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Jefferson’s Natural, Moral, and Political Philosophy of Race and Slavery September 14, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in History of the Human Sciences.
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Update: For a great deal of excellent context concerning Notes on the State of Virginia and Jefferson’s discussions of race, please see Ricardo Brown’s new post on the subject at his blog, Until Darwin: Science and the Origins of Race.

For more on Jefferson’s relationship with his slaves, and his thinking about discipline, finance, and slavery on his own plantation, see this recent article at Smithsonian.com

Charles Willson Peale’s 1791 portrait of Thomas Jefferson, proponent of human liberty, slave-owner, opponent of race mixing, father of mixed-race children, and self-aware hypocrite

At The H-Word, Becky Higgitt recently posted about Thomas Jefferson’s strong interest in the sciences and the cause of improvement. Thony Christie and I commented with some further thoughts about Jefferson’s education in natural philosophy, and his range of interests as an Enlightenment thinker.  Other commenters were quick to dispel any notion that Jefferson is a straightforwardly heroic figure in history (as his interest in science might imply), given his ownership of slaves, and his sexual relationship with one of them, Sally Hemings, which resulted in children. Although the comments don’t accurately portray Jefferson’s attitude toward his slaves, the fact is that he owned other human beings, and that is vile enough.

The interesting thing is that Jefferson was not simply “a man of his time,” blithely oblivious to the possibility of alternative mores.  On the contrary, he was fully convinced that he and his beloved state of Virginia were on the wrong side of history.  Now, this is most definitively not to say that what Jefferson regarded as the “right” side of history corresponds to, or is even fully intelligible to, the ideas of our own time.

A quick look at Jefferson’s philosophical discussions of slavery and race in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1787) nicely illustrates how he felt the proper course of history could be discerned, as well as some of the more peculiar characteristics of Enlightenment-era philosophy.  It will also illustrate that, while Jefferson thought slavery was a depraved institution, this opinion arose from his political belief in universal liberty, not his conception of race, which is, quite simply, disturbing.


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.


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…)

Schaffer on Cometography, Pt. 1 July 10, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Cometary transits have always displayed the troubled relationship between astronomers, theologians, natural philosophers, and their public.

Simon Schaffer, 1987

Drawing by Honoré Daumier, 1857. From the Art Institute of Chicago

Between 1987 and 1993, Simon Schaffer published five papers on the history of cometography, meditating on some of his favorite themes concerning the links between cosmology, scientific methodology, scientific identity, epistemology, theology, politics, authority, social order, and the hermeneutics of history:

(1) “Newton’s Comets and the Transformation of Astrology” in Astrology, Science and Society: Historical Essays (1987), edited by Patrick Curry.

(2) “Authorized Prophets: Comets and Astronomers after 1759,” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 17 (1987): 45-74.

(3) “Halley, Delisle, and the Making of the Comet” in Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: A Longer View of Newton and Halley (1990), edited by N. Thrower.

(4) “Comets and the World’s End” in Predicting the Future (1993), edited by L. Howe and A. Wain.

(5) “Comets & Idols: Newton’s Cosmology and Political Theology” in Action and Reaction (1993), edited by Paul Theerman and Adele Seeff.

From his earliest publications, comets had played a role in Schaffer’s thinking about seventeenth and eighteenth-century cosmology and philosophical inquiry: they were frequently called upon to fill various cosmological roles as agents of destruction, transportation, and restoration.  In these five pieces, Schaffer provided further evidence for the centrality of comets in natural philosophical problematics, and clarified the staggering variety of implications cometography could have within and beyond them.  In this post, I outline a few of the features of his decidedly complex set of arguments.  In its sequel, I will look at Schaffer’s historiographical thinking in (4) and (5).

Although Schaffer’s examination of cometography stretches from Tycho (more…)

Primer: Jean-André de Luc’s Christian Geology April 2, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Click for Hasok Chang's page on De Luc

It was nice timing that Michael Robinson happened to bring up at his blog the relationship between Biblical and physical (i.e. “biological” to be somewhat anachronistic) accounts of human history and race.  I’ve just been going over Martin Rudwick’s fantastic Bursting the Limits of Time (2005), and had decided to write a post on Jean-André de Luc (1727-1817), a devoutly Christian natural philosopher of the Earth’s history, and coiner of the term “geology”.

De Luc came from a family of Genevan clock-makers, and had a background in precision engineering.  He was well-known for his design of a portable barometer, and established his reputation as an authority on meteorology.  In 1773 he moved to England, where he resided for the rest of his life, and became a Fellow of the Royal Society and a “reader” (i.e. mentor) for Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III.

In the mid-to-late eighteenth century, the discipline now understood as geology was comprised of a variety of natural historical and natural philosophical fields of study: mineralogy, physical geography, geognosy (the study of the contents of the earth, related to mining), and the “physics” of the earth (which dealt with qualitative discussions of the earth’s mechanisms).  An important intellectual activity in this period was the construction of vast logical “systems” that connected causal and historical explanations to account for observations, thereby establishing a potential comprehensive “theory of the Earth”.  It was to describe this last activity that de Luc deployed the term “geology”, to distinguish it from more expansive cosmologies, which attempted to account for the workings of the entire universe.

As a devout Christian, de Luc felt embattled in a community of Enlightenment-era savants who embraced deistic, or (more…)

Primer: Dufay and Nollet November 26, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Frontispiece of Nollet's Essai sur l'electricité des corps

Electricity and electrical phenomena presented a major conceptual problem for 18th-century experimental philosophers, who were tasked with understanding not only the nature of electricity and how it moved, but how (or, in some cases, whether) it related to light, fire, magnetism, lightning, sparks, shocks, phosphoresence, nervous phenomena, and the attractive and repulsive phenomena associated with electrically charged objects.  It was unclear whether electricity and the forces it exerted (what we would think of as charged particles and their fields) were one and the same thing, or how electricity moved about, or how it moved through materials such as glass, air, or vacuum.  The relationship between all of these phenomena and the differing electrical properties of different materials, not to mention electricity’s finicky response to changes in ambient humidity all made electricity an extremely complicated thing to study.  On the surface, Coulomb’s 19th-century late-18th-century law (the force of attraction or repulsion is proportional to the product of charges of bodies divided by the square of the distance between them) might seem like a logical extrapolation from Newton’s law of gravitation (the force of attraction is proportional to the product of the masses of bodies divided by the square of the distance between them).  Taking into account the experimental difficulties, however, it might also seem miraculous.

Unlike astronomy, the study of electricity remained without any quantitative basis for a long time.  Instead, natural philosophers attempted to develop qualitative schemes that were capable of explaining all of the various observations and (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…)

Primer: Darwin October 22, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Today we present a guest post by Michael Robinson of the University of Hartford, manager of the science-and-exploration blog Time to Eat the Dogs (where this is cross-posted), and author of The Coldest Crucible: Arctic Exploration and American Culture.

Non-famous Darwin

Darwin, talented naturalist.

Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882), expert in barnacle taxonomy, lived his life as an omnivorous reader, letter-writer, and pack-rat. He attended college and traveled abroad, married his cousin Emma, and settled at Down House. There he wrote books, doted on his many children, and suffered bouts of chronic dyspepsia.

We don’t remember Darwin much for these details, eclipsed as they are by the blinding attention given to his work on evolution. But they are worth noticing if only to make a simple point. Darwin did not live life in anticipation of becoming the father of modern evolutionary biology, a status that seems almost inevitable when we read about Darwin’s life. Despite the distance of time and culture which separates us from Darwin, he lived his life much as we do: working too much, getting sick and getting better, fretting about others’ opinions, and seeking solace among his friends and family.

In spite of the scrutiny paid to evolution, or perhaps because of it, we continue to see Darwin through a glass darkly, distorted by a body of literature that, despite sophisticated analysis and a Homeric attention to details, reduces his life to the prelude and post-script of the modern era’s most important scientific theory. This is not to beat up on the “Darwin Industry” which has produced a number of superbly researched, balanced portraits of Darwin. But the nuance of such works cannot overcome the weight of Darwin as a (more…)