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Neglected Connections between the Histories of Science and Economics, Pt. 2 March 9, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Part 1 of this post argued that the historical relations between natural scientific and economic thought require additional attention.  It suggested that in the Enlightenment period both were subsumed within the epistemology of philosophical systems-building and the generic argumentative structure of “economy”.  Although David Hume’s theory of morals was not economics, per se, in a separate post I used his example to demonstrate how the argumentative construction of a social economy had to face similar intellectual problems as chemistry, botany, and (what was thought of as) physics.

Part 2 emphasizes the importance of logical or argumentative space in economic thought, as exemplified by — but by no means limited to — mathematical inquiry.  I want to argue that economics continued to adhere to the argumentative strategy of system-building familiar from 18th-century natural and political philosophy.  Meanwhile, though, most natural sciences took a separate path toward argumentative rigor applied to a tightly constrained space of argumentation, such as that defined by laboratory phenomena.  Political economists were deeply influenced by the natural sciences’ newly enhanced commitment to rigor, but interpreted that commitment in novel ways within the relatively unconstrained argumentative space of political economy.

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Schaffer on Metrology May 10, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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This post discusses four articles that Simon Schaffer published in the 1990s on the development of standards of measurement in Victorian Britain, focusing especially on work done at Cambridge University:

1) “Late Victorian Metrology and Its Instrumentation: A Manufactory of Ohms,” in Invisible Connections: Instruments, Institutions, and Science, ed. Bud and Cozzens (Bellingham: SPIE, 1992).

2) “Rayleigh and the Establishment of Electrical Standards,” European Journal of Physics 15 (1994): 277-285.

3) “Accurate Measurement is an English Science,” in Values of Precision, ed. M. Norton Wise (Princeton UP: 1995).

4) “Metrology, Metrication, and Victorian Values,” in Victorian Science in Context, ed. Bernard Lightman (University of Chicago Press: 1997).

The rise of metrology at Cambridge coincided with the establishment of the Cavendish Laboratory in 1871 (beginning work in 1874).  Schaffer emphasizes the importance of accepted standards for industrial development, the creation of telegraph networks, the fostering of trade, and the growth of Empire.  However, he also places special emphasis on the specific questions involved in the particular history of the Cambridge standards program. When James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) became the first director of Cavendish, the use of the laboratory to develop precision instrumentation required strict group discipline from students, which ran against the grain of the liberal intent of Cambridge’s mathematical tripos, then in its heyday, as discussed in the video above.

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Schaffer on the Nebular Hypothesis February 6, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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We’re going to be skipping around in the Schaffer bibliography a little bit now in the hopes of approaching his articles in a way that makes the most sense to me.  Today I want to look at “The Nebular Hypothesis and the Science of Progress” from History, Humanity, and Evolution: Essays for John C. Greene, edited by James R. Moore (1989).  This work is fascinating to me for a few reasons.

1850 sketch of the Orion Nebula

1850 illustration of the Orion Nebula by Lord Rosse

First and foremost, it represents Schaffer’s attempt to translate his methodology for studying natural philosophical cosmologies into the era of disciplined science.  Natural philosophical cosmology was not a tightly restrained genre.  While we might say that there were identifiable sub-genres of cosmology that adhered to fairly specific methodologies and cosmological possibilities, the boundaries between these were very porous, and ideas transplanted themselves fairly easily between them.

Schaffer liked to use the term “resource” to describe these ideas.  Certain kinds of philosophical argument became “possible” (though, of course, not (more…)

Primer: William Whewell and the “Method of Hypothesis” October 15, 2008

Posted by Christopher Donohue in EWP Primer.
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William Whewell was born on 24 May 1794 and died on 6 March 1866. Harvey Becher in the essay “William Whewell’s Odyssey: From Mathematics to Moral Philosophy” gives a good sense of both the polymath quality of Whewell’s inquiries and the fundamental reality that his interdisciplinary stance reveals about Victorian science. Becher notes, in a somewhat “heroic” fashion, “During his fifty-four years at Trinity College in Cambridge University, in an age when knowledge reverberated throughout an intellectual world unencumbered by barriers erected by disciplines narrowly defined as means and ends of themselves, Whewell incessantly studied and promoted the science and pedagogy which engulfed him.” (See William Whewell: A Composite Portrait, p. 1.) Whewell wrote on subjects as diverse as geology, mineralogy, mechanics, mathematics, political economy, political theory, and architecture.

Whewell was both a founding member and one of the first presidents of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, a fellow of the Royal Society, a president of the Geological Society, and was the Master, with intermittent controversy, of Trinity College, Cambridge. He exchanged ideas and letters with such well-known men of Victorian science as John Herschel and Charles Lyell, and exerted considerable influence on Michael Faraday. Whewell’s Bridgewater Treatise, Astronomy and general physics considered with reference to Natural Theology, published in 1830, was an important text (more…)