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Schaffer’s Got Spirit! December 28, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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The next three pieces in our examination of the works of Simon Schaffer are:

1) “Scientific Discoveries and the End of Natural Philosophy” Social Studies of Science 16 (1986): 387-420.

2) “Godly Men and Mechanical Philosophers: Souls and Spirits in Restoration Natural Philosophy” Science in Context 1 (1987): 55-85.

3) “Priestley and the Politics of Spirit” in Science, Medicine, and Dissent: Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), edited by Anderson and Lawrence, 1987.

Joseph Priestley (1733-1804)

Joseph Priestley (1733-1804)

Today I’ll be looking at (2) and (3), which continue Schaffer’s studies of natural philosophy, saving (1) for a more general discussion of what it meant for “natural philosophy” to be “replaced” by “science”, which would become a going concern of Schaffer’s; as well as for a look at Schaffer’s changing strategies for presenting his work to the science studies community in the wake of Leviathan and the Air Pump.

A theme prevalent from Schaffer’s earliest work is the inextricability of political and theological issues from the practice of natural philosophy.  Theories of the universe adhering to a strictly “mechanistic” portrayal (as Descartes had proposed in the 1640s, and perhaps best imagined as the “billiard ball” vision of the way things work) were philosophically dissatisfying for a number of reasons.

First, strict mechanism was widely derided as atheistic, and most natural philosophers (especially in Britain) actually wanted to maintain a place for God’s actions in the cosmos.  In a universe still believed to have been designed and created, a design amenable to God’s moral order was regarded as an essential component of an acceptable natural philosophy.  Further, strictly mechanistic views (including ones utilizing disembodied “Newtonian” forces from the 1680s on) did not offer a satisfying account of life, cognition, or things like fire, electricity, fermentation, and air.  To resolve these problems, “active principles” that did not necessarily obey mathematical laws were posited and debated, and Scripture and revelation remained possible sources of insight into God’s design for some time.

In (2), Schaffer continues his project of dismantling “tradition-seeking” scholarship, which reduces philosophers’ motivations to a defense of one or the other side in epochal debates, such as between Newtonian or Cartesian/Leibnizian camps, or “mechanist” or “vitalist “camps.  Here he concentrates on removing the idea of “mechanism” as a coherent or clearly progressive philosophical movement. He concentrates specifically on the mechanistically ambiguous place of “souls” and “spirits” as bridge concepts between the study of pneumatics (as in Robert Boyle’s air pump experiments) and religious and political concerns.  “The epistemology of active principles demonstrably transgressed the boundaries of mechanism and vitalism, and its claim to competence transgressed the boundaries of priestcraft, economy, and physic.”

The spring-like qualities of the air were suspected by philosophers such as Robert Hooke and Isaac Newton of being closely related to the qualities of more elusive “subtle fluids”,  often referred to as spirits, which might be used to discuss the existence of vacuum, and the properties of fire, living matter, and souls, and which could be transmitted in various ways, such as by comets (often presumed to be pneumatic entities).  Systems constructed of such substances had to obey very certain moral rules.  The  demonstration of their effects could be used as a defense against charges of Cartesian-style “atheism”, but to suggest that spirits operated mechanically also courted religiously unacceptable positions.

Within these strictures, active principles within spirits could be deployed as evidence of individual will, as agents of divine intervention, and their movement might be presumed exempt from mathematical analysis and to behave according to more “Magical and Mystical laws than Light, Sound or the like” (Hooke).  This natural philosophy of spirits shared a contentious but nuanced intellectual place with alchemical and spiritual phenomena, such as problematically unrepeated instances of healing and spirit testimony.  Schaffer convincingly argues such matters are “not best treated as an aspect of the conflict between rationalism and the occult.”

Through the 18th century, natural philosophy and religion successfully shared intellectual space.  As Schaffer pointed out in 1983, public experimental and philosophical demonstration had potential political consequences.  These, however, were not necessarily negative.  Natural philosophy could be shown to be commensurate with “safe” religious and political views—in England, this was “Whig” natural philosophy.  Thus performance and attendance at performances could be viewed as morally acceptable or even uplifting.  For example, the glory of God could be witnessed in the active principles demonstrated in an electrical performance, which had physical links to far grander examples of God’s power, as in earthquakes (which were associated with electrical phenomena).

In (3), Schaffer shows how, in the late 1700s, the radical British chemical experimenter and philosopher Joseph Priestley deployed the natural philosophical tradition to his own political ends, and, thus, how chemistry could come to be seen as politically revolutionary (despite Priestley’s own apparent conservatism in the matter of phlogiston versus oxygen).  Beginning in about 1774, Priestley did this primarily by dissociating natural philosophy from immediate religious or political consequence.  What might seem like an act designed to defuse the political charge from philosophy was actually seen as fiercely political by Priestley as well as by his critics, given the always-haunting specter of atheism and the religious bent of politics of that time.

Priestley had no room in his philosophy for associating matter theory with spiritual issues, for the spiritual lessons of experiments and earthquakes, or for transmitting any moral uplift to a wonder-struck public audience.  Facts and philosophical systems instead ought to be debated by audiences capable of evaluating and debating the meaning of the facts.  Unlike very early Royal Society proponents and the later central cadre of the British Association, Priestley did not simply put political and religious issues aside; nor was he, strictly speaking, an atheist like some of his French contemporaries.  Rather, he and his associates argued that just as physical facts should be evaluated in physical systems, so religious/political facts should be evaluated in religious/political systems.  (Priestley had been preceded by over a century of secular political philosophy.)  All of these systems were ultimately connected via a unity of knowledge, but not via a unity of matter. Within this framework, constructive analogies might be fashioned between civic and natural systems, just as experimental systems could be considered analogous to naturally occurring ones.  However, the natural world never had any direct political or religious significance: one could not see God at work directly; one could only see His design.

Priestley’s philosophical project was fiercely at odds with the rapprochement between natural knowledge and the physical universes amenable to existing religious beliefs hewn out a century before.  It can be called Jacobin, because it suggested that civil decisions ought to be made by recourse to secular authority, which could be constructed out of the rational agreement of philosophically privileged parties, much like natural knowledge.  Occasionally the civic and natural worlds came together, as in the problem of public health and Priestley’s investigations of the chemistry of air.  Priestley would be disappointed by others’ unwillingness to interpret the meaning of both civic and natural facts in the philosophical systems to which he adhered, but his vision for philosophy was similar to highly influential ideas about polity constructed in his time and in the centuries after him.


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