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Entente Cordiale: Anthropological and Natural Philosophical Cosmology March 2, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Simon Schaffer’s “Natural Philosophy” in Ferment of Knowledge (1980) is an exhilarating piece by a 25-year-old scholar.  When I first looked at it on this blog, I gave my post the title “Schaffer Busts Out the Hickory”, suggesting that he had taken a wooden bat to the extant literature on the topic.  In view of the scholarship of today’s grande entente cordiale, it was really refreshing to see a vigorous and pointed critique directed against other historians’ work.  Sure, it was a tad violent, but it was in the service of progress!  “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven” and all that.

Anyway, partially a part of the growing rebuke against viewing 18th-century science as an outgrowth of a grand tradition of “Newtonianism”, partially a rebuke against attempts to define natural philosophy in terms of what makes it distinct from science (e.g., Kuhn’s definition of “pre-paradigmatic science”), the piece ultimately moves beyond criticism and becomes a messily-articulated, but powerful and original discussion of how one might begin to construct a positively-defined historiography of natural philosophy.

Schaffer identified two possible proposals for constructively analyzing the history of natural philosophical systems:

[S]ome historians [cite: Barry Barnes and Steven Shapin] have used the ideas of Mary Douglas, Robin Horton, and other cultural anthropologies as clues to unravel the cosmologies of natural philosophers, while Michel Foucault has constructed an ‘archaeology of knowledge’ with which to analyse the structure of natural philosophy as a set of discourses.  These contrasting approaches derive from two opposed epistemologies.  (86)

With that out there, let’s pause for a second.  At this point it is important to remember Schaffer’s predilection for seeing natural philosophy in terms of the fully fleshed-out “system”, or what Cantor was referring to when speaking about seeing natural philosophy as “a holistic venture aimed at accounting for the economy of Nature”.  Today we might be more inclined to think of “cosmology” in the simple terms of, say, Ptolemaic vs. Copernican versions.  In the eighteenth century—and in the historiographical heyday of the “eighteenth century problem”—“cosmology” was readily understood as a deployment of natural philosophical ideas to account for the appearance, stability, and (increasingly) the history of a whole range of earthly and astronomical phenomena.  Writing about cosmology could easily mean worrying about what (for example) electrical forces, the nature of comets, living matter, and the role of the soul in thought all had to do with each other.

Meanwhile, in a mainly unrelated development, 20th-century anthropological theory had taken to analyzing more generically-defined “cosmologies”.  For a key influence, one might look to anthropologist Mary Douglas’ Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology (1970), which had less to do with stars, planets, and comets, but everything to do with what aspects of the universe one personally understood to be relevant or significant, and the nature of its significance to moral and social order.  For example: why do the “Bog Irish” feel it is important to abstain from meat on Fridays when the Church doesn’t emphasize it?  (Related side note: to this day Shapin writes and teaches about the history of dietetics.)

Now, in “Natural Philosophy” Schaffer took a critical but highly sympathetic eye toward both anthropological and archaeological modes of analysis, seeing them as specifically suited to, and naturally gravitating toward, what we are calling the “problem of natural philosophy”.  He observed, “Though these approaches claim to be exhaustive with respect to the history of science—in the sense that they claim to be applicable to all periods and to all social formations—once again, significantly, eighteenth-century natural philosophy figures as the main exemplar” (86).

Schaffer was wary of the anthropological approach, as advocated by Edinburgh Schoolers Barnes and Shapin.  They departed from the intellectual history tradition where “the basic categories are the concept and the tradition […; instead] for these anthropological and sociological historians the fundamental categories become the individual subject and the cosmology.”  Healthily, this moved them away from seeing history exclusively in terms of its relationship to great tradition-setters like Newton, and focused them on particularized, personalized sets of individual and shared beliefs.  But for Schaffer this didn’t go far enough: “It is precisely these two categories [subject and cosmology…] which Foucault has criticized most forcefully in his attack upon traditional historiography” (88).

Schaffer saw it as important that Foucault built on the 1930s-era analysis of Gaston Bachelard, whose analysis of natural philosophy emphasized—and criticized—some of the strange-but-consistent features of natural philosophical systems as “psychological complexes” or “obsessions” (see The Psychoanalysis of Fire, 1938).  Schaffer disapproved of Bachelard’s philosophically-retrospective psychologizing and judgment of past concerns, but approved heartily of the analytical gains Bachelard made by drawing attention to this key feature of natural philosophical thought.  It had a “positive historical impact […]: it provides a coherent method for the analysis of a different, quite distinct grammar of science which needs to be considered as fully demarcated from science itself” (76).

For Schaffer (at least in 1980), the personalized anthropological approach seemed to allow the individual philosopher the freedom to construct any cosmology they wished.  (I actually don’t think this was a fair appraisal).  On the other hand, within a discursive analysis, the constituent knowledge of natural philosophical systems “is produced and organized by specifically impersonal structures” (91).  These were ripe for historical analysis.  Traditional histories might suggest a need for the free-minded philosopher to adjust their thought to politico-religious constraints, but within archaeologies one had to determine what features of systems rendered that thought coherent in the first place:

Where [Charles] Gillispie [in Edge of Objectivity, 1966] has insisted that ‘the permeation of culture by science must be a problem in accommodation rather than a study in validity’, Foucault insists that validity itself is a matter of the policing of discourse, of cultural formation.  For a statement to be ‘in the domain of the true’ it must conform in multiple ways to a system which distributes the right to state anything and what is to be stated.  (90)

For Schaffer, all this could go toward achieving insights as simple as what role it made sense for fire to take within different cosmological systems.  Further, this discursive framework of coherence need not be confined to the work of natural philosophers; its analysis can spill over into parts of culture without any artificial historiographical concern for genre boundaries.

Looking into the body of his 1980s work, it seems as though Schaffer ultimately reached his own entente cordiale between the British-anthropological and French-archaeological perspectives.  Schaffer’s key analytical contribution to the historiography has to be the connections he was able to draw between the content of natural philosophical systems, possible challenges that content entailed for religious and political authority, and, crucially, by extension, the moral-political assumptions underlying the very practices involved in doing natural philosophy (from the perspective of proponent and critic alike).  This last insight’s focus on the vices and virtues of the practice of natural philosophy clearly owes a lot to the anthropological framework.

As I have noted with reference to the later Schaffer-Latour Wine Summit, it is possible for the achievement of entente to result in the neglect of important methodological and historiographical points.  In the case of the anthropological-natural philosophical cosmological entente, pertinent tensions included the asserted universality of the anthropological approach to all areas and aspects of the history science (and life for that matter), as well as the related issue of the anthropological cosmology’s indifference to the importance of the explicit system-building “grammar” particular to natural philosophical cosmology.  We will address these tensions in the next post.


1. Thony C. - March 2, 2010

Schaffer Busts Out the Hickory

As Simon Schaffer is English that would be Willow! I leave it to you to find out why! ;)

2. Will Thomas - March 2, 2010

Yes, yes, cricket bats. If we’re not going to let colloquialisms be colloquialisms, I’ll just point out that baseball bats, while traditionally hickory, are now made out of ash wood (this site has the fascinating skinny).

3. Thony C. - March 2, 2010

…Barry Bond’s amazing 73 home runs hit using maple bats…

and anabolic steroids

4. Blogs - March 8, 2010

The Weekly Smörgåsbord #3…

This week’s roundup of links is again a bit light because mid-term obligations are still running high. Next week promises to be better. In any event, here are a smattering of links from this week. Certainly the most time consuming of these is…

5. Will Thomas - March 28, 2010

I will note that Ether Wave Propaganda’s comments sections are not a place for off-topic essays. All such comments will be removed as a matter of policy. Blogs on wordpress are free-of-charge and easy to set up; I would recommend anyone seeking a general venue for essay-writing look into this option.

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