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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…)

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