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Schaffer on Machine Philosophy, Pt. 5b: Automata and the Enlightenment December 13, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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This post concludes my look at Simon Schaffer, “Enlightened Automata” in The Sciences in Enlightened Europe, edited by William Clark, Jan Golinski, and Schaffer (Chicago University Press, 1999).

As detailed in previous posts, Schaffer’s interest in 18th-century automata in this piece is mainly a means of making larger points about the intellectual culture of the Enlightenment, and its links to an emerging economic order of industrialism and managerialism. In doing so, he contributes an interpretive gloss that joins an existing general historiography of Enlightenment ideology, with a historiography of the automaton creations of such figures as Jacques de Vaucanson (1709–1782), Pierre Jaquet-Droz (1721–1790), and John-Joseph Merlin (1735–1803). This post discusses this second facet of the history.

For Schaffer, the key questions are: 1) what interests did automata engage, allowing them to proliferate as objects of display and fascination? and 2) in what ways did they speak to the concerns of philosophers and other commentators of the period, making them into salient metaphors and objects of intellectual reflection?



Schaffer on Machine Philosophy, Pt. 4: Automata and the Proto-Industrial Ideology of the Enlightenment — Historiography August 13, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in Ideology of Science, Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Simon Schaffer, “Enlightened Automata” in The Sciences in Enlightened Europe, edited by William Clark, Jan Golinski, and Schaffer (Chicago University Press, 1999)

Maelzel Turk

“Enlightened Automata” is one of Schaffer’s few pieces that is especially forthright about the overarching scholarly project of which it is a part. It is certainly the centerpiece — and his clearest exposition — of his work on what he occasionally referred to as “machine philosophy,” a concept that interrelates several historical developments:

  1. The rising use of mechanisms in philosophical experiments, which have the virtue of preventing human fallibility and prejudice from influencing their outcomes.
  2. The use of mechanisms as explanatory metaphors in natural, moral, and political philosophy.
  3. The replication of natural phenomena and human behavior in mechanisms, i.e. automata.
  4. Industrialization, i.e., the replacement of craft processes with machinery, and the concomitant regulation and control of human action, especially manual labor, through managerial regimes.

Schaffer takes these four developments (but especially 2 and 4) to characterize the ideological ambitions of the Enlightenment.  In “Enlightened Automata,” he leverages the history of the construction and display of automata (3), and commentary on such automata, as a means of probing these ambitions.


Schaffer, the Electric Planetarium, and the Nature of Natural Philosophy May 8, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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This post (at long last) concludes my look at Simon Schaffer, “Experimenters’ Techniques, Dyers’ Hands, and the Electric Planetarium,” Isis 88 (1997): 456-483. To refresh yourself on the history of the electric planetarium experiment, see here; for further discussion of Schaffer’s interest in the role of manual technique in that history, see here.

electric-planetariumAn important feature of Stephen Gray (1666-1736) and Granville Wheler’s (1701-1770) electric planetarium experiment was the claim that the revolution of a small, electrically charged object around a larger sphere might well illuminate the nature of the force that drives the planets in circular orbits around the sun. One obvious question—but one which Schaffer does not directly address—is how such a rudimentary and solitary experiment could credibly purport, even speculatively, to offer insight into such a grand and seemingly remote problem as planetary motion.

This, I think, is a question that forces us to think about the fundamental nature of early eighteenth-century natural philosophical inquiry.  It is especially necessary to examine the distinctions and relations between experimental and speculative philosophy.  On this distinction, also see the Otago philosophy of science group’s blog; but, where the Otago group tends to view experimentalism and speculation as different strands of philosophy, I would view them more as different facets of the same philosophical enterprise.


“Discipline & Ontology” vs. “Projects” in Reconstructing Histories of Ideas June 9, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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I am gearing up to review the recently published Cold War Social Science (2012) volume on this blog, and this post was written with that task in mind. But, before I get to the review, I’d like to sharpen up a critical tool I’ve been working on.*

I propose that within the historiographies of science, technology, and ideas in general — but politically and socially relevant twentieth-century work (be it scientific, engineering, intellectual, architectural, etc…) in particular — we can identify a common interpretive approach.  This approach supposes that historical contests between different disciplines over politically and socially significant “ontologies” are important foci for historians’ attention, because society is taken to grant disciplines, particularly “scientific” ones, the intellectual authority to dictate those ontologies’ form and implications.  Some important ontologies include: the structure of the just polity and the prosperous economy, modernity, human nature, mind, normality, disease, nature and “the natural”, and aspects of personal identity such as gender, sexuality, and race.


Toulmin on Cosmology and the “Theology of Nature” December 4, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
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In April I finished up a series of posts on the anthropological concept of “cosmology” (meaning a coherent system of thought), and the relationships historians of the 1980s were able to draw between it and the historical practice and fate of natural philosophy — including scientific cosmology — in the 18th and 19th centuries.  (See especially Simon Schaffer’s clear 1980 argument on this point.)

In my last post in that series, I noted that in seeking to ground Michael Faraday’s (1791-1867) physical convictions in his Sandemanian religious beliefs, Geoffrey Cantor used the term “theology of nature” to distinguish ideas implicit in Faraday’s thought from a contemporaneous, but more explicitly reasoned “natural theology”.  To quote the subtitle to William Paley’s (1743-1805) 1802 book, Natural Theology, natural theology sought “evidence of the existence and attributes of the deity” in the study of nature.  For Faraday, though, only the certain revelation of the Bible could produce knowledge of God, making it necessary for historians to excavate his personal theology of nature.

Some time later, it occurred to me it might not be a bad idea to chase down this “theology of nature” term, which led me directly to Stephen Toulmin’s 1982 essay collection, The Return to Cosmology: Postmodern Science and the Theology of Nature.  Aha.  Since today marks the first anniversary of Toulmin’s death, I thought it might be a good time to try to type something up that helps put Toulmin, a student of Ludwig Wittgenstein, into our history of the history of science of the 1980s.


Schaffer and Golinski on Enlightenment and Genius November 4, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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This post looks at two articles by Simon Schaffer:

“States of Mind: Enlightenment and Natural Philosophy,” in The Languages of Psyche: Mind and Body in Enlightenment Thought, ed. G. S. Rousseau, 1990, pp. 233-290.

“Genius in Romantic Natural Philosophy,” in Romanticism and the Sciences, ed. Andrew Cunningham and Nicholas Jardine, 1990, pp. 82-98.

It makes comparison with some related points in Jan Golinski’s book Science as Public Culture: Chemistry and Enlightenment in Britain, 1760-1820, 1992.  Unlike the last post integrating Schaffer’s and Golinski’s analysis of eudiometry, this one distinguishes the (complementary) positions of the two authors.

Jeremy Bentham's "Panopticon" prison

Since his earliest pieces (especially his 1983 piece on natural philosophy and spectacle), Schaffer had been exploring the tensions between natural philosophical inquiry and the forces leading to professionalized specialties.  In pieces circa 1990, Schaffer further explored the relationship between enlightenment political ideals—which stressed rational assent as a path away from enthusiasm and despotism toward a proper polity—and natural philosophy and the political pressures it created and to which it was subjected.

In “States of Mind”, in a move not unlike his and Steven Shapin’s analysis of Hobbes’ critique of experimental philosophy, Schaffer stresses objections, particularly that of Edmund Burke (1729-1797) that the politics of rational assent proffered by people like Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) simply cloaked alternative religion-like claims to political authority.

The transformation of politically important elements of cosmology—rather than the elimination of their significance—is once again central to Schaffer’s argument (see also the transformation of comets from omens to source of physical disaster).  Here Priestley’s objection to the pneumatic philosophy of souls and spirits (as in Disquisitions on Matter and Spirit, 1777) brushes away the idea of mind as guided by spirit to allow the mind to be seen as a material organ with its own relationship (more…)

Schaffer on Temporal Evolution, Pt. 2 November 20, 2008

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Thomas Wright (1711-1786)

Thomas Wright (1711-1786)

In “The Phoenix of Nature: Fire and Evolutionary Cosmology in Wright and Kant,” (Journal for the History of Astronomy vol. 9, 1978, pp. 180-200), Simon Schaffer continued his study of the development of temporally evolving cosmologies, in this case with the natural philosophical work of the astronomy teacher Thomas Wright and German philosopher Immanuel Kant (well prior to his famous Critiques).  As I mentioned in the last post in this series, Schaffer seems to have directed his early work toward the introduction into natural philosophical thought of the idea that past and future states of the universe could be substantially different from the present state of the universe.  As he puts it, “the cosmological thought of Kant and Wright can be seen as the basis for the evolutionary systems of the universe developed by Laplace and Herschel later in the century.”  (As we have seen, he would turn to Herschel in his next few articles).

In his project, Schaffer tends toward the teleological.  Everyone in this piece seems either striving to introduce an evolutionary perspective, or constrained from doing so. (more…)