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Thematic Concerns and Synopticism in the Historiography of Scientific Work February 5, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Jed Buchwald began his essay review of Crosbie Smith and Norton Wise’s 1989 biography of William Thomson, Energy and Empire (British Journal for the History of Science 24 (1991) pp. 85-94) with the observation, “Post-modernism and Benoit Mandelbrot have found their way to the history of science.”  He went on to identify the book as “a sort of fractal biography“, and observed, “Here we have, as it were, an attempt to force meaning, but not global order, to emerge out of chaos through guided immersion in the chaos itself.” The “ever-present aim” is “thematic unity”.  Buchwald saw this as a new methodological tack, and his characterization of it is worth a lengthy quote.  Rhetorically asking why one should write a massive biography of a very important, but not Very Important physicist, he surmises:

The answer Smith and Wise would give, I think, points to Thomson’s unique significance as the exemplar and the creator of a special kind of imperial science and engineering.  His scientific creations both reflect and constitute a powerful amalgam of social, cultural and economic trends that shaped British physics and physics-based engineering into a form that gave it worldwide dominance during the same period, and for many of the same reasons, that Clydeside ship-builders and the British telegraph dominated.  I know of no comparable biography, or history, that so directly embraces and thoroughly works the view that every aspect of an individual’s career is indissolubly bound to every other aspect of it, that the whole connects both globally and in intimate detail to tendencies that influenced populous groups of people and that have at first sight little to do with questions such as whether or not one should treat moving force as an energy gradient.

Of course, the attempt to derive unity from an individual’s intellectual output was not new.  We have already seen on this blog how in 1984 Simon Schaffer had criticized the literature on Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) for portraying him as a “synoptic thinker”.  Energy and Empire was part of the very same discussion.  In fact, in their chapter 4 on the “changing tradition of natural philosophy”, Smith and Wise drew on Schaffer’s work on Glasgow astronomer John Pringle Nichol (1804-1859), whose commitment to social progress accorded with his support for the nebular hypothesis and the attendant implication of cosmological progress, which (apparently) implied an endorsement of the general concept of progress by nature itself.

However, Smith and Wise did not share Schaffer’s aversion to interpreting historical figures in terms of central political and religious programmatic commitments.  As Buchwald points out, they enthusiastically portrayed Thomson’s early aversion to ontological interpretation and his commitment to mathematical argument as functions of his “latitudinarian” religious background.  Like Nichol (whom he knew from an early age), his understanding of dissipation of energy in the universe and his belief in its linear progression accorded with his progressive whig politics.  His concern for engineering problems, his predilection for mechanical models of physical processes, his aversion to wasted energy, his moral views toward work, and the political programs he supported all interlocked into an overarching intellectual outlook.

Smith and Wise’s portrayal of Thomson in these terms was certainly justified—to a point.  Buchwald parsed his adjectives carefully.  He doesn’t want to claim that Smith and Wise’s claims “are infrequently persuasive.  They do persuade.  But they are not always compelling…”  It is clear, for instance, that Thomson immediately, explicitly, and enthusiastically connected the dissipation of energy to its theological and moral resonances.  However, as Buchwald also notes, it is not clear how seriously one should take the complete package.  Can you really connect Thomson’s mathematical argumentation to latitudinarian religion so that the adjective “latitudinarian” becomes an accurate descriptor of those mathematics?  Since Thomson himself never framed this aspect of his work in these terms, what can be gained from making the connection?

One likely answer is that the identification of religious and political views with particular aspects of scientific work pinpointed scientific figures’ “commitments”, i.e. not fully rational postures, strategies, beliefs about nature, and so forth, which could function as both a productive “resource” and a “constraint” on scientific thought, helping to define what sorts of arguments these figures were and were not likely to countenance.  Buchwald again:

The goal here is to reach deep into what has long been seen as two central characteristics of Thomson’s early physics, namely his concern with establishing analogies between different subjects (particularly between heat and electricity), and his use of mathematics based on partial differential equations rather than integrals.  These, argue Smith and Wise, are both part of a single mathematical thrust that in turn connects to prior convictions that are grounded in a religio-political amalgam of voluntarist theology and abhorrence to partisanship, with connections to beliefs about progression and industrial economy.

The religious (or at least political) character of these “convictions” lent their intellectual force explicability.  Buchwald later quoted Smith and Wise: “‘We have argued … that the full strength of [Thomson’s] commitment [to heat dissipation] derives from Thomson’s theological view that God had not created a universe—or solar system—as an eternal entity, and that only He could restore the initial sources of energy.’  But they add an essential caveat: ‘That is not to say, however, that the principle of dissipation itself derives from theological considerations, rather that Thomson’s commitment to it as an inviolable axiom received its extraordinary strength from the axiom’s place in his theology of nature” (S&W, 501).

This was just the sort of thing that Schaffer criticized the Priestley literature for in 1984: attempting to categorize and comprehend Priestley’s work through “some unifying principle”, which harbored extra-scientific commitments that could serve as “a hidden source for [Priestley’s] science (and thus a set of prejudices).”  Of course, as we have seen, in studying 18th-century natural philosophy, Schaffer regularly explored proposed material cosmologies where the theological problems of the place of the soul and God were explicitly considered problems, as in Schaffer’s important but under-cited work on 17th and 18th-century pneumatics.  There is also his fascinating piece on sacred texts in intellectual systems.

But what were the implications of the insights appropriate for studying these natural philosophical systems for 19th-century natural philosophy-qua-physics?  That the historiographies fed off each others’ ideas is clear: Smith and Wise reference Thomson’s “theology of nature” (and, as we will see, Geoffrey Cantor would use the same terminology to discuss religious resonances of Faraday’s science).  But was this appropriate?  My inclinations are with Buchwald here: “I would hardly call Thomson’s barely-expressed views a theology of nature” (his emphasis).

I’m yet to work out the lineages, but it seems clear that what we can witness in this literature published circa 1990 is an incomplete attempt to digest anthropological work on societies’ cosmologies of thought into the history of science.  Where 18th-century natural philosophy clearly tried to digest it all into an intellectual system that encompassed the workings of the universe and everything in it, in other genres and other centuries, problems of “resonance”, and “commitment”, and “rhetoric”, and “ideals” certainly played other functions that have never been properly worked out.  But calling these conversations the product of an incomplete digestion is not to denigrate them.  Energy and Empire is a great book, fully deserving of its 1990 Pfizer Prize, and their treatment of the religion-science connection, paired with Buchwald’s critique, can probably be taken as a high-water mark of the historiography on this subject.

It is important to work these issues out continually, and not just get pretty close and then call the game.  Buchwald conceded whether one found Smith and Wise’s style satisfactory “must remain very nearly a matter of taste,” but even if historiography really could find no firmer foundations than that, keeping the conversation going at that level is important to maintaining the highest quality of scholarship.  I feel that the analysis of the most recent Pfizer Prize-winners, The Jewel House and Matters of Exchange, could have certainly benefited if these issues were more frequently and widely parsed at standards at or above the Buchwald/Smith & Wise/Schaffer level.

Otherwise, the tendency is to reduce insight to sound-bite, which, aside from discarding the gains of scholarship, muddles the message we send beyond our professional borders.  To pick on a quite recent example, one science blogger used the common history-of-science talking point of science-religion intertwining to question historian Ron Numbers’ claim that no scientific figure had ever been put to death for their positions by claiming that Bruno’s Copernican cosmology could not be so simply disentangled from his theology.  The erstwhile Thony C was obliged to point out that Bruno’s cosmological views were part and parcel of his theology, cosmology being a strong component of Renaissance religion, and that Bruno could not be properly considered a participant in the natural sciences.


1. thonyc - February 13, 2010

Will, I have only now got round to reading this post properly, I skimmed it on the day you posted it, and have just discovered that you quote me at the end of it. I thank you for your kind reference and link but I think you should look up the meaning of erstwhile! ;)

2. Will Thomas - February 14, 2010

Yikes, somehow I got the wrong idea into my head on that one! I meant something more like “faithful” or “reliably vigilant”—certainly not “former”!

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