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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…)

Schaffer on Temporal Evolution, Pt. 1 October 12, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Finishing up our look back at some of the earliest works of Simon Schaffer, I’d like to look at the two pre-1980 works I’ve found:

1) Halley’s Atheism and the End of the World, Notes and Records of the Royal Society 32 (1977): 17-40

2) The Phoenix of Nature: Fire and Evolutionary Cosmology in Wright and Kant, Journal for the History of Astronomy 9 (1978): 180-200.  (According to this web site, this is one of Schaffer’s personal favorites).

Edmond Halley (1656-1742)

Both articles are revealing that Schaffer’s early work was specifically geared around understanding the emergence of the concept of temporal change in natural philosophical cosmologies.  The development of a temporal economy of nature was a key to the development of William Herschel’s cosmology, which Schaffer discussed in a 1980 paper that I looked at back in August.  But the idea of a transitory universe was longstanding.  Before getting into the details, though, let’s back up and look at why this is an interesting issue in the first place.

The emergence of deep time in the 18th century was an important development in geology and the development of evolutionary concepts in the history of life (exemplified in the work of Darwin, but discussed in European thought for a century prior to Origin of Species).  While, in some sense, a deep time evolutionary approach was demanded by the (more…)