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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?

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Schaffer on Machine Philosophy, Pt. 2: Atwood’s Machine and the Status of Newtonian Philosophy September 15, 2013

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John Smeaton’s experiment to estimate the efficiency of waterwheels. Philosophical Transactions 51 (1759).

This post continues our examination of Simon Schaffer’s “Machine Philosophy: Demonstration Devices in Georgian Mechanics” (1994).  Last time, we looked at how Atwood’s Machine was used at Cambridge as a dramatic means of convincing mathematics students of the validity of Newton’s laws, which they were expected to use to explain various physical phenomena.  Here we examine how proponents of Isaac Newton’s mechanics tried to use the machine to make points with audiences whose perceptions of the reach and fundamentality of Newton’s laws were varied and unstable.

First, though, let’s revisit some of the themes of Schaffer’s earlier works to see how this piece fits into a larger picture.

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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.
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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.

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The Post-Marxist Social History of Science of Morris Berman, Pt. 3 April 21, 2011

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This post continues Pt. 2.  (Or, return to Pt. 1)

At the beginning of his preface to his book on the early years of the Royal Institution, Morris Berman explicitly states that his aim is to use history “to ask … significant questions regarding the nature and function of science in industrial society” (xi).  At the end of Pt. 2, I wrote that I believe we are secure insofar as we say that “science” and “reason” were “important cultural touchstones” in 19th-century Britain.

What I meant by a touchstone is that claiming that an explanation of something was “scientific” or that a proposed plan of action was “reasonable” would have been a means of associating the explanation or plan with a high status.  (These are of course still touchstones, although my impression is their present use in public discourse carries less of a sense of general virtue.)  However, given the number of such touchstones any society has — many of them contradictory — and given the lack of any control over the use of such touchstones, to say that some concept was a touchstone is not to say much at all.  Could, for example, an explanation deemed “scientific” trump an assessment of a plan as “unfair”?  It is not clear to me that we can say anything about the interplay of these concepts that would consistently describe social and political action, or even rhetoric in 19th-century Britain.

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

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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).

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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.

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Thematic Concerns and Synopticism in the Historiography of Scientific Work February 5, 2010

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Jed Buchwald began his essay review of Crosbie Smith and Norton Wise’s 1989 biography of William Thomson, Energy and Empire (British Journal for the History of Science 24 (1991) pp. 85-94) with the observation, “Post-modernism and Benoit Mandelbrot have found their way to the history of science.”  He went on to identify the book as “a sort of fractal biography“, and observed, “Here we have, as it were, an attempt to force meaning, but not global order, to emerge out of chaos through guided immersion in the chaos itself.” The “ever-present aim” is “thematic unity”.  Buchwald saw this as a new methodological tack, and his characterization of it is worth a lengthy quote.  Rhetorically asking why one should write a massive biography of a very important, but not Very Important physicist, he surmises:

The answer Smith and Wise would give, I think, points to Thomson’s unique significance as the exemplar and the creator of a special kind of imperial science and engineering.  His scientific creations both reflect and constitute a powerful amalgam of social, cultural and economic trends that shaped British physics and physics-based engineering into a form that gave it worldwide dominance during the same period, and for many of the same reasons, that Clydeside ship-builders and the British telegraph dominated.  I know of no comparable biography, or history, that so directly embraces and thoroughly works the view that every aspect of an individual’s career is indissolubly bound to every other aspect of it, that the whole connects both globally and in intimate detail to tendencies that influenced populous groups of people and that have at first sight little to do with questions such as whether or not one should treat moving force as an energy gradient.

Of course, the attempt to derive unity from an individual’s intellectual output was not new.  We have already seen on this blog how in 1984 Simon Schaffer had criticized the literature on Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) for portraying him as a “synoptic thinker”.  Energy and Empire was part of the very same discussion.  In fact, in their chapter 4 on the “changing tradition of natural philosophy”, Smith and Wise drew on Schaffer’s work on Glasgow astronomer John Pringle Nichol (1804-1859), whose commitment to social progress accorded with his support for the nebular hypothesis and the attendant implication of cosmological progress, which (apparently) implied an endorsement of the general concept of progress by nature itself. (more…)

Schaffer and Golinski on Enlightenment and Genius November 4, 2009

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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…)

Simon Schaffer and Jan Golinski on Eudiometry October 17, 2009

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Landrianis eudiometer, from the Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza in Florence

Diagram of a eudiometer, from the Museo Galileo in Florence

First off, apologies for slow posting—things have been too bananas recently to indulge blog-related side interests.  I’m hoping things clear up soon, but I’m presenting my research on Antarctic research at 4S here in DC at the end of the month, so things may remain at a trickle until November.  However, before it got too desolate around here, I did want to parachute in and do a quick write-up on eudiometry.  Our article is: Simon Schaffer, “Measuring Virtue: Eudiometry, Enlightenment, and Pneumatic Medicine” in The Medical Enlightenment of the Eighteenth Century, Andrew Cunningham and Roger French, eds., 1990, pp. 281-318.  A close companion work is Jan Golinski’s Science as Public Culture: Chemistry and Enlightenment in Britain, 1760-1820, Cambridge UP, 1992, esp. pp. 117-128.  I won’t try and distinguish the two treatments here.

The technology of the eudiometer is based on Joseph Priestley’s “nitrous air test”, devised in 1772.  A good explanation of the nitrous air test as well as a computer animation of how eudiometers worked are available from the Museo Galileo in Florence (for modern scientific explanation, see the animation here).  The basic idea is that manufactured nitrous air (nitrogen oxide) is mixed with a sample of ambient air.  Part of the mixture dissolves into water leading to a decreased volume of now-unrespirable air in the chamber, which can be measured.  Priestley (1733-1804), understanding the respirability of air to be reflective of its virtue, and understanding respiration to transfer phlogiston from the body to the air, understood the remaining air to be phlogisticated by the test, and the test to be a measure of the “goodness” of the common air used.

Italian experimenters, beginning with Felice Fontana and Marsilio Landriani replicated the test, embodying it in an instrument that Landriani called a eudiometer, which taken from Greek literally means a measuring instrument of the goodness of the air.  Through the (more…)

Schaffer on the Priestley Lit October 5, 2009

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Getting back to the series on Simon Schaffer, we’re going to be looking at a series of articles on Enlightenment chemistry, which will hopefully give us the opportunity to discuss Jan Golinski’s book Science as Public Culture: Chemistry and Enlightenment in Britain, 1760-1820, which expressly owes a lot to Schaffer’s work, and covers a lot of the same ground.  First, though, I want to backtrack to jot down a few notes about the 1984 piece, “Priestley’s Questions: An Historiographic Survey,” History of Science 22: 151-183.

Joseph Priestley

Joseph Priestley

At the end of last year, we discussed Schaffer’s 1987 piece, “Priestley and the Politics of Spirit”.  To recap, Schaffer was calling attention to the connections some 18th-century natural philosophers made between pneumatic and electrical phenomena and the actions of spirit, and Priestley’s desire to dissociate theological from natural philosophy.  In the earlier piece, Schaffer was reviewing problems identified in the analysis of Priestley’s life and identifying historiographical strategies used to address those problems—a service that should be a much more common feature of our journals (and one also at work in his criticism of the Newton literature).

Priestley (1733-1804) was a dynamic figure of particular historiographical interest for a couple of reasons: first, he was an innovative chemical experimenter, making significant contributions to the chemistry of air that began to develop in the latter half of the 18th century, but also remaining a staunch proponent of the phlogiston theory even after most chemists accepted Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier’s chemistry of oxygen.  Second, Priestley was a proponent of the Enlightenment project linking political authority to reasoned assent—a radical position at that time.  Schaffer pointed out that the historiography of (more…)