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Schaffer on the Priestley Lit October 5, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Getting back to the series on Simon Schaffer, we’re going to be looking at a series of articles on Enlightenment chemistry, which will hopefully give us the opportunity to discuss Jan Golinski’s book Science as Public Culture: Chemistry and Enlightenment in Britain, 1760-1820, which expressly owes a lot to Schaffer’s work, and covers a lot of the same ground.  First, though, I want to backtrack to jot down a few notes about the 1984 piece, “Priestley’s Questions: An Historiographic Survey,” History of Science 22: 151-183.

Joseph Priestley

Joseph Priestley

At the end of last year, we discussed Schaffer’s 1987 piece, “Priestley and the Politics of Spirit”.  To recap, Schaffer was calling attention to the connections some 18th-century natural philosophers made between pneumatic and electrical phenomena and the actions of spirit, and Priestley’s desire to dissociate theological from natural philosophy.  In the earlier piece, Schaffer was reviewing problems identified in the analysis of Priestley’s life and identifying historiographical strategies used to address those problems—a service that should be a much more common feature of our journals (and one also at work in his criticism of the Newton literature).

Priestley (1733-1804) was a dynamic figure of particular historiographical interest for a couple of reasons: first, he was an innovative chemical experimenter, making significant contributions to the chemistry of air that began to develop in the latter half of the 18th century, but also remaining a staunch proponent of the phlogiston theory even after most chemists accepted Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier’s chemistry of oxygen.  Second, Priestley was a proponent of the Enlightenment project linking political authority to reasoned assent—a radical position at that time.  Schaffer pointed out that the historiography of Priestley was dominated by the effort to link his science to his politics, noting that the politically inspired destroying of Priestley’s property in 1791, including his papers, presented a burden on the historiography, but also removed “most obstacles to the creative interpretation of [Priestley’s] published legacy.”

As a scientific thinker, Priestley proves difficult to locate, since his work in chemistry must be understood as fitting within a more general rubric of natural philosophy, and because of the pervasive concern with his position on the phlogiston question.  Schaffer points out that Priestley has been cast as an ideal epistemologist, an innocent mind dedicated to the collection of facts without imposing a preconceived set of ideas on their interpretations; others, accordingly, have viewed Priestley as an unskilled amateur, a judgment that tends to contrast him with Lavoisier.  Of course other interpretations have understood his political and religious concerns as offering “a hidden source for his science (and thus a set of prejudices)”.

In this article Schaffer (joining Jan Golinski and J. R. R. Christie), is highly critical of any “historical account hijacked by philosophical bias.”  He chides, “Just as it seems difficult to analyse the relation between Priestley’s open empiricism and his theoretical commitments, so it seems equally difficult—if not impossible—to purge historical interpretation of equally strong philosophical prejudice” (153).

The Great Escape is at work here, but in an early, sophisticated, and well-articulated way designed to make extremely specific points about a particular body of historiography.  In addition to the old empiricist/theory-laden concerns (which is linked to the “Newtonian tradition” problem of which Schaffer has been an arch-critic), Schaffer also notes a historiographical preoccupation with questions related to the development of matter theory, a commitment to which could be a source of adherence to the phlogiston model  (which, of course, could be offset by a more thorough analysis of Priestley’s experimental, rhetorical, and social “practice”).

As I mentioned in my post on cosmologies of thought, Schaffer criticized attempts to portray Priestley as a “synoptic thinker”, which attempts to reconcile Priestley’s various projects into a particular intellectual program, creating tensions in his work, which the historian analyzes.  Schaffer has a great line here: “Throughout such historiography we find nothing but paradox: a search for some unifying principle is matched against a set of imposed divisions between Priestley’s various avocations” (152).

Schaffer notes encouraging directions in understanding Priestley’s participation in various communities, and thus in multiple projects, and his command over intellectual and social resources available to him toward each.  Between these projects, it is possible to read common strategies, as in his commitment to achieving “communal assent”, which evidences “his own allegiance to the civic humanist concept of knowledge”, which comes up again in the 1987 piece, and informs Golinski’s analysis.

On a tangential note: I notice that what I bring away from articles is evolving as I proceed through them and get to know the historiography a little better each time, and as I explore my own historiographical concerns.  In the wake of my Great Escape series, what has become clearer to me, personally, is how concerned the early years of the movement were with adding narrative complexity to existing historiographical pictures, where later manifestations have tended to emphasize the study of local complexity, but mainly in the service of embellishing a literature of coarsely-defined macrotraditions.  An intriguing statement to me in light of recent posts here: “The synoptic appeal seems overwhelming: this might, perhaps, explain the surprising lack of micro-studies of the details of Priestley’s work in contrast with more general surveys of the whole thrust of his career.”

Finally, I’d like to quickly make a note of ambivalence about this Schaffer project.  Personally, I have found it extremely useful in understanding the motivations underlying his work and its relationship to the historiography of the period.  There is a danger, though, that when presented in this format, his articles will be taken to represent conclusive or the most important contributions to the historiography on their respective subjects.  This would be unfortunate, since Schaffer’s work is particularly intensive in its engagement with existing historiography.  Those seeking a deeper understanding should seek out the articles themselves, footnoted references, and later scholarship on the same topic.  For example, in this piece Schaffer cites earlier work by historian and philosopher John McEvoy, but McEvoy continues to work on the Chemical Revolution, and has engaged with the positions of Schaffer and Golinski, among many others; for an easily accessible 2007 paper by McEvoy discussing the literature, see here.

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