Rudwick and Newman & Principe and the Recovery of Meaning December 30, 2011Posted by Will Thomas in Chymistry, Tactile History.
Tags: Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, James Joule, Lawrence Principe, Martin Rudwick, Otto Sibum, Robert Boyle, William Newman
One of the most pernicious obstacles to effective historical research is a phenomenon I like to call “glazing over” — a tendency to dismiss references encountered in documents as unimportant or incidental simply for a lack of familiarity with them, or interest in them. You just glaze over until you run across something you are already interested in.
I suspect glazing over is actually extremely common, but that people don’t like to discuss it, because the lack of familiarity it implies with basic facts still smacks of professional incompetence, or, more snobbishly, interest in overcoming the problem implies a banal interest in empirical history. This is too bad, because not only does systematic glazing over likely skew and limit our historiography in more radical ways than our awareness of our “inevitably subjective perspective” supposes; it prevents historians from taking steps as a profession to readmit factual dexterity back into our practices after a long period of privileging critical reflection.
In today’s post, I want to discuss tactile history that works to restore a familiar or palpable meaning to documentary descriptions of natural or experimental phenomena by actively revisiting or recreating what the text refers to.
It is entirely possible when writing the history of scientific work to discuss how evidence is marshalled in support of an argument, without having a good sense of the nature of that evidence. This variety of glazing over tends to render different kinds of evidence essentially interchangeable (which is related to what I’ve taken to calling the “MacGuffin problem” in history writing). But, by recovering a more palpable sense of what that evidence actually was, it is possible to regain a sense of its specific meaning to historical actors. Understanding this meaning can help you tell why, for example, they found that evidence, and not other evidence, particularly compelling, and why it made sense for them to include it in scientific arguments in the ways that they did.
In the preparation of his Bursting the Limits of Time: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution (2005), Martin Rudwick visited some of the geological features that geographers and natural philosophers of the late-18th and early-19th centuries discussed in their works. Accordingly, he devoted a special section to “places and specimens” in the book’s bibliography (pp. 653-654). He urged that such visits be seen as akin not only to documentary resources, but to the work of
…some historians of the experimental sciences [who] have been demonstrating the value of reconstructing the apparatus and replicating or ‘re-staging’ the experiments of historical figures in order to understand more fully how their hands-on laboratory experience of natural phenomena translated into theoretical conclusions. For a science such as geology, focused more on outdoor work in the field and indoor work in museums…, a similar kind of experiential replication — which might be called ‘re-treading’ — is not yet accepted as equally valuable, at least by historians.
By seeing things like a rock outcrop or a fossil specimen, it helped him “to understand and appreciate [historical actors’] interpretations of what they saw, in the light of seeing the same features for myself”.
There are, of course, caveats in the method, as well as limits to what can be accomplished. Geological features remained fairly static, “once one mentally subtracts the modern overlay of superhighways, power lines, urbanization, etc.” However, one could not count on such durability as far as a region’s flora and fauna were concerned. Furthermore, it was necessary to take care to avoid using the palpability of actual specimens and geological features as an opportunity to comment on what historical actors should have seen in them, that is “to use what ‘we now know’ as a standard by which to judge their conclusions and even their competence or intelligence.”
Rudwick also has a longer talk on this subject, which he gave at BSHS (abstract). For a nice, brief recap, see Katarina Larsen’s blog. (Can’t resist quoting: “…accounts about the work of Darwin made by other historians (that have never been there) made Martin suggest that some of these people ought to be sentenced to walk up and down and up (the mountains of Tahiti) to understand what Darwin was talking about.”)
Avoiding the glazing over problem turns out to be especially important in the study of alchemy. When you know the science was correct, or at least correct-ish, you can sometimes get away with recapping what is in the documentary record. However, when you have a science such as alchemy that has been discredited, the temptation has traditionally been to glaze over while reading alchemical texts, secure in the assumption that historical actors’ writing on the subject was essentially meaningless — a charge we inherit from philosophical reformers of the 17th and 18th centuries.
This temptation is especially strong in alchemy where authors on the subject habitually couched what they wrote in symbolic and euphemistic language. In alchemy and other areas in the 16th and 17th centuries, understanding the relationship between symbols was often thought to be a path to a systematic understanding of the related orders of macrocosm and microcosm. Since we now know this not to be the case, it is naturally tempting to assume that their symbols did not signify real experience at all.
But, as William Newman and Lawrence Principe have repeatedly urged, by understanding the relationship between early chemical signifiers and modern substances, it turns out that many authors were working hard to bring intelligibility to a diverse array of phenomena (not all of them strictly “chemical” as the term is now applied). Further, the knowledge they generated was able to accumulate and be systematized in ways that different authors could agree upon — even if it did not do so in ways now recognized as chemically coherent.
As Principe wrote in his recent Isis article, “Alchemy Restored” (free, 310):
The desire to know what alchemists actually did in practice led me — initially back in the early 1980s — to try to replicate their results, to see what they saw (and often enough smell what they smelled, although I continue to draw the line at tasting what they tasted). Eventually, many processes that seemed implausible were found to work once impurities present in early modern starting materials were taken into account. Boyle’s transmutation of gold into silver worked exactly as he described, even if his ‘silver’ turned out to be silvery antimony. Even some of the most bizarre alchemical imagery supposedly hiding routes toward the philosophers’ stone, once decoded, yielded surprising and workable processes that must have required astonishingly well-developed experimental techniques.
The danger here, perhaps, is portraying alchemy as too akin to modern science.
Much of Principe and Newman’s experimental work (including experiment videos), as well as guides to older chemical nomenclature, can be found on the Chymistry of Isaac Newton website. (The website has also recently released digital editions of 30 of Isaac Newton’s previously unedited manuscripts of his work in chymistry.)
The meanings that Rudwick and Newman & Principe have sought to recover through their tactile history could be fairly characterized as “tacit knowledge”. However, where Otto Sibum replicated James Joule’s experiments in order to recapture tacit knowledge that was never written down, these authors sought to restore meanings that were implicit to written text.
Further, Sibum’s replications very clearly grew out of the concern for the factors governing successful experimental performance and replication that stemmed from the sociology of scientific knowledge. Rudwick and Newman & Principe, on the other hand, have been more concerned to use tactile history to enrich the intellectual history of science, rather than the socio-cultural aspects of its historical practice.
Sibum aimed to define the boundaries of historical cultures by their possession of brewers’ “gestural” knowledge in thermometry (or scientific figures’ acceptance of Joule’s experimental skill) to explain instances of agreement and controversy. Rudwick and Newman & Principe have been less concerned with charting who historically did and did not share the experiences that they have replicated, but all of the authors we have looked at so far in this series have used tactile history to recover historical knowledge for present-day scholars.