jump to navigation

Wakefield’s Nightmare, Pt. 2: Divided Opinion on the Political Economic Importance of Enlightenment Intellectual Culture January 25, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,
2 comments

At the end of Pt. 1, I suggested that, in positing, respectively, the weakness and the strength of Enlightenment philosophers in pre-industrial 18th-century economic culture, Andre Wakefield and Simon Schaffer were reaching contrary historical conclusions using the same historiographical gambit. I would like to begin Pt. 2 by expanding on this point.

There is a prominent, if usually implicit, historiographical concept, which holds that injustice is allowed to occur because the cultures subject to that injustice are made invisible. Historiography, therefore, becomes a two-fold enterprise: it identifies forces of concealment, and restores visibility to hidden cultures. Labor culture, of course, has long been one such beneficiary of historians’ rescue efforts. Meanwhile, “science” (or some related concept) has often been considered a force of concealment, because it presents pictures that seem intellectually authoritative or “natural,” while failing to disclose its own biases. Both Wakefield and Schaffer apply this concept to the links between the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, albeit in different ways.

(more…)

Wakefield’s Nightmare, Pt. 1: The Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution Chain January 22, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,
1 comment so far

This post discusses a new article: Andre Wakefield’s “Butterfield’s Nightmare: The History of Science as Disney History,” History and Technology (2014).

Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare (1781)

Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare (1781)

In the piece Wakefield opposes an instance of intellectualist genesis in technological and economic history, i.e., the idea that technical and economic phenomena are rooted in the realm of elite ideas. Specifically, Wakefield objects to authors who posit a “causal series” linking the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution. Even more specifically, he regards this narrative as responsible for serial anachronistic readings of the concept of “oeconomy” in 18th-century philosophy (a subject I’m very interested in), and, consequently of that philosophy’s place in the development of economic and political culture.

Mokyr

Mokyr

More specifically still, Wakefield’s primary targets are the concepts of the “industrial Enlightenment,” as used by economic historian Joel Mokyr, and the “economic Enlightenment,” as used by Marcus Popplow. Wakefield also targets the work of Margaret Jacob and Larry Stewart as abetting the development of the narrative he opposes.

Unfortunately, Wakefield only spends four paragraphs (pp. 10–12) on the subject of “oeconomy,” and only a few more on Mokyr, Popplow, and the question of what varieties of “Enlightenment” we might legitimately speak. The bulk of Wakefield’s essay is divided between contemplation of the pathological and justifiable uses of anachronism in historiography, and an enjoyably sarcastic diagnosis and etiology of his opponents’ positions.

Although I sort of agree with him, I do believe Wakefield’s polemics conceal a more difficult historiographical problem than he supposes.

(more…)

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

Posted by Will Thomas in Chymistry, Schaffer Oeuvre.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
1 comment so far
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.

(more…)