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Schaffer on Temporal Evolution, Pt. 2 November 20, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Thomas Wright (1711-1786)

Thomas Wright (1711-1786)

In “The Phoenix of Nature: Fire and Evolutionary Cosmology in Wright and Kant,” (Journal for the History of Astronomy vol. 9, 1978, pp. 180-200), Simon Schaffer continued his study of the development of temporally evolving cosmologies, in this case with the natural philosophical work of the astronomy teacher Thomas Wright and German philosopher Immanuel Kant (well prior to his famous Critiques).  As I mentioned in the last post in this series, Schaffer seems to have directed his early work toward the introduction into natural philosophical thought of the idea that past and future states of the universe could be substantially different from the present state of the universe.  As he puts it, “the cosmological thought of Kant and Wright can be seen as the basis for the evolutionary systems of the universe developed by Laplace and Herschel later in the century.”  (As we have seen, he would turn to Herschel in his next few articles).

In his project, Schaffer tends toward the teleological.  Everyone in this piece seems either striving to introduce an evolutionary perspective, or constrained from doing so. (William Whiston, author of the 1717 work Astronomical principles of religion natural and reveal’d, and an influence on Wright, is presented as “so constrained by the Newtonian view of a stable universe sustained by God that he found it impossible to develop any coherent theory of evolution in the cosmos.”)  It is not clear to me that anyone perceived an overwhelming need to introduce evolutionary elements into natural philosophical traditions.

The rhetorical presumptions of the obviousness of the need for an evolutionary cosmology do not cripple the analysis, since it is clear that cosmological change did emerge in the period in question, and those who did introduce cosmological change into their analyses knew what they were doing and saw it as a significant if problematic move.  In fact, this is Schaffer’s main point: introducing change was so radical a move that it required a special agent of change—fire—to legitimize it.

Fire was required because the possibility of cosmological change threatened to upset the moral order of the universe.  Both Newton and Leibniz posited static universes (Newton’s sustained by God, Leibniz’s self-regulating), seeing their sustained workings as evidence of the perfection of God.  Wright and Kant supposed the existence of a “dynamic equilibrium” wherein an overall state of perfection was maintained through a “succession of perfected states”, even though each individual state or part of creation might be transitory.

The clear choice as the active principle for these transformations was fire, which was already understood as an alchemical agent of the transformation of matter, as a force of preservation against corruption, and, crucially, as a mediator for the intent of God (whether in the Apocalypse or otherwise).  Fire served as a clear counterpoint to gravity, which always threatened to collapse the universe in upon itself or to throw it out of its stability, as was suggested in the work of the Dutch natural philosopher Hermann Boerhaave.

From our point of view, we can only view Wright’s 1750s cosmology as truly bizarre.  According to one unpublished version, the universe consisted of concentric spherical suns.  We orbited around one, and within another (the firmament) the outward fire of which we can see through gaps in its inner surface (nebulae).  Working in a popular new cosmological tradition, Wright saw comets as restorative agents, replenishing, for instance, fire radiated by the sun.  Comets, he supposed, could in turn be spouted out by volcanoes (stars) in the firmament.  Souls moved similarly between concentric shells.  It was even possible that planets spiraled into the sun only to be replaced by fiery ejections from the outer sun.  This is a universe where structural change is a constant.

(See also this recent article by Matthew Eddy in the HSS Newsletter on Thomas Wright’s cosmologies.)

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

Kant’s 1755 cosmology is often noted for its “constructive misreading” of a previous cosmology Wright published in 1750, which held that the Milky Way is a disc of stars viewed on its edge (Wright had supposed it was looking up the side of a sphere of stars).  However, the “principal achievement” of Kant’s cosmology was its hierarchical order of the universe of planets orbiting suns, suns forming galaxies, and galaxies forming clusters of galaxies, all regulated by the action of gravity.  But this system was not permanent: it could collapse, and it had formed out of an initial uniform plenum by means of vital repulsive forces inherent to matter, which Kant identified with fire.  (Newton had refused to take Kant’s strategy, which was to apply the same rules to the origins of the universe as he did to its ordinary functioning.)  This is what is cited as Kant’s pre-Laplace nebular hypothesis.

Kant was explicit that “we need not be astonished at finding a certain transitoriness even in the greatest works of God.”  The death of stars or systems of stars was not a “real loss to nature”.  In his cosmology, according to Schaffer, “God’s function changes from that of a preventer of collapse to that of a superintendent of evolution.”  Fire, the “Phoenix of Nature”, was responsible for bringing order, and the cooling of fire was responsible for everything from gravitational collapse to the decline of civilizations (“a cooling of the fire that lives in men’s souls”).  It is a morally acceptable universe.

According to Schaffer, “By the introduction of the fire-based theory of matter, the tyranny of the stable state had been broken.”  From here it is a short walk to Laplace and William Herschel.  I think Schaffer is using the progression toward more “legitimate” cosmologists as a defense of his project of ascribing importance to speculative natural philosophy to the history of science.  Indeed, he wraps up by quoting Herschel to just this effect: “If we indulge a fanciful imagination and build worlds of our own, we must not wonder at our going wide from the path of truth and nature….  On the other hand, if we add observation to observation, without attempting to draw not only certain conclusions but also conjectural views from them, we offend against the very end for which only observations ought to be made….” I wouldn’t be surprised if Schaffer had the art of historiography in mind here as well.


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