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

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
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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.



The Post-Marxist Social History of Science of Morris Berman, Pt. 2 April 19, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility, EWP Book Club.
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This post continues Pt. 1 without re-introduction

What I like to call the “cult of invisibility” was a staple of Marxist analysis, with its constraining socio-economic structures and its psychology of false consciousness.  Invisible constraints of this sort are taken to render certain classes of actors in some sense powerless and ineffectual — their invisibility or silence or inability to articulate or perhaps even feel their own plight explains a failure of something to happen, such as the ascendancy of the working class.

In addition, historians often connect such invisible constraints to a historiographical prejudice, whereby the persistence of psychological and intellectual constraints through history restricts present ideas about what sorts of things constitute proper history, which renders certain aspects of the past systematically invisible to historical memory.   This second, historiographical form of invisibility establishes a social need for the services of the critically trained historian who can identify invisible prejudices, recover systematically concealed aspects of history, and make them more generally known, possibly helping to overcome the forces of invisibility in our own time.  E. P. Thompson’s (1924-1993) The Making of the English Working Class (1963) is probably the key work in this tradition.

The cult of invisibility not only survives, but thrives in the transition to post-Marxist historiographical analysis — a transition in which Thompson’s work was arguably instrumental.  In Morris Berman’s book on the Royal Institution (RI), the role of science as a cultural force that creates invisibility is emphasized. His major demonstration of this point comes in his extended analysis of Michael Faraday’s (and, incidentally, Charles Lyell‘s) role in the investigation verdict that there was no fault in the 1844 Haswell coal mine explosion, which had killed 94 mine workers including young boys (pp. 179-180): (more…)

The Post-Marxist Social History of Science of Morris Berman, Pt. 1 April 12, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club, Ideology of Science.
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The main source for my last post, Morris Berman’s Social Change and Scientific Organization: The Royal Institution, 1799-1844 (1978), is a very good example of a post-Marxist social history of science.  The historiographical tradition of the social history of science will benefit from some reflection, because it has been eclipsed for a quarter century, though some of its basic strategies remain phenomenally influential.  The key component, now largely missing, is the sustained analysis of how the direction of scientific research programs align with their social and economic milieu (though, of course, sources of patronage remain a subject of interest).

Unsurprisingly, Marxism is a key methodological source for the social history of science.  Traditionally, Marxist history of science maintained a narrow conceptual gap between general scientific inquiry and research related to technological development and industrial production.  Marxist analysts — the crystallographer and intellectual J. D. Bernal (1901-1971) being a prime example — usually emphasized the historical connection between scientific research and capitalist and militaristic interests.  Generally, they would not deny the importance of research pursued for intellectual interest, but they would view a self-imposed isolation of this research to be a bourgeois conceit.  Eager to point out that fundamental advances and practical problems often feed off each other, Marxists urged that scientists should take an active, conscious interest in social and political problems.

In his analysis of the history of the RI, Berman retains the Marxist emphasis in class interest, using a prosopographical analysis of the RI’s proprietors to convincingly chart a shift from an early dominance by the agenda of landed interests to a post-1815 dominance by a reform-minded class of business, legal, and medical professionals.  (more…)

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.


Primer: William Thomson January 26, 2010

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William Thomson, Age 28, Well-Established

William Thomson (1824-1907) was the son of James Thomson, an Irish professor of mathematics who moved from the University of Belfast to the University of Glasgow in Scotland in 1832.  William was raised in a latitudinarian tradition of religious tolerance, and in a whig tradition of progressive social reform.  In Glasgow, he was exposed to a scholarly environment from early on, and it was assumed he would follow in his father’s academic footsteps.  In 1841 he departed to Cambridge, where he studied for the mathematical tripos, becoming a student of the coach William Hopkins his second year.  He finished second wrangler in the January 1845 examination.

Before Thomson had even arrived at Cambridge, his father had begun the process of maneuvering him into position to take over the chair in natural philosophy at Glasgow.  William duly obtained it in 1846 at the age of 22, and held it until his retirement in 1899.  By the 1840s, natural philosophy had already begun a long process of transformation, which Thomson himself did much to mold.  Traditionally, the basis of natural philosophy was the development of theories of the materials of the universe and their powers on each other, resulting in schemes for explaining various kinds of physical phenomena, as mediated by the power of experiment.  And indeed, to qualify for the Glasgow chair, Thomson had been encouraged to seek out what limited experimental work was done at Cambridge, and, after completing the tripos, he had traveled to Paris where he assisted in the laboratory of Victor Regnault (1810-1878) at the Collège de France.

At Cambridge, meanwhile, the mathematical tripos had classically been considered an appropriate foundation of a liberal education, instilling in students analytical habits of mind. (more…)

Schaffer on Language and Proper Conduct November 16, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Daniel Defoe

One of the clearest findings in my long-term exploration of the oeuvre of Simon Schaffer, is the centrality of Schaffer’s use of the idea that a thinker’s personal understanding of the arrangement of the cosmos, their process of inquiry, and their ideas about proper social order were often intimately interrelated in philosophical inquiry in the 17th and 18th centuries.  This insight provides a powerful tool for investigating different facets of the wide field of “natural philosophy” as it intersected with other realms of intellectual activity.

It is clearly the case that natural philosophy had no defined form nor any clear boundaries with other kinds of literature.  In today’s post we step slightly outside the bounds of natural philosophy with two pieces that examine writings at the beginning and the end of natural philosophy’s golden age:

1) “Defoe’s Natural Philosophy and the Worlds of Credit,” in Nature Transfigured: Science and Literature, 1700-1900, edited by John Christie and Sally Shuttleworth, 1989.

2) “The History and Geography of the Intellectual World: Whewell’s Politics of Language,” in William Whewell: A Composite Portrait, edited by Menachem Fisch and Schaffer, 1991.

In (1), Schaffer observes the novelty of natural philosophy in Defoe’s time (c.1659-1731) and notes similarities in literary strategies between it and another new form of writing, “the news journal,” both of which “appealed to a new authority relation—that of the circumstantiated report of the novel and unprecedented event…”  In (2), at the other end of the time frame, we find a portrait of Whewell (1794-1866) as a critical writer on scientific work, (more…)

Cosmology and “Synoptic” Intellectual History September 23, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Methods.
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The influence of anthropological ideas on historiography is widely acknowledged, if too often boiled down to a slogan: “approach history as a stranger,” or “know the past on its own terms.”  On this blog, Chris Donohue has been revisiting the problems informing the interpretive approaches of Malinowski’s “functionalism” and Lévi-Strauss’ “structuralism”.  By grounding ritualistic behaviors in issues of social cohesion and cognitive strategy, these approaches bring sense to activities that, on their surface, seem arbitrary.  Applied to familiar societies, they also form part of a trend stretching over a century that makes our own social behaviors seem less explicitly rational, if not altogether less rational.  For historians of science, this is of great interest, because it helps reanalyze scientific practice in ways removed from overt scientific reasoning.

Moving beyond scientific practice as simply a particular mode of reasoning was part and parcel of the Great Escape from the philosophy of science.  But I’d now like to move beyond the limitations of abandoning philosophy, to concentrate more on the generative ideas in the same historiographical period (roughly, the fabled ’80s), which have ceased to be articulated now that that period’s gains have themselves been boiled down to basic slogans.

The most important anthropological concept that has vaporized into the atmosphere is the cognitive cosmology, an idea which holds that every society, or really every individual, necessarily creates their own sense of what is in the world and how the world works, which allows people to cope with their surroundings.  I’d like to very roughly sketch out a preliminary sense of how this idea worked in the historiography. (more…)

Primer: Michael Faraday June 17, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Michael Faraday (1791-1867) came from a London artisan family and as a youth became an apprentice at a bookbinding shop.  There he took the opportunity to read the books passing through, including such scientific titles as Conversations on Chemistry (1805) by Jane Marcet and Antoine Lavoisier’s landmark Elements of Chemistry (translated into English in 1790).  Supported in his explorations by his master and others, he attended popular scientific lectures, including some given by the celebrated chemist Humphry Davy (1778-1829) at the new Royal Institution (est. 1799).  In 1813 Faraday finagled a job as Davy’s assistant, and would remain at the Royal Institution for the rest of his life.

Faraday undertook his work throughout a period when the sciences were changing rapidly, as they were yoked into distinct specialties, and as his own area, the  experimental physical sciences, became dramatically more sophisticated.  Under Davy’s and other Royal Institution figures’ supervision, he learned the techniques of chemistry, and undertook all his early work in that field (and is credited with the discovery of benzene).  When Faraday initiated his interest in electricity and magnetism early in the 19th century, the harnessing of galvanic currents by means of voltaic piles was a recent innovation that had sparked extensive investigation into electrochemical effects (an alternative explanation is here).  Davy was a leader in this new field of study, and Faraday would likewise become an expert.  Faraday would eventually fall out with Davy—who would oppose his election to the Royal Society—and he came into his own at the Royal (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…)