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The Natural Philosophy Problem February 26, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
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I have decided that Geoffrey Cantor’s “The Eighteenth Century Problem,” an essay review of 1980’s Ferment of Knowledge collection, is a lost masterpiece [History of Science 20 (1982): 44-63].  I don’t think it’s possible to just pick it up and enjoy it; obviously reading Ferment of Knowledge helps, and knowing a little something about various eighteenth-century sciences helps as well.  But what the piece is really about is differing methods of historiographical presentation, and how they help us digest the scientific work of an era.  Cantor does a lot to help us understand the crucial variations in approach that existed ca. 1980.

What I want to concentrate on is the subsidiary “problem of natural philosophy”.  A common way of analyzing natural philosophy is just to say that “it’s what they used to call science”, but this not only misses the key distinctions and connections between, say, natural philosophy, natural history, mathematics, and other forms of higher learning, it also doesn’t help to explain the fact that a lot of the discussion that falls into natural philosophy comes off as just plain weird.  What are we to make of this?

Cantor observes that nobody seemed entirely sure:

In viewing the cognitive aspects of eighteenth century natural philosophy we find a great deal of diversity and a low degree of consensus….  [H]istorians in becoming more aware of the complexity of the period have tended to concentrate on clarifying different corners of the pictures: for example, [John] Heilbron has emphasized the role of the electrical researcher, [P. M.] Heimann the philosophically-inclined matter theorist, [Simon] Schaffer the public entertainer and [Chris] Wilde the High Churchman: each of these studies has successfully featured specific clusters of ideas found in eighteenth century natural philosophy, often also relating these to specific social groups.  (59)

The difficulty is in understanding what these “clusters of ideas” have to do with each other.  Heilbron’s inclination, for instance, was to concentrate on those aspects of electrical demonstration that most resembled the later physics of electricity, but this had the side-effect of downplaying the importance of things that seem to have been important to the actors themselves: “Heilbron cavalierly dismisses matter theory as irrelevant to the progress of (electrical) science (p. 380) since he, like Kuhn, appears to consider that ‘mature’ scientists can afford to ignore philosophically-charged issues in the interests of getting on with the job.  This judgment does not, however, help the historian understand the profusion of eighteenth century discussions about the nature of matter and force” (61).

While it is apparent that matter theory could be put to the side for stretches of time, there were any number of valid reasons why a savant might want to address it.  New experimental phenomena might have implications for the coherence of existing theory, new theory could help explain experimental and natural phenomena, the theory endemic to one’s work could be seen as having religious implications, and it was also very popular (not unlike books about quantum weirdness today).  Cantor observes:

Apart from a few works by writers such as Bryan Robinson and Gowin Knight, inquiry into the nature of matter appeared in a diverse body of literature dealing with such subjects as mechanics, electricity, optics, theology and epistemology.  To construct an historical narrative simply by connecting these diverse writings on ‘matter theory’ while ignoring their contexts is, arguably, an illegitimate way of characterizing a form of discourse….  [Rom] Harré reads matter theory as a part of philosophical and theological discourse.  [Steven] Shapin interprets it as social metaphor while Schaffer reduced it to its political meaning.  Yet whatever their differences, these writers take matter theory seriously as an essential component of eighteenth century natural philosophy.  (60-61)

The trouble with the literature was that no one really made any concrete suggestions about what one’s own interpretation had to do with someone else’s.  Cantor was quite correct that Schaffer was primarily interested in digging into the places where natural philosophical debate segued into theology and politics, but Schaffer offered no clues about how the issues he highlighted related to the more recognizable activities Heilbron discussed.  Cantor joked, “With some relief we find that they are both discussing the eighteenth century and share some of the same natural philosophers, e.g. Desaguliers and Franklin” (59).

Schaffer does not seem to have felt he was offering a correct interpretation of natural philosophy in contrast to Heilbron’s Whiggishly-tinged one.  Nor is it at all clear that Schaffer’s stories should be regarded with more weight, despite the grandiosity of the theological and political issue at play (i.e., the issues were clearly “at play”, but it is not clear to what extent they were actually “at stake”).  Nor is it evident that we would be safe in placing the various available interpretations side-by-side and then expect to simply divine a proper interpretation.

Cantor was highly sensitive to the notion that the real historiographical gains would come through the act of synthesis:

My intention is not to decide between Heilbron and Schaffer—indeed, I find neither alternative entirely satisfactory—but to raise a set of complex historiographical problems which cannot readily be settled.  Some of these problems are practical ones.  For example, faced with a natural philosophical text—such as those by Desaguliers, James Ferguson, William Nicholson or Adam Walker—the historian must decide whether to read it from Heilbron’s, Schaffer’s, or some other perspective.  The interpretation of individual scientists—Joseph Priestley or Thomas Young would be good examples here—is also beset with difficulties.  Do we treat them as modern scientists, as arcane natural philosophers or some hybrid?  The answers to the above will depend on how we decide to characterize natural philosophy.  To what extent should we treat natural philosophy as a holistic venture aimed at accounting for the economy of Nature or as a set of non-interacting specialisms—such as electricity, mechanics and optics—each developing separately?  How do we integrate the (often conflicting) roles of teaching and research into our account of natural philosophy? (60)

Cantor was optimistic in light of the gains that had been made in the previous “decade or two”, but observed that Ferment “shows just how fragile and tentative they are and how much more spadework needs to be done to remove even the topsoil” (62).  If we asked the proper people, I am certain we would find that additional progress has been made in developing understanding of a number of particular issues.  But from a more generalized perspective, I think Cantor’s imperative to understanding-through-synthesis was superseded by a confidence in revolution-in-method.  Since he was a key player in both the  “natural philosophy problem” and the “revolution in method”, and since I have been looking at his oeuvre for a year-and-a-half now, in the follow-up post we will look to Schaffer’s perspective on natural philosophy as a way of trying to get at how the two were related: I believe they were.

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