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Schaffer, the Electric Planetarium, and the Nature of Natural Philosophy May 8, 2014

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

This post (at long last) concludes my look at Simon Schaffer, “Experimenters’ Techniques, Dyers’ Hands, and the Electric Planetarium,” Isis 88 (1997): 456-483. To refresh yourself on the history of the electric planetarium experiment, see here; for further discussion of Schaffer’s interest in the role of manual technique in that history, see here.

electric-planetariumAn important feature of Stephen Gray (1666-1736) and Granville Wheler’s (1701-1770) electric planetarium experiment was the claim that the revolution of a small, electrically charged object around a larger sphere might well illuminate the nature of the force that drives the planets in circular orbits around the sun. One obvious question—but one which Schaffer does not directly address—is how such a rudimentary and solitary experiment could credibly purport, even speculatively, to offer insight into such a grand and seemingly remote problem as planetary motion.

This, I think, is a question that forces us to think about the fundamental nature of early eighteenth-century natural philosophical inquiry.  It is especially necessary to examine the distinctions and relations between experimental and speculative philosophy.  On this distinction, also see the Otago philosophy of science group’s blog; but, where the Otago group tends to view experimentalism and speculation as different strands of philosophy, I would view them more as different facets of the same philosophical enterprise.

Of course, the one thing that was absolutely necessary to draw a persuasive link between the electric planetarium and the motion of the cosmos was to posit some actual commonality between them, beyond their analogous motion.  

As Schaffer notes, in the early eighteenth century, electricity was widely regarded as an “active principle” (like gravity) capable of accounting for motions and other phenomena in cases where an appeal to mere mechanical motion seemed insufficient. From Schaffer’s earliest works, he emphasized how, throughout this period, electricity was connected to physiological operation and even to divine intervention.  He also noted how electricity was often identified with “fire,” which was also understood to be an important source of change and motive force in the cosmos, as in the early cosmology of Immanuel Kant.

For Schaffer, this material connection between experiment and cosmology is sufficient to establish historical actors’ perception of the plausibility of the link.  For him, then, what remains is to establish how the experiment gained credibility, thus elevating its purported relevance to cosmology to the status of “philosophy.”  He relates (470):

Gray and Wheler tried to connect the cosmos with their electrical motions.  In Augustan natural philosophy this was a bold bid for high status, since it touched on the possible cause and effects of gravitation. This was the status that ‘Newtonian’ orreries had just achieved.  In this high-stakes game the troubles of replication were endemic.

Schaffer is quite right here to describe the move from experimentation to cosmological speculation as a bid for prestige. In his Bursting the Limits of Time (2005), Martin Rudwick also notes the prestige of a related speculative genre, “theories of the earth” (or “geotheories” in his shorthand), which attempted to account for the history and present form of the earth in the way that Newton’s laws accounted for celestial motions (if not their underlying cause). Rudwick’s discussion of the topic is my favorite articulation of what it meant to address broad cosmological questions in the eighteenth century.  Here is a small excerpt (135-6):

Geotheory … was a flourishing genre….  Every savant with any ambition to make his mark in this area of natural knowledge aspired to construct his own “system” or geotheory, or else … to explain why he was not going to do so, or not yet.  So there was a proliferating profusion of systems, often incompatible with one another, yet all claiming to be based on sound physical principles.

Now, the issue arises as to what constituted a legitimate or compelling cosmological speculation. Schaffer chooses to focus on the problem of experimental replication, rather than on the intellectual features of the speculative claim.  He seems to argue that replication dependent upon craft skill could be easily cast as mere trickery or amusement, and that further factors were required to elevate the demonstration to the level of philosophy. These factors, in his view—and following in the footsteps of Steven Shapin (rather than, say, Harry Collins, who would emphasize shared experimental skill)—were mainly a matter of attaining a sufficiently lofty social status.  On page 458:

In early modern culture the comparative secrecy of artisan workshops encouraged the sense that embodied competences could never quite be granted the status of philosophy.

On page 459:

Government of the experimenter’s hands depended on self-knowledge. Early modern experimental philosophers held that they could sufficiently discriminate their bodies’ responses from illusions that others, such as women or servants, could not. It was questionable whether craftsmen’s hands could be the bearers of reliable philosophy.

On page 460:

The manual techniques of the dye trade were were among those Gray used in making artificial electricity. But electrical work could not become natural philosophy simply by transferring dyers’ skills to the rooms of the Royal Society. Gray’s colleague and successor, Granvill Wheler, was a genteel virtuoso who sought to transform the knack into reputable natural philosophy and the electric planetarium from a resin cake to a model of the universe. He hoped the device might just become a challenge to some Newtonian accounts of celestial motions, making an electrical cosmology newly plausible.

On page 472:

The dyer’s hands were trustworthy because he had become a moral exemplar.

What strikes me as odd about Schaffer’s argument is that it implies that, in a different social order, craft results might well be considered philosophy, when, very clearly, the sine qua non of philosophy, by almost any definition, is that it is an articulated set of arguments.  Craft could be translated into philosophy, as in histories of trades, by articulating the principles underlying craftsmen’s success, but craft itself could never constitute philosophy no matter the social status of the craftsman.  It is not a question of superior or inferior epistemic status; craft and philosophy were simply different spheres of activity.

By focusing on status, Schaffer distracts us from a potentially more important point: the specific nature of the speculative claim being made in the electric planetarium experiment.  

In philosophy, natural or otherwise, the central object was to ask questions, and to endeavor to answer them.  The larger, more pressing the question, the more prestigious the inquiry.  So, inquiring about the nature and autonomy of the soul, the operation of the intellect, the physiological roots of the passions, or the order of the cosmos, would guarantee you a more rapt audience than would an inquiry into the the behavior of an electrified piece of cork tied to a string.

Importantly, this is different from more modern science, where there ostensibly needs to be some match between the question asked and the capacity of available evidence to answer it.  

In eighteenth-century philosophy, questions were to be answered using whatever evidence happened to be available, whether from common experience or from experiment.  The object was to develop self-consistent theories that accounted for as great a diversity of observations as possible, and could answer objections rooted in the existence of contrary evidence, or in the apparent contradictions between the implications of the theory and accepted points in other branches of philosophy not explicitly considered by the theory, up to and including theology.  (Again, Rudwick is good on this.)

While far from a fully worked-out theoretical system, the electric planetarium could be perceived to have implications for cosmology, merely because it constituted a novel observation, which could be drawn into a new answer to an established and important but unanswered philosophical question, i.e., the source of the force driving planets about stars.  Because speculation was permitted in philosophy, the existence of a new, apparently universal phenomenon was sufficient to validate a reconsideration of the contentious question of celestial motion…

…so long as the claim to universality of the phenomenon could be sustained.  The skill of Gray and Wheler, and perhaps even Wheler’s social status, permitted the electric planetarium phenomenon to be entertained as a universal phenomenon.  However, ultimately, the phenomenon would definitely have to exist independent of the human body for it to account for celestial motion, simply because there were no human bodies in space.

That the phenomenon could not be replicated by anyone when the cork was suspended from a fixed point was a serious problem, not only for those who doubted the phenomenon, but in the eyes of Wheler as well. As Schaffer notes, he refused to publish his ideas so long as he failed to repeat the experiment without holding the string personally.

To repeat my conclusion from my previous post on this subject, I thus do not see grounds, certainly in this case, for Schaffer to draw a stark epistemic line between those willing to rely upon human integrity to ensure experimental validity, and those such as Charles Dufay, who, according to Schaffer, demanded the excision of unarticulated human skill and judgment from experiment.  

Rather, Schaffer’s claim seems to derive from his own desire to link a naively mechanistic philosophy, allegedly free of human and social intervention, to the validation and growth of a managerial-industrial social and economic order.  We return to his conception of this “machine philosophy” next time.


1. Charles Day - May 9, 2014

Will, I’ve just posted a link to your essay on Physics Today’s Facebook page. Let’s see if you get more traffic.

2. thomaswischer - May 9, 2014

Reblogged this on thomaswischer.

3. Michael Bycroft - May 13, 2014

Hi Will,

I share your skepticism about the contrast between Gray/Wheler and Dufay. As you say, Wheler no less than Dufay was unwilling to credit the experiment as long as the string was held by the hand. I would add one point in Schaffer’s favor and one against it.

Firstly, there is a genuine difference in the foci of the two investigations: Dufay did not carry out a “systematic study of his own arm and hand” (Schaffer’s phrase) as Wheler did.

Secondly, Dufay’s explanation of the experiment (in terms of the mutual repulsion of the excited cake and ball) has no equivalent in Wheler. The problem for Schaffer is that it is not easy to explain this difference in terms of social relations. In particular, I have doubts about Schaffer’s statement that Dufay “transformed the planetarium into a controlled and disciplined model of his vortex physics” (480). One could certainly say that Dufay exerted a kind of “control” of his apparatus, or that he imposed a kind of “discipline” on it; but one could say this about *any* explanation of an experimental result.

I like your point that craft practices and natural philosophy are different activities, with the consequence that we do not need to leap to social relations to explain why craft practices did not on their own count as natural philosophy. Of course that does not mean that social relations had no role to play here, just that Schaffer needs to do more work to rule out the obvious alternative hypothesis (ie. that craft practices became philosophical when someone drew out their implications for our understanding of the cosmos).

Curiously, there is another historiographical tradition that treats Gray as a subverter (rather than a promoter) of the kind of cosmic natural philosophy that Schaffer attributes to Gray and that Rudwick attributes to theorists of the earth. See:

Michael Ben-Chaim, “Social Mobility and Scientific Change: Stephen Gray’s Contribution to Electrical Research,” BJHS 23 (1990), 3-24

Stephen Gaukroger, The Collapse of Mechanism and the Rise of Sensibility (OUP, 2011) — see the section on electricity, the page numbers of which I do not recall

According to Ben-Chaim and Gaukroger, Gray took a piece-meal, phenomenological approach to electricity and eschewed the grand speculation of his predecessors Hauksbee and Newton. Both historians also say that Dufay continued in Gray’s vein.

I have trouble with the Ben-Chaim/Gaukroger narrative — one can find ambitious speculation not just in Gray but also in Dufay and especially in his protégé Nollet. But that narrative has the merit of showing that the Schaffer/Rudwick picture of large-scale theorizing is not the whole story of eighteenth-century natural philosophy (not that either Schaffer or Rudwick presented it as the whole story). In some eighteenth-century contexts–such as entomology as practiced by Réaumur and his circle–prestige lay in making endless minute observations and not in drawing ambitious inferences from one-off experiments.

Will Thomas - May 13, 2014

Michael! I was wondering what had become of you. Thanks for lending your expert knowledge of this period to the discussion. I won’t respond to everything here, since I essentially concur with all you’ve written. Just a couple of notes.

First, on craft vis-a-vis philosophy, I don’t think, and I’m sure you’ll agree, that it’s even necessary to draw out the cosmological implications of an experiment for it to become philosophy. Simply giving some general account of the principles underlying what is taking place in the experiment, or craft process, whatever, would be sufficient.

Second, I’m glad you brought up the historiographical interest in the emergence of strict empiricism. In my ellipsis in my Rudwick quote, I am generally skipping over where he talks about Saussure, who Rudwick takes to be primarily interested in empiricism throughout his career.

Of course, “system-building” was increasingly the subject of polemics throughout the 18th century, which may give the impression that it disappeared. In fact it did nothing of the kind. As I maybe hint early in this post in calling “experimental” and “speculative” philosophy facets rather than strands of natural philosophy, experimentalists could build up a significant body of empirical work before finally taking a stab at system-building. I’m not an expert on Gray, but it would make some sense if he mainly refrained from speculation until he was basically on his deathbed.

Just as frequent, speculation can suddenly show up and disappear just as quickly in books with no real stake in speculation. I recall there are a couple of isolated bits in Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia where he suddenly veers off into speculative physiology for a paragraph or in a footnote. I’m sure there are numerous examples of this sort of thing.

And yet, there are very good historians who do seem overly eager to declare the emergence of a properly “scientific” culture with the rejection of system-building. Gaukroger’s probably a good example. I was really surprised to find Hal Cook making this claim in his Matters of Exchange when he suggests the shift occurs as early as when Boerhaave recants his system-building.

Michael Bycroft (@mikebycroft) - May 14, 2014

Yes, I’m still around, despite appearances. I have plans to re-enter the blogosphere in the near future, and hopefully will not burn up in the process.

To your two points I’ld add the following:

It does make sense that Gray started speculating on his death-bed. But I don’t think this is because he then had enough evidence to support speculation, since very little of his earlier research gave any direct support to his interpretation of the rotating-cork experiment. More plausibly, what he had gained was self-confidence and (with a nod to Schaffer) the esteem of his peers. As a Dufay scholar, I am bound to add that by 1735 (when Gray wrote his first letter on the electric planetarium) Gray had the benefit of Dufay’s finding that just about any material is an “electric.” Now that electricity was a property of all kinds of matter, it was more plausible that electricity might govern all kinds of motion, including celestial ones.

In defense of Peter Anstey and the Otago group, the speculative/experimental distinction is not a distinction between ambitious and modest theories or even between theories endowed with lots of evidence and theories endowed with less evidence. Instead it is a distinction between kinds of evidence: the experimental philosopher thinks that experiments and observations are the only kind (or at least the most important kind) of evidence for theories in natural philosophy, whereas the speculative philosopher gives priority to deductions from first principles. On this definition, Gray was behaving like an “experimental philosopher” even on his death-bed: the evidence for his theory may have been slight, or even non-existent, but at least the evidence was empirical, ie. it took the form of observations and experiments.

We need a different pair of terms to distinguish between the Reaumurs and the Buffons, ie. to distinguish between the experimental philosophers who built grand systems and those who concentrated on the details. “Modest” versus “ambitious” experimenters? “Observers” versus “theorisers”? ….

I say Buffon was one of the ambitious ones, but even he thought that the best natural philosophers combined ambition and caution. This from the Discours préliminaire of his Histoire naturelle (1749):

“We might say that the love of the study of nature supposes two qualities of the mind that seem opposed, the grand vision of a powerful genius who sees all in a glance, and the minute attentions of the painstaking mind that fixes on a single detail.”

Finally, what the Gray case shows is that minute observation and grand theorising were not just ideals or ideologies or temperamental preferences but also tactical options. Most people did not engage exclusively in one or the other, but chose to engage in one or the other depending on the circumstances. Dufay’s papers on electricity and magnetism are a good case: the former are as phenomenological as you like; the latter include a fully-blown Cartesian theory of magnetism and a bold conjecture about the relationship between the earth’s magnetism and the aurora borealis.

Cf. your remark a few years ago that “representation (not to mention science) is less a matter of striving toward an ideal and more a matter of choosing a proper strategy.”

The question is: what were the “circumstances” that mattered? Aside from the ones we’ve mentioned so far–amount of empirical evidence, self-confidence, esteem of peers–there is also the matter of precedent. I suspect that one reason Dufay was so keen to speculate about magnetism is that he could do so just by modifying a respected pre-existing theory. There were pre-existing theories of electricity, of course, but they were not as canonical as the ones about magnetism, and there were none that incorporated Gray’s discovery of electrical communication.

Will Thomas - May 14, 2014

Again, very good points. I think the distinction between strategies (or tactics) and ideals is important, and I appreciate the link to my prior post. This is also similar to the point I made about image/logic ideals versus “strategies of detection” in 20th-century particle physics in my HSNS “Strategies of Detection” paper.

Emphasis on epistemic idealism, and on the incommensurability of different ideals, seems to be a consistent feature of the objectivity studies to come out of the ’90s. The Wheler/Dufay divide that Schaffer draws in “Electric Planetarium” is clearly part of that literature.

If we move to a view of history that treats such divides as tactics rather than ideals, we are indeed forced (I think in a very healthy way) to try and figure out a) what range of tactics was available, and b) the circumstances governing their use, both of which can vary from actor to actor, but not, I think, infinitely so.

I think you’re right in your modification of Schaffer’s point about Gray’s turn to speculation deriving from social confidence: gaining a measure of acceptance and prestige can encourage bids for further prestige. The electric planetarium is clearly not a case of synthesis of prior results and ideas, though, of course, others did pursue just such synthetic projects. Of course, you’re also right to note the importance of Dufay’s work in making this particular bid intellectually possible, or at least more justifiable.

You’re also right to distinguish between speculative system-building from first principles and speculative hypothesizing within experimental philosophy. It is clear that the experimentation and speculation distinction is a productive one, but, given the gradations and variations within each camp, I wonder how well it can hold up as a primary distinction for describing styles of philosophy. I agree it is a good idea to build up a vocabulary that would include modest versus ambitious speculation (which would probably need to be modified – the electric planetarium is modest in that it’s not a “system,” but ambitious in its hope to become a major cosmological explanatory principle). There’s a lot of work and debate to be had there.

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