Schaffer on the Hustings, Pt. 1 August 24, 2010Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
Tags: Adrian Wilson, Allon White, Ian Hacking, Michel Foucault, Nick Jardine, Peter Stallybrass, Simon Schaffer, Thomas Kuhn
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.