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Cosmology and “Synoptic” Intellectual History September 23, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Methods.
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The influence of anthropological ideas on historiography is widely acknowledged, if too often boiled down to a slogan: “approach history as a stranger,” or “know the past on its own terms.”  On this blog, Chris Donohue has been revisiting the problems informing the interpretive approaches of Malinowski’s “functionalism” and Lévi-Strauss’ “structuralism”.  By grounding ritualistic behaviors in issues of social cohesion and cognitive strategy, these approaches bring sense to activities that, on their surface, seem arbitrary.  Applied to familiar societies, they also form part of a trend stretching over a century that makes our own social behaviors seem less explicitly rational, if not altogether less rational.  For historians of science, this is of great interest, because it helps reanalyze scientific practice in ways removed from overt scientific reasoning.

Moving beyond scientific practice as simply a particular mode of reasoning was part and parcel of the Great Escape from the philosophy of science.  But I’d now like to move beyond the limitations of abandoning philosophy, to concentrate more on the generative ideas in the same historiographical period (roughly, the fabled ’80s), which have ceased to be articulated now that that period’s gains have themselves been boiled down to basic slogans.

The most important anthropological concept that has vaporized into the atmosphere is the cognitive cosmology, an idea which holds that every society, or really every individual, necessarily creates their own sense of what is in the world and how the world works, which allows people to cope with their surroundings.  I’d like to very roughly sketch out a preliminary sense of how this idea worked in the historiography.

Last year, right as I was starting this blog’s look at Simon Schaffer’s oeuvre, the thing that most struck me about his work was the emphasis on cosmology in natural philosophical thought in the 17th and 18th centuries.  In this picture, basic ideas about matter, force, spirit, universal order, and the process of proper inquiry and governance function as resources, which have to be connected in variable ways into an overall philosophical system.  Clearly, the Newton scholarship was much enlivened by a need to figure out what his mathematics had to do with his religious views and alchemy.  However, exactly how this interconnectedness works remained a tricky question, as Schaffer noted when he discussed problems of “Newtonian hermeneutics” in 1993.

One boiled-down version of the natural philosophical cosmology issue was a more general notion of thematic interconnection between science, religion, culture, and so forth.  Circa 1990, natural philosophical cosmologies were taken into the 19th-century with Crosbie Smith and Norton Wise’s examination of the relationship between William Thomson’s physics and his “latitudinarianism”, Energy and Empire.  Similarly, Geoffrey Cantor examined the relationship between Michael Faraday’s Sandemanian faith and his science.

This interconnection was at that time framed in terms of these peoples’ “natural theology”—a live term in that historical period.  The connections to the scholarship on natural philosophy is clear enough.  Yet, it is not clear if in this case “natural theology” is not too intellectual a term to properly convey the thematic relationship between these particular historical figures’ religious beliefs and scientific work.

In any case, the general sense of interconnection has fostered a continuing interest in the beliefs of scientific figures, as in Matthew Stanley’s work on Eddington.  According to Stanley’s faculty page, he is working on “a book that explores how science changed from its historical theistic foundations to its modern naturalistic ones,” which seems to me like a really good question given the somewhat unsatisfactory place where this line of inquiry left off in 19th-century science.  We’ll be looking at Crosbie & Wise and Cantor in more detail soon.

The danger in making too much of intellectual or thematic interconnections is that one develops what Schaffer, discussing in 1984 the literature on Priestley, has called a “synoptic” interpretation of figures, a sense that everything they do congregates around some basic programmatic or ideological commitment.

We’ll do a separate post on this piece also, but he has a key criticisms worth mentioning here, particularly that in synoptic views, effort is expended on assigning a proper classification of work.  “The classification would, presumably, generate a profound understanding of the motives at play…”  There is thus a temptation to identify what commonalities characterize the work of a “physicist” or “chemist”; or, for that matter, “Enlightenment” or “Romantic” or “Latitudinarian” or “Victorian” or, I would say, even “Cold War” science.  This strategy has clear links to a prior era of intellectual history, wherein effort is expended on properly characterizing thought—or at least historiographical interest—as revolving around an underlying ideology such as “liberalism”.

Returning to cosmology, probably the most productive strand of inquiry is the issue of how one incorporates the aberrant or unpredictable.  I have already discussed Daston and Park’s illumination of differing reactions to aberration in their Wonders and the Order of Nature (based on a 1981 article, [pay wall]).  Religious and literary cosmologies could always appeal to the influence of the divine or the occult.  Aristotelian inquiry nicely dealt with the issue in that the only things worth philosophical interest were general tendencies.  Moves toward cause-and-effect cosmologies generated enormous problems, not only in accounting for the aberrant, but also basic stability. Deistic understandings of divine order, and Newton’s divinely sustained cosmos were strategies for dealing with this issue.  This cosmological question, of course, culminates in Laplace’s confidence in a deterministic but unplanned universe.

The reaction to Laplace’s universe was an enormously productive historiographical question.  There’s, of course, the longstanding interest in vitalism and Romantic conceptions of nature, but revulsion against Laplace also feeds into Smith & Wise’s account of Thomson’s dedication to irreversible thermodynamics (Schaffer actually joined in here in discussing Thomas Romney Robinson’s reaction to the nebular hypothesis).

Also of interest is the scholarship surrounding probability and statistics (related, of course, to thermodynamics).  Laplace was a key figure in the promotion of these fields, and little wonder: they allowed for general relational laws to be applied to complex and unobservable (but in principle deterministic) phenomena.  By means of probability, aberrations could be allowed in a deterministic universe as products of rare but unknown processes—the freak occurrence became a key cosmology-building tool.

The role of probability and statistics in establishing a newly scientific view of the world was appropriately a key question of the era.  Ian Hacking, Donald MacKenzie, Ted Porter, and Lorraine Daston all wrote books on the subject appearing at fairly regular intervals between 1975 and 1995.  I get the sense the topic was a sort of a bridge between older intellectual histories and an enthusiasm for the aforementioned relationships between the intellectual realm of science and more classically cultural and political realms.

Of course, popular, cultural and political realms assuredly operate within their own cosmologies of ideas (think Ginzburg on Mennochio‘s “cosmos”), and the trading of imagery and concepts between scientific, cultural, and political realms remains—unlike statistics and probability—a very common topic of investigation.  For scholars writing in the 1980s, I get the sense that all these problems were part of a more general working out the intellectual and social consequences of different kinds of cosmological views.

I also get the sense that this historiographical trend was more the product of a zen-like confluence of research questions, and less a well-articulated program.  Today the trade of imagery and concepts has no apparent relationship to working out cognitive cosmologies or systems of thought more generally, which is too bad, because it provides a nice rubric in which to interpret the relationship between practices and underlying ideas.  As I previously noted, Daston pointed out in her “Moral Economies” piece that even if there is a traffic of ideas and practice between science and non-science, ideas and practices function differently in different communities.  Recognizing systems of ideas is important in differentiating individuals’ perspectives rather than simply identifying their relationship with coarsely-defined macrotraditions of ideas, ideals, and values.



1. Will Thomas - October 5, 2009

In discussing treatments of probability in this historiographical period, I neglected to mention Barbara Shapiro’s 1983 book, Probability and Certainty in Seventeenth-Century England: A Study of the Relationship Between Science, Religion, History, Law, and Literature.

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