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Schaffer on Cometography, Pt. 2: Hermeneutics and Historiography July 17, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy, Methods, Schaffer Oeuvre.
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A hermeneutical conundrum

Hermeneutical conundrum

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.



1. Some reading « Evolving Thoughts - July 17, 2009

[…] in which he riffs off themes to address more general issues and specific historical cases. This one is about the term and use of “hermeneutics” (something any biblical student knows all […]

2. Tawrin - July 17, 2009

“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 reverse, no?

3. Will Thomas - July 18, 2009

I’m not myself a Newton scholar, so Thony or someone else can correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe in the Principia Newton uses geometric derivations, and in his later priority wars with Leibniz he claimed that he converted to geometry from his original use of fluxions, but that much later historical investigation of Newton’s records showed that he did in fact use geometry (or at least that there were no signs of calculus). I’d quote, but I left the paper at the office.

4. Thony C. - July 18, 2009

You are indeed right Will, its exactly as you say.

5. Tawrin - July 19, 2009

Ah, I was all out of sequence. Indeed, later on he claims to have used the method of fluxions in places where there is good manuscript evidence that he never did. I was, however, under the impression that Newton tacitly relied on the method of fluxions in some of the propositions in book I and II. Mahoney holds, following D. T. Whiteside, that there is no evidence of the use of fluxions whatsoever (Mahoney, Machael S. “Algebraic vs. Geometric Techniques in Newton’s Determination of Planetary Orbits.” In Action and Reaction, ed Paul Theerman and Adele F. Seef). However there still seems to be some debate about whether this is entirely true. In Bertoloni Meli’s Thinking with Objects, p. 266, he says that Newton’s claims may apply to some parts of the Principia, though certainly not for most of the propositions; here he seems to be pointing to Niccolo’s Guiccairdini’s 1999 Reading the “Principia” (which I can’t check right now).

But yes, I was, on the whole, mistaken.

6. Thony C. - July 20, 2009

Tawrin; you are indeed correct that some experts are now arguing that Newton did at least use analytic reasoning in some of the more technical parts of the Principia but I personally haven’t followed up these claims. If you have a reference for something specific then post it here I would be interested.

7. Will Thomas - July 20, 2009

Excellent discussion. At the office now, it looks like Schaffer uses Whiteside, and it is the prospect of a “‘hidden’ analytic core” that leads Schaffer to talk about “restrospective authorial intention” being used to bolster “intellectual authority”.

I think the point here is that regardless of whether or not such a hidden analytic core existed, we need to understand that our interest in timing—whether that core preceded Newton’s derivations of orbits or was constructed afterward—is a product of the tactics used in the priority disputes. This doesn’t disqualify our interest in the subject by any means, but it is something we should be aware of, because it helps us sort out what kinds of links we should be looking for at what times, and what ones might only be thought to exist because of concerns that arose later.

8. Thony C. - July 20, 2009

As a result of Tawrin’s last post I have borrowed Guiccardini’s Reading the PRINCIPIAfrom the library which was on my (infinitely long!) reading list some years ago but was too expensive to buy and was then not available in my university library. A first perusal shows that he thinks that Newton used several different mathematical methods to research and write the Principia but that none of them is analysis as the Leibnizianer understood it. The book looks good and I think it will fit in very well with some other stuff that I have read over the last twelve months so thanks to Tawrin for the tip.

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