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Schaffer on the Politics of Inquiry March 29, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)

One of the ongoing themes in Schaffer’s work—perhaps the primary theme—is his commitment to the detailed investigation of the relationship between political ideology and natural philosophical inquiry from the 17th to the 19th centuries.  It was at the center of Leviathan and the Air Pump, was central to his work on Priestley in the Enlightenment era, and his concern with the relationship between the natural philosophy of pneumatics and spirits (same post as Priestley).

Schaffer took pains to discuss politics as not simply something that interferes with inquiry, or as something that motivates inquiry, or something for which inquiry has implications.  For Schaffer, both the subject and manner of inquiry were understood as being political themselves, linked intimately with principles of good governance.  Politics not only defined what arguments one could make without incurring charges such as atheism, but, because these convictions were also held by natural philosophers, politics went so far as to define what kinds of questions and manners of inquiry made sense.

Today I’d like to do some sweeping up on this subject from Schaffer’s 1980s writings:

(1) “Occultism and Reason in the Seventeenth Century,” in Philosophy: Its History and Historiography (1985), edited by A. J. Holland.  (Schaffer’s entry is available in full through Google Books.)

(2) “Wallification: Thomas Hobbes on School Divinity and Experimental Pneumatics,” Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science (1988): 275-298.

(3) “The Glorious Revolution and Medicine in Britain and the Netherlands,” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 43 (1989): 167-190.

There is also one article I do not have easy access to that looks relevant:

(*) “The Political Theology of Seventeeth-Century Natural Science,” Ideas & Production 1 (1983): 1-43.

What must be the most interesting thing about being a historian of seventeenth-century natural philosophy is the sheer number of epistemological flavors deployed to address the same problems.  In the 1980s, conscientious historians took it upon themselves to sort out different epistemological commitments, rather than to rely on wholly inappropriate taxonomies.  Early in his career, Schaffer had criticized eighteenth-century natural philosophies being sorted into traditions such as “Newtonian” or “mechanist”.  In these pieces he goes into some more detail about how analytical taxonomies could be appropriately applied in historical analysis.

(2) is probably the most straightforwardly technical, dealing with Hobbes’ consternation c. 1660 over both Scholastic and experimental treatments of condensation and rarification, and functions sort of like  an addendum to Leviathan and the Air Pump (Schaffer is actually presenting a newly found document to the historical record and contextualizing it).  What is immediately at issue are a series of pneumatic phenomena: the functioning of air guns, fountains, and, of course, air pumps.  Experimentalists’ explanations of these phenomena, defended in this particular case by John Wallis, deployed the idea of spring-like qualities in the air, which, barring the possibility of vacuum, meant that, following the Peripatetics, quantity could be separated from a body.  The issue is political, because, for Hobbes, separating quantities from bodies constitutes an inappropriate use of language (“empty names”).  It is just such inappropriate uses of language that inappropriate authorities (e.g. the Catholic Church) use to exert a false spiritual authority (think transubstantiation in the Eucharist).  The point is made nicely when Hobbes says experimentalists might as well say a process happens because of “Wallification” (after Wallis) as by condensation or rarification.

(1) is sort of a rehash of Schaffer’s point about the natural philosophy of spirits, packaged into an argument agreeing with another article in the collection that it is inappropriate to speak of “occultism” versus “reason” when discussing events in the 17th century.  The “Scientfic Revolution” and experimentalism are often supposed to be a triumph of reason over the occultism of Aristotelian philosophy and Church doctrines.  In fact, occult qualities are everywhere in the natural philosophy of the period, as philosophers are forced to find explanations for the behavior of spirits and pneumatic phenomena, the process of reason and the relationship between mind and body, and, of course, the legendary throwdown between Newton’s and Leibniz’s supporters over the nature of gravity.  Occultism functions in this period as a polemical resource rather than as something clearly embraced by one side and rejected by another in debates.  Polemics did not set the bounds of inquiry, but did feature strongly in a long series of ongoing debates to define what kinds of problems could be addressed and arguments made in a responsible fashion.

I found (3) to be a rather difficult article, because it pulls no punches in attempting to characterize the relationship between philosophical, political, and medical positions, with which Schaffer presumes his audience is already familiar.  In reality, most history of science should look like this, because historical knowledge should be cumulative enough that specialists can work out detailed points without having to bother with cartoon portraits.

This article deals with natural and medical philosophers’ differing reactions to the Glorious Revolution of 1688.  Schaffer doesn’t usually deal with medicine, but the issues at hand are familiar ones dealing with the political resonances of differing modes of inquiry.  Specifically here, the Jacobite opponent of the Revolution, Archibald Pitcairne’s search for certainty, and thus, authority in assembling political systems and systems of knowledge, which leads him into similar defenses of legitimate holders of political authority as well as appropriately “mathematical” medical theory.  Pitcairne’s views are cast against those of John Locke, who supported the Glorious Revolution, and his acceptance of alternative authorities since a priori legitimate authorities (i.e., measured by descent from Adam) cannot be known, as well as his epistemological understanding of the unknown, which leads him to a restraint in fear of inappropriate application of mathematical reasoning.

Just two points to highlight: first, Pitcairne’s search for certainty in philosophy and authority is specifically identified with Descartes and Hobbes.  Hobbes’ philosophy is understood as a justification of authoritarianism, which Locke will, of course, argue against.  Second, Newton becomes a resource for both: Pitcairne in his search for “mathematical” principles (most evident in work on visual optics), and Locke in terms of defining the exercise of philosophical restraint.


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