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The Newman-Chalmers Dispute, Pt. 2: History, Philosophy, and Demarcation May 31, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Chymistry.
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Pt. 1 of this post discussed the latest entries in a dispute, which appear in the current and upcoming issue of Studies in History and Philosophy of Science.  The papers are by Alan Chalmers and Bill Newman, and they argue over whether Robert Boyle’s “chymistry” could have proceeded without being framed within his mechanical philosophy.  The immediate issue, the nature of Boyle’s work, seems ultimately to turn on fairly subtle points about how, in the 17th century, experiment was understood to relate to natural philosophy, and how knowledge of chemical phenomena related to natural philosophy and other orders of knowledge.  As I understand this issue, one would not have thought at that time that one could understand “chemistry” to be a self-contained body of knowledge, a fundamental way of looking at nature.  While one certainly could develop a practical understanding of chemical transformations at that time, such a knowledge would not have been thought relevant to the higher natural philosophical questions that most concerned Boyle.

Outside of this main historical issue, Newman stresses the importance of reading Chalmers’ particular claims in light of his “larger agenda … concerning the nature of scientific knowledge as a whole, an agenda I do not share.”  Chalmers is primarily interested in the ability to demarcate “science”, which founds knowledge on an experimental basis, from “philosophy”, which accommodates experiment into its theoretical schemes.  While Newman waxes skeptical about the philosophical project’s validity for even the most recent period of history, in his response (entitled “How Not to Integrate the History and Philosophy of Science”), he concentrates on the ways this philosophical lens affects historiography, claiming it narrows the scope of possible questions to those that can be framed within the structure of the central demarcationist concern.  Chalmers’ approach is “binary,” a “dualist methodology”, a “toggle-switch model” of history: if a historical event cannot be classified as proper “science”, it is of no further historical concern.  This methodology “allows for no gradual development or nuance over the course of history”, it “does not give sufficient credence to reorientations in scientific reasoning and experimental practice that laid the groundwork for later fruitful developments,” and it does not “allow for any significant heuristic application of theory”.  Chalmers’ evaluative rubric allows “little room indeed for disinterested analysis of arguments, determination of the real issues at stake, or the tracing of sources and intellectual traditions, which I view as the historian’s primary responsibilities.”

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The Dart of Harkness April 5, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
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Having finished up Deborah Harkness’ The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution, I must say that I am wowed—it’s really a superb book that should be read by anyone working in the history of science, any period or location.

The thing that really makes this book work so well is its economical pacing and the presence of the author throughout.  The subject matter—the knowledge economy of Elizabethan London as it pertains to the natural sciences—is necessarily diffuse.  There are a few big names who enter and leave the story, but for the most part one is dealing with a wide pastiche of authors, medical practitioners, and so forth.  The object is to characterize what these people did, how their communities worked, and how these communities intertwined.  This is what Harkness accomplishes very nicely.  Her expertise is constantly on hand to guide readers through the ins and outs of Elizabethan regulatory systems, investment schemes, and, of course, the London market place, and to leave readers with not only an argument, but a usefully organized knowledge about the subject matter.  She conveys her point, produces the pertinent information, and moves on, dwelling on details only so long as to demonstrate how they relate to the larger picture.

Harkness’ economical style allows her to cover a lot of ground.  She starts off with a discussion of the community of naturalists on Lime Street, but then goes on to chart the anatomy of London’s diverse medical market, the instrumentation market and the market for practical and theoretical mathematical education, the development of large-scale projects (mining, exploration, water works, etc., fueled by often suspect knowledge), and the compilation of practical knowledge in manuscript notebooks and printed books.

It’s all very well done, but my favorite bit has to be the discussion of one of Queen Elizabeth’s top administrators, William Cecil, and his efforts to come to grips with various issues relating to maintaining the value of currency, granting (more…)

What was the Scientific Revolution? March 5, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
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So, I got Deborah Harkness’ The Jewel House in the mail yesterday.  The book is about “the sciences” in London circa 1600, and won last year’s Pfizer Prize from the History of Science Society.  So far I like it a lot.  Essentially, it’s kind of up the same alley as Cook’s Matters of Exchange with some key stylistic differences that I want to discuss later.

What I’d like to discuss now is a sort of uncomfortable relationship writers on early modern natural history seem to have with the idea of the Scientific Revolution.  I keep getting this Rodney Dangerfield “I don’t get no respect!” vibe from the literature, which seems to be born out of this idea that the Sci Rev (as we in the biz call it) was this physics-driven shift in “the way people thought” and a rejection of Ancient authority concerning natural knowledge, or something like that.

Thus we seem to have this burgeoning literature of the “big science” of the 1500s and 1600s (again, a sort of “us too!”, this time against 20th-century (more…)