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Schaffer Summarized May 27, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Discussion of this early-’80s vintage video follows below the fold.

Between 2008 and 2010, I wrote a large series of posts looking at Simon Schaffer’s oeuvre, from his earliest publications in the late 1970s to articles published in the early-to-mid ’90s, with the idea of being as comprehensive as practically possible. I picked Schaffer’s work for the experiment basically because he’s a famous historian, and I’d met him a couple of times, and, like most people who meet him, I found him very engaging.

If you ever set out to do this sort of thing, may I warn you that it is an arduous task, which I eventually dropped. But, before I did, I discovered a wonderful and totally unanticipated unity to Schaffer’s work in the 1980s, focusing on the unique argumentative style of natural philosophy and the integration of both the ideas and the practices of natural philosophy into the cultural conventions of 17th and 18th-century society, particularly in Britain and France. That was really the first time, historian of the 20th century that I am, that I ever thought of natural philosophy as constituting a markedly different genre of writing and work from ‘science’.

Ever since, I have been eager to promote Schaffer’s ’80s work at every opportunity. In my experience, its uniqueness is pretty well lost in the shadow of Leviathan and the Air-Pump. And, while I have seen people imitate his interests and analytical style (and even his speaking voice) at conferences, I haven’t come across anything (except perhaps Jan Golinski’s Science as Public Culture) that gets at the sweep and subtlety of his collected oeuvre from the period, which he never assembled together in the form of a book.

Thus, bouncing around YouTube today, I was gobsmacked to discover an old film (embedded above) that Schaffer made in 1982—1982!—basically summarizing his entire ’80s output in a nice, integrated package. William Herschel and the natural history of the heavens? There. Whig natural philosophy? There. The moral order of the Newtonian cosmos? There. Demonstration devices as objects of moral as well as philosophical instruction? There. The visibility of active principles, particularly the electrical fluid, as indicative of divine presence? There.

Both segments of the film even conclude with statements of Schaffer’s (suspect, but heuristically powerful) thesis about the “end of natural philosophy” coinciding with what other scholars, particularly Robert Darnton, had called the “end of the Enlightenment”. As if that weren’t enough, there’s a wonderful synthetic discussion of how the philosophical, medical, and entertainment cultures of 18th-century Bath all fit together—which I think he might be getting from Roy Porter—and how that provincial philosophical culture fit with the rising industrialization of the North.

And evidently this has been sitting here at Imperial College the last three years I’ve been here—and, of course, much longer— probably unbeknownst to anybody at CHoSTM. (Schaffer started his career at Imperial before moving to Cambridge.) Thanks to whoever at Imperial put this up on YouTube. Everyone, let’s pitch in to keep our historiographical resources accessible and organized!

Update (June 4):

I had no idea Schaffer was about to release a brand-new documentary on automata, but here it is. Note, 30 years later, his continued interest in the theme of intellectual/technological order (here the order of clockwork rather than the Newtonian cosmos) vs. social disorder:

Update (June 18): I suspect the person who posted the new documentary on YouTube was not authorized to do so by the BBC, and so, inevitably, it has disappeared.  I hope Schaffer can find a way to make it generally available again.  The title is “Mechanical Marvels, Clockwork Dreams”.


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Plus title music by Herschel himself! Cool!

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