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Schaffer on Machine Philosophy, Pt. 5a: Automata and the Proto-Industrial Ideology of the Enlightenment — History September 18, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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This post continues my look at Simon Schaffer, “Enlightened Automata” in The Sciences in Enlightened Europe, edited by William Clark, Jan Golinski, and Schaffer (Chicago University Press, 1999).

Pin manufacturing, detail of a plate from the Encyclopédie

The division of labor in pin manufacturing.  From the Encyclopédie.

Pt. 4 examined Schaffer’s characterization of an ideology associated with the Enlightenment, reflected in the era’s fascination with automata. This ideology revolved around the belief that physiology, labor, cognition, and social relations could be comprehended in mechanical terms, and governed according to philosophically derived managerial regimens. Pt. 4 also explored Schaffer’s situation of his arguments within a large, diverse, and venerable historiography of the mechanistic aspirations of the Enlightenment.

Pt. 5 turns to look at the historical events that Schaffer marshaled into his history of this ideology.


Schaffer on Machine Philosophy, Pt. 4: Automata and the Proto-Industrial Ideology of the Enlightenment — Historiography August 13, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in Ideology of Science, Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Simon Schaffer, “Enlightened Automata” in The Sciences in Enlightened Europe, edited by William Clark, Jan Golinski, and Schaffer (Chicago University Press, 1999)

Maelzel Turk

“Enlightened Automata” is one of Schaffer’s few pieces that is especially forthright about the overarching scholarly project of which it is a part. It is certainly the centerpiece — and his clearest exposition — of his work on what he occasionally referred to as “machine philosophy,” a concept that interrelates several historical developments:

  1. The rising use of mechanisms in philosophical experiments, which have the virtue of preventing human fallibility and prejudice from influencing their outcomes.
  2. The use of mechanisms as explanatory metaphors in natural, moral, and political philosophy.
  3. The replication of natural phenomena and human behavior in mechanisms, i.e. automata.
  4. Industrialization, i.e., the replacement of craft processes with machinery, and the concomitant regulation and control of human action, especially manual labor, through managerial regimes.

Schaffer takes these four developments (but especially 2 and 4) to characterize the ideological ambitions of the Enlightenment.  In “Enlightened Automata,” he leverages the history of the construction and display of automata (3), and commentary on such automata, as a means of probing these ambitions.


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.


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.


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…)

Schaffer and Golinski on Enlightenment and Genius November 4, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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This post looks at two articles by Simon Schaffer:

“States of Mind: Enlightenment and Natural Philosophy,” in The Languages of Psyche: Mind and Body in Enlightenment Thought, ed. G. S. Rousseau, 1990, pp. 233-290.

“Genius in Romantic Natural Philosophy,” in Romanticism and the Sciences, ed. Andrew Cunningham and Nicholas Jardine, 1990, pp. 82-98.

It makes comparison with some related points in Jan Golinski’s book Science as Public Culture: Chemistry and Enlightenment in Britain, 1760-1820, 1992.  Unlike the last post integrating Schaffer’s and Golinski’s analysis of eudiometry, this one distinguishes the (complementary) positions of the two authors.

Jeremy Bentham's "Panopticon" prison

Since his earliest pieces (especially his 1983 piece on natural philosophy and spectacle), Schaffer had been exploring the tensions between natural philosophical inquiry and the forces leading to professionalized specialties.  In pieces circa 1990, Schaffer further explored the relationship between enlightenment political ideals—which stressed rational assent as a path away from enthusiasm and despotism toward a proper polity—and natural philosophy and the political pressures it created and to which it was subjected.

In “States of Mind”, in a move not unlike his and Steven Shapin’s analysis of Hobbes’ critique of experimental philosophy, Schaffer stresses objections, particularly that of Edmund Burke (1729-1797) that the politics of rational assent proffered by people like Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) simply cloaked alternative religion-like claims to political authority.

The transformation of politically important elements of cosmology—rather than the elimination of their significance—is once again central to Schaffer’s argument (see also the transformation of comets from omens to source of physical disaster).  Here Priestley’s objection to the pneumatic philosophy of souls and spirits (as in Disquisitions on Matter and Spirit, 1777) brushes away the idea of mind as guided by spirit to allow the mind to be seen as a material organ with its own relationship (more…)

Simon Schaffer and Jan Golinski on Eudiometry October 17, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Landrianis eudiometer, from the Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza in Florence

Diagram of a eudiometer, from the Museo Galileo in Florence

First off, apologies for slow posting—things have been too bananas recently to indulge blog-related side interests.  I’m hoping things clear up soon, but I’m presenting my research on Antarctic research at 4S here in DC at the end of the month, so things may remain at a trickle until November.  However, before it got too desolate around here, I did want to parachute in and do a quick write-up on eudiometry.  Our article is: Simon Schaffer, “Measuring Virtue: Eudiometry, Enlightenment, and Pneumatic Medicine” in The Medical Enlightenment of the Eighteenth Century, Andrew Cunningham and Roger French, eds., 1990, pp. 281-318.  A close companion work is Jan Golinski’s Science as Public Culture: Chemistry and Enlightenment in Britain, 1760-1820, Cambridge UP, 1992, esp. pp. 117-128.  I won’t try and distinguish the two treatments here.

The technology of the eudiometer is based on Joseph Priestley’s “nitrous air test”, devised in 1772.  A good explanation of the nitrous air test as well as a computer animation of how eudiometers worked are available from the Museo Galileo in Florence (for modern scientific explanation, see the animation here).  The basic idea is that manufactured nitrous air (nitrogen oxide) is mixed with a sample of ambient air.  Part of the mixture dissolves into water leading to a decreased volume of now-unrespirable air in the chamber, which can be measured.  Priestley (1733-1804), understanding the respirability of air to be reflective of its virtue, and understanding respiration to transfer phlogiston from the body to the air, understood the remaining air to be phlogisticated by the test, and the test to be a measure of the “goodness” of the common air used.

Italian experimenters, beginning with Felice Fontana and Marsilio Landriani replicated the test, embodying it in an instrument that Landriani called a eudiometer, which taken from Greek literally means a measuring instrument of the goodness of the air.  Through the (more…)

Schaffer on the Priestley Lit October 5, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Getting back to the series on Simon Schaffer, we’re going to be looking at a series of articles on Enlightenment chemistry, which will hopefully give us the opportunity to discuss Jan Golinski’s book Science as Public Culture: Chemistry and Enlightenment in Britain, 1760-1820, which expressly owes a lot to Schaffer’s work, and covers a lot of the same ground.  First, though, I want to backtrack to jot down a few notes about the 1984 piece, “Priestley’s Questions: An Historiographic Survey,” History of Science 22: 151-183.

Joseph Priestley

Joseph Priestley

At the end of last year, we discussed Schaffer’s 1987 piece, “Priestley and the Politics of Spirit”.  To recap, Schaffer was calling attention to the connections some 18th-century natural philosophers made between pneumatic and electrical phenomena and the actions of spirit, and Priestley’s desire to dissociate theological from natural philosophy.  In the earlier piece, Schaffer was reviewing problems identified in the analysis of Priestley’s life and identifying historiographical strategies used to address those problems—a service that should be a much more common feature of our journals (and one also at work in his criticism of the Newton literature).

Priestley (1733-1804) was a dynamic figure of particular historiographical interest for a couple of reasons: first, he was an innovative chemical experimenter, making significant contributions to the chemistry of air that began to develop in the latter half of the 18th century, but also remaining a staunch proponent of the phlogiston theory even after most chemists accepted Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier’s chemistry of oxygen.  Second, Priestley was a proponent of the Enlightenment project linking political authority to reasoned assent—a radical position at that time.  Schaffer pointed out that the historiography of (more…)

Primer: The Length of the Meter January 21, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Borda Repeating Circle (Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris)

In the late-18th century, the relationship between political thought and rational inquiry was at high tide.  In 1776, Thomas Jefferson built the case for American independence as a matter of the people being impelled by causes that had their roots in “self evident truths”.  We have discussed the relationship between Joseph Priestley’s radical politics and his understanding of natural philosophy on this blog.  Nowhere, however, was the relationship so clear and so important as in Revolutionary France.

In the years after the first stages of the Revolution in 1789, ecclesiastical and hereditary authority was systematically erased from the French state so as to be replaced by a government founded upon reason, acting in the interests of the French people.  High on the agenda was the reform of weights and measures.  At the time of the Revolution, it was estimated that there were some eight hundred names for measuring units, which with local variants spun out into some 250,000 different standards.

Famously, the French invented the metric system to bring some coherence to this system, and, in the words of Condorcet, to provide measures that would be valid “for all people, for all time”.  Some of the aspects of the new (more…)