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Shapiro vs Schaffer on Newton’s Prism Experiments, Pt. 1 March 20, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility, Schaffer Oeuvre.
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This post is a response to this comment by Michael Bycroft on a 2009 post on Simon Schaffer’s well-known 1989 “Glass Works” paper, which brought to my attention a reply published seven years later by historian of optics Alan Shapiro: “The Gradual Acceptance of Newton’s Theory of Light and Color,” Perspectives in Science 4 (1996): 59-140.

“Glass Works” was itself a commentary on a large body of Newton scholarship, most especially Richard Westfall’s biography, Never at Rest (1980).  It explicitly made use of Harry Collins’ sociology of “calibration”, which pointed to the necessity that instruments and experimental procedures gain trust before assertions based on experimental results can be accepted.  Schaffer and Steven Shapin had previously used this insight in Leviathan and the Air Pump (1985) to call attention to the basis of Thomas Hobbes’ criticism of experimental philosophy as well as to the intellectual, literary, and sociological strategies Robert Boyle used to gain assent over experimental results.

Unlike Schaffer’s commentary, Shapiro assembles a synthetic history of the acceptance and replication of Newton’s important experiment showing the elongation of the light of the sun when passed through a prism, as well as his two-prism experimentum crucis, which demonstrated that white light was composed of differently refrangible rays.  According to Shapiro’s lengthy account, Newton’s experiments were generally well accepted, even by intellectual opponents.

A major reason underlying this acceptance was its coherence within a strong theoretical context.  According to Shapiro:

Theory provides a logical structure to claims about the natural world and — when used in conjunction with experiment — a guide to arriving at reliable conclusions about that world.  Thus, theory can serve to mediate disputes about the significance of experiments or theoretical assertions and itself has persuasive power that cannot be ignored.  Newton’s theory of color provided in one stroke a sophisticated theory of a broad realm of nature based on scores of experiments.  It demanded serious study to understand the intricate relation of theory and experiment.  The slow, gradual acceptance of Newton’s theory reflects the effort required to comprehend it.  (64)

Shapiro believes that Schaffer, “by using a constructivist approach and implicitly adopting the model of a modern laboratory science,” overstates the importance of robust experimentation as a barrier to reception:

[Schaffer’s] account … must be judged a failure when weighed against the historical evidence.  Applying his approach to the acceptance of Newton’s theory means focusing on Newton’s instruments, especially prisms, the difficulty of replication, the opaqueness of instrumentation and experimental procedures, the uniqueness of local practices, and Newton’s effort to establish ‘authority’ and ‘transparency’ for them.  By reducing the issue of acceptance to one of power and authority, Schaffer argues that Newton established his theory by means of a virtual conspiracy among his acolytes.  Newton’s power to get his theory accepted, he tells us, ‘lay in control over the social intitutions of experimental philosophy.  In the 1670s, Newton exercised no such power.  After 1710 his authority among London experimenters was overwhelming’ (p. 100).  (60)

Aside from questions about whether Schaffer’s narrative constitutes a proper reading of the chain of the acceptance of Newton’s ideas (Shapiro argues it does not), Shapiro believes that Schaffer, on account of his constructivist methodology, neglects the crucial role of theory: “Schaffer avoids scientific theory as much as possible, since it offers a source of meaning outside of controversy, negotiations, and power” (64).

In his comment, Michael suggests that if Shapiro is right (neither of us are Newton scholars, so neither of us is really in a position to make any final judgment here), “not only does he beat Schaffer at the present-centredness game, he also beats him at the scientific practice game.”  Shapiro calls attention to the importance of theory as practice, but also to the importance of not Whiggishly discussing experiment in terms perhaps more appropriate for later eras (such as Collins’s study of complex gravity wave detection experiments, which struggle to separate signal from background) — the prism experiments weren’t that hard to replicate.

(Note here that the issue of theory or ideas as a neglected aspect of practice has been explicitly discussed on this blog.  See here and here.)

There may be something to this methodological criticism, but in this context I’m not really comfortable with trying to figure out who is beating whom at the game of purifying himself of recognized methodological sins, because I think there are more important issues at hand.

Before moving on to those issues in Pt. 2, I will say that my original post was titled “Schaffer Turns to Practice” precisely because “Glass Works” and “Astronomers Mark Time” (not counting Leviathan and the Air Pump, in which I tend to attribute most of the deep analysis of practice to Shapin) marked a new and unexpected turn in Schaffer’s oeuvre away from his early interest in theoretical systems in speculative natural philosophy.  So, I don’t really think that plastering the “constructivist” label on Schaffer and suggesting he is naive to the importance of theory is really the way to go.

That said, Shapiro picks up instantly on some of the things I’ve noticed with Schaffer’s oeuvre beginning in the 1990s, which is that he transplanted his thinking about natural philosophical cosmology onto his studies of practice, translating implications of diverging conclusions within a natural philosophical system to an “insultography” that accompanied basic failures to come to agreement about facts, conclusions, and appropriate practice.  As Shapiro notes, an increasing historiographical recognition that the correctness of scientific conclusions was rarely obvious has resulted in an emphasis on the “study [of] rhetoric, experimental replication, and ‘negotiations'” (60).

The point that isn’t sufficiently fleshed out in Shapiro’s piece is that the goals of Schaffer’s (and, for that matter, Shapin’s) project of commentary are decidedly different from Shapiro’s emphasis on synthesis.  Over his entire oeuvre, Schaffer has never written a synthetic history of anything.  In his interview series with Alan Macfarlane (I forget precisely where), he explicitly says that his output has mainly been commentary on his students’ work.  I would argue that even Leviathan and the Air Pump should be read mainly as a commentary on a very specific set of 17th-century debates.

The goal of this commentary is to use a certain theoretical vantage point to identify points in the historical record that might not otherwise be subject to scrutiny, and to elucidate what happens there.  So, in Leviathan and the Air Pump or in “Glass Works” the point of the exercise is to elucidate what strategies have been historically used in specifically those instances where agreement cannot be secured.  Disputes over instrumentation is simply one point where these strategies can be pinpointed.

For my part, I don’t think Schaffer is deploying a particularly “modern” concept of experimentation here, nor do I think we can say that the absence of theory in Schaffer’s account is necessarily a problem with his commentary.  Further, I wouldn’t take Schaffer’s account to imply the Newton’s success was all about “power”.  I do not think that commentary should be judged by the standards of completeness and coherence demanded by synthesis.

Are we, then, to simply accept a programmatic difference between Schaffer and Shapiro?  I urge that we should not.

For one thing, if we accept that commentaries have no responsibility to make explicit claims about what their conclusions imply for conclusions to be drawn in more synthetic accounts, we have no good way of evaluating the significance of the practices and strategies that are the subject of commentary.

I would argue that the project of commentary has legitimized itself not by making clear what the implications of commentaries are for syntheses, but by participating in what we might call a historiographical cult of invisibility.  Schaffer, for instance, tends to make the case for the significance of his latter-day insultography mainly because polemics have traditionally been considered to be exterior, and thus invisible to a proper history of science.  Thus insultography is taken to be important mainly because it needs to be restored to visibility in portraits of historical scientific practice.

(For more on this, see my “Schaffer on the Hustings” series, Pt. 1, Pt. 2, and Pt. 3.

Fine.  But we have to understand that this argument for significance is historiographical, and provides little clue to historical significance.  One often gets the impression in reading insultography that a Post-It note has been slapped on the historical record saying, “By the way, in addition to the story we already have, some insults were thrown around as well, which reflected the cultural milieu of the debates.”  We are to take interest in this, because it is also implied: “This is a major revelation in our understanding of historical socio-epistemology, which symmetrically takes into account all actors’ perspectives (even though alternative actors are mainly of interest not in and of themselves, but because they object to the subject at hand).”

(This argument about the selective use of the symmetry principle can be read as an agreement with points in the latter part of Michael’s comment.)

A simple lesson to take away is that historiography cannot long live on commentary alone, and Shapiro hits hard on the importance of evaluating historical significance as a means of securing correct conclusions about historical developments.  But, in addition to that, he also makes a very cogent case for the historiographical project of synthesis measured against the project of commentary.  These are both points I will address in Pt. 2 of this post.


1. Michael Bycroft - March 21, 2011

Thanks Will for following up on my comment — and also for drawing out a new feature of these two articles (commentary v synthesis) that I had missed.

I think you are right about Schaffer leaning towards commentary in his article rather than synthesis. And I think you are also right that we cannot dissolve the manifest disagreement between the two articles just by appealing to the different approaches that the authors take to history-writing. Commentators no less than synthesisers are obliged to get the history right, whatever the independent value of the “theoretical vantage point” taken by the commentator.

Some comments:

1. my only problem with “commentary” is that, if an article like “Glass Works” really is meant as a commentary, then I wish this were clearer in such an article. In your terms, if there is “Post-It note” aspect to this article then it is well-hidden by the “major revelation” aspect (if my memory of the article serves me well). If my memory of the article serves me well, it contains little in the way of equivocation, qualification, or concession to the existing literature.

2. I see what you mean by saying that “Schaffer has *never* written a synthetic history of anything.” He tends to write articles about discrete cases or cultures rather than trying to string these episodes together in a book. But I’m not sure that, in general, his articles are just commentaries about the episodes that they hone in on. It’s hard to generalise, but I would say he is often aiming for a thorough-going re-interpretation of a scientist’s oeuvre (as in his 1981 “Herschel in Bedlam: natural history and stellar astronomy”) or of a cluster of key episodes (as in the 1986 “Discovery and the end of natural philosophy”) or of an entire century (as in his 1983 “Natural philosophy and public spectacle in the eighteenth century”). The last two remind me a bit of some papers by Thomas Kuhn, a master of the compressed revisionist survey (eg. Kuhn’s 1976 “Mathematical Versus Experimental Traditions in the Development of Physical Science”).

PS. The post notes that:

“…in this context I’m not really comfortable with trying to figure out who is beating whom at the game of purifying himself of recognized methodological sins, because I think there are more important issues at hand.”

In my initial comment my martial language (“triple victory”, “Shapiro beats Schaffer at the practice game”, etc.) might have clouded my intentions there. In these articles both Shapiro and Schaffer seem to take seriously the “recognized methodological sins” in question (present-centredness and neglecting material practice) — and many historians of science have since taken them seriously as well. So Schaffer’s and Shapiro’s effort to avoid these “sins” is (despite my language) not just a “game” but a serious scholarly endeavour that we can profitably analyse. If this analysis means comparing the articles to one another to see how well they avoid those sins (in our eyes or the eyes of the authors), so be it.

I look forward to the second post on this topic.

2. Will Thomas - March 21, 2011

Thanks Michael. Pt. 2 is in the works, but a couple of follow-ups to your comments here:

On 1) Most definitely. I don’t think the historiographical relationship between commentary and synthesis has ever been adequately hashed out. I gather that a certain unflinching radical attitude has often been appreciated, perhaps out of a former need to bust up an old consensus.

In the genre of commentary, it has evidently been taken to be the responsibility of individual historians to somehow work out their own syntheses — what I’ve called a “layering of perspectives”. In some circles, it seems as though the possibility of synthesis has altogether lost credibility (perhaps because it is too associated with some grand linear synthesis). Chris Donohue and I did several posts on this a couple years back, maybe, explaining why in reality this failure of commentary to place itself responsibly within a literature lends itself to a loss of nuance over time in historiographical argument.

On 2) Perhaps. I was stunned when I first started the Schaffer oeuvre that he seemed to have a major project to a) put the particularity of 18th-century genres back into the work of people like Herschel, and b) work out an overarching picture about the “end of natural philosophy”. Still, I wouldn’t say this is a synthesis. Chris D. and I once decided that Golinski’s Science as Public Culture would be the kind of synthesis Schaffer would write, if Schaffer wrote books. Awesome book. Everyone (even 20th-century people like myself) should give it a serious read.

On the PS: yes, speaking of taking care to make one’s point clear! I agree, it is more serious than a game, but I often think avoiding sin is taken to be the equivalent of historiographical virtue. In this case, I think the sin-oriented questions of presentism and practice-centeredness are beside the point, which should be more about matters of portraiture and craft that is conscientious to the historical record, which has mainly to do with your point (1).

3. Michael Bycroft - March 21, 2011

Thanks for your points, which are well taken.

Regarding your comment on my point 1), I came across this as well while lazily following a link on your site:

“Extreme positions are taken; when challenged, authors deny the extremity and affirm they really meant a far more modest posture.”


Possibly there is an element of this “postmodern equivocation” in something like “Glass Works”, in the sense that the “extreme position” (your “major revelation”) is much more visible in the article than the “modest posture” (your “Post-It Note”), yet in order to defend the article against a reply like Shapiro’s we have to suppose that a “modest posture” was intended after all.

If ever the Schaffer “Oeuvre” series were continued, it could be interesting to look at the synthesis v commentary topic in relation to something like the 2009 “Brokered World” (which he co-edited). On one hand this work may well fall outside the bounds of “commentary” since in it the editors are entering a relatively new field for historians of science rather than re-tilling an old one. On the other hand it probably does not count as synthesis; indeed, the dominant metaphor in the book — of jerry-built un-centralised brokerings between many different parties — could also work as a metaphor for the commentator’s vision of how to write the history of science.

(And I would not be surprised if Schaffer draws, explicitly or not, the analogy between the book’s de-centralised subject matter and the historian’s de-centralised way of treating its subject matter. A similar kind of reflexivity is there, for example, in the last few sentences of his 1980 “Natural Philosophy” and in the first few sentences of his 1983 “Natural Philosophy and public spectacle.” But I haven’t read The Brokered World so this is only a guess.)

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