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Primer: Joseph Banks July 26, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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A young Joseph Banks, painted by Benjamin West, held at the Usher Art Gallery in Lincoln

Two decades ago Harold Carter, in his definitive biography of Joseph Banks (1988), and John Gascoigne, in Joseph Banks and the English Enlightenment (1994), could both suppose that Banks (1743-1820) was a neglected figure in the historiography of science.  Following a surge of interest in natural history and the relationship between imperialism and the sciences, no such claim could now hold water — entire conferences are now dedicated to Banks and his milieu (.doc).  This post is intended mainly for my own benefit, to fill out my side interest in the culture of improvement circa 1800, but also just to help me get a personal handle on what now must be considered de rigeuer knowledge for any competent historian of science

The task of briefly summarizing Banks’ place in history is complicated by the reach of his interests, while it is simplified by the fact that he has very little place within the history of published science.  Banks was an institution builder, whose influence was derived from his ability to orchestrate the resources and interests of hereditary privilege and the state, as well as from his commitment to building and maintaining an intellectual community capable of supporting a new scale of work in natural history, estate improvement, and imperial development.


Margaret Schabas on the Concept of Nature in Economic Thought June 6, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club, History of the Human Sciences.
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In my first post on the need for historical studies of the relationship between scientific and economic thought, I was greatly remiss in not discussing a scholar who has done a great deal to develop and organize work in exactly this area: Margaret Schabas of the UBC philosophy department.  Thankfully, a quick reference by Tiago Mata over at History of Economics Playground set me aright.  For a first pass through the existing literature, I’d like to take a look at her book, The Natural Origins of Economics (2005).

The book is a critical-intellectual history.  As an intellectual history, it sticks to an analysis of the published works of (mainly) canonical authors.  Where a straight intellectual history might recount the arguments that historical authors explicitly made, critical-intellectual histories draw out continuities and breaks over time in authors’ lines and methods of argumentation.  Like many intellectual historians, Schabas is mindful of detailed arguments in the secondary literature, and does a good job of acknowledging, consolidating, communicating, and building on the gains of that literature.

Schabas argues that where 18th-century philosophers of political economy understood their subject to connect deeply to nature and natural philosophy, economics began to explicitly frame itself as a science of peculiarly social phenomena following John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy (1848), the rise of the idea of “the economy” as an object of study, and the rise of neoclassical economics in the late-19th century.


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.


Primer: Félix Vicq d’Azyr and the Rise of Comparative Anatomy July 16, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Grant-writing has been preoccupying me lately, so I’m going to compress what I initially intended to be a straight plug for an excellent article in the latest SiC, and do a Hump-Day History post drawing on some of its contents: Stéphane Schmitt’s “From Physiology to Classification: Comparative Anatomy and Vicq d’Azyr’s Plan of Reform for Life Sciences and Medicine (1774-1794)” Science in Context 22 (2009): 145-193.

Félix Vicq-d'Azyr (1746-1794)

I admire the article because it demonstrates an exemplary sense of historiographical problematics, placing its subject matter within the literature as well as addressing it to a well-defined historiographical question: how did comparative anatomy become a dominant methodology within natural history circa 1800?  The shift has been identified most strongly with the work of Georges Cuvier at the Museum of Natural History in Paris beginning in 1795, but the prior work and advocacy of former Buffon assistant Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton (1716-1799) and his protege Félix Vicq d’Azyr has clear importance that was widely recognized at the time, but became subsumed in later histories.

Vicq d’Azyr was born in Normandy and arrived in Paris in 1765 to study medicine.  Around 1770 he attended courses at the Jardin du Roi (King’s Garden), and perhaps met Daubenton at this time.  Daubenton soon became Vicq d’Azyr’s patron, and Vicq d’Azyr married Daubenton’s niece in 1773 (she died 18 months later and Vicq d’Azyr never remarried).  It was around this time that the young physician decided to make the unusual turn to comparative anatomy.  This led him to membership in the Royal Academy of Sciences, and he became a founding figure and permanent secretary of the Royal Society of Medicine, which was founded in 1776.

In the 1770s, French natural history still revolved around the figure of the Comte de Buffon (1707-1788, named comte in 1772), the intendant of the (more…)

What was the Scientific Revolution? March 5, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
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So, I got Deborah Harkness’ The Jewel House in the mail yesterday.  The book is about “the sciences” in London circa 1600, and won last year’s Pfizer Prize from the History of Science Society.  So far I like it a lot.  Essentially, it’s kind of up the same alley as Cook’s Matters of Exchange with some key stylistic differences that I want to discuss later.

What I’d like to discuss now is a sort of uncomfortable relationship writers on early modern natural history seem to have with the idea of the Scientific Revolution.  I keep getting this Rodney Dangerfield “I don’t get no respect!” vibe from the literature, which seems to be born out of this idea that the Sci Rev (as we in the biz call it) was this physics-driven shift in “the way people thought” and a rejection of Ancient authority concerning natural knowledge, or something like that.

Thus we seem to have this burgeoning literature of the “big science” of the 1500s and 1600s (again, a sort of “us too!”, this time against 20th-century (more…)

Canonical: Matters of Exchange October 31, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Canon Building, EWP Book Club.
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Building off of my preliminary reaction to Harold Cook’s Matters of Exchange, the key to understanding how the book works is to take notice of its lack of authorial voice.  Evidence of intense and skilled scholarship is to be found everywhere in the numerous detailed and intertwined narratives that Cook presents (what I referred to as an “elegant” style).  But commentary to help readers understand what the scholarship has revealed is generally not to be found.  Thus, the book is not very argument-intensive.  When Cook does show up to offer commentary, it is usually pretty unadventurous.  Some variation on “a lot of different people had to come together to make this work happen” pops up for a couple of paragraphs at the end of most chapters.  Until the end, anyway….

“Just the simple, curious, unexpected facts” ma’am

As I pointed out, the book does put forward what we can call the “commerce thesis” about facts being produced by the agreements necessary in a culture of commerce and connoisseurship.  Straightforward enough.  However, commenter Loïc (of the History of Economics Playground) expressed serious reservations about the elegant style allowing for an unannounced stacking of the deck in favor of the argument.  I felt the book was responsible enough, but am now thinking that Loïc has a point that applies here, too.  In the last chapter and conclusion of the book, Cook unfurls an aggressively old-fashioned argument about the rise of science—what he calls a “new science” or a “new philosophy” in contrast to “old ways of knowing”.

Cook is very explicit in the importance he attaches to the rise of empirical knowledge obtained via the senses and communicated through networks of trusted sources and its overtaking of a natural philosophy based upon authority and theorization that was closely connected to moral philosophy and theology.  This “new science could lay claim to being a universal method of investigation, even when those participating in it hesitated or disagreed about its conceptual (more…)