachelard] provides a coherent method for the analysis of a different, quite distinct grammar of science which needs to be considered as fully demarcated from science itself”—but he disagrees that this is a call to criticize natural philosophy as not-yet-science, which is an instinct “that has had dire consequences for historical understanding.”  Pages later: “This is a matter of historical analysis, not moral condemnation.”  Far from seeing natural philosophy in some Newton-founded tradition of “science”, we should see it as something in and of itself.

So far so good for the 21st-century historian of science.  Whiggism is indeed bad.  But, we, too, should fear Schaffer’s critique, because we continually fail to understand the manner in which natural philosophy (or many others “discourses”, or what I would call “properly characterized traditions”) operated as a coherent way of thinking, and thus the consequences of this way of thinking.  As the introduction to The Ferment of Knowledge notes, when we fail to understand the 18th century, we almost automatically fail to understand the 19th, and thus ever onward.

We can fairly be accused of sharing the old-school historiography’s dedication to seeing “science” as a coherently characterizable tradition begun in the 17th century going through to the 21st.  We all-too-often demonstrate its connections to religion, politics, or what have you (“science is not context-independent!”), without even attempting to create a coherent account of the character of those connections, and, crucially, where they came from and where they went. Too often we simply make some implicit assumption that they were somehow “resonant” or “consonant” with their (unexamined) context, or we use some other such blunt instrument.  In so doing, we not only replicate but outdo the sins of our historian ancestors in not taking the subject (say, “natural philosophy”) on its own terms, and lumping many additional traditions together into one massive truth-producing “scientific discourse”—forget Newtonian matter theory or even natural philosophy: it doesn’t get any lumpier than this!

Schaffer saw anthropological research and Foucault’s archaeology as an opportunity to take seriously natural philosophical cosmologies and individual subjects’ work within them, or their attempts to modify them.  “Savoir-pouvoir” was important to Schaffer because it helped us see how people in the past thought, what constituted a useful or legitimate—a disciplined—argument in their time.  (Gazes?  Inscribed bodies?  Whatever.)  Characterization of systems of thoughts, of epistemes, was thus a crucial enterprise.  To properly characterize, it was important to engage in prosopography, so as to know an intellectual landscape.  (He cites an unfortunately forgotten 1974 article by Shapin and Thackray here).

Foucault (perhaps in some unholy methodological progeny with Ginzburg) has, needless to say, not been used in this way.  Prosopography has been almost universally abandoned in favor of the case study, and the trivial observation of the very existence of a link between science and its “non-scientific” context has been taken as triumphant confirmation of what seems to be a Foucault-Latour worldview (another unholy methodological progeny).  But this observation is, in itself, decontextualized.  What Schaffer was saying was that this link should not be worth remarking upon at all [i.e., it should be a matter of course] if we actually bother to see intellectual enterprises of the past in terms of what they were, rather than as manifestations of or variations on some imagined tradition, i.e. “Newtonian matter theory” or, worse, “science”.  That could fairly be called a revelation in 1980.  We should be embarrassed to make any claims to historiographical innovation today.

But it’s impossible to imagine escaping from our imagined traditions if we only rarely take our manifestly un-prosopographical microscope off the specific text or the specific archive and look at broader historical landscapes and changes.  We never truly saw the “genuine confrontation” that Schaffer called for; we shirked our responsibility to it.  Instead, we simpy appeased the reformist gods by appropriating Foucault and others into our methodological canon, without really reflecting, as Schaffer so clearly did, on what that methodology was all about, how it made history more—not less—coherent.

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