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The Post-Marxist Social History of Science of Morris Berman, Pt. 2 April 19, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility, EWP Book Club.
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This post continues Pt. 1 without re-introduction

What I like to call the “cult of invisibility” was a staple of Marxist analysis, with its constraining socio-economic structures and its psychology of false consciousness.  Invisible constraints of this sort are taken to render certain classes of actors in some sense powerless and ineffectual — their invisibility or silence or inability to articulate or perhaps even feel their own plight explains a failure of something to happen, such as the ascendancy of the working class.

In addition, historians often connect such invisible constraints to a historiographical prejudice, whereby the persistence of psychological and intellectual constraints through history restricts present ideas about what sorts of things constitute proper history, which renders certain aspects of the past systematically invisible to historical memory.   This second, historiographical form of invisibility establishes a social need for the services of the critically trained historian who can identify invisible prejudices, recover systematically concealed aspects of history, and make them more generally known, possibly helping to overcome the forces of invisibility in our own time.  E. P. Thompson’s (1924-1993) The Making of the English Working Class (1963) is probably the key work in this tradition.

The cult of invisibility not only survives, but thrives in the transition to post-Marxist historiographical analysis — a transition in which Thompson’s work was arguably instrumental.  In Morris Berman’s book on the Royal Institution (RI), the role of science as a cultural force that creates invisibility is emphasized. His major demonstration of this point comes in his extended analysis of Michael Faraday’s (and, incidentally, Charles Lyell‘s) role in the investigation verdict that there was no fault in the 1844 Haswell coal mine explosion, which had killed 94 mine workers including young boys (pp. 179-180): (more…)

Primer: William Thomson January 26, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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William Thomson, Age 28, Well-Established

William Thomson (1824-1907) was the son of James Thomson, an Irish professor of mathematics who moved from the University of Belfast to the University of Glasgow in Scotland in 1832.  William was raised in a latitudinarian tradition of religious tolerance, and in a whig tradition of progressive social reform.  In Glasgow, he was exposed to a scholarly environment from early on, and it was assumed he would follow in his father’s academic footsteps.  In 1841 he departed to Cambridge, where he studied for the mathematical tripos, becoming a student of the coach William Hopkins his second year.  He finished second wrangler in the January 1845 examination.

Before Thomson had even arrived at Cambridge, his father had begun the process of maneuvering him into position to take over the chair in natural philosophy at Glasgow.  William duly obtained it in 1846 at the age of 22, and held it until his retirement in 1899.  By the 1840s, natural philosophy had already begun a long process of transformation, which Thomson himself did much to mold.  Traditionally, the basis of natural philosophy was the development of theories of the materials of the universe and their powers on each other, resulting in schemes for explaining various kinds of physical phenomena, as mediated by the power of experiment.  And indeed, to qualify for the Glasgow chair, Thomson had been encouraged to seek out what limited experimental work was done at Cambridge, and, after completing the tripos, he had traveled to Paris where he assisted in the laboratory of Victor Regnault (1810-1878) at the Collège de France.

At Cambridge, meanwhile, the mathematical tripos had classically been considered an appropriate foundation of a liberal education, instilling in students analytical habits of mind. (more…)

Worlds Before Adam: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Reform January 14, 2009

Posted by Christopher Donohue in EWP Book Club.
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Worlds Before Adam (Chicago, 2008) by Martin J.S. Rudwick is the cumulative synthesis of a distinguished career and a prolegomena for the future efforts of historians. Worlds Before Adam (WBA) is a narrative of the “reconstruction…of an eventful geohistory, which is in fact congruent with what geologists in the twenty-first century accept as valid.” Rudwick’s account begins with Baron Cuvier and “culminates” in the formulation of glacial theory, which included the “utterly unexpected inference of an exceptional and drastic Ice Age in the geologically recent past.” This inference, more than any other, Rudwick argues, “forced geologists to recognize the contingent character of geohistory as a whole” (7.) (Page numbers throughout are to WBA.) Rudwick notes that the narrative framework “will convey the strong sense of unity of purpose and scientific progress that participants experienced” (8.)

The narrative presented in WBA is a continuation of Rudwick’s Bursting the Limits of Time, which traced the “gradual development of the practice of geohistory within the sciences of the earth.” In the eighteenth century, Rudwick argued in Bursting the Limits of Time, geohistory was “an infrequent and marginal feature of scientific research.” Within a few decades, geohistory became the “defining element” of the new science of “geology.”  Geology “became the first truly historical natural science”  by “deliberately transposing methods and concepts from the human sciences of history itself.” The hereto obscure, mysterious, and unfathomably deep prehistory of the earth in the late eighteenth century began to be conceived as “reliably knowable” (2.) The scientific research described in Bursting the Limits of Time demonstrated that it was “feasible in principle to gain reliable knowledge of the earth’s history long before the earliest human records” (6.) In the early nineteenth century, the concern of WBA, geologists  took the historical approach “for granted” and were thus able to “reconstruct systematically and in detail what course geohistory had in fact taken….” (6.) WBA takes as its “starting point” the sense among practitioners that the “earth’s deep or prehuman geohistory could in principle be reconstructed almost as reliably as…the history of the ancient Greeks and Romans.” While Bursting the Limits of Time was given to the inquiry of the “sheer historical reality of the deep past, WBA has as its focus both the geohistorical and the causal” (3.) Geologists addressed the causal once they could take the historical reality of geohistory for granted. (more…)

Primer: William Whewell and the “Method of Hypothesis” October 15, 2008

Posted by Christopher Donohue in EWP Primer.
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William Whewell was born on 24 May 1794 and died on 6 March 1866. Harvey Becher in the essay “William Whewell’s Odyssey: From Mathematics to Moral Philosophy” gives a good sense of both the polymath quality of Whewell’s inquiries and the fundamental reality that his interdisciplinary stance reveals about Victorian science. Becher notes, in a somewhat “heroic” fashion, “During his fifty-four years at Trinity College in Cambridge University, in an age when knowledge reverberated throughout an intellectual world unencumbered by barriers erected by disciplines narrowly defined as means and ends of themselves, Whewell incessantly studied and promoted the science and pedagogy which engulfed him.” (See William Whewell: A Composite Portrait, p. 1.) Whewell wrote on subjects as diverse as geology, mineralogy, mechanics, mathematics, political economy, political theory, and architecture.

Whewell was both a founding member and one of the first presidents of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, a fellow of the Royal Society, a president of the Geological Society, and was the Master, with intermittent controversy, of Trinity College, Cambridge. He exchanged ideas and letters with such well-known men of Victorian science as John Herschel and Charles Lyell, and exerted considerable influence on Michael Faraday. Whewell’s Bridgewater Treatise, Astronomy and general physics considered with reference to Natural Theology, published in 1830, was an important text (more…)

Primer: Georges Cuvier October 8, 2008

Posted by Christopher Donohue in EWP Primer.
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Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) was born on 23 August 1769.After an education at Stuttgart, he accepted a position as a tutor with the family of the Comte d’Hericy.During his time as a tutor, he became friends with the well-regarded agriculturalist Tessier. Cuvier became the protégé of Tessier, and through his correspondence with Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, managed in 1795 to secure an appointment as an assistant professor of comparative anatomy at Museum d’Histoire Naturelle.In 1796, he began a series of lectures at the Ecole Centrale du Pantheon.In that same year, he read his first paper, entitled Memoires sur les especes d’elephants vivants et fossils, which was published in 1800.For Cuvier, 1789 was a pivotal year as it saw the completion of his first systematic work of natural history, entitled Tableau elementaire de l’histoire naturelle des animaux.The period after the publication of this work saw Cuvier devote himself to three broad lines of inquiry: the structure and classification of mollusks, the classification and natural history of fish, and finally, the natural history of fossil mammals and reptiles. (more…)

Primer: Lyell’s Principles of Geology October 1, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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For today’s post, I want to talk about one of the most influential books in the natural sciences, Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, published in three volumes from 1830 to 1833.  Lyell (1797-1875) was an English gentleman, who turned to scientific study at university after originally intending to train to be a barrister.  His entry to geology came at a time when the field was becoming increasingly professionalized; Principles was his attempt to bring some philosophical rigor to the subject, to lend it further respectability as a modern, 19th-century “science”, that is, the sense that the term now connotes.

By the time Lyell wrote the Principles, mainstream geological opinion (and also some religious opinion) accepted that Biblical chronologies could not be maintained in light of fossil evidence.  Debates had thus turned to the various problems of “deep history”, such as: what had happened in the past, how the earth began and whether it was headed for an end, and whether geological history followed a clear progressive arc (more…)