jump to navigation

Jan Golinski on the Personas of Humphry Davy April 30, 2018

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
Tags: , , , , , , ,
add a comment

The time of Ether Wave Propaganda has come and gone, but happily its archives remain available, and conveniently it can still serve as a place to drop a post should the need arise.

golinski davyProbably a couple of years ago now, I received in the mail an unsolicited copy of Jan Golinski’s book, The Experimental Self: Humphry Davy and the Making of a Man of Science (University of Chicago Press, 2016). This was no doubt because I’d previously written about Golinski and Davy on this blog, particularly here. But by this time I’d moved on from academic history and did not get around to reading the book. (Currently, if you want to read me, I’m regularly writing with a talented four-person team about U.S. science policy for the American Institute of Physics here.)

However, the opportunity has come for a brief revival of EWP. I had to have a surgery on April 16 — don’t worry, I expect to be fine — and have been forced to stay home to recuperate. This means I had time to plunge back into the world of early 19th-century science, and so here at last is my review of The Experimental Self.

(more…)

Advertisements

Schaffer on Machine Philosophy, Pt. 1: Atwood’s Machine and the Status of Newton’s Laws at Cambridge September 1, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
Tags: , , , , , , ,
1 comment so far

Atwood's machineThere’s not much time these days for researching and writing posts.  But I do have little bites of time on the bus and Metro going to and from work, which lend themselves pretty nicely to article reading.  I have also come back into possession of all the paper files I put into storage when I went to London, including a big stack of articles written by Simon Schaffer.  Yes, folks, the Schaffer Oeuvre series has returned!

I was specifically inspired to bring the series back by Schaffer’s recent, very nicely crafted BBC documentary, “Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams,” (see a clip here), and by the realization that, when I left the series, I was just about to get to his articles on demonstration devices and automata.  So, with no further ado, let’s dive right back in with “Machine Philosophy: Demonstration Devices in Georgian Mechanics,” Osiris 9 (1994): 157-182.*

“Machine Philosophy” is about the uses made of mathematician George Atwood’s (1745-1807) demonstration device (right) . The machine’s design employed a clock and counter-balanced weights hung from a low-friction pulley in order to clearly exhibit Newton’s first law of motion, and especially the quantitative predictions made by his second law, which interrelated force, mass, and acceleration.  But the really difficult questions concerned what Atwood’s machine, and related machines, could and could not say concerning the intellectual status of Newton’s laws.

(more…)

Schaffer Summarized May 27, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
Tags: , , ,
3 comments

Discussion of this early-’80s vintage video follows below the fold.

Between 2008 and 2010, I wrote a large series of posts looking at Simon Schaffer’s oeuvre, from his earliest publications in the late 1970s to articles published in the early-to-mid ’90s, with the idea of being as comprehensive as practically possible. I picked Schaffer’s work for the experiment basically because he’s a famous historian, and I’d met him a couple of times, and, like most people who meet him, I found him very engaging.

(more…)

Holiday & Introductory Course August 3, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
2 comments

I am going to be doing some traveling for the next couple of weeks, and so there are likely to be no new posts in that time.  In other news, starting in October, I will be teaching a year-long introduction to the history of science course here at Imperial.  I’ve included a tentative lecture schedule and reading list below the fold.  This isn’t set in stone yet, so comments and suggestions are welcome.

(more…)

Primer: Agriculture, the Royal Institution, and the Spirit of Improvement April 7, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
4 comments

Since my interest in agricultural research focuses on the activities of the 20th-century British state, I didn’t really expect to return to Britain’s original Board of Agriculture (1793-1820).  But then the head of our Centre here at Imperial, Andy Mendelsohn, showed up in my office a couple of weeks ago with Morris Berman’s Social Change and Scientific Organization: The Royal Institution, 1799-1844 (1978), which he thought might interest me.  Not only is there some good agriculture-related material, but it intersects a number of different interests on this blog.  The book is actually in itself an interesting case to study from a historiographical point of view, which will be the subject of a separate post.

In his 1803 will, Edward Goat referred to the Royal Institution as the “New Society of Husbandry &c lately established in Albermarle Street”

Berman shows quite nicely that the foundation of the Royal Institution (RI) in 1799 was part and parcel of the late 18th-century enthusiasm for estate improvement and philanthropy.  As he argues, “It is not customary to see the RI, the SBCP [Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor, est. 1796], and the Board of Agriculture as a triad, but it was the same set of social and economic developments that brought them into being and gave them a similar, if not common agenda; and it was roughly the same group of men who sat on their governing boards” (2).

(more…)

Schaffer on the Hustings, Pt. 3: Fragmentation and Consensus August 29, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
2 comments

This is the third and final part of a look at two of Simon Schaffer’s 1993 works, 1) “Augustan Realities: Nature’s Representatives and Their Cultural Resources in the Early Eighteenth Century”, and 2) “A Social History of Plausibility: Country, City and Calculation in Augustan Britain”.  In Pt. 1 and Pt. 2, and now here in Pt. 3, the focus is on the papers’ mode of argumentation and this mode’s significance within the historiographical culture of the early 1990s.

In these papers, a historiographical malignancy is identified: an insistence on seeing a rise of reasoned polity and society, and of spaces of free inquiry; this rise is attended by a decline of false belief.  This is considered a malignancy because it ignores the extensive and persistent controversies over various beliefs.  The remedy, thus, is taken to be what I call “insultography”: a charting of commonalities in the polemics used to secure the boundaries of belief about what exists, or at least what is plausible.  Historical “polemical work” consistently references widely acknowledged sources of credit-worthiness and discredit (in Pt. 1 these pervasive opinions are referred to as “grand cultural ideas”): religious piety, superstition, the vulgar crowds, the emotional manipulation and illusion of the theater, courtly society, bourgeois society, investment schemes, the legacy of Isaac Newton…  Historians’ failure to acknowledge the historical importance of this polemical work as they chart the history of knowledge is taken to stem from their own selective credulity toward of these same polemics.

The current goal is to understand why the identified historiographical issue is considered an important malignancy and why the remedy is considered apt.  As suggested in Pt. 2, portraying historiographical issues as malignancies could be used to explain a gnawing problem of historiographical craft: fragmentation.  In his (free, and well worth reading) 2005 Isis article on this fragmentation phenomenon in the historiography of science, David Kaiser traced complaints about it as far back as a 1987 article by Charles Rosenberg in Isis, a 1991 Casper Hakfoort article in History of Science, and a 1993 James Secord article in BJHS.  Kaiser suggested that the fragmentation was akin to specialization that occurred within the natural sciences as they expanded in the 20th century, pointing to similar patterns of growth in the recent history of the history of science discipline.  (more…)

Wang on PSAC, Pt. 2: Enthusiasm, Skepticism, and Theodicy August 8, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography, EWP Book Club.
Tags: , , , , , , ,
add a comment

In Part 1 of this look at Zuoyue Wang’s In Sputnik’s Shadow: The President’s Science Advisory Committee and Cold War America, I suggested Wang’s use of a dichotomy between technological enthusiasm and technological skepticism as his central analytical rubric held the book back from being as illuminating as it might have been.  Part 2 explains how it does so.

As I noted in Pt. 1, the enthusiasm-skepticism rubric clearly has a moral resonance: enthusiasm is bad, skepticism is good.  Once a moral dichotomy has been established, historiography easily fades into “theodicy” — an explanation for why there is evil in the world.  The theodicy of science basically goes like this: if science, or indeed knowledge, is supposed to make the world a better place, then why does it fail to do so?  Why does it sometimes seem, or threaten, to make the world worse?  A common mid-to-late-20th-century version is: why did scientists fail to stop the Cold War?

No sane historian would actually phrase the question this way, but using the enthusiasm-skepticism rubric more-or-less implies the question, simply because the rubric’s terms are one answer to the problem of theodicy.  Blind enthusiasm for science and technology as a simple “fix” can result in evil.  Skepticism can prevent that evil.  Where skepticism fails, enthusiasm may prevail.  This line of reasoning rose in reaction to Enlightenment thought, often to reinforce the legitimacy of religious ethics and tradition-based government in the face of an idolatry of reason (see, for example, Chris’ post on Maistre, or Schaffer and Golinski on attempts to constrain scientific “genius”, or Schaffer on the criticism of Whewell).  Importantly, though, this critique is mainly just a modification or inversion of the Enlightenment argument.  Where the Enlightenment pitted the potential of rational governance against superstition and arbitrary authority, the enthusiasm of rationality and technology is simply recast as an impostor, a new form of “faith” to be overcome by those purporting to represent a truly rational response to the evils of the world.

What this rather elaborate critique has to do with PSAC is that the instantiation of a group scientists at the highest level of power, the White House, becomes the scene for an  important confrontation of good and evil, or reason and blindness.  Historiographically, this rubric translates into mundane, but still very important, consequences that manifest themselves in style and composition: it defines what questions are worth asking, which explanations and descriptions of historical events and ideas suffice, and which ones will suggest the need to ask other questions and bring in additional context in order to feel satisfied that an adequate understanding of past events has been reached.

(more…)

The Bounds of Natural Philosophy: Temporal and Practical Frontiers, Pt. 2 April 12, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
Tags: , , , , , , , ,
4 comments

How do we deal with this guy Faraday?

If you wanted to pick out a transitional figure between a wide-ranging natural philosophy and a more bounded science, Michael Faraday (1791-1867) would be about as good a choice as any.  On account of his experiments and conceptual developments in electromagnetism, Faraday is now most identified with the history of physics, but, as the protege of Humphry Davy (1778-1829), he established himself within the tradition of chemistry.  An enterprise lacking foundational principles, chemistry fit poorly with natural philosophy, but was also not fully at home in natural history, and became an early independent field.

This was, of course, a recent development.  As Jan Golinski has described in some detail, it was only circa 1800 that chemistry managed to shed an association with a wide-ranging philosophy and radical politics, and to establish itself as a much more constrained field.  The heyday of natural philosophers like James Hutton (1726-1797) was, for many, still a living memory when Faraday vocally reasserted the importance of an empirical and non-speculative attitude toward science, and began to be recognized by others as an exemplar of this vision of science.

According to Geoffrey Cantor in Michael Faraday, Sandemanian and Scientist (1991), early biographies also emphasized the empirical qualities of Faraday’s work, and it was only beginning with Joseph Agassi’s Faraday as a Natural Philosopher (1971) that a portrait of Faraday “as a bold theoretical speculator in the mould of Karl Popper” began to emerge (Cantor, 208).  For his part, Cantor sought to take Faraday’s empiricist rhetoric seriously while developing an understanding of the conceptual precepts underlying his work.  Following the lead of David Gooding’s early-1980s analyses of Faraday’s methodology, Cantor aimed “to locate Faraday’s metaphysics in his religion and, in particular, in his views about the structure of the divinely created physical world.  These views […] coloured Faraday’s highly idiosyncratic theories about matter and force” (161).

(more…)

Schaffer on Latour December 7, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
Tags: , , , , , ,
9 comments

Some of Simon Schaffer’s more interesting pieces are his essay reviews, which we ought to discuss more often in this series.  The most important, though, is the confrontational “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Bruno Latour,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 22 (1991): 174-192, a review of The Pasteurization of France.  Schaffer discusses Latour and this piece in this video (approx. from 28:15 to 35:30):

The discussion in the video, and the one it segues into about the characteristics of science studies/history of science, provide an unusually explicit discussion about what scholarship should be like, and it’s useful to have it, because I disagree with it.  Schaffer cites Latour’s arrival with a bottle of his family’s best wine to work out their positions as a testament to Latour’s personal qualities as a scholar: Latour takes the time and effort to reconcile differences rather than engage in petty infighting.  Nevertheless, the tensions brought up in “Eighteenth Brumaire” are extremely interesting, and I view it as unfortunate that the dispute was apparently resolved socially in private, rather than intellectually in public.  (If I’m missing some crucial source, as usual please correct me in comments; to my knowledge Jan Golinski comes closest.)

Schaffer acknowledges that their positions were never fully resolved, comparing the product of the tensions between their points of view to the interference fringes produced by overlapping light sources.  He goes on to discuss how our field is highly unusual in its ability to support perspectives arising from different disciplinary backgrounds.

Yet, I tend to view the persistence of unresolved perspectives as a weakness.  It is important to note that the products of unresolved intellectual tensions can exist only in the minds of those scholars who resolve the differences between perspectives on their own.  Such individuals constitute a fairly narrow group that Chris Donohue has called a “court of understanding” (see also my discussion of “perspective layering” last February). (more…)

Schaffer and Golinski on Enlightenment and Genius November 4, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

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…)