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Schaffer on Machine Philosophy, Pt. 4: Automata and the Proto-Industrial Ideology of the Enlightenment — Historiography August 13, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in Ideology of Science, Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Simon Schaffer, “Enlightened Automata” in The Sciences in Enlightened Europe, edited by William Clark, Jan Golinski, and Schaffer (Chicago University Press, 1999)

Maelzel Turk

“Enlightened Automata” is one of Schaffer’s few pieces that is especially forthright about the overarching scholarly project of which it is a part. It is certainly the centerpiece — and his clearest exposition — of his work on what he occasionally referred to as “machine philosophy,” a concept that interrelates several historical developments:

  1. The rising use of mechanisms in philosophical experiments, which have the virtue of preventing human fallibility and prejudice from influencing their outcomes.
  2. The use of mechanisms as explanatory metaphors in natural, moral, and political philosophy.
  3. The replication of natural phenomena and human behavior in mechanisms, i.e. automata.
  4. Industrialization, i.e., the replacement of craft processes with machinery, and the concomitant regulation and control of human action, especially manual labor, through managerial regimes.

Schaffer takes these four developments (but especially 2 and 4) to characterize the ideological ambitions of the Enlightenment.  In “Enlightened Automata,” he leverages the history of the construction and display of automata (3), and commentary on such automata, as a means of probing these ambitions.


Alder on Art History and the History of “Episcience” June 9, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Terminology.
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Alder, Ken

Ken Alder

My next post in my “Terminology” series will discuss art history and the history of science (among other areas) vis-à-vis the category of intellectual history.  As these two areas are also discussed by Ken Alder in his recent Isis Focus essay, “The History of Science as Oxymoron: From Scientific Exceptionalism to Episcience,” (free) I thought it might be useful to discuss that essay first.

Alder’s piece is part of a Focus section on “The Future of the History of Science,” and, as such, contains arguments about where the history of science is and where it ought to go.  (This sounds obvious, but Alder actually isn’t very explicit about these points, so we need to dig a bit to figure out his opinions.)  Initially, he seems to believe that, intellectually, the history of science is exactly where it needs to be, and that what it needs to do is get out into the world. The problem is the world just doesn’t get what we do: people at parties don’t understand what the “history of science” is, and the Wikipedia History of Science page is a mess.  Thus we need to “rebrand” (90).


Primer: The Length of the Meter January 21, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Borda Repeating Circle (Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris)

In the late-18th century, the relationship between political thought and rational inquiry was at high tide.  In 1776, Thomas Jefferson built the case for American independence as a matter of the people being impelled by causes that had their roots in “self evident truths”.  We have discussed the relationship between Joseph Priestley’s radical politics and his understanding of natural philosophy on this blog.  Nowhere, however, was the relationship so clear and so important as in Revolutionary France.

In the years after the first stages of the Revolution in 1789, ecclesiastical and hereditary authority was systematically erased from the French state so as to be replaced by a government founded upon reason, acting in the interests of the French people.  High on the agenda was the reform of weights and measures.  At the time of the Revolution, it was estimated that there were some eight hundred names for measuring units, which with local variants spun out into some 250,000 different standards.

Famously, the French invented the metric system to bring some coherence to this system, and, in the words of Condorcet, to provide measures that would be valid “for all people, for all time”.  Some of the aspects of the new (more…)

Discourse on Style April 2, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Since I eventually rejected Buffon’s “Discourse on Style” as a title for the blog (no clear science reference), here’s a few quick thoughts on what has always seemed to me to be the most important reason for reflecting on “the issues”. That is improvement in style. These thoughts aren’t well refined, so I may post some clarification later.

In his response to me (below), Matt Stanley brings up the important observation (that I haven’t seen too much myself) that popular writing by scholars is often panned by other scholars. Now, I haven’t heard too much criticism of Alder’s Measure of All Things or Galison’s Einstein’s Clocks, Poincare’s Maps (except by nitpickers on the history of telegraphy), so I’m not too sure if it’s a universal revulsion (and it’s not the first time I’ve heard calls for bringing our craft to the masses). But I think it also goes to reinforce my point that there seems to be some sort of professional need to guard “our” style against corruption, because apparently we think that our intellectual gains are fragile.

But what’s in style? I was previously a bit mean to Actor-Network Theory and Pickering’s “mangle”, saying that, by contrast, the new SEE may be “worth historians’ time”. This question of worth ought to be clarified. I do not mean that ANT and the mangle (a punk revival band name?) have no worth–I think they’re fine for those who are interested in those kinds of theories. But I think their impact on how we write history is pretty negligible. Even though we all love Latour very much, I don’t see his jargon or even his concepts getting deployed too much in the historical literature. In fact, I’d say that the bulk of the impact of sociology has been avoiding clumsy statements.

Let’s go to the literature. Here are the first three sentences of John Heilbron’s 1979 book Electricity in the 17th and 18th Centuries (which I used for my lecture on “Invention and the Industrial Revolution”): “The Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century did not affect the several branches of natural philosophy equally. Some sciences, like astronomy, mechanics and geometrical optics, already far advanced in antiquity, were then transformed into prototypes of modern, quantitative, instrumentalist physics. Other sciences, like chemistry, exchanged one set of unproductive concepts for another.”

Now, all right-thinking historians will cover their ears in pain at some of those statements. Bowler and Morus’ Making Modern Science textbook that I’m using goes out of its way to reject the idea that the “scientific revolution” (whatever that is) came to chemistry late. But here’s the thing: Heilbron’s book is actually pretty damn good, and commits very few Whiggish heresies. Yes, he drops some of these discordant sentences on us, and, yes, the sociology of science has trained us to avoid them, but that’s actually not a very substantive stylistic improvement for the sheer amount of praise showered on sociology. Again, I’m not saying the sociologists are wrong and shouldn’t exist, just that their importance for the writing of history is overstated, especially since we never mention prior historical theorists like Quentin Skinner, who offer many of the same lessons without all the quasi-philosophical hoopla. [edit: “contemporaneous” is probably more accurate than “prior”]

Enlightenment in 50 Mins. or Less! March 11, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in History 174.
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Going back to History 174, in my chemistry lecture, I basically just claimed that, despite efforts to incorporate chemistry within physical philosophy, the basic methodologies were never radically altered from the alchemical period up to (and really beyond) Dalton; new kinds of experiments were done, and new conceptual schemes emerged, but, in practice, the sort of “natural history” methodology of chemistry remained fairly constant. Special thanks to Jan Golinksi’s “Chemistry” entry in the Cambridge History of Science Vol. 4.

But today was the Enlightenment. Since entire courses are dedicated to the Enlightenment, how does one cope? Well, first, you keep your eye on what all this has to do with the scientific enterprise rather than drift off into a summary of the Enlightenment. Thus, science is a template for the overthrow of authority and the building up of new knowledge. Pit stops at salon culture, the Encyclopedia, deism/atheism. Then, you address the new political economy as a quasi-Newtonian theorization based on the actions of individual actors: Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Rousseau, Smith (yes, it was that fast, basically project sumamries rather than discussions of individual philosophy). Then, you sum up with different governmental interpretations of Enlightenment thought: enlightened despotism, Jefferson’s rationale for independence, Jefferson’s and Hamilton’s differing ideas about government, and the rationalized populism of the French Revolution/metric system (thanks Ken Alder)/Napoleonic code. Then you end up with some hand-waving about the role of rationality in governance, with a comparison of the sensibilities underlying Tinker v. Des Moines and the French ban on religious dress in schools as the cherry on top.

Presto! Thematic Enlightenment Pie. It’s an old family recipe!

Ingenious Pursuits February 11, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in History 174.
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I’m preparing my lecture on “Navigation and Exploration” for Thursday, and it’s turned out to be a much more coherent topic in the history of science than I’d initially anticipated. Right now I think I’m going to do a two part lecture, 1) the 1500s; and 2) the latter half of the 1600s. Part I deals with the rise of cartography and the use of latitude and longitude, the importance of Ptolemy’s Geography (which I didn’t previously realize), and the close connection with astronomy in the field of “cosmography” (which I also didn’t previously realize is important). I’m using John Rennie Short’s 2004 book, Making Space: Revisioning the World, 1475-1600, which covers most of what you’d like to know, although it’s a bit short on the technical details and is more of a tour of different kinds of maps and atlases. Still, it’s useful.

For Part II, I’m talking about the competition for precision; so clocks, detailed observatory studies and the like. I’m using Lisa Jardine’s Ingenious Pursuits. Ken Alder assigned this book for my undergrad Intro to the History of Science course. I’m not assigning it, because I think the more you take into the book, the better it is, and my students are not taking much into the course. I remember not getting much out of it at the time. Now, however, I find it very interesting from a historiographical point of view. Basically, as a tour of a scientific culture, I really, really like this book. It very nicely shows how practical problems and theoretical concerns were totally intertwined in Royal Society culture. But the book is totally unstructured, and hard to follow unless you pay close attention and have some familiarity with the structure of 17th century society. But, just within the first several pages, you can see how the work of the Ordnance Office, the foundation of the Royal Observatory, and the writing of Newton’s Principia are all very closely related. By weaving these things so tightly together, it helps the reader get into the heads of the participants, and, if you pay attention, how they each had different concerns–the scholarly astronomer Flamsteed versus the worldly astronomer Halley for instance.

You sort of get the same picture out of a book like Smith and Wise’s Energy and Empire, on William Thompson, who is an equally multidimensional figure as the early Royal Society fellows. But that book tends to segregate its characters’ intertwined concerns, even as it emphasizes the importance of that intertwining. As a means of historiographical presentation, the differences of approach are worth thinking about.