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The Bounds of Natural Philosophy: Intellectual Characteristics March 28, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
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First off, apologies if some of the themes and arguments of this post have become repetitive.  I find that in trying to arrive at a synthesis, it is useful to go over and over the points, making sure to try and modify a bit each time through.  Ordinarily this process takes place in private, usually in notebooks, but part of the idea of this blog is to open the process to public scrutiny for whatever benefits it might produce.  Readers can tune in or out as they see fit.

What were those natural philosophers thinking?

The natural philosophy problem appears to have remained a topic of serious historiographical conversation through the course of the 1980s.  One big problem is that natural philosophy is a vague term: it applied to aspects of Peripatetic philosophy, but in the twentieth century Harvard physicist Percy Bridgman (1882-1961) still held a chair in mathematics and natural philosophy and was in fact a well-known writer in the philosophy of science.  Some natural philosophy chairs even still exist today (Bertrand Halperin now holds Bridgman’s old chair, and they apparently still officially spell “mathematicks” with a “k”!).

Obviously, all these “natural philosophers” are doing rather different things, so historians would be ill-advised to try and look for a single definition of natural philosophy, even within delimited time periods, or to try and locate a “real” natural philosophy.  One promising tactic is to apply ahistorical analytical criteria to different aspects of natural philosophical work, while allowing that natural philosophers might not have perceived the distinctions between these “aspects”.

As we have seen for the eighteenth-century heyday of natural philosophy, Simon Schaffer was keen to analyze natural philosophy in terms of a fully fleshed-out “cosmology” of ideas.  Analyzing these universalizing aspects of natural philosophy makes a lot of sense: in many venues natural philosophers (being philosophers) would have been expected to draw upon their general store of learning to discourse on topics ranging from astronomy to epistemology to ethics, and to articulate the connections between these subjects.  Through the 1980s, Schaffer argued (especially early on) for embracing the sincerity and importance of the particular questions posed within systems of thought, rather than seeing the cosmology or system as simply some extension of an underlying fundamental commitment or accommodation to a partisan religious, political, or intellectual program, such as atheism, royalism, or “Newtonianism”.  Looking at systems of arguments in this way, one could query the underlying intellectual assumptions that governed what made particular features of these systems into coherent arguments, and thus better understand why they were formulated and argued in the particular ways that they were.  As in his discussions of early Kant or William Herschel, one could also query what constituted an actual innovation within natural philosophical systematizing without whiggishly relying on later acceptance as a category of analysis.

One thing I really like about Schaffer’s analytical tactic here is how nicely it blends historical thought with historical polemic.  One need not waste energy, for example, trying to discern whether a particular argument showed an actor’s underlying commitment to atheism; rather one could examine what sorts of arguments were likely to  have invited charges of atheism, why actors had intellectual (rather than political) reasons to avoid arguments with atheistic implications, why (or in what circumstances) it was considered socially necessary to politically censor atheistic philosophies, and, for that matter, how natural philosophical arguments could be thought to have theological implications in the first place.

The analytical appeal of an anthropological cosmology should be obvious since all features of totem and taboo, maintenance of social cohesion, and symbolic importance of natural orders are to be found in such a universalizing natural philosophy.  However, there are certain difficulties with this picture.  First, it does not suitably describe aspects of natural philosophical practice that did not have such wide-ranging implications.  As Geoffrey Cantor pointed out in his “Eighteenth Century Problem”, many aspects of  natural philosophy seem to have had more in common with more recent scientific practice than with totalizing philosophy, which is a point that needs to be worked out explicitly.

But there are also problems with simply dividing up natural philosophy into universalizing and “scientific” aspects.

First, even in esoteric “scientific” debates that apparently had no such grand implications, the terms of the debate might still be rendered in a locally-applied anthropo-cosmological language.  For a superb example: Chris Donohue recently directed my attention to David Bloor’s “Polyhedra and the Abominations of Leviticus” British Journal for the History of Science 11 (1978): 245-272, which rendered some of Imre Lakatos’ thinking about the proof of mathematical theorems in the lexicon of Mary Douglas.  Indeed, between the late ’70s and mid-’90s, science studies seems to have turned into a kind of contest to see who can be the first to develop a universal language of socio-epistemic description, featuring such competing programs as anthropo-cosmology, socio-epistemic relativism, actor-network theory, discourse analysis, and the “mangle”.  Historians have mainly been indifferent to the contest itself, but have been eager to explicitly deploy many of the competing programs’ tools, perhaps because the tools were genuinely useful, but likely also because those tools signaled that you were on the right side of the incipient historiographical revolution that the contestants assured was afoot.

The second problem was that, even if one historical actor asserted no broader implications of their own work, other historical actors could always charge that the argument had sub rosa political content.  As we learn in Shapin and Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air Pump (1985) and in Schaffer’s “Wallification” (1988), part of what Hobbes objected to in the Royal Society’s experimental philosophy was the denial that its proclamations about the qualities of matter (e.g, the “spring” of the air) had theological-political implications, when, after all, this was precisely what contemporary theological-philosophical-political disputes over body-and-soul or Christ-and-Eucharist were about.  Rendering arguments politically “safe” meant rendering political objections ignorable, which itself might well have to be a political accomplishment.

Indeed, most the above-mentioned programs of universal socio-epistemic description were explicitly designed to take into account the possibility of political-intellectual work.  But, for historians, it was also possible to take this line of argument further than necessary.  Sometimes scientific work is safe from political objection not because political opposition is rendered ignorable, but because the work simply never had any outstandingly interesting political implications to begin with.  As Barnes and Shapin themselves noted in 1979, historians were doubtless best advised to selectively use whatever tools most illuminated various facets of the historical record.

Ultimately, little effort seems to have been put into delineating the power of different methods of analysis, or into theorizing about what tools were most suitable for analyzing what aspects of the historical record.  For instance, socio-epistemic languages, I think, best served histories of intractable conflict.  Comparatively little emphasis seems to have been placed on good-old-fashioned philosophy of science’s ability to describe things like being legitimately converted from one position to another by evidence and logic, which, we must presume, has indeed happened from time to time in the history of science.  (I argued here last year that philosophy of science became more-or-less historiographical taboo in the 1980s, which had definite historiographical implications.)

There was at least some theorization, though.  In 1980, Simon Schaffer claimed that Barnes and Shapin claimed anthropo-cosmology was “applicable to all periods and all social formations”, but, for his part, Schaffer picked out its particular suitability to what he argued (correctly, but probably, per Cantor, over-ambitiously) was the special “grammar” of natural philosophy.  Within this conception of natural philosophy, the historiographical objective became to delimit its historical bounds, and to theorize about what happened at those bounds.  We turn to this issue in (probably) the final post of this series.

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