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Schaffer on the Hustings, Pt. 1 August 24, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
Tags: , , , , , , ,

This post looks at two works from the oeuvre of Simon Schaffer:

1) “Augustan Realities: Nature’s Representatives and Their Cultural Resources in the Early Eighteenth Century” in Realism and Representation: Essays on the Problem of Realism in Relation to Science, Literature, and Culture, ed. George Levin, 1993, pp. 128-157.

2) “A Social History of Plausibility: Country, City and Calculation in Augustan Britain” in Rethinking Social History: English Society 1570-1920 and its interpretation, ed. Adrian Wilson, 1993, pp. 279-318.

Both papers find Schaffer on the hustings.  As historian of medicine Adrian Wilson puts it in the introduction to the Rethinking Social History volume, “Simon Schaffer’s chapter … can be read as a plea to social historians to concern themselves with the history of science.”  This appeal is made by identifying certain misconceptions about the role of science in history prevalent in a broader historiography.  According to Schaffer:

Received history has it that the eighteenth century was a crucial period for the establishment of [realist] regimes.  The novel and the experimental report appeared as legitimate means of representing the moral and the natural order….  Somehow or other, older, courtly forms of making knowledge failed or were thrust aside. (1; 283/5)


The social history of [stories about claims about things like humans giving birth to animals, perpetual motion, and the inverse square law of gravity] has typically been described in terms of the ‘decline of magic’ and the ‘disenchantment of the world.’ (2; 128)

Schaffer diagnoses the source of these narrative misconceptions to be historians’ credulity  in polemical rhetoric used by historical actors who sought to establish themselves as intellectuals leaders who, if followed, could realize this narrative.  Crucially, according to Schaffer, this rhetoric specifically portrayed natural philosophical, and, by extension, scientific knowledge as free from cultural influence:

In the sciences, we are told, the facts speak for themselves.  Here communal authority and individual dogmatism allegedly have no place.  Early modern natural philosophers’ slogans set the pace.  (2; 131)


Representations of nature were stabilized not because their promoters escaped from culture’s grip, but because these natural philosophers made their representations grip key interests within culture.  Scientific realism is a philosophical position that distracts attention from this cultural work of representatives of nature, and points it toward the adequacy of nature’s representations.  There is a relationship between the ‘amnesia’ of realism, in which the work that establishes representations is forgotten, and the apparent power of realism as a scientific and literary genre.  (1; 279)

Thus, the methodological solution to mainstream historians’ misconceptions is to reintegrate the histories of science and culture.  According to Schaffer,

Epistemologists [citing Ian Hacking and Nick Jardine] using the work of Kuhn or Foucault have sought to describe ‘scenes of inquiry’ or ‘positivities’, the set of questions judged urgent and proper by a well-defined community of investigators.  Here communities are defined by shared questions rather than common answers.  We may ask sociohistorical questions about the genealogy of such apparently secure communities. ” (2; 129)

However, the key historiographical task was apparently not to chart these communities and survey their questions, but instead to survey the means they used to identify their allies and to exclude their opponents.  In other words the united historiography of science and culture takes the form of a historical study of the same polemics that produced mainstream misunderstanding of the past in the first place, except now polemics are to be charted symmetrically, i.e. there is to be no prejudice between the polemics used by or against natural philosophers:

An account of the real contents of nature rules out enterprises that tell different stories about the world.  So the polemical work that establishes that a group of representatives are reliable delegates of some natural order can also settle the contents of that order.”  (1; 280)


“…as Peter Stallybrass and Allon White pointed out [in 1986’s The Politics and Poetics of Transgression] … references to the public sphere are insufficient unless accompanied by attention to the processes of social exclusion, boundary maintenance and satirical ribaldry which helped intellectuals fashion themselves as uniquely privileged bearers of culture and knowledge.”  (2; 132)

What this amounts to is a tabulation of spots where natural philosophy and certain grand cultural ideas converged in rhetoric.  As Schaffer explains, “Natural philosophical conduct hinged on conventions of trust.  The conduct of eighteenth-century courts and exchanges threatened the basis of credit in traditional culture.  Courtiers’ status relied entirely on customary means of representation before their lord.”  However, “Many were distrusted, either in principle or in fact: the vulgar, the hired hand, womenfolk, ‘enthusiasts'” (1; 288).

Where pervasive ideas like the enthusiasm of the crowds, the illusion and emotional manipulation of the theater, the scurrilousness of projectors, and the immorality of atheists appear in the historical record of natural philosophy, these are signs that an integration of the  historiographies of science and culture has been achieved.

The papers resulting from this confidence amount to a tedious procession of not-directly-related things some people wanted other people to believe (the circulation of the blood, the oblateness of the earth, Jethro Tull’s farming methods, investment and insurance schemes, electrical cures…), juxtaposed with lists and some analysis of the structure of common 18th-century insults (hysterical, illusory, immoral, superstitious, atheistic…), which were hurled when belief was not successfully instilled.  All this is interposed with repetitious invocations of the same historico-epistemological point voiced in slightly different language each time: to be accepted, claims must be trusted, but trust is subject to dissolution in the face of cultural attack.

In all of this, though, it is not at all clear to me that the pervasiveness of a science-culture distinction is the source of the identified misconception in the mainstream historiography, or that an absolute independence of science from culture was a key feature of 18th-century rhetoric.  It is not clear to me that the historiographical recommendations actually constitute the remedy to the identified misconception, nor that they constitute the best method of integrating the history of science with the history of culture.

We will explore some of the deeper historiographical issues underlying these opinions in Pt. 2.


1. Aaron Sidney Wright - August 24, 2010

Hi Will,
I haven’t read the pieces, and perhaps you’ll get into this tomorrow, but my instinct is that there is a sociological reason for the division between social history and HoS that outweighs fine historiographical points. This isn’t a new idea, but between the technical skills needed to understand (some) HoS and the personal dislike of the sciences expressed by many humanists there’s a significant barrier.

As you say, Schaffer has a point, but I’m not sure it’s going to bring contemporary disciplines any closer.


2. Will Thomas - August 24, 2010

Hi Aaron,

Yeah, one of the things that will come in Pt. 2 is how these pieces almost serve as a microcosm of historiographical trends in general. If we want a full understanding of why these trends were (and are) ascendant, I think it’s fair to say that a reluctance to deal with technical issues has some responsibility. If you look at the introduction to Martin Rudwick’s Bursting the Limits of Time, he was quite frank in his belief that scholarship has simply become lazy.

I think it’s also true that some scholars also had a certain dislike of a perceived cultural predominance of science, though, in some ways, that’s contrary to Schaffer’s point of view, since that line of thought draws heavily on the whole “disenchantment of the world” theme. Although it’s interesting that the tensions between that view and, say, Schaffer’s never really comes to the surface. This is part of a papering over of historiographical differences (which I’ll also address in Pt. 2) that is an aspect of what I’ve called the “entente cordiale” in the historiography of science that takes place in this period.

I have a few reasons for not really emphasizing the sociological factors here, though. First is that I’m not so much interested in providing a full explanation of the persistence of trends I’m not a fan of, as I am in understanding those trends’ power and appeal as conscientiously as I can. When I do criticize, I think this helps preserve civility, and, by extension, it preserves blogs as a potential venue for useful historiographical conversation.

Second, in the case of Schaffer specifically, I think there’s a lot to be learned about how historiography evolves by concentrating on the particulars of the arguments. If you look to early posts in this series, or my series on the “natural philosophy problem”, there is a subtle progression from Schaffer’s early, really very innovative approach to analyzing natural philosophical argumentation into a less satisfying, more homogenized historiography that is preoccupied with things like analyzing polemics. How did that happen? Much seems to have had to do with an implied, effective division of labor between technical approaches, like that of Jed Buchwald, and, say the analytical style of Schaffer (this is a point I made here). In 1993 there still would have been some confidence that this productive division of analytical labor would persist.

Finally, I think by sticking to the historiographical arguments, I think it is possible to draw a critical distinction between why I don’t really care for these pieces, but why I think “Comets & Idols”, which actually handles fairly similar questions, is awesome.

Much of this, as I say, will come up in Pt. 2, but not in a way that I think really answers your question, but hopefully this will clarify why I analyze these things in the ways that I do.

3. Aaron Sidney Wright - August 25, 2010

Hi Will,

I should have been more precise in my comment above. Of course, reliving the science wars via blogs will not be productive, and I didn’t mean to imply a critique of your presentation. What I was getting at was something like: Is it worth accepting Wilson’s reading of Schaffer as a plea to social historians when we have good reason to think these sorts of historiographical arguments are not going to be particularly effective given certain social structures in our disciplines? If Schaffer fails to make a good point that social historians should take HoS more seriously, is that his failing or a failure of Wilson’s interpretation? I don’t know the answer, but I’d be interested to know what you think.

Does it make more sense to take Schaffer’s points as being directed to other historians of science? Perhaps this has more to do with the non/technical boundary you mentioned above. (Side note: After hearing caricatures of Buchwald / technical histories, I was blown away by _The Creation of Scientific Effects_ ) I’d read the entente piece before, and it’s very interesting, and it ties in to my question about whether this should be seen as more [literally] interdisciplinary than transdisciplinary. Surely this attention to audience is also an historiographic trend.


Will Thomas - August 25, 2010

Ah, that’s a good question. Actually, I’m not sure Schaffer and co. are unsuccessful. My own rather cynical interpretation of what happened is something like this: historians of science basically replicate the claims of social history and then sell social historians their own insights back to them claiming that historians of science have discovered a crucial socio-epistemological insight. Social/cultural historians think this is great and start inviting us to their conferences. Meanwhile, because this is a crucial socio-epistemological insight (an interpretation that’s been in circulation for 15-odd years at this point, and controversial for just as long), it is no longer necessary to reach a reconciliation with people studying fussy technical issues in order to understand what are taken to be the most important historiographical issues.

Actually, though, there’s more about Wilson, fragmentation, historiographical integration, and interdisciplinarity to come in Pt. 2, so let’s pick this up again after that goes up (probably not ’til this weekend — I’m moving to London in several weeks, so time is getting scarce).

4. Aaron Sidney Wright - August 25, 2010

Looking forward to pt. 2 then.

False vacuum

5. Conversations with Will Thomas on Schaffer | False vacuum: a weblog by Aaron Sidney Wright - August 26, 2010

[…] propaganda that’s come out of their series of analyses of Schaffer’s oevre. The posts (part one; part two; three to come) are about two of Schaffer’s papers from 1993 dealing with the […]

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