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The Bounds of Natural Philosophy: Temporal and Practical Frontiers, Pt. 2 April 12, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
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How do we deal with this guy Faraday?

If you wanted to pick out a transitional figure between a wide-ranging natural philosophy and a more bounded science, Michael Faraday (1791-1867) would be about as good a choice as any.  On account of his experiments and conceptual developments in electromagnetism, Faraday is now most identified with the history of physics, but, as the protege of Humphry Davy (1778-1829), he established himself within the tradition of chemistry.  An enterprise lacking foundational principles, chemistry fit poorly with natural philosophy, but was also not fully at home in natural history, and became an early independent field.

This was, of course, a recent development.  As Jan Golinski has described in some detail, it was only circa 1800 that chemistry managed to shed an association with a wide-ranging philosophy and radical politics, and to establish itself as a much more constrained field.  The heyday of natural philosophers like James Hutton (1726-1797) was, for many, still a living memory when Faraday vocally reasserted the importance of an empirical and non-speculative attitude toward science, and began to be recognized by others as an exemplar of this vision of science.

According to Geoffrey Cantor in Michael Faraday, Sandemanian and Scientist (1991), early biographies also emphasized the empirical qualities of Faraday’s work, and it was only beginning with Joseph Agassi’s Faraday as a Natural Philosopher (1971) that a portrait of Faraday “as a bold theoretical speculator in the mould of Karl Popper” began to emerge (Cantor, 208).  For his part, Cantor sought to take Faraday’s empiricist rhetoric seriously while developing an understanding of the conceptual precepts underlying his work.  Following the lead of David Gooding’s early-1980s analyses of Faraday’s methodology, Cantor aimed “to locate Faraday’s metaphysics in his religion and, in particular, in his views about the structure of the divinely created physical world.  These views […] coloured Faraday’s highly idiosyncratic theories about matter and force” (161).

The idiosyncratic attributes of Faraday’s conceptualizations could be related to Faraday’s lack of formal training, and thus lack of strong engagement with 18th-century theoretical resources: “Doubtless Faraday learnt a great deal from Davy and others and many useful insights can be gained from locating him with reference to the various traditions in natural philosophy.”—Cantor, incidentally, defines natural philosophy circa 1800 as “roughly what we would now call physics” (164)—“However, such an approach portrays the scientist as principally the recipient of views already in circulation.  By so doing, it underplays the integrity of the individual and the ways in which a scientist can develop his or her own views about nature and science” (161).

Now, as we have seen in many prior posts, in the then-very-recent tradition of 18th-century natural philosophy, natural and theological questions regularly intertwined in strikingly specific ways, so looking to religion as an alternative intellectual resource makes a great deal of sense.  As we have also seen, Crosbie Smith and Norton Wise would be able to draw quite clear connections between the younger William Thomson’s (1824-1907) religious and physical views, while rolling Thomson’s entire scientific program into a central “latitudinarian” perspective.  However, as Cantor notes, Sandemanian religion not only had no natural philosophical tradition, Faraday quite explicitly drew upon his religious views to see broad speculation as presumptuous and diverging from the certain and revealed truth of Scripture.  Undeterred, Cantor developed the concept of a “theology of nature” (a term Smith & Wise also used) which he was careful to distinguish from a more explicitly-developed “natural theology”.  He suggests, “Steeped in the Sandemanian interpretation of the Bible, Faraday imbibed a number of metaphysical conceptions about the physical world which he took to be necessary truths about God’s universe and how it operates” (162).

Although they were “necessary truths”, the “metascientific principles” Faraday took from his “theology of nature” were not “rigidly held propositions” so much as “intuitions which guided and helped shape his science”.  I find Cantor’s analysis at this point rather disappointing, as it connects decidedly commonplace (i.e., not specifically Sandemanian) Biblical interpretations—God is all-powerful, the universe unfolds according to God’s plan—to some fairly specific and likewise commonplace physical concepts: opposition to the void and atoms, the lawlikeness of Nature’s workings, conservation of matter and force, and so forth.  The thinness of the connections mirrors criticisms Jed Buchwald made of Smith & Wise going beyond the bounds of available evidence to present a unified picture of Thomson’s thought, and Cantor himself notes that once you get to the point of connecting specific biblical passages to specific conclusions one enters the realm of “speculation”, though: “speculation is not out of place, provided that it is appropriately signalled” (167).

The point here is not to denigrate the analysis, which is certainly well-informed.  The point is that for even well-informed scholars circa 1990, the methodological difficulties surrounding the temporal and practical boundaries of natural philosophy were very real.  By that point a rather neatly intertwined set of studies had set up a satisfyingly complex problematic concerning a variety of scientific practices spanning the 17th to the 19th centuries.  It is, to me, fairly surprising then that the natural philosophy problem more-or-less evaporated soon thereafter.

To find out what happened, one might look for clues at the practical edges of natural philosophy  The literature seems to agree that astronomy, as tamed by 18th-century celestial mechanics, offered a singularly influential model for later scientific specialization.  As Simon Schaffer would note, William Whewell (1794-1866) would refer to it as a “perfected” science.  And indeed, Jed Buchwald’s 1989 analysis of the rise of the wave theory of light shows the importance of the analytical techniques in securing assent around one or another physical models (in this case, the wave ontology of optics).  But, at this same time, Schaffer’s examination of cometography (1987-1993) emphasized that even astronomy and celestial mechanics had substantial social and cultural connections (see also his 2010 Tarner lectures), which he analyzed in much the same spirit as he did natural philosophical system-builders.  The Smith & Wise study of Thomson nicely splits the Buchwald-Schaffer difference, acknowledging the hopes that Thomson placed in mathematics as a means of transcending intellectual partisanship, while emphasizing not only Thomson’s place in a religious, political, and economic culture, but the religious-political sources or resonances of Thomson’s mathematical hopes themselves.

In 1990 it was perfectly possible to understand works stretching from Schaffer to Buchwald in methodology and focus as comprising a single, complex, thriving historiography.  Ultimately, though, for this historiography to hold its gains, as Cantor himself noted in 1982, there had to be some kind of synthesis that related all these activities within each others’ contexts.  Any such synthesis would have had to explain what it was that Thomson and Faraday were doing that was different from a more expansive 18th-century vision of natural philosophy.  To do so, one would have in some way to articulate how, at the boundaries of natural philosophy, the relationships between “scientific” material and “extra-scientific” concerns were being managed in new ways.  Schaffer’s and Golinski’s emphasis on the importance of scientific “genius” circa 1800 is clearly one such articulation.  But, in a historiographical culture built in partial (and often heated) reaction to historians and philosophers with demarcationist inclinations, such discussions had little traction.

What seems to have happened is that, while generally acknowledging that things were different at the natural philosophy boundary (this was the whole reason Cantor distinguished a “theology of nature” from a “natural theology”), historians became most interested in the ways in which things that were not expansive natural philosophy were nevertheless like it in that they, too, were inextricably bound up with various political, religious, and cultural issues.  This might help explain why Cantor and Smith & Wise seemed so willing to go beyond what the historical record could explicitly support in supposing that intense religious-scientific connections organized Faraday’s and Thomson’s activities.  It could also explain why Schaffer would write about cometography’s implications for social order, the nebular hypothesis’ rhetorical place in 19th-century political economy, and (as we will soon see) metrology’s relationship to empire, all in the same analytical register he initially used to study the intellectual history of 18th-century natural philosophy.

By the 1990s, the span from Priestley and Hutton to Thomson and Huxley was only roughly sketched out, indicating a shift from natural philosophy to an amalgam of specialized science, popular science, and a political ideology of science in Victorian Britain.  If we looked elsewhere in the historiography we could find gestures in the direction of forging an understanding of the relationship between all of this and the relationships between various 19th-century sciences, between British and Continental versions of these sciences, between scientific fields and important general Continental traditions such as Naturphilosophie and French positivism, as well as between the sciences and engineering, on one end, and political economy on the other.  Indeed, in 1989 Philip Mirowski, coming from a quite distinct historiographical tradition, came out with More Heat Than Light: Economics as Social Physics, Physics as Nature’s Economics interrelating developments in economics with the physics of thermodynamics.  Opportunities for further historiographical progress were not hard to find.

Differentiating and interrelating all of these developments would have been a complex and difficult task, particularly in the midst of increasingly noisy battles about things like the validity of “social constructionism”.  Instead, by emphasizing only the kinship between an expansive natural philosophy and other science-related practices, all these practices reduced down to an interconnected but undifferentiated soup of science, culture, politics, and religion.  This eroded distinctions between different branches of scientific work in favor of a general presentation of an evolving, but unified “culture of science”, which made it difficult to locate any given scientific activity amid a matrix of possible contexts, especially intellectual ones.

Among other effects, this trend erased much of the historiographical memory of the natural philosophy problem: natural philosophy would return to simply being “science” (Cantor’s Faraday book, notably, was subtitled “A Study of Science and Religion in the Nineteenth Century”; the primary title of Golinski’s book was Science as Public Culture, indicating how easy it is to slip into that habit).  Ironically, this trend also reinstated a form of demarcationism, wherein the main target of historiographical attention would remain this assuredly disunified—but nevertheless identifiable—thing, “science”, except now (or once again) the main topic of concern would be its deep relationship with, rather than separation from, “religion”, or “politics”, or “culture” or some other “non-science” thing.


1. John Wilkins - April 12, 2010

In case you didn’t know, this is a wonderful, informative and useful series of posts from which I am garnering much of direct interest.

Thony C. - April 12, 2010


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