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

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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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.



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.


Merton, the DSB, and the Failed Digital Humanities of the 1960s April 15, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Following up on a reference in Gieryn 1982, I’ve been reading over Robert K. Merton’s long essay, “The Sociology of Science: An Episodic Memoir,” in The Sociology of Science in Europe (1977), pp. 3-141.  I’ll post more on it soon in the context of other recent posts on this blog.  For the moment, I’ll just say that the essay is thin on “norms”, “counter-norms”, “ambivalence”, etc.  It is mainly about the intellectual influences on the sociology of science that developed in the 1960s and ’70s.  It is also about the methods, ambitions, and projects of what Merton still regarded as a nascent discipline. It turns out these projects are well worth a tangential post, or two.

In this post, I want to focus on Merton’s account of his involvement with the planning of the Dictionary of Scientific Biography (DSB), and the computerized “data bank” that didn’t accompany it.


Entente Cordiale: Anthropological and Natural Philosophical Cosmology March 2, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
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Simon Schaffer’s “Natural Philosophy” in Ferment of Knowledge (1980) is an exhilarating piece by a 25-year-old scholar.  When I first looked at it on this blog, I gave my post the title “Schaffer Busts Out the Hickory”, suggesting that he had taken a wooden bat to the extant literature on the topic.  In view of the scholarship of today’s grande entente cordiale, it was really refreshing to see a vigorous and pointed critique directed against other historians’ work.  Sure, it was a tad violent, but it was in the service of progress!  “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven” and all that.

Anyway, partially a part of the growing rebuke against viewing 18th-century science as an outgrowth of a grand tradition of “Newtonianism”, partially a rebuke against attempts to define natural philosophy in terms of what makes it distinct from science (e.g., Kuhn’s definition of “pre-paradigmatic science”), the piece ultimately moves beyond criticism and becomes a messily-articulated, but powerful and original discussion of how one might begin to construct a positively-defined historiography of natural philosophy.

Schaffer identified two possible proposals for constructively analyzing the history of natural philosophical systems:

[S]ome historians [cite: Barry Barnes and Steven Shapin] have used the ideas of Mary Douglas, Robin Horton, and other cultural anthropologies as clues to unravel the cosmologies of natural philosophers, while Michel Foucault has constructed an ‘archaeology of knowledge’ with which to analyse the structure of natural philosophy as a set of discourses.  These contrasting approaches derive from two opposed epistemologies.  (86)


Origin and Descents by John Mathew November 9, 2008

Posted by Jenny Ferng in EWP Book Club.
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This post is not actually mine but belongs to a colleague here in Paris and one of Will’s former classmates, John Mathew, who is a candidate in the history of science at Harvard University. He has written a fictional novel about to be published based on Charles Darwin, Edward Blyth, and their encounter with India. Most of his material is based on historical archives. I thought this selection of his work reminds us of the quandary that many historians and indeed, many writers of historical fiction inevitably face — can historical novels be capable of good historical study, and can they do justice to their protagonists who are based on real-life scientists? Charles Gillispie in a recent issue of Isis advocated for true faithfulness to historical sources, a lively narrative, and a push for less apparatus, more readibility.

This selection is copyrighted by John Mathew through Apeejay House, Calcutta (Kolkata). Please do not quote or reproduce without permission of the author.

Chapter 1
They tell you there are stars when it happens. Never mind the intervening elements, like branches and leaves, and yes, headstones looming lofty on the hill alongside if you’re lying supine in context. But I don’t remember the stars from the outset. I do remember the leprechaun, however, pirouetting and whirling like a grinning dervish on the grave of Asa Gray, which, my mind informed me, afforded me a current locus in Mount Auburn Cemetery. Then the clouds parted and the stars appeared, braided into a necklace that (more…)