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Schaffer on Bodies, Evidence, and Objectivity February 21, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Bodies of evidence: frontispiece of Nollet’s Essai sur l’electricité des corps

In 1983’s “Natural Philosophy and Public Spectacle in the Eighteenth Century,” Simon Schaffer set himself the task of determining whether “some of the more fashionable themes in current historiography” could be made to yield real explanatory gains.  Among these themes was “the notion of scientific production as performance”.  The gist of that piece was that natural philosophical arguments, as illustrated through public demonstration, had trouble fostering social agreement because of the requirement that the audience be able to interpret the performance and its implications correctly.  Here was a tension that, especially when connected to the social and political dangers of rationalist Jacobin politics, could help explain the nineteenth-century rise of contained scientific communities.

Much of Schaffer’s output in the 1980s and early 1990s filled out various instances where natural knowledge was linked to problems of maintaining proper behavior, and, thus, political order.  He especially concentrated on the cases of pneumatics (and the related practice of eudiometry), and cometography.  He also highlighted pointed criticisms of the idea that experimentally-gained knowledge could solve problems of social order, particularly those of Hobbes, Burke, and Whewell.

“Self Evidence,” Critical Inquiry 18 (1992): 327-362 returns us to 1983’s general point—the problematic relationship between experimental evidence and its implications for knowledge—and returns to some of the same electrical experimenters.  There is however a new wrinkle: the emphasis now is on self-experimentation and the difficulties of evidence produced specifically through the experimenter’s body.  How could a savant or an audience trust in reports of the medical benefits of electrical therapy, for example?  Accordingly, Schaffer does not point to the rise of the contained community.  Instead the consequence of the identified tension is the rise of mechanical instrumentation designed to measure physiological effects.  “The lesson of the story of self-evidence may … be that there is an intimate relationship between the trust placed in evidence of self-registering scientific instrumentation and the moral authority of the scientific intellectual” (362).

The cases should be familiar: Nollet and the late-18th-century rise of Mesmerism (which Robert Darnton influentially linked in 1968 with the “end of the Enlightenment”).  So I would like to concentrate on methodology and historiographical context rather than content.  “Self Evidence” comes at a key moment in the consolidation of the intellectual program of “historical epistemology”.  The gist of historical epistemology is that ways of knowing shift through time and can be closely identified with the problem of evidence, shifts in what kinds of evidence are trusted, and accordant shifts in the signs that an individual is endowed with knowledge.  The program is often linked with Ian Hacking (see Martin Kusch’s forthcoming critique), and finds a strong expression in Galison and Daston’s Objectivity (2007).  However, Objectivity is only the book-length expression of an argument that was first aired at the same time as Schaffer’s “Self Evidence” (“The Image of Objectivity,” Representations 40 (1992): 245-265), which matched Schaffer’s point about a shift from trust in the observer (“truth-to-nature”) to the machine (“mechanical objectivity”).  Much more on machines and precision in a forthcoming post.

The trend should be understood as much larger, however.  Ted Porter was also a key figure.  Like Hacking and Daston, his early writing dealt with the rise of statistics and probability, and, like Daston and Schaffer (and Shapin, whose Social History of Truth appeared in 1994) it soon moved into the problem of trust.  Looking to the same time period in his oeuvre, we find such works as “Objectivity and Authority: How French  Engineers Reduced Public Utility to Numbers,” Poetics Today 12 (1991): 245-265; and “Objectivity as Standardization: The Rhetoric of Impersonality in Measurement, Statistics, and Cost-Benefit Analysis,” Annals of Scholarship 9 (1992): 19-59 (reprinted in Rethinking Objectivity (1994), ed. Allan Megill).  Of course, Porter’s well-known book Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life would come out in 1995.

So, I think we can call objectivity studies a key trend that peaked between 1990 and 1995, and certainly still informs historiographical sensibilities today.  We can identify certain features of the scholarship at this point:

1) Historicization as a strategy of intellectual self-empowerment.  Placing key ideas “in history” or saying that they “have a history” was understood as a way of reconsidering their social role, and restoring historical attention to alternative ideas that served analogous functions.  It made the past more strange, but, ultimately, more coherent.  It “problematized” (i.e., removed an alleged sense of inevitability surrounding) philosophical definitions of best practice (also see my series last year on “The Great Escape” from philosophy of science), thus encouraging reform.

2) Socio-epistemic problematics.  Placing ideas in history often removed interest in understanding the chronological succession of events and trends (though, in the tradition of Foucault, epochal shifts in idea schemes were often stressed).  More important was identifying the socio-epistemic implications of historical ideas, like the “intimate relationship” Schaffer identified in the quote above.  Identifying a shift in one idea would augur a necessary shift in other ideas, which could be identified in the historical record.  This constituted what Shapin and later Daston, appropriating E. P. Thompson, called a “moral economy”.  I have already noted that Schaffer had turned toward a socio-epistemic focus as early as the late-1980s, but by 1992 his participation had become clearer.

3) External focus.  Note the journals in which the above-mentioned pieces appear: Critical Inquiry (which quickly became a mainstay), Representations, Annals of Scholarship, Poetics Today.  Where in 1983 Schaffer analyzed whether the importation of “fashionable” outside trends had purchase in analyzing science history, by 1992 the gains of that analysis—the historicization of objective knowledge—were turned outward as a novel product.

4) Critical importance.  Although not always articulated (it does not appear, for example, in “Self Evidence”, but Schaffer articulated it very clearly the next year), the external focus accorded with a sense that broader society and polity suffered from misplaced attitudes toward science or objective knowledge, and that socio-historical analysis could enact a more mature attitude toward expertise.  One canonical Enlightenment posture (the assumption of a general unsupportable faith that requires disruption by an informed elite) was used to critique another canonical Enlightenment posture (a “demarcationist” faith in the possibility of governance by methodologically-crafted rational assent).  If the analysis had been “fashionable” since at least 1983, it was considered new to the external audiences that still needed to benefit from it.  Novelty of interpretation accordingly diminished as a criterion of scholarly virtue.  See particularly my post last year on “normative historiography”.

5) Fixed points of historicized analysis.  The socio-epistemic problematic is characterized by its use of certain transcendentally fixed topics—gender, class, race, knowledge, the body….—as crucial sites where historical ideas relating to them can be assayed.  Often classical philosophical problems are transformed into historical observations.  In “Self Evidence”, “the body” becomes a site of contested knowledge claims.  Trust in bodily evidence is refracted through historical ideas about class: high social position could lend subjective experience credibility, where low social position could serve as grounds for dismissal of testimony on account of the lower moral standards thought to accompany that position.  It is telling that Schaffer refers to this 18th-century problem as the “Cartesianism of the genteel” (339).  I think it is also relevant that Schaffer’s early critique of “tradition-seeking” never seems to have caught on.  Epochal intellectual-philosophical traditions (e.g., positions toward Descartes’ mind-body problem) were simply transformed into equally epochal socio-epistemic traditions (e.g., positions toward the class-testimony problem).


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