Schaffer on Cometography, Pt. 2: Hermeneutics and Historiography July 17, 2009Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy, Methods, Schaffer Oeuvre.
Tags: Bruno Latour, C. P. Snow, Christian Wolff, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Isaac Newton, Simon Schaffer, Steven Shapin, Voltaire
I. After reading Simon Schaffer’s “Comets and Idols”, I find myself using the word “hermeneutics” a lot more than I used to. In general, you can get your point across just fine talking about “interpretation”. However, when it comes to Isaac Newton, and writing the history of his ideas, the history of how he presented his ideas and himself, the history of how others drew on his ideas, and the history of how others presented how they were drawing upon his ideas—not to mention the act of writing the history of all this—the pithy phrase “Newtonian hermeneutics” (p. 209) acquires a certain appeal.
Drawing on his writing on Newton’s understanding of cometography as part of a project to restore a long-debauched Chaldean natural philosophy, in “Comets and Idols” Schaffer takes the opportunity to reflect on the role of “sacred texts” and their interpretation in history. If natural philosophy was a chaotic mess of competing systems filled with different arrangements of matter and forces, then the sacred text serves as a rare fixed point of unalterable truth. And for some time, no text was more sacred to many natural philosophers than Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (but see also Adam Smith). Unfortunately, the interpretation of sacred texts is never straightforward, and it is by offering one’s own interpretation of the meaning of the sacred text—by uncovering what stands unspoken behind it, whether motivation, intended emphasis, methodology, hidden knowledge, or concrete ideas—and by discounting others’ “misunderstanding” or “distortion” of it that one draws upon its authority.
As Schaffer had observed before (especially with the construction of historic scientific discoveries, and with psychology’s claiming the personal equation as its own), the appropriation of history within the program one is trying to advance is an important, perhaps inevitable, tactic in building authority. Though Newton was a preeminent speculative natural philosopher, in the wake of his legendary conflicts with Gottfried Leibniz, Newton himself worked hard to portray himself as a sound epistemologist who refused to speculate. In the midst of the same conflict he found it useful to portray the demonstrations of the Principles as deriving from his mathematics of fluxions (calculus), though the archival evidence shows he used traditional geometric derivations.
The 18th-century interpreters of Newton were eager to draw their own interpretations of Newton’s accomplishments. For example, Voltaire championed Newton’s metaphysics over Leibniz’s, but Christian Wolff countered, “Nothing can be more absurd than Voltaire’s desire to make Newton into a metaphysician… The attempt to establish a parallel between Newton and Leibniz is simply fantastic.”
Schaffer sees great significance in the fact that the hermeneutical priorities of Newton’s historical interpreters so easily transfer to the concerns of more recent historians who struggle to understand how private and public texts can be interpreted against each other to arrive at “consistency” in order to delineate the proper “Newtonian” tradition. “The moves show that retrospective identification of essential authorial intention is a powerful tactic in the erection of an intellectual authority. ¶ Because of this power it is scarcely surprising, though it is revealing, that seventeenth- and eighteenth-century natural philosophers engage in just the essential tactics of interpretation that historians have used.” (p. 210) This is a more sophisticated take on what I have called “insultography”.
What Schaffer does with all these observations is key. First, it is not simply a call for revised interpretations of Newton’s work freed from baggage: “This hermeneutical chaos is not evoked merely to suggest that the historiographic garden is full of weeds and needs a new, simplified botanic order.” (p. 207). For Schaffer, the historical hermeneutics of history is itself an important topic of historical inquiry (a point David Edgerton, Stefan Collini, and Guy Ortolano have been concerned to make about C. P. Snow and his importance in 20th-century British history).
Further, Schaffer’s observations are not an excuse to portray other historians as pathetic in their priorities, or to deploy a Rashomon posture to advance himself: how can we ever hope to find Truth? There is no ‘Newton’ only texts; ergo my interpretation is as good as any. Instead, Schaffer uses the point to delineate a series of specific strategies that can be used to interpret Newton’s work and subsequent uses of his work in more historiographically appealing ways:
Several resources are available to the historian in approaching these problems. We may recognize the indevicality of meaning, noting the linguistic setting in which terms of the Newtonian lexicon are most typically used…. We may make stipulations about explicit or implicit authorial intention, conscious of the extraordinary flexibility of such imputation both now and in the historical period under examination…. Last, we may ground our imputations by pointing to the implication of use. Historians have indicated Newton’s providentialism through the use of his statements by providentialists…. (pp. 212-13)
II. “Comets and Idols” strikes me as a superb delineation of the challenges that the conscientious historian faces, which is why it is so surprising to me that “Comets and the World’s End”, published the same year, is far less appealing historiographically. While the piece is fine insofar as it recycles Schaffer’s prior claims, it falls stunningly flat when making new claims, which revolve around the creation of the scientific figure as a modern form of prophet.
In this paper, Schaffer moves effortlessly from his subtle discussion of Johann Lambert’s castigation of cometographers as “authorized prophets” to the rise of “town planners and econocrats, cost-benefit analysts and political ecologists, military analysts ‘thinking the unthinkable’ and so-called ‘chartists’ in the City, all reading entrails and deploying allegedly credible futurological machines.”
This lends amazing credence to my only-half-joking conspiracy theory that all roads in the professional history of science lead to criticisms of the RAND Corporation. Why should this be? Much more on this later, but it has to do with the notion that a key element of the self-understanding of science studies scholars is that it is their task to unveil an underlying heresy that pervades “how we think about science”—or, as Schaffer puts it here, “the way we predict”.
Chris Donohue has pointed out how often historiography serves as a form of “theodicy”: an explanation for why there is evil in the world. That nuclear weapons (or laissez-faire economics, or socialist planning, or third-world modernization policies, or whatever other technocratic evil you choose) could be tolerated in any purportedly rational argument becomes something that the history of science (or of ideas) must explain as a consequence of a grand cultural failure to foster a necessary awareness concerning the crucial epistemological links between knowledge and the political authority it bolsters.
The reason, I think, why even the historiographically meticulous Simon Schaffer could see fit to move straight from astronomy to policy analysis (do not pass Go, do not collect $200), is because he knows the volume in which his piece appears is intended for a popular audience where the science studies imperative for evangelization reigns supreme over historiographical craft.
When approaching a popular audience, the key is to communicate the sociological Revelation of science studies. We turn quickly to aping Latour and Shapin: “My purpose is to draw attention away from the abstract [i.e. epistemological/philosophical] question of the reliability of prediction and towards the everyday [i.e. social/sociological] problem of the trust we invest in our favorite predictors.” By 1993, Schaffer has signed up for The Great Escape, because it is sociology, not philosophy, that can explain what is so obvious that it requires no support: why “we” grant automatic credibility to “scientific” perspectives—just as C.P. Snow and the French before him did!
“Science”, alleging it deploys an epistemologically pure “method”, encourages a naive view of the social function of science to become pervasive, which the theory-informed scholar must correct: “One mistake is to suppose that the culture of the wider public has no effect on the specialist predictors; it does.” Tracing the rise of the naive view (“the great divide between traditional and modern culture was created”), the historiographical theodicy is constructed: “Court astrologers and popular almanac makers gave way to expert advisers brandishing the tools of statistics and physical science.” The End.