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Schaffer on Machine Philosophy, Pt. 3: Perpetual Motion September 29, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Chymistry, Schaffer Oeuvre.
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A diagram of the purported interior of a perpetual-motion wheel built by Johann Bessler.  From Offyreus, Grundlicher Bericht von dem Perpetua ac per se Mobili (1715)

A diagram of a perpetual-motion wheel built by Johann Bessler. From Orffyreus, Grundlicher Bericht von dem Perpetua ac per se Mobili (1715)

In this post we look at Simon Schaffer’s “The Show That Never Ends: Perpetual Motion in the Early Eighteenth Century,” British Journal for the History of Science 28 (1995): 157-189, in which he sets himself the task of explaining the intellectual and political viability of perpetual motion schemes, particularly in “the lands dominated by the Hapsburgs, the Empire and northern Italy” (162). This is a difficult challenge, since, as Schaffer points out, such machines had been subjected to widespread doubt and criticism from the middle of the seventeenth century. Yet, they did have a place, and what Schaffer, I think, accomplishes here is that he makes that place fit more coherently into what we know about how, in general, engineering and philosophical novelties were handled in the early 18th-century milieu.

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Rudwick and Newman & Principe and the Recovery of Meaning December 30, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Chymistry, Tactile History.
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Metallic 'vegetation', from The Chymistry of Isaac Newton website

One of the most pernicious obstacles to effective historical research is a phenomenon I like to call “glazing over” — a tendency to dismiss references encountered in documents as unimportant or incidental simply for a lack of familiarity with them, or interest in them. You just glaze over until you run across something you are already interested in.

I suspect glazing over is actually extremely common, but that people don’t like to discuss it, because the lack of familiarity it implies with basic facts still smacks of professional incompetence, or, more snobbishly, interest in overcoming the problem implies a banal interest in empirical history. This is too bad, because not only does systematic glazing over likely skew and limit our historiography in more radical ways than our awareness of our “inevitably subjective perspective” supposes; it prevents historians from taking steps as a profession to readmit factual dexterity back into our practices after a long period of privileging critical reflection.

In today’s post, I want to discuss tactile history that works to restore a familiar or palpable meaning to documentary descriptions of natural or experimental phenomena by actively revisiting or recreating what the text refers to.

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How to Run a Historiography, or: Chymistry Rides High July 3, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Chymistry.
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Principe

I know, I know, my scholarly crush on the chymistry literature is probably getting a little embarrassing. But I want to make sure everyone is taking notes like I am, because William Newman, Lawrence Principe, and their crowd are really putting on a clinic on how to run a proper historiography. The latest lesson is in putting together a good Isis Focus section: “Alchemy and the History of Science”, organized by Bruce Moran, and available free of charge in the latest issue.

I’ve been very happy to see this specialty spring to success, receiving both scholarly praise and public exposure in places like the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Economist, and the New York Times. I am a bit worried that this success will be held up as simply a product of the virtues of historical scholarship. To an extent it should be, for reasons I will discuss, but I also think it’s important that the rest of us — including those of us working in decidedly remote terrain like 20th-century science — pay close attention to what these scholars are doing particularly right.

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Chalmers on Newman on Chalmers on Newman on Boyle May 13, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Chymistry.
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Alan Chalmers

There is a new entry in the dispute between Alan Chalmers and Bill Newman over the legacy of Robert Boyle (1627-1691): Alan Chalmers, “Understanding Science through Its History: A Response to Newman,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 42 (2011): 150-153 (free).  For EWP’s previous coverage, see here and here.

Although the disagreements over Boyle stretch back further, this particular back-and-forth began as Chalmers criticized Newman’s characterization of Boyle’s contributions to chemical science as presenting a misleading portrait of progress.  Newman countered that Chalmers misreads his arguments about the place of Boyle’s chemical philosophy in the history of chemistry and natural philosophy.  Further, he argued that Chalmers’ portrait of Boyle’s failure to advance chemistry or an atomistic mechanical philosophy through his chemical experiments misreads the nature of Boyle’s philosophical project.

Now Newman’s portrait of Boyle’s seems secure, and there is no question that working out historical actors’ projects is a valuable line of historical inquiry.  Instead, tables turned, Chalmers draws a programmatic distinction between his and Newman’s historical projects, and defends his project’s legitimacy: his “kind of history is not the only legitimate kind … it is an important and informative kind that does not” — contrary to Newman’s allegations — “involve a misguided integration of history and philosophy of science.”  The central question seems to have become whether histories of scientific work can be valid when divorced from an interest in projects that actors explicitly pursued.

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David Hume on the Reduction of Sentiments January 21, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Chymistry, History of the Human Sciences.
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This post illustrates some points concerning how arguments were constructed in 18th century philosophy, which I made in my last post on the historical science-economics relationship.

Last summer I was staying over at someone’s house and happened to notice an old college copy of David Hume (1711-1776), I think An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751), sitting on a bookshelf.  With a little downtime on my hands, I decided to have a quick skim.  What struck me at the time was Hume’s use of historical events and poets’ observations as facts or phenomena that could be fit within a more systematized theory of human sentiments.  I was going to write about that, but, going back, either I wasn’t reading the same thing, or Hume just doesn’t use the device as much as I thought (preferring more vague references to common experience and opinion).  So, never mind that.

What did grab me on re-reading is Hume’s well-known argument against a reduction of human sentiment to self-interest, per Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) among others.  Hume framed his criticism in an interesting way:

An Epicurean or a Hobbist readily allows, that there is such a thing as a friendship in the world, without hypocrisy or disguise; though he may attempt, by a philosophical chymistry, to resolve the elements of this passion, if I may so speak, into those of another, and explain every affection to be self-love, twisted and moulded, by a particular turn of imagination, into a variety of appearances. But as the same turn of imagination prevails not in every man, nor gives the same direction to the original passion; this is sufficient even according to the selfish system to make the widest difference in human characters, and denominate one man virtuous and humane, another vicious and meanly interested.

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Clericuzio on Alchemy, Chemistry, Medicine, and Natural Philosophy December 26, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Chymistry.
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First off, for readers interested in current efforts to refine historical knowledge about early modern natural philosophical programs: there is a project blog, founded this past August, being run out of the University of Otago in New Zealand, called Early Modern Experimental Philosophy.  Do read.

Andreas Libavius (1555-1616)

This post is a further look at intellectual issues surrounding the relationship between early modern “chymistry” and the pursuit of natural philosophy, as discussed in a much earlier post on the dispute between Bill Newman and Alan Chalmers concerning the nature of Robert Boyle’s chymistry.  There I understood Newman to argue that, to Boyle, philosophically important chemical knowledge deriving from experiment would have had to be fit within his mechanical philosophical framework, and that chemical taxonomies would not have fit that bill.  Of course, in the seventeenth century, natural philosophy occupied one niche amid a full array of agendas to which chemistry was relevant.  Many of these are dealt with in a recent article by the University of Cassino’s Antonio Clericuzio: “‘Sooty Empiricks’ and Natural Philosophers: The Status of Chemistry in the Seventeenth Century,” Science in Context 23 (2010): 329-350.

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The Newman-Chalmers Dispute, Pt. 2: History, Philosophy, and Demarcation May 31, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Chymistry.
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Pt. 1 of this post discussed the latest entries in a dispute, which appear in the current and upcoming issue of Studies in History and Philosophy of Science.  The papers are by Alan Chalmers and Bill Newman, and they argue over whether Robert Boyle’s “chymistry” could have proceeded without being framed within his mechanical philosophy.  The immediate issue, the nature of Boyle’s work, seems ultimately to turn on fairly subtle points about how, in the 17th century, experiment was understood to relate to natural philosophy, and how knowledge of chemical phenomena related to natural philosophy and other orders of knowledge.  As I understand this issue, one would not have thought at that time that one could understand “chemistry” to be a self-contained body of knowledge, a fundamental way of looking at nature.  While one certainly could develop a practical understanding of chemical transformations at that time, such a knowledge would not have been thought relevant to the higher natural philosophical questions that most concerned Boyle.

Outside of this main historical issue, Newman stresses the importance of reading Chalmers’ particular claims in light of his “larger agenda … concerning the nature of scientific knowledge as a whole, an agenda I do not share.”  Chalmers is primarily interested in the ability to demarcate “science”, which founds knowledge on an experimental basis, from “philosophy”, which accommodates experiment into its theoretical schemes.  While Newman waxes skeptical about the philosophical project’s validity for even the most recent period of history, in his response (entitled “How Not to Integrate the History and Philosophy of Science”), he concentrates on the ways this philosophical lens affects historiography, claiming it narrows the scope of possible questions to those that can be framed within the structure of the central demarcationist concern.  Chalmers’ approach is “binary,” a “dualist methodology”, a “toggle-switch model” of history: if a historical event cannot be classified as proper “science”, it is of no further historical concern.  This methodology “allows for no gradual development or nuance over the course of history”, it “does not give sufficient credence to reorientations in scientific reasoning and experimental practice that laid the groundwork for later fruitful developments,” and it does not “allow for any significant heuristic application of theory”.  Chalmers’ evaluative rubric allows “little room indeed for disinterested analysis of arguments, determination of the real issues at stake, or the tracing of sources and intellectual traditions, which I view as the historian’s primary responsibilities.”

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The Newman-Chalmers Dispute, Pt. 1: Chymistry and Natural Philosophy May 21, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Chymistry.
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Click to go to the excellent Robert Boyle Project site

I haven’t talked about it much here, but I’ve mentioned once or twice my admiration from afar of the recent revival of an alchemy/chymistry sub-historiography spearheaded by Indiana’s Bill Newman and Johns Hopkins’ Lawrence Principe.  At a glance, this literature traffics in older methodological currents of intellectual history, but far from a musty antiquarian pursuit, those writing in it ask pointed, well-targeted questions and, sure enough, find revealing answers.  I suspect a strong case could be made that this corner of the history of science literature has been the most intellectually productive one of the past decade.

One sign of liveliness is the prospect of dispute, and it turns out there is an interesting and current one between Newman and philosopher Alan Chalmers of Flinders University in Australia about the experimental and philosophical practices of Robert Boyle (1627-1691).  The citations of present interest are at the end of this post, though the dispute has a longer historiography which you can find in the footnotes to those papers.

At one level this is a classical historian-philosopher conflict about how to read the historical record responsibly, but the dispute also has deeper currents that have a lot to say about a question in which this blog has recently dabbled: the historical characteristics of natural philosophy.  While I programmatically agree with Newman here, and while I ultimately side with him on the specifics, the specific case is not open-and-shut, so I thought I’d discuss it as well as I can make it out here in Pt. 1 of this post. (more…)