Schaffer, the Electric Planetarium, and the Nature of Natural Philosophy May 8, 2014Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
Tags: Charles Dufay, Granville Wheler, Harry Collins, Immanuel Kant, Martin Rudwick, Simon Schaffer, Stephen Gray, Steven Shapin
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.
An 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.