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Schaffer and the End of Natural Philosophy January 16, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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As we’ve moved along in our Simon Schaffer project, an underlying set of general historical concerns has emerged from reading his articles (plus Leviathan and the Air-Pump) together, which is the way arguments work and develop in natural philosophy.  Although the various subgenres of natural philosophy had varying sets of rules permitting cosmologies of varying stability, the history of natural philosophy could be told in a very organic way by examining the progression of ideas within cosmologies.  Some ideas could be specific, such as the restorative role of comets, or very general, such as the idea that fundamental aspects of the universe could evolve with time.  Religious views were a part of, rather than connected to or constraining natural philosophy.

Schaffer’s arguments helped make over a century worth of history make more sense, because they elucidated why natural philosophers’ arguments made sense to them.  In pursuing this project, he was a part of a break with prior historiography, which had ignored or sought to explain away the ideas and practices in the past that didn’t make sense.  What had motivated this new break was the epistemic insight that the inquiries of prior eras, both “good” and “bad”, made sense on account of their connectedness—not their disconnectedness—from their surrounding culture.  This insight has now become so mainstream in the history of science community, its manifestation so much a part of why we write, that it is actually Schaffer’s long-time-scale historiographical sensibilities (which were actually part of his more classical training) that seem remarkable and exciting to me.

Not so to Schaffer:

(He gets to the most relevant bit right away, but the whole 37 minutes is worthwhile.  Also, plenty more of the four hour interview at YouTube, or Alan Macfarlane’s web site.)

I’ve mentioned that writing around the epistemic imperative has a museological quality designed to ornament and advertise the profession’s epistemic insights.  Sure enough we find, thanks to Macfarlane’s interview, that Schaffer was most motivated by the possibilities of this style for both communicating and generating insights, which possibly explains why he didn’t attempt to consolidate his historiographical contributions (the “consequences” of the central insight) more explicitly, in, say, a general history of natural philosophical ideas.

It also perhaps explains the structure of his 1986 piece, published in Social Studies of Science, “Scientific Discoveries and the End of Natural Philosophy”, which dissected the historical status of attributes of discovery.  The assignment of discovery—who first saw this, who first thought of that—had been a problematic issue in the history of science, handled by people like Tom Kuhn (“The Historical Structure of Scientific Discovery,” 1962).  Somebody could see something but not know what it was, or they could have an idea but not exactly the one later attributed to them, and so on.  Discovery was very hard to pin down.

Schaffer, smartly, stepped back from this problem to suggest that the assignment of discovery to a precise place or time was a matter designed to privelege the claims of those whose practices the assigner wanted to validate—a matter of especial controversy in the early nineteenth century when the natural philosophical style was under assault from those seeking more stable claims in their science, and who had reason to highlight methods they saw as stability-producing in their historical reflections.

Schaffer offers several case examples: the “discoveries” of photosynthesis, Uranus, oxygen, and the inverse square law of electrostatic force.  The bulk of the paper is spent on demonstrating the constructed nature of discoveries.  Like U2, this was probably very cool at the time; but while it’s still possible to appreciate the argument (or U2),you’ve got to admit it’s not all that exciting.

What retains its luster for me is Schaffer’s more historical argument at the end of the paper about how the assembly of narratives of discovery as being attributable to the insight of “genius” became central to the history of science, and how it was a clear marker of the coming of the end of natural philosophy and the rise of disciplined science.  In the construction of natural philosophical economies and cosmologies, the process of adding knowledge was continual and methodical as philosophers’ entire model of the universe was subjected to scrutiny and amendment in light of new observations and new experiments.

Thus, for example, we find Priestley debunking the supposed genius of Newton: “Were it possible to trace the succession of ideas in the mind of Sir Isaac Newton, during the time he made his greatest discoveries, I make no doubt but our amazement at the extent of his genius would a little subside.”  Only by putting the whole system of ideas on the table that led to the key “discovery” would it be possible to rationally assent to them—rational assent being a key concern of Priestley’s philosophy (as we have seen).

Disciplined science doesn’t quite work this way.  Expecting “scientists” (as they started to be called) to work rigorously on very specific problems, bracketed off from any significance their solution might have for the nature of the rest of the universe, had repercussions for the way the really key “discoveries” (now increasingly defined as things like original formulae) were perceived.

Large groups of disciplined scientists now worked out the consequences of field-defining discoveries, but the act of discovery itself was (allegedly) reserved for the genius.  The genius’ act of discovery was not a matter of progression of ideas or a matter of labor, but a matter of inspiration, which could not be analyzed or fomented via discipline (but, following David Gooding’s work, it also had to be associated with proof). This division of science suggested a concomitant stratification of science between the (historically noteworthy) elite and its ordinary laborers.

Schaffer ends by pointing out that our historiographical concerns have too often been defined by those who established the historiography in the first place, often for their own quite specific ends.

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