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Professional Theodicy and Synthetic Narrative August 18, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy.
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The term “theodicy” is getting a lot of exercise here recently, so, to review: a theodicy is a philosophical explanation for why there is evil in the world in spite of the existence of a benevolent deity, as in Leibniz’ Theodicy.  A theodicy almost necessarily draws on problems of free will, the hope of knowledge, and its attendant dangers.  Transforming theodicy into historical narrative, it becomes possible to periodize these themes.  Sometimes this narrative functions as an origin story (as in Genesis and the stories of Prometheus and Pandora’s Box).  Following the Enlightenment and French Revolution—just as geology and cosmology began to acquire temporal elements—more recent human history could be periodized in terms of an overarching balance of knowledge, morality, and wisdom, as in the criticism of Joseph-Marie Maistre.

Since Maistre’s time, historiographical theodicies have frequently used rationalism or scientism as explanations of evil.  Following the rise of the Soviet Union and the Nazi Party, conservative thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper regularly drew connections between the post-French Revolution thought of Saint-Simon and Comte through to Marxism, logical positivism, modernism, and the rise of totalitarian regimes.  Chris Donohue has written about this trend on this blog, and he is responsible for getting me into the topic.

Science studies has imported similar narratives of theodicy linking the philosophy of science (positivistic and otherwise), the historiography of science, and the authority of science in society.  The sociology of knowledge has, in recent years, functioned within this theodicy as a kind of deliverance from evil, restoring a true historiography undistorted by philosophy’s arbitrary elevation of science to a coherently identifiable, objective, uncultural, and therefore privileged activity.  It is the contention of this blog that this theodicy has reduced the scope of historiographical inquiry to ornamentation of socio-epistemic issues privileged by the theodicy’s narrative.  Abandoning a study of ideas for a study of practices consonant with the theodicy, our professional theodicy now deeply inhabits our historiographical synthesis.

Witness Iwan Rhys Morus’ essay review of Patricia Fara’s new book Science: A Four Thousand Year History in the latest History of Science, which he edits.  Historical explanation of evil is present and unusually explicit: “Up until the 1960s, historians (more…)

Schaffer on Cometography, Pt. 2: Hermeneutics and Historiography July 17, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy, Methods, Schaffer Oeuvre.
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A hermeneutical conundrum

Hermeneutical conundrum

I. After reading Simon Schaffer’s “Comets and Idols”, I find myself using the word “hermeneutics” a lot more than I used to.  In general, you can get your point across just fine talking about “interpretation”.  However, when it comes to Isaac Newton, and writing the history of his ideas, the history of how he presented his ideas and himself, the history of how others drew on his ideas, and the history of how others presented how they were drawing upon his ideas—not to mention the act of writing the history of all this—the pithy phrase “Newtonian hermeneutics” (p. 209) acquires a certain appeal.

Drawing on his writing on Newton’s understanding of cometography as part of a project to restore a long-debauched Chaldean natural philosophy, in “Comets and Idols” Schaffer takes the opportunity to reflect on the role of “sacred texts” and their interpretation in history.  If natural philosophy was a chaotic mess of competing systems filled with different arrangements of matter and forces, then the sacred text serves as a rare fixed point of unalterable truth.  And for some time, no text was more sacred to many natural philosophers than Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (but see also Adam Smith).  Unfortunately, the interpretation of sacred texts is never straightforward, and it is by offering one’s own interpretation of the meaning of the sacred text—by uncovering what stands unspoken behind it, whether motivation, intended emphasis, methodology, hidden knowledge, or concrete ideas—and by discounting others’ “misunderstanding” or “distortion” of it that one draws upon its authority.

As Schaffer had observed before (especially with the construction of historic scientific discoveries, and with psychology’s claiming the personal equation as its own), the appropriation of history within the program one is trying to advance is an important, perhaps inevitable, tactic in building authority.  (more…)

Schaffer on the Politics of Inquiry March 29, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)

One of the ongoing themes in Schaffer’s work—perhaps the primary theme—is his commitment to the detailed investigation of the relationship between political ideology and natural philosophical inquiry from the 17th to the 19th centuries.  It was at the center of Leviathan and the Air Pump, was central to his work on Priestley in the Enlightenment era, and his concern with the relationship between the natural philosophy of pneumatics and spirits (same post as Priestley).

Schaffer took pains to discuss politics as not simply something that interferes with inquiry, or as something that motivates inquiry, or something for which inquiry has implications.  For Schaffer, both the subject and manner of inquiry were understood as being political themselves, linked intimately with principles of good governance.  Politics not only defined what arguments one could make without incurring charges such as atheism, but, because these convictions were also held by natural philosophers, politics went so far as to define what kinds of questions and manners of inquiry made sense.

Today I’d like to do some sweeping up on this subject from Schaffer’s 1980s writings:

(1) “Occultism and Reason in the Seventeenth Century,” in Philosophy: Its History and Historiography (1985), edited by A. J. Holland.  (Schaffer’s entry is available in full through Google Books.)

(2) “Wallification: Thomas Hobbes on School Divinity and Experimental Pneumatics,” Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science (1988): 275-298.

(3) “The Glorious Revolution and Medicine in Britain and the Netherlands,” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 43 (1989): 167-190.

There is also one article I do not have easy access to that looks relevant:

(*) “The Political Theology of Seventeeth-Century Natural Science,” Ideas & Production 1 (1983): 1-43.

What must be the most interesting thing about being a historian of seventeenth-century natural philosophy is the sheer number of epistemological flavors deployed to address the same problems.  In the 1980s, conscientious historians took it upon themselves to sort out different epistemological commitments, rather than to rely on wholly (more…)