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Schaffer on Language and Proper Conduct November 16, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Daniel Defoe

One of the clearest findings in my long-term exploration of the oeuvre of Simon Schaffer, is the centrality of Schaffer’s use of the idea that a thinker’s personal understanding of the arrangement of the cosmos, their process of inquiry, and their ideas about proper social order were often intimately interrelated in philosophical inquiry in the 17th and 18th centuries.  This insight provides a powerful tool for investigating different facets of the wide field of “natural philosophy” as it intersected with other realms of intellectual activity.

It is clearly the case that natural philosophy had no defined form nor any clear boundaries with other kinds of literature.  In today’s post we step slightly outside the bounds of natural philosophy with two pieces that examine writings at the beginning and the end of natural philosophy’s golden age:

1) “Defoe’s Natural Philosophy and the Worlds of Credit,” in Nature Transfigured: Science and Literature, 1700-1900, edited by John Christie and Sally Shuttleworth, 1989.

2) “The History and Geography of the Intellectual World: Whewell’s Politics of Language,” in William Whewell: A Composite Portrait, edited by Menachem Fisch and Schaffer, 1991.

In (1), Schaffer observes the novelty of natural philosophy in Defoe’s time (c.1659-1731) and notes similarities in literary strategies between it and another new form of writing, “the news journal,” both of which “appealed to a new authority relation—that of the circumstantiated report of the novel and unprecedented event…”  In (2), at the other end of the time frame, we find a portrait of Whewell (1794-1866) as a critical writer on scientific work, attempting to define an intellectual and social place for it in contrast to a broader enterprise of philosophy—a concern directly related to Schaffer’s work on the new role of the scientific “genius”.

A question that comes up here (and that I want to revisit later) is how well analytical tools used for dealing with the history of natural philosophy translate into other realms.  As varied as natural philosophy was, it does seem to have been persistently characterized by its adherents’ devotion to working out systems of arguments in an explicit way.  While cultural anthropology, literary analysis, and the analysis of natural philosophy all readily accept analysis of conceptual cosmologies (an “imaginary”, if you’re into Lacan), it is not so clear how well the methods Schaffer likes to use can answer the questions he likes to ask outside of the more tightly structured conceptual systems of natural philosophy.

Notably, in Schaffer’s 1989 piece on the nebular hypothesis and the notion of “progress” in the mid-19th century, it was fairly clear that there was enough space between cosmology and political economy to make the rhetorical links he pointed out between them seem less cutting than they might have been.

Similarly, it is unclear that Defoe actually had a “natural philosophy”.  Seeing as Defoe is not one of Schaffer’s usual suspects, I’m kind of curious about the origins of this piece, because it strikes me as an attempt to import a toolbox used effectively in Leviathan and the Air-Pump (1985) into a literary analysis that never really coheres.  While it’s certainly the case that Defoe’s writing was conceptually innovative (he first applied the term “credit” to the “credit” side of an account ledger), and that he was influenced by natural philosophical work, the piece comes off as a collection of stray observations derived from a rudimentary sociology: the piece “focuses on the ways in which different techniques and communities made different claims for control over natural and social milieux” (13).

The main question seems to revolve around who, in Defoe’s work, can be a credible witness (as to a spiritual visitation), and how can proper behavior be produced.  Financial credit can serve good ends (in contrast to the opinion of Jonathan Swift), but the “bad” credit of stock “jobbery” results in bubbles, and is to be avoided.  Similar questions pervaded religion: “Papists doctrines of redemption through confession were like the claims of those who ‘stock-job Heaven in Exchange Alley by Puts and Refusals” (31).  Figures of bad credit in Defoe’s “economic cosmology” (36) were influenced by the Devil and likened to pirates, conjuring to mind hellish and unstable pirate societies as an analogy to the society of the stock exchange.  The basic point here seems to be about metaphorical innovation being used to develop a path to proper behavior and thus trust.  Schaffer’s analysis tolerates but doesn’t really reward the comparison he provides with natural philosophy and cosmology, and with Robert Boyle’s (1627-1691) “literary technology” in particular.  (Of course, I’m certainly no Defoe scholar, so if others would like to argue, please do.)

The piece on Whewell begins with a brief discussion of his literary metaphors, but quickly settles into the familiar analytical groove concerning the division of the bounds of inquiry, knowledge, and public trust.  Whewell’s “role has been notoriously difficult to categorize: alongside more familiar types, such as philosopher, historian, naturalist, and priest, let us now place that of ‘critic'” (230).

This case is quite convincing.  As scientific work became both increasingly productive and specialized, in the wake of the rationalistic and “‘extravagantly democratic'” excesses of the French Revolution and the “‘critical spirit’ of extreme German idealism” (207), the conservative Cambridge Anglican Whewell saw it as incumbent upon himself to put philosophy and science in their proper places.  To do this he relied on a division between “permanent” and “progressive” knowledge.

The object of science, through rigor, was to add to a store of authoritative, time-tested permanent knowledge, and to increase the sophistication of the common vocabulary.  In placing science in firm grounds, the establishment of proper nomenclature was essential (which motivated his dialogues with the prolific innovator Michael Faraday).  In this form it could be responsibly communicated.  The more rarefied realms of philosophy and unsettled science were progressive, and, as such, had to be kept bounded to their proper places.  Doing so was among “the cultural responsibilities of the élite” (209).  Whewell’s position was intended to oppose that of “artisan radicalism and utilitarian propaganda” (213).

“Scientists”—Whewell himself coined the term—were not entirely sanguine about his appointment of himself as a meta-scientific arbiter of the epistemological status of their work and their status in society.  Roderick Murchison (1792-1871), “prominent fox-hunter and geologist” complained that after “Whewell ‘had risen on the backs of the men of science‘ he [turned] upon them ‘as a high priest who abjured their ways” (212).  This role was not so different from that to which Defoe had appointed himself, linking proper knowledge, proper behavior, and proper social order.

*One final note.  Schaffer has an interesting throwaway line in the Whewell piece: “It can no longer surprise historians that the rhetorical and the figurative were deeply intertwined in such a set of scientific practices.  The point is not to demonstrate the mere existence of such verbal features, but to see how they worked, to describe Whewell’s linguistic tool-kit and the philosophical and political uses to which these tools were put” (202).  The point echoes one Steven Shapin had made nine years earlier.  I get the sense that routine acceptance of correct-but-trivial argumentation (as in straw-man bashing) is a perennial problem in humanistic scholarship.


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