jump to navigation

Schaffer on the Politics of Inquiry March 29, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
Tags: , , , , , , ,
add a comment
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)

One of the ongoing themes in Schaffer’s work—perhaps the primary theme—is his commitment to the detailed investigation of the relationship between political ideology and natural philosophical inquiry from the 17th to the 19th centuries.  It was at the center of Leviathan and the Air Pump, was central to his work on Priestley in the Enlightenment era, and his concern with the relationship between the natural philosophy of pneumatics and spirits (same post as Priestley).

Schaffer took pains to discuss politics as not simply something that interferes with inquiry, or as something that motivates inquiry, or something for which inquiry has implications.  For Schaffer, both the subject and manner of inquiry were understood as being political themselves, linked intimately with principles of good governance.  Politics not only defined what arguments one could make without incurring charges such as atheism, but, because these convictions were also held by natural philosophers, politics went so far as to define what kinds of questions and manners of inquiry made sense.

Today I’d like to do some sweeping up on this subject from Schaffer’s 1980s writings:

(1) “Occultism and Reason in the Seventeenth Century,” in Philosophy: Its History and Historiography (1985), edited by A. J. Holland.  (Schaffer’s entry is available in full through Google Books.)

(2) “Wallification: Thomas Hobbes on School Divinity and Experimental Pneumatics,” Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science (1988): 275-298.

(3) “The Glorious Revolution and Medicine in Britain and the Netherlands,” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 43 (1989): 167-190.

There is also one article I do not have easy access to that looks relevant:

(*) “The Political Theology of Seventeeth-Century Natural Science,” Ideas & Production 1 (1983): 1-43.

What must be the most interesting thing about being a historian of seventeenth-century natural philosophy is the sheer number of epistemological flavors deployed to address the same problems.  In the 1980s, conscientious historians took it upon themselves to sort out different epistemological commitments, rather than to rely on wholly (more…)