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Derek Price on Automata, Simulacra, and the Rise of “Mechanicism” August 28, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Price. Click for original at Yale University Manuscripts and Archives

Derek J. de Solla Price (1922-1983). Click for the full-size photo at Yale University Manuscripts and Archives

Before we proceed further with our discussion of Simon Schaffer’s “Enlightened Automata” (1999), I’d like to go back a further 35 years to take a look at Derek J. de Solla Price, “Automata and the Origins of Mechanism and Mechanistic Philosophy,” Technology and Culture 5 (1964): 9-23. This should give us some sense of how much and how little the literature had changed by the time Schaffer wrote.

Price’s article was written in a period when historians were interested in defining and tracing the shifts in thought that they took to be crucial to the development of modern science. The tradition of scholarship is closely associated with figures such as Alexandre Koyré (1892-1964) and Rupert Hall (1920-2009), whose touchstone work, The Scientific Revolution: The Formation of the Modern Scientific Attitude, appeared in 1954.

Probably the most important shift these authors attended to was the rise of “mechanistic” modes of explaining natural phenomena, punctuated by the philosophy of René Descartes (1596-1650) and the achievements of Isaac Newton (1643-1727). Price’s aim was to investigate the intellectual relationship between mechanistic philosophy (“or mechanicism to use the appropriate term coined by Dijksterhuis,” 10*) and the creation of sophisticated mechanisms.

Price related, “Historians of the Mechanistic Philosophy customarily proceed from the reasonable assumption that certain theories in astronomy and biology derived from man’s familiarity with various machines and mechanical devices. Using everyday technological artifacts one could attempt with some measure of success to explain the motions of the planets and the behavior of living animals as having much of the certainty and regularity reproduced in these physical models.” According to Price, “… simulacra (i.e., devices that simulate) and automata (i.e, devices that move by themselves)” played an important role in the relations between the histories of technology and philosophy, because they would have seemed to offer “tangible proof, more impressive than any theory, that the natural universe of physics and biology was susceptible to mechanistic explanation.”

However, Price hoped to use a careful examination of the long history of these mechanisms to invert the traditional interpretation, to demonstrate that “mechanistic philosophy … led to mechanism rather than the other way about.” He suggested that humans have “some strong innate urge toward mechanistic explanation,” which “led to the making of automata.”  In turn, automata were the source of “much of our technology, particularly the part embracing fine mechanism and scientific instrumentation.” In fact, he supposed, “In these special mechanisms are seen the progenitors of the Industrial Revolution.” 

From a still broader perspective: “In the augmenting success of automata through the age of Descartes, and perhaps up to and including the age of electronic computers, we see the prime tangible manifestation of the triumph of rational, mechanistic explanation over those of the vitalists and theologians” (10).

When you line it up from A to Z, this is a pretty oddball narrative of an “innate” human proclivity for a certain type of explanation overcoming alternative possibilities to finally be affirmed in the development of modern science and technology. But I’ll ask readers to put aside knee-jerk objections, to pay attention, first, to the fact that Price and Schaffer share a belief in the close historical linkage of mechanistic philosophy, automata, and industrialization;** and, second, to the detailed argument that Price constructed.

Price spent the bulk of his article recounting the history of simulacra and automata, which he traced all the way back to the “deep-rooted urge of man to simulate the world around him through the graphic and plastic arts,” pointing to the archaeological evidence of the “naturalistic rock paintings of prehistoric caves” and to “ancient grotesque figurines and other ‘idols’ found in burials,” as well as in “talking statues” made in ancient Egypt where speaking trumpets were “concealed in hollows leading down from the mouth” (10). He also pointed to articulated masks found in Africa and Wayang figures used in Indonesian shadow plays to suggest, “Primitive animism may lay at the very root of animation” (11).

He went on to discuss accounts of simulacra in the classical world, including “cosmological simulacra,” which were apparently rarer and later in arriving than “biological models” (12), but which wedded concepts of mathematical and geometric regularity in celestial motion to mechanical devices. He argues that ancient water clocks and sundials probably were built for “the aesthetic or religious satisfaction derived from making a device to simulate the heavens,” rather than for a “utilitarian purpose” (13). He notes that such devices were certainly used to drive celestial models in the Chinese context. And then, of course, there was the extraordinary sophistication of the Antikythera mechanism, which, when Price wrote, had only begun to be fathomed.

If you’re not familiar with the remarkable story of Antikythera mechanism, and Price’s place in the history of studying it, have a look at this video:

According to Price, “Amongst historians of technology there seems always to have been private, somewhat peevish discontent because the most ingenious mechanical devices of antiquity were not useful machines but trivial toys.” And it was for this reason that mechanical explanations were assumed to derive from the example of practical technology. But, in his view, the sheer sophistication and near-contemporaneous development of astronomical and biological simulacra were evidence that they developed in tandem with attempts to understand and explain the world: mechanisms and philosophical ideas “represent complementary facets of man’s urge to exhibit the depth of his understanding and his sophisticated skills by playing the role of do-it-yourself creator of the universe, embodying its two most noble aspects, the cosmic and the animate” (15).

The links Price drew between celestial and biological simulacra were not merely superficial similarity. On a technical level, Price could point to “the deepest complementarity … between the clepsydra principles used in astronomical models and clocks and the almost identical inner workings of the Heronic singing-birds and other parerga” (15). The medieval era, in turn, inherited the tradition of mechanics “without much change or dilution” via the Islamic and Byzantine world, and thus “preserved the special complementary relation between the clockwork and jackwork [imitating animals and human beings]” (16). He offered a brief overview of the development of clockwork mechanisms and water-driven automata in the thirteenth and especially the fourteenth centuries, and beyond, including Richard of Wallingford’s (1292-1336) clock embodying the principles of Ptolomaic astronomy (and briefly mentioned in the video above) and the astronomical clock at the Strasbourg cathedral, which also incorporated automata figures, as did many other subsequent clocks and automata.

Price also explored the early intellectual significance attributed to clockwork, noting that sometime just prior to the introduction of literature on the subject to Europe, it had become entangled with discussions of magnetism and the possibility of perpetual motion. He also highlighted the significance of Thomas Aquinas’s (1225-1274) suggestion in the Summa Theologica that the “regular and orderly behavior” of animals showed that they had to be regarded as machines, lacking rational souls. “Surely,” he wrote, “such a near-Cartesian concept could only become possible and convincing when the art of automaton-making had reached the point where it was felt that all orderly movement could be reproduced, in principle at least, by a sufficiently complex machine.” The encapsulation of animal behavior by automata also “made philosophically important the emergent possibility of exhibiting mechanically many manifestations of apparent rationality,” i.e., in calculating machines (19-20).

Because Price seems decidedly more interested in the history of automata and simulacra than in mechanistic reasoning, per se, in this piece, his claim that Descartes’s mechanistic philosophy stood “on a height scaled and [began] the ascent to the next plateau” (23) is not quite convincing to me. However, his overarching observations — that mechanicians continuously labored to mimic both celestial motion and the activity of living beings, and that their interest in pursuing these ends out-paced any practical uses for such machinery — are compelling and worthy of serious attention. I would be grateful if experts could point to more recent historiography on this count in the comments.

In any event, Price’s portrait of an ancient and medieval world keenly interested in capturing the movement of the heavens and living things should at least allow us to pause before uncritically accepting Schaffer’s deep association of mechanical explanation with an ideology specific to the Enlightenment. Allowing this point does not force us to accept Price’s grand narrative: “From the Lascaux Caves to the Strassbourg Clock, to electronic and cybernetic brains, the road of evolution has run straight and steady, oddly bordered by the twin causes and effects of mechanistic philosophy and of high technology” (23).

Update (Sep. 1, 2014): For more on Derek Price’s move into the history of science, see this post by Seb Falk at Astrolabes and Stuff.  Falk is researching Price’s career; follow this link for other posts on him.

Price’s article was originally a contribution to a 1963 symposium on “Automata and Simulated Life as a Central Theme in the History of Science,” and was printed with another contribution, Silvio Bedini’s (1917-2007) “The Role of Automata in the History of Technology,” which covers the later Enlightenment-era automata discussed in Schaffer’s piece.

*Price cites E. J. Dijksterhuis, The Mechanization of the World Picture (Oxford UP, 1961), translated from Mechanisering van het wereldbeeld (1950).

**Schaffer would, however, vehemently object to Price’s opposition of mechanism to a unified vitalist-theological current. More on this when we return to “Enlightened Automata.”



1. Whewell’s Gazette: Vol. 11 | Whewell's Ghost - September 1, 2014

[…] Ether Wave Propaganda: Derek Price on Automata, Simulacra, and the rise of “Mechanism” […]

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