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Jan Golinski on the Personas of Humphry Davy April 30, 2018

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
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The time of Ether Wave Propaganda has come and gone, but happily its archives remain available, and conveniently it can still serve as a place to drop a post should the need arise.

golinski davyProbably a couple of years ago now, I received in the mail an unsolicited copy of Jan Golinski’s book, The Experimental Self: Humphry Davy and the Making of a Man of Science (University of Chicago Press, 2016). This was no doubt because I’d previously written about Golinski and Davy on this blog, particularly here. But by this time I’d moved on from academic history and did not get around to reading the book. (Currently, if you want to read me, I’m regularly writing with a talented four-person team about U.S. science policy for the American Institute of Physics here.)

However, the opportunity has come for a brief revival of EWP. I had to have a surgery on April 16 — don’t worry, I expect to be fine — and have been forced to stay home to recuperate. This means I had time to plunge back into the world of early 19th-century science, and so here at last is my review of The Experimental Self.

How to frame Davy

Golinski’s book is more a study of Davy than a biography, comprising a series of reflections on various personas that Davy fashioned for himself, or that others attributed to him. The exercise is compelling foremost because, as Golinski demonstrates, Davy did think extensively about his own identity as a chemist and philosopher and crafted a singular position for himself within the world of British science. Secondly, the world of British science was itself at that moment beginning to go through a period of rapid change, and the ways that Davy fit, and failed to fit, within that world can tell us a great deal about its shifting culture.

Probably the great virtue of this book is that it doesn’t shrink from the complexity of the changes in British science in Davy’s time. Golinski explicitly rejects the usefulness of narratives about “professionalizing” British science. As a chemist at the Royal Institution, a dedicated research institute, and as a pioneer in the use of voltaic batteries to analyze substances and systematically discover new elements, Davy is an apparent forebear of a more professionalized chemistry. Davy, though, resisted the reduction of his work to a well-structured vocation and ultimately left the Royal Institution to embrace a more aristocratic life, pursuing his inquiries independently and, he asserted, for the benefit of the public. But, during this period, and as successor (1820-1827) to Joseph Banks as Royal Society president, professionalizing reformers considered his outlook and connections to aristocratic values and patronage to be old-fashioned.

Golinski is more accepting of portraits of Davy as a Romantic figure. Davy was, of course, a friend of Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Golinski also notes his affinities with German idealist philosophy and Continental scientific figures identified with Romanticism such as Johann Wilhelm Ritter, Alexander von Humboldt, and Hans Christian Ørsted. At the same time, Golinski, I’d say rightly, does not lean on the notion of a coherent Romantic reaction to an earlier era of Enlightenment science.

In fact, one of the benefits of Golinski’s lack of interest in pigeonholing Davy is that it makes it easier to cast him as not just a transitional or boundary figure — though he was self-consciously those things — but as part of a more continuous tradition of grappling with critical and perpetual problems facing the sciences both before and after Davy. These include establishing:

  • What forms of scientific speculation are legitimate and which should be deemed specious or destructive
  • To what degree and in what manner one is permitted to advocate especially for one’s own arguments over others
  • What social and institutional structures should govern the activities of scientific figures
  • What forms of engagement between scientific figures and general audiences are legitimate and appropriate

Davy’s solutions to these problems fit no clear pattern of being progressive or antiquated, though he and, respectively, his opponents certainly worked to cast them as such.

Golinski’s persona framework

In making Davy’s personas the organizing principle behind The Experimental Self, Golinski casts Davy as a sort of David Bowie-like shape shifter. Although Golinski does not insist that there were bright lines between Davy’s personas, I nevertheless think that the analytical strategy doesn’t quite come together.

There is no question — and Golinski aptly demonstrates — that Davy thought a great deal about his own proclivities and how they fit in with his scientific work. As an “enthusiast,” Davy took risks to his safety and reputation and embraced subjective experience in his early investigations on the inhalation of nitrous oxide at Thomas Beddoes’s Medical Pneumatic Institution in Bristol. Then, at the Royal Institution, he cultivated a new, highly advantageous reputation as a charismatic lecturer to fashionable metropolitan audiences. Golinski refers to this second persona as the “genius,” though the discussion focuses mainly on Davy’s charisma while skirting around the subject of his intellect. Unquestionably, performance was essential to Davy’s reputation as a genius, but notions about how Davy came by his ideas would also have been an important part of the subject of genius.

Golinski folds discussion of Davy’s scientific work and thought into two personas: the “discoverer” and the “philosopher.” Yet, these chapters are really less about persona than about scientific strategy. The discoverer chapter relates not so much to personality and performance as to Davy’s systematic deployment of voltaic batteries to identify new elements and his efforts to secure credibility for his methods and discoveries. It is a classic analysis in the sociology of scientific knowledge, but I am unconvinced that it makes sense to speak of a “discoverer” persona as such.

The philosopher chapter relates to Davy’s lifelong interest in speculative philosophy and metaphysical problems of chemistry, with a wedged-in discussion of his more practical pursuits, such as in agricultural chemistry. Golinski rightly observes that Davy leaned on his scientific understanding as a means of bolstering his authority on matters such as his priority in designing a safety lamp for miners. But, here again, it is not clear that this really had much to do with his self-conception as a philosopher, though Golinski does demonstrate that Davy consistently wanted to be thought of as one.

A chapter on Davy as a “traveler” similarly serves as an opportunity to discuss Davy’s geological interests and his final, idiosyncratic work, Consolations in Travel (1830). While it is no doubt true that travel was important to Davy and that it influenced his thinking about geology, the importance of travel to Davy’s identity is subsumed beneath the analysis of Davy’s ideas.

A chapter on Davy as a “dandy” concerns a label that others attached to him, and is mainly a reflection on how cultural conceptions of gender and gender relations bore on Davy’s career. Golinski convincingly observes that Davy’s critics linked his appeal to feminine audiences as a lecturer with his apparently strategic marriage to Jane Kerr Apreece, a wealthy Scottish widow with intellectual interests, as evidence of his subservience to strong-willed women. This, in their view, made him scientifically suspect at a time when many were advocating more intellectually intensive, and, in their view, more masculine scientific practices.

Although Golinski’s discussion of critics’ views of Davy as a dandy are insightful, the chapter rehashes material from the “genius” chapter while its discussion of Davy as a newly minted member of the gentry is somewhat short-changed. Davy’s difficulty fitting into this established world is noted, but his view of himself as a member of the gentry are scattered between the discussion of his dandyism, his self-conception as a philosopher, and his activities as a traveler. It would have been nice to see a more direct focus on Davy’s astonishingly rapid social ascent, as well as on his conception of his role as a scientific leader after he accepted the presidency of the Royal Society. As it is, these years (1812 to 1827) are mainly seen through others’ eyes.

Historiographical role

I would unhesitatingly recommend The Experimental Self as a good book, grounded in careful scholarship. I am, though, not quite certain as to whom exactly I would recommend it. The structure of the book takes the reader rapidly back and forth over various phases and incidents Davy’s career, which is manageable if one already has a good grasp on Davy’s biography as well as on various trends in the history of science in this milieu. Yet, the book probably doesn’t add a great deal to what readers with this grasp would already know, at least implicitly. I am probably an ideal reader, in that I have a reasonable scholarly knowledge of Davy and his milieu and so avoided disorientation while still having a great deal that I could learn.

This, to me, brings up a more general historiographical point, which is that historians have not deeply considered how historiography bonds together as a body of knowledge. The Experimental Self‘s natural place is on a reading list alongside complementary books on Davy, on 19th-century science, on the history of chemistry, or on the history of scientific culture. But, as is usually the case when dealing with a list of books, it is unclear what else one should read first in order to make sure one gets the most out of any given book. Although it does contain sporadic anthropological jargon, The Experimental Self is generally a very accessible book. Unfortunately, most general readers would not have had the time to plow through a pile of other reading needed to appreciate it fully.

As a broad point, I think historians would do well to more carefully consider the needs of the scholarly community, of general audiences, and, indeed, of publishers before devoting the years necessary to create a book. In a sense, we are at a point today that is analogous to where chemistry was 200 years ago. The Experimental Self has the feel of a warmly received public lecture that would certainly have taken less time to prepare, but it appears in a scholarly format unlikely to see especially broad distribution. If we thought more about how to match our labors with different formats and audiences, we might ultimately be able to fulfill more audiences’ needs more effectively.

Again, though, none of these broader remarks should be taken to reflect badly on The Experimental Self, which you should definitely read if you feel like it is something you would like or benefit from.

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