Two Schaffer-Related Items May 16, 2010Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Tags: Franz Mesmer, John Harrison, Richard Mead, Robert Fludd, Simon Schaffer
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.