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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.


Schaffer on the Hustings, Pt. 3: Fragmentation and Consensus August 29, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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This is the third and final part of a look at two of Simon Schaffer’s 1993 works, 1) “Augustan Realities: Nature’s Representatives and Their Cultural Resources in the Early Eighteenth Century”, and 2) “A Social History of Plausibility: Country, City and Calculation in Augustan Britain”.  In Pt. 1 and Pt. 2, and now here in Pt. 3, the focus is on the papers’ mode of argumentation and this mode’s significance within the historiographical culture of the early 1990s.

In these papers, a historiographical malignancy is identified: an insistence on seeing a rise of reasoned polity and society, and of spaces of free inquiry; this rise is attended by a decline of false belief.  This is considered a malignancy because it ignores the extensive and persistent controversies over various beliefs.  The remedy, thus, is taken to be what I call “insultography”: a charting of commonalities in the polemics used to secure the boundaries of belief about what exists, or at least what is plausible.  Historical “polemical work” consistently references widely acknowledged sources of credit-worthiness and discredit (in Pt. 1 these pervasive opinions are referred to as “grand cultural ideas”): religious piety, superstition, the vulgar crowds, the emotional manipulation and illusion of the theater, courtly society, bourgeois society, investment schemes, the legacy of Isaac Newton…  Historians’ failure to acknowledge the historical importance of this polemical work as they chart the history of knowledge is taken to stem from their own selective credulity toward of these same polemics.

The current goal is to understand why the identified historiographical issue is considered an important malignancy and why the remedy is considered apt.  As suggested in Pt. 2, portraying historiographical issues as malignancies could be used to explain a gnawing problem of historiographical craft: fragmentation.  In his (free, and well worth reading) 2005 Isis article on this fragmentation phenomenon in the historiography of science, David Kaiser traced complaints about it as far back as a 1987 article by Charles Rosenberg in Isis, a 1991 Casper Hakfoort article in History of Science, and a 1993 James Secord article in BJHS.  Kaiser suggested that the fragmentation was akin to specialization that occurred within the natural sciences as they expanded in the 20th century, pointing to similar patterns of growth in the recent history of the history of science discipline.  (more…)

The Bounds of Natural Philosophy: Temporal and Practical Frontiers, Pt. 2 April 12, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
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How do we deal with this guy Faraday?

If you wanted to pick out a transitional figure between a wide-ranging natural philosophy and a more bounded science, Michael Faraday (1791-1867) would be about as good a choice as any.  On account of his experiments and conceptual developments in electromagnetism, Faraday is now most identified with the history of physics, but, as the protege of Humphry Davy (1778-1829), he established himself within the tradition of chemistry.  An enterprise lacking foundational principles, chemistry fit poorly with natural philosophy, but was also not fully at home in natural history, and became an early independent field.

This was, of course, a recent development.  As Jan Golinski has described in some detail, it was only circa 1800 that chemistry managed to shed an association with a wide-ranging philosophy and radical politics, and to establish itself as a much more constrained field.  The heyday of natural philosophers like James Hutton (1726-1797) was, for many, still a living memory when Faraday vocally reasserted the importance of an empirical and non-speculative attitude toward science, and began to be recognized by others as an exemplar of this vision of science.

According to Geoffrey Cantor in Michael Faraday, Sandemanian and Scientist (1991), early biographies also emphasized the empirical qualities of Faraday’s work, and it was only beginning with Joseph Agassi’s Faraday as a Natural Philosopher (1971) that a portrait of Faraday “as a bold theoretical speculator in the mould of Karl Popper” began to emerge (Cantor, 208).  For his part, Cantor sought to take Faraday’s empiricist rhetoric seriously while developing an understanding of the conceptual precepts underlying his work.  Following the lead of David Gooding’s early-1980s analyses of Faraday’s methodology, Cantor aimed “to locate Faraday’s metaphysics in his religion and, in particular, in his views about the structure of the divinely created physical world.  These views […] coloured Faraday’s highly idiosyncratic theories about matter and force” (161).


The Bounds of Natural Philosophy: Temporal and Practical Frontiers, Pt. 1 March 28, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
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Lord Kelvin: still natural philosophical after all these years

If we accept the working idea that 18th-century natural philosophy could be characterized by philosophers’ willingness to incorporate ideas about the physical nature of the world into a general scheme accounting for various natural “economies” or “cosmologies” that flowed into questions encompassing the characteristics of life, body, mind, epistemology, ethics, society, theology, and politics; then we need to define how far this universalizing philosophical practice extended, both temporally and within particular cultures, and what sorts of things have happened at the boundaries.

This was an active question through the 1980s.  One common answer was professionalization and specialization (not to be conflated!—notably see Paul Lucier’s “The Professional and the Scientist in Nineteenth-Century America” in the latest Isis; the piece opens with an unusually lively historiographical discussion).  In 1983, Simon Schaffer saw boundary creation as a consequence of the political dangers attributable to public natural philosophical demonstrations.  Jack Morrell and Arnold Thackray were also very clear on this point in Gentlemen of Science: Early Years of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1981), discussing how the BA was established in the 1830s, both to promote scientific work, and to constrain the bounds of (and thus objections to) scientific investigation and thought.

It was likewise in this same early-to-mid 19th-century British context that William Whewell (1794-1866) coined the term “scientist” in response to an injunction by Samuel Coleridge (1772-1834) that men of science should not pretend to the more general and eminent title of philosopher.  (See also Schaffer (1991) on Whewell as a critic of knowledge claims.)  In 1986, Schaffer had been very explicit in denoting the establishment of new philosophies and institutions of science as signaling the “end of natural philosophy”, which also entailed the rewriting of histories of older discoveries to accommodate the new understanding of “science”, singular.

Of course, natural philosophy did not “end”.  To begin with, “scientists” were by no means prevented from discussing issues outside of their defined jurisdictions, nor, conversely, was delimited expertise devoid of broader implications.  In fact, the term “scientist” did not even catch on until much later.  However, it is clear that the situation did change, and some effort was put into figuring out how the intellectual and moral terrain of science was reconfigured. (more…)

Thematic Concerns and Synopticism in the Historiography of Scientific Work February 5, 2010

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Jed Buchwald began his essay review of Crosbie Smith and Norton Wise’s 1989 biography of William Thomson, Energy and Empire (British Journal for the History of Science 24 (1991) pp. 85-94) with the observation, “Post-modernism and Benoit Mandelbrot have found their way to the history of science.”  He went on to identify the book as “a sort of fractal biography“, and observed, “Here we have, as it were, an attempt to force meaning, but not global order, to emerge out of chaos through guided immersion in the chaos itself.” The “ever-present aim” is “thematic unity”.  Buchwald saw this as a new methodological tack, and his characterization of it is worth a lengthy quote.  Rhetorically asking why one should write a massive biography of a very important, but not Very Important physicist, he surmises:

The answer Smith and Wise would give, I think, points to Thomson’s unique significance as the exemplar and the creator of a special kind of imperial science and engineering.  His scientific creations both reflect and constitute a powerful amalgam of social, cultural and economic trends that shaped British physics and physics-based engineering into a form that gave it worldwide dominance during the same period, and for many of the same reasons, that Clydeside ship-builders and the British telegraph dominated.  I know of no comparable biography, or history, that so directly embraces and thoroughly works the view that every aspect of an individual’s career is indissolubly bound to every other aspect of it, that the whole connects both globally and in intimate detail to tendencies that influenced populous groups of people and that have at first sight little to do with questions such as whether or not one should treat moving force as an energy gradient.

Of course, the attempt to derive unity from an individual’s intellectual output was not new.  We have already seen on this blog how in 1984 Simon Schaffer had criticized the literature on Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) for portraying him as a “synoptic thinker”.  Energy and Empire was part of the very same discussion.  In fact, in their chapter 4 on the “changing tradition of natural philosophy”, Smith and Wise drew on Schaffer’s work on Glasgow astronomer John Pringle Nichol (1804-1859), whose commitment to social progress accorded with his support for the nebular hypothesis and the attendant implication of cosmological progress, which (apparently) implied an endorsement of the general concept of progress by nature itself. (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…)

Cosmology and “Synoptic” Intellectual History September 23, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Methods.
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The influence of anthropological ideas on historiography is widely acknowledged, if too often boiled down to a slogan: “approach history as a stranger,” or “know the past on its own terms.”  On this blog, Chris Donohue has been revisiting the problems informing the interpretive approaches of Malinowski’s “functionalism” and Lévi-Strauss’ “structuralism”.  By grounding ritualistic behaviors in issues of social cohesion and cognitive strategy, these approaches bring sense to activities that, on their surface, seem arbitrary.  Applied to familiar societies, they also form part of a trend stretching over a century that makes our own social behaviors seem less explicitly rational, if not altogether less rational.  For historians of science, this is of great interest, because it helps reanalyze scientific practice in ways removed from overt scientific reasoning.

Moving beyond scientific practice as simply a particular mode of reasoning was part and parcel of the Great Escape from the philosophy of science.  But I’d now like to move beyond the limitations of abandoning philosophy, to concentrate more on the generative ideas in the same historiographical period (roughly, the fabled ’80s), which have ceased to be articulated now that that period’s gains have themselves been boiled down to basic slogans.

The most important anthropological concept that has vaporized into the atmosphere is the cognitive cosmology, an idea which holds that every society, or really every individual, necessarily creates their own sense of what is in the world and how the world works, which allows people to cope with their surroundings.  I’d like to very roughly sketch out a preliminary sense of how this idea worked in the historiography. (more…)

Schaffer on the Nebular Hypothesis February 6, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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We’re going to be skipping around in the Schaffer bibliography a little bit now in the hopes of approaching his articles in a way that makes the most sense to me.  Today I want to look at “The Nebular Hypothesis and the Science of Progress” from History, Humanity, and Evolution: Essays for John C. Greene, edited by James R. Moore (1989).  This work is fascinating to me for a few reasons.

1850 sketch of the Orion Nebula

1850 illustration of the Orion Nebula by Lord Rosse

First and foremost, it represents Schaffer’s attempt to translate his methodology for studying natural philosophical cosmologies into the era of disciplined science.  Natural philosophical cosmology was not a tightly restrained genre.  While we might say that there were identifiable sub-genres of cosmology that adhered to fairly specific methodologies and cosmological possibilities, the boundaries between these were very porous, and ideas transplanted themselves fairly easily between them.

Schaffer liked to use the term “resource” to describe these ideas.  Certain kinds of philosophical argument became “possible” (though, of course, not (more…)

Biography and Canon-Building July 9, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Canon Building.
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Crosbie Smith’s Science of Energy probably takes the place in the canon of 19th century physics history writing from Energy and Empire, a biography of William Thomson that Smith co-wrote with Norton Wise. The latter is an excellent book, and would be replaced not for any defects in quality, but more because the former is more compact and also broader in its scope–more essential.

But this brings up a topic I’ve been meaning to address: biography. The best biographies not only place their subjects in their context, but they use their subjects to give the reader a kind of guided tour through that context. Smith and Wise certainly do that, and I mentioned once before that Roger Hahn’s biography of Laplace is also good. I think I’ve also suggested that it’s possible that historians of science are now really very good at writing books, but aren’t quite sure what to do with the short form. If that’s true, then the best books are probably biographies. If I’m looking for biographical information on a scientist, I’m always glad if there’s something written in the post-1990, and preferably the post-2000 period, because those biographies almost inevitably demonstrate a maturity towards science-writing that is frequently lacking in prior works, which always seem to have something on the precocious childhood, a bit on the school days, some painfully in-depth treatment of some supposedly crucial moment (“did he or didn’t he write this letter before so-and-so knew of the results of XYZ?”), and then maybe a too-detailed account of the science, or, alternatively, an almost total neglect of the science in favor of an account of the proverbial “human side” of science.

Now, it’s probably for most of these aspects of prior works that biography seems to be a sort of embarrassing topic for scholars to address, something that’s historiographically gauche, maybe because in choosing just one individual you inevitably provide them with too much agency, or it’s too much of a foray into pop history, or something similarly naughty.

I’m not too sure that writing a biography was ever the career-killer I’ve sometimes heard it made out to be. A lot of good historians have written pretty definitive biographies (of course, there will never be definitive biographies of Einstein, Oppenheimer, and Darwin), but, more to the point, I think, while there will always be lousy biographies, most academic historians have learned the pitfalls and become conscious of the clichés well enough. Personally, I would not hesitate to make a good biography a canonical reference, if there were no other suitable introduction to a historical milieu.

Whose biography should be chosen is another question. Do we need to know the biographies of some of the big names, for example? Darwin, probably, because the length of his significant career is so long. I would hesitate to say Einstein, because he’s sort of an outlying figure in certain ways, so he’s not a particularly good introduction to his scientific context. One should certainly read about relativity, but I’m not sure it’s absolutely necessary to read an Einstein biography. Anyway, whose biographies are important is definitely food for further thought.

Canonical: Nye, Warwick, Smith June 18, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Canon Building.
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Today’s canonical entries in the history of 19th century physics:
1. Mary Jo Nye, Before Big Science: The Pursuit of Modern Chemistry and Physics, 1800-1940 (1996)
2. Andrew Warwick, Masters of Theory: Cambridge and the Rise of Mathematical Physics (2003)
3. Crosbie Smith, The Science of Energy: A Cultural History of Energy Physics in Victorian Britain (1998)

Every good field needs an “orientation” text, and, in my experience, for this corner of history, Nye is it. Read chapters 1, 3, and 4 before Warwick and Smith, if you’re not familiar with the territory. Taking some advanced electricity and magnetism helps, too, to get a little “Fingerspitzengefuehl” in how physicists came to use mathematics in this period.

Warwick and Smith basically cover what has to be the most important shift in the history of physics in the 19th century, which is the importation of 18th century analytical techniques use in what was called “rational mechanics” primarily to study orbits (but also ordinary mechanics and hydrodynamics), as the route to the creation of valid theories. The primary entry point for analysis into non-mechanical physics is the science of energy, which established the fields of thermodynamics and electricity and magnetism. These two books, read in this order, will pretty much tell you everything you need to know about this shift, at least in Britain (German physics will be coming up).

Warwick is in my top 3 favorite history of science books of all-time, and is an excellent account of the cultural and intellectual shifts necessary to make physics into the heavily mathematical science that it has since become. Very few authors ever discuss the uses of mathematics, let alone the experience of using them. Warwick does both in a way that illustrates the watershed shift in what it meant to be a physicist, and what it meant to offer a physical theory, that took place in this period.

Smith (which I’ve actually never read before now) discusses the “program” that provided the entry point for this new kind of physics, the “North British” idea of energy, which drew on Continental engineering theory and the experimentation of James Joule, recruited little-known work by Mayer and Helmholtz on conservation of “Kraft”, systematized it in the fairly new Cambridge mathematical tradition, jibed it with geological theories about the history of the earth and the sun and attendant religious sensibilities, thereby creating an intellectual and social program (we should talk about this word “program” in the future; I find it very useful, but exploring its connotations would be worthwhile) that was capable of cementing a new scientific tradition.

Both works incorporate recent concern for social context in enlightening and highly specific ways. Both are extremely informative narrative accounts of topics of immense importance. Both concentrate largely on Britain, so we’ll need to supplement them with works addressing what was taking place on the Continent (I really would like to find a good source on 19c. French physics–any suggestions?). Still, these books beautifully illustrate what one could argue to be the most important change in physics over the course of the century, and if you had to choose just two books to read on the history of physics in this period, I think you could make a case that these would be the two to read. We’ll look at some good supplements in future posts.