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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…)


Primer: The Royal Academy of Sciences May 22, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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An imagined visit by King Louis XIV to the Royal Academy of Sciences, 1671.

OK, Hump-Day History got a bit lost the last couple weeks, but to restore some momentum, we present a special Friday edition.  I hope American readers have a fine long Memorial Day weekend.

The organization of scientific work and its communication necessarily involves the reconciliation of tensions between the inherent elitism of advanced inquiry and the aspirations of inquirers to produce universally valid knowledge, as well as between the individualism of personal initiative and the collectivism of rational agreement.  Cultures of inquiry and invention have a wide variety of choices of how to enact such reconciliations, and their choices often create a conceptual resonance between scientific practice and the culture and politics beyond the community.  This was clearly and influentially the case with the Royal Academy of Sciences, established in Paris in 1666 under the authority of absolutist monarch Louis XIV.

When the Academy was established, it represented a culmination of a decades-long proliferation of circles dedicated to the discussion of philosophical and cultural issues.  In the middle of the seventeenth century, the interests of these circles crossed freely between art and rhetoric, general scholarship, the philosophical reformism of people like René Descartes (Jacques Rohault’s, 1618-1672, “Cartesian Wednesdays” in particular), and, of course, the then-recent vogue for experimental natural philosophy often associated with Francis Bacon (and exemplified by the “Academy” run by Melchisédech Thévenot, c.1620-1692).

The short-lived Accademia del Cimento in Florence (est. 1657), and the Royal Society in London (est. 1660), suggested the possibility that centralizing inquiry (more…)