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Two Schaffer-Related Items May 16, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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For fans of this blog’s Schaffer Oeuvre series, two fun bits of news.

First, by way of Advances in the History of Psychology, Simon Schaffer’s latest article, “The Astrological Roots of Mesmerism” is in preprint at Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences.  I’ll not do a full write-up now, but I will say that I was surprised to find that it is in his mid-’80s vintage style, which is to say, it is basically an intellectual history of the 18th-century natural philosophical ideas surrounding animal magnetism and a predecessor concept, animal gravity.  This history is combined with searching observations about how natural philosophers began to construct their own histories of these natural philosophies so as to render some of Mesmer’s predecessors, notably Robert Fludd (1574-1637), progressive figures within their own historicized contexts, while rendering Mesmer himself a figure whose ideas were of the past.  Schaffer also demonstrates interesting parallels with current historiography, which takes Mesmer’s ideas to have progressive components, while Mesmer’s key intellectual source, physician Richard Mead’s (1673-1754) use of astrological ideas is taken to make him a figure with backward-looking tendencies.  Really a fun, informative, and unexpected piece.

I was likewise surprised to be reading an article at independent.co.uk for unrelated reasons, only to find that one of Schaffer’s most recent projects is a study of the work of the British Board of Longitude (1714-1828), which he is undertaking in collaboration with the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.  Framed as a way of complicating the heroic story of humble clockmaker John Harrison’s solution to the longstanding problem of finding longitude at sea, I am looking forward to results coming from this study simply as an elucidation of the work of an important technical department of the British state.  It is a direct ancestor of issues I will be studying when I move to Imperial College London this fall.



1. Thony C. - May 18, 2010

Thanks for the Independant link Will, but I’m a little bit perplexed by Schaffer’s comment about Harrison and the Board of Longitude. It might be that Sobel rather over emphasises the lone wolf aspect of Harrison’s endeavors. it’s a long time since I read her book, but I know that there are good papers on his relationship with James Short for example who was one of his strongest supporters and at the same time a leading member of the Board. As the subject really interests me I look forward to what Schaffer and co. dig up that is new on the subject.

2. Will Thomas - May 18, 2010

I imagine part of the emphasis is due to the need to frame a study of the Board of Longitude in such a way that it appeals to a general readership (see also the “how Britannia came to rule the waves” headline). However, as I’ve argued here repeatedly, this “everything you thought you knew about the way science works is wrong!” way of framing things has also become endemic to history of science writing over the past generation, wherein there seems to be a general confusion as to whether scholarship is itself supposed to address a scholarly or general audience, at the expense of taking stock of what the historiography already tells us. Note also Schaffer’s de rigeur linking of the project to the “problem of the expert in our society” issue.

Doubtless the project is turning up interesting material as we write, but here’s hoping the project’s analytical side will transcend straw-man bashing and the pressure to overassert contemporary relevance.

3. Blogs - May 26, 2010

The Weekly Smörgåsbord #11…

&This week’s links fall into a few groups. Happily, people seem to be finding the time again to write (excluding me), making for some interesting reading. A couple posts by the ever-talented The Renaissance Mathematicus: Circumnavigating …

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