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Schaffer on Language and Proper Conduct November 16, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Daniel Defoe

One of the clearest findings in my long-term exploration of the oeuvre of Simon Schaffer, is the centrality of Schaffer’s use of the idea that a thinker’s personal understanding of the arrangement of the cosmos, their process of inquiry, and their ideas about proper social order were often intimately interrelated in philosophical inquiry in the 17th and 18th centuries.  This insight provides a powerful tool for investigating different facets of the wide field of “natural philosophy” as it intersected with other realms of intellectual activity.

It is clearly the case that natural philosophy had no defined form nor any clear boundaries with other kinds of literature.  In today’s post we step slightly outside the bounds of natural philosophy with two pieces that examine writings at the beginning and the end of natural philosophy’s golden age:

1) “Defoe’s Natural Philosophy and the Worlds of Credit,” in Nature Transfigured: Science and Literature, 1700-1900, edited by John Christie and Sally Shuttleworth, 1989.

2) “The History and Geography of the Intellectual World: Whewell’s Politics of Language,” in William Whewell: A Composite Portrait, edited by Menachem Fisch and Schaffer, 1991.

In (1), Schaffer observes the novelty of natural philosophy in Defoe’s time (c.1659-1731) and notes similarities in literary strategies between it and another new form of writing, “the news journal,” both of which “appealed to a new authority relation—that of the circumstantiated report of the novel and unprecedented event…”  In (2), at the other end of the time frame, we find a portrait of Whewell (1794-1866) as a critical writer on scientific work, (more…)