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Schaffer on Machine Philosophy, Pt. 6: The Ideology of Charles Babbage January 11, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in History of Economic Thought, Schaffer Oeuvre.
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We continue the “Machine Philosophy” series with Schaffer’s examination in two essays of the work and thought of mathematician Charles Babbage (1791–1871):

1) “Babbage’s Intelligence: Calculating Engines and the Factory System,” Critical Inquiry 21 (1994): 203-227. [BI]

2) “Babbage’s Dancer and the Impresarios of Mechanism,” in Cultural Babbage: Technology, Time and Invention, edited by Francis Spufford and Jenny Uglow (London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1996). Reproduced here. [BD]

From Charles Babbage, Passages from the Life of a Philosophy (1864)

From Charles Babbage, Passages from the Life of a Philosopher (1864)

These essays were published early on in Schaffer’s concern with “machine philosophy,” but they depict the chronological culmination of that philosophy’s ideological potential. In Schaffer’s telling, Babbage’s “lifelong campaign for the rationalization of the world” (BD, 53) was manifested in 1) his mechanization of not simply physical, but mental labor through his calculating engines; 2) his thinking concerning the factory system of manufactures, which, by the time he worked, was deep into its ascendancy in the British economy; and 3) his “Ninth Bridgewater Treatise” on the nature of God and miracles.



Schaffer on Machine Philosophy, Pt. 5b: Automata and the Enlightenment December 13, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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This post concludes 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).

As detailed in previous posts, Schaffer’s interest in 18th-century automata in this piece is mainly a means of making larger points about the intellectual culture of the Enlightenment, and its links to an emerging economic order of industrialism and managerialism. In doing so, he contributes an interpretive gloss that joins an existing general historiography of Enlightenment ideology, with a historiography of the automaton creations of such figures as Jacques de Vaucanson (1709–1782), Pierre Jaquet-Droz (1721–1790), and John-Joseph Merlin (1735–1803). This post discusses this second facet of the history.

For Schaffer, the key questions are: 1) what interests did automata engage, allowing them to proliferate as objects of display and fascination? and 2) in what ways did they speak to the concerns of philosophers and other commentators of the period, making them into salient metaphors and objects of intellectual reflection?


Bernard Lovell: An Archival Anecdote August 9, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in British Science-Society Critiques.
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The death of physicist Sir Bernard Lovell on August 6th at the age of 98 has been widely reported.  I thought I would mark his passing with an anecdote about some correspondence by and about him, which I ran across in December 2000 at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) on my first ever archive trip.*

To set the scene a bit, at the time I was still an undergrad, and was impressed by the wonderful circular reading room at the IWM situated right beneath the building’s cupola, and by having to do things like acquire permission from someone named Noble Frankland to see the Sir Henry Tizard papers there.  (And I didn’t even know this was a former site of Bethlem Hospital, better known as Bedlam!)   I was trying to come to grips with the very loaded topic of “operational research” (OR).  I gathered that wartime OR had to do with the “coordination” of research with the military’s “operational” goals, but I didn’t have a very good sense of how coordination actually happened in bureaucracies, or the complicated politics of the subject.

It turns out most people don’t, but I was particularly ill-informed.  I distinctly remember telling the staff member escorting me to the reading room that I was interested in “why Britain didn’t develop a military-industrial complex as America did”.  I was duly informed it was because there was no money.  That wasn’t exactly what I meant — what I had in mind, but couldn’t express, was why British R&D hadn’t been more strongly coordinated with military planning as it had been in America even to a fault: RAND, McNamara, and all that.  That position was also wrong-headed in its own way.  I did not realize that I was caught up in deep tropes populating the rhetoric of science in Britain, which were designed to explain its failures (as well as America’s successes and pathologies).  It was believable, though, because so much evidence, including a letter written by a young Lovell, seemed to corroborate Britain’s difficulties coordinating its scientific resources — I did not appreciate that he and others were bearers of the rhetorical tradition that had already shaped my thinking.


Book Club: Renwick on British Sociology’s Lost Biological Roots July 2, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club, History of the Human Sciences.
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This blog has previously spotlighted one of Chris Renwick’s articles, and he has written a couple of guest posts* for us.  With those interests declared, I’m happy to say that EWP has received a review copy of his new book, British Sociology’s Lost Biological Roots: A History of Futures Past (Macmillan: 2012).

A good way of thinking about this book is in terms of what Chris Donohue has referred to as the “nineteenth-century problem” in intellectual-scientific history.  The nineteenth-century problem is partly interpretive, in that it deals with the practical problem of sorting out the undisciplinary tangle of intellectual projects and issues and notions to be found in works of that era.

However, the problem is also historiographical, in that it is a struggle against a tide of scholarship fixated on a few select questions (the reception of natural selection, the intellectual validation of racial hierarchies and imperialism, the ascendancy of liberalism and social reformism, etc…), and a few seemingly key thinkers.  The scholarship also tends to divvy up the intellectual history arbitrarily, with historians of political philosophy studying certain thinkers, historians of economic thought others, and historians of science still others, even though a thorough and sensitive reading of texts — not to mention widely accepted historiographical wisdom — would indicate the folly in doing so.

By highlighting important historical relations between the projects of political economy, eugenics-biometrics, botany and zoology, Herbert Spencer’s social philosophy, social reformism and journalism, and the longstanding search for a science of sociology, Renwick’s book makes an important contribution to the interpretive aspect of the nineteenth-century problem.  It does, perhaps, get somewhat hung up in the historiographical aspect of the nineteenth-century problem.


Neglected Connections between the Histories of Science and Economics, Pt. 2 March 9, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Part 1 of this post argued that the historical relations between natural scientific and economic thought require additional attention.  It suggested that in the Enlightenment period both were subsumed within the epistemology of philosophical systems-building and the generic argumentative structure of “economy”.  Although David Hume’s theory of morals was not economics, per se, in a separate post I used his example to demonstrate how the argumentative construction of a social economy had to face similar intellectual problems as chemistry, botany, and (what was thought of as) physics.

Part 2 emphasizes the importance of logical or argumentative space in economic thought, as exemplified by — but by no means limited to — mathematical inquiry.  I want to argue that economics continued to adhere to the argumentative strategy of system-building familiar from 18th-century natural and political philosophy.  Meanwhile, though, most natural sciences took a separate path toward argumentative rigor applied to a tightly constrained space of argumentation, such as that defined by laboratory phenomena.  Political economists were deeply influenced by the natural sciences’ newly enhanced commitment to rigor, but interpreted that commitment in novel ways within the relatively unconstrained argumentative space of political economy.


Primer: The British Association December 17, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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In 1830, Britain was on the cusp of one of its most famous eras of scientific activity.  The year before Charles Darwin unassumingly set out aboard the Beagle, the first volume of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology came off the printing press to wide and immediate acclaim.  The experimentation of Michael Faraday and James Joule in the 1830s would help spark the development of modern electromagnetic theory and thermodynamics in the ensuing decades.  The Cambridge Mathematical Tripos was already beginning to churn out rigorously prepared physical theorists.

Charles Babbage (1791-1871)

However, the future, as always, was unclear, and there were a number of people who were gloomy about the state of affairs in British science.  One was the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, Charles Babbage, who was frustrated in his search for funding for a calculating engine he had designed (and for which he would be most remembered thanks to the folk history of computing).  In 1830 he gave vent to his gloom and frustration through a book entitled Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, and on Some of its Causes, which was picked up by the Edinburgh experimentalist and scientific journal editor David Brewster (best known today as the name behind Brewster’s angle), who ran extracts in the Edinburgh Journal of Science, and published his own screed in the Quarterly Review.

Babbage and Brewster were concerned that British science, unsupported by the state (which had just dissolved the Admiralty’s floundering Board of Longitude in 1828), was well behind the Continent, particularly France, where post-Revolutionary governments generously supported science and (more…)