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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.



Schaffer on Gestural Knowledge and Philosophical Ideologies, and Their Historiographical Ramifications October 27, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Ideology of Science, Schaffer Oeuvre.
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In “Experimenters’ Techniques, Dyers’ Hands, and the Electric Planetarium” (1997), Simon Schaffer makes a set of ambitious arguments concerning how 18th-century natural philosophy regarded knowledge that is dependent upon, and sometimes tacit within, manual labor. His entryway into this problem is the frequently ineffable manual skill required in early electrical experimentation, and the intriguing coincidence that two of the most prominent early 18th-century electrical experimenters, Stephen Gray (1666-1736) and Charles Dufay (1698-1739), were, respectively, a former Canterbury cloth dyer and overseer of the Gobelins dye works in Paris.

dying silk

From Hellot, Macquer, and Le Pileur d’Apligny, The Art of Dying Wool, Silk, and Cotton, 1789 English edition


Terminology: The History of Ideas May 19, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Terminology.
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Arthur Lovejoy (1873-1962), proponent of one version of the history of ideas

Arthur Lovejoy (1873-1962), proponent of one version of the history of ideas

One of the drums I like to beat is that historians’ methodological toolkit is well developed, but that we do not use this toolkit as cooperatively and as productively as we might.  Part of making good use of tools is having good terminology, which helps us to understand and talk about what tools we have and what they’re good for, and how they can be used selectively and in chorus with each other.  It also helps avoid needless disputes, where vague language leads to perceptions of wrong-headedness and naiveté.  For example, I like to talk about the need for “synthesis,” which I take to mean an interrelating of historians’ works at the level of their particulars (rather than mere thematic similarity).  For me, synthesis is a sign of a healthy historiography, but such calls could be dismissed by others as a call for “Grand Synthesis,” which all right-thinking historians have been taught to shun.

For this reason, I thought it might be useful to suggest some definitions, which I personally follow.  In some cases, these are the result of extensive reflection, and, if you go into the archives of this blog, you will find I do not use the terms consistently.  And, of course, I don’t suppose my terms are the final word on the subject.  The best thing would be if they opened the door for debate and clarification.  In this post, I want to talk about:

The History of Ideas


History-Philosophy Relations, Pt. 2: The Weltphilosophie of Historical Epistemology February 16, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Rheinberger's history of historical epistemology

Rheinberger’s history of historical epistemology

The program of “historical epistemology” represents one of the more ambitious and thoughtful projects espoused by historians of science in recent years.  The self-conscious efforts of people like Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, Lorraine Daston, and Peter Galison to renew interest in epistemological questions among historians is laudable.  And their point that epistemology is something that is invented rather than transcendental—and thus historically variable in its content—is surely a correct observation, at least from a historiographical standpoint.

That said, I have never been fully comfortable with the history produced by historical epistemology.  To date, the program has received the most intensive scrutiny from philosophers.  A good example is Martin Kusch’s 2010 paper, “Hacking’s Historical Epistemology: A Critique of Styles of Reasoning”.*  My own interest in the subject has less to do with the integrity of historical epistemology as epistemology (a subject I am happy to leave to philosophers), as it does with its Weltphilosophie and its conception of the history-philosophy relationship.


Modernity, the Cold War, and New Whig Histories of Ideas, Pt. 2 October 21, 2012

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This post is an interlude in my look at Cold War Social Science. It paves the way for further discussion of that book, but contains no reference to its contents.

A new whig historiography of the social sciences, which I began to describe in part 1, posits a crucial role for intellectual figures’ ideas in history. These ideas need not be the source of the broader (non-intellectualized) ideas that drive social and political trends. Intellectuals’ ideas do, however, at least have the power to reinforce such trends by helping to prevent alternative ideas from instigating change. Thus, in this historiography, past intellectuals’ ideas tend to be illiberal ideas.

The historiography is whiggish rather than anti-intellectual in that it is constructed from the narratives of intellectuals who purport to represent the advent of a genuinely liberating intellectual movement. To understand the narrative features of this historiography, it is important to understand how it retains elements of narratives generated by a long line of purportedly liberating intellectual movements, and how it claims to diverge from them.


Strangers and Confidants January 30, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Tactile History.
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Much tactile history of science is basically an attempt to get as close to past scientific practices and technical knowledge as possible, so as to transcend the lack of verbalization of tacit knowledge, techniques, material culture, and experience, which we fail to inherit through the textual record alone. Intriguingly, although tactile history is very much the opposite of “playing the stranger”, these motivations are quite similar to those given for treating science with an anthropological remove.

Perhaps our clearest articulation for an anthropological approach is to be found in Bruno Latour and Steven Woolgar’s classic study of a Salk Institute laboratory, Laboratory Life (1979). In their introduction, they make their case for working in an anthropological mode, and are quite clear that this mode is particularly warranted on account of the social fact of the peculiar intellectual power of science, which threatens to subsume any analysis of its culture (29–30, their emphasis on “not”, mine on the last clause):

We take the apparent superiority of the members of our laboratory in technical matters to be insignificant, in the sense that we do not regard prior cognition (or in the case of an ex-participant, prior socialisation) as a necessary prerequisite for understanding scientists’ work. This is similar to an anthropologist’s refusal to bow before the knowledge of a primitive sorcerer. For us, the dangers of ‘going native’ outweigh the possible advantages of ease of access and rapid establishment of rapport with participants. Scientists in our laboratory constitute a tribe whose daily manipulation and production of objects is in danger of being misunderstood, if accorded the high status with which its outputs are sometimes greeted by the outside world. There are, as far as we know, no a priori reasons for supposing that scientists’ practice is any more rational than that of outsiders. We shall therefore attempt to make the activities of the laboratory seem as strange as possible in order not to take too much for granted. 


David Hume on the Reduction of Sentiments January 21, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Chymistry, History of the Human Sciences.
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This post illustrates some points concerning how arguments were constructed in 18th century philosophy, which I made in my last post on the historical science-economics relationship.

Last summer I was staying over at someone’s house and happened to notice an old college copy of David Hume (1711-1776), I think An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751), sitting on a bookshelf.  With a little downtime on my hands, I decided to have a quick skim.  What struck me at the time was Hume’s use of historical events and poets’ observations as facts or phenomena that could be fit within a more systematized theory of human sentiments.  I was going to write about that, but, going back, either I wasn’t reading the same thing, or Hume just doesn’t use the device as much as I thought (preferring more vague references to common experience and opinion).  So, never mind that.

What did grab me on re-reading is Hume’s well-known argument against a reduction of human sentiment to self-interest, per Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) among others.  Hume framed his criticism in an interesting way:

An Epicurean or a Hobbist readily allows, that there is such a thing as a friendship in the world, without hypocrisy or disguise; though he may attempt, by a philosophical chymistry, to resolve the elements of this passion, if I may so speak, into those of another, and explain every affection to be self-love, twisted and moulded, by a particular turn of imagination, into a variety of appearances. But as the same turn of imagination prevails not in every man, nor gives the same direction to the original passion; this is sufficient even according to the selfish system to make the widest difference in human characters, and denominate one man virtuous and humane, another vicious and meanly interested.


Schaffer on the Hustings, Pt. 1 August 24, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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This post looks at two works from the oeuvre of Simon Schaffer:

1) “Augustan Realities: Nature’s Representatives and Their Cultural Resources in the Early Eighteenth Century” in Realism and Representation: Essays on the Problem of Realism in Relation to Science, Literature, and Culture, ed. George Levin, 1993, pp. 128-157.

2) “A Social History of Plausibility: Country, City and Calculation in Augustan Britain” in Rethinking Social History: English Society 1570-1920 and its interpretation, ed. Adrian Wilson, 1993, pp. 279-318.

Both papers find Schaffer on the hustings.  As historian of medicine Adrian Wilson puts it in the introduction to the Rethinking Social History volume, “Simon Schaffer’s chapter … can be read as a plea to social historians to concern themselves with the history of science.”  This appeal is made by identifying certain misconceptions about the role of science in history prevalent in a broader historiography.  According to Schaffer:

Received history has it that the eighteenth century was a crucial period for the establishment of [realist] regimes.  The novel and the experimental report appeared as legitimate means of representing the moral and the natural order….  Somehow or other, older, courtly forms of making knowledge failed or were thrust aside. (1; 283/5)


The social history of [stories about claims about things like humans giving birth to animals, perpetual motion, and the inverse square law of gravity] has typically been described in terms of the ‘decline of magic’ and the ‘disenchantment of the world.’ (2; 128) (more…)

Entente Cordiale: Anthropological and Natural Philosophical Cosmology March 2, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
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Simon Schaffer’s “Natural Philosophy” in Ferment of Knowledge (1980) is an exhilarating piece by a 25-year-old scholar.  When I first looked at it on this blog, I gave my post the title “Schaffer Busts Out the Hickory”, suggesting that he had taken a wooden bat to the extant literature on the topic.  In view of the scholarship of today’s grande entente cordiale, it was really refreshing to see a vigorous and pointed critique directed against other historians’ work.  Sure, it was a tad violent, but it was in the service of progress!  “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven” and all that.

Anyway, partially a part of the growing rebuke against viewing 18th-century science as an outgrowth of a grand tradition of “Newtonianism”, partially a rebuke against attempts to define natural philosophy in terms of what makes it distinct from science (e.g., Kuhn’s definition of “pre-paradigmatic science”), the piece ultimately moves beyond criticism and becomes a messily-articulated, but powerful and original discussion of how one might begin to construct a positively-defined historiography of natural philosophy.

Schaffer identified two possible proposals for constructively analyzing the history of natural philosophical systems:

[S]ome historians [cite: Barry Barnes and Steven Shapin] have used the ideas of Mary Douglas, Robin Horton, and other cultural anthropologies as clues to unravel the cosmologies of natural philosophers, while Michel Foucault has constructed an ‘archaeology of knowledge’ with which to analyse the structure of natural philosophy as a set of discourses.  These contrasting approaches derive from two opposed epistemologies.  (86)


Foucault, Ginzburg, Latour, and the Gallery September 30, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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This post is an expansion on my previous post on Lorraine Daston’s discussion of the proliferation of microhistories that are “archivally based and narrated in exquisite detail” but that seem to serve no clear end.  I largely agree with her assessment of this trend as an unsatisfactory state of affairs, as well as with her linking of the trend to a divergence from a prior era of productive dialogue with the other fields of science studies.  However, she makes two key claims with which I disagree:

  1. “…in large part because of the mandate to embed science in context, historians of science have become self-consciously disciplined, and the discipline to which they have submitted themselves is history” (808).
  2. “Insofar as there has been a counterweight to these miniaturizing tendencies in recent work in the history of science, it has been supplied not by science studies but by a still more thoroughgoing form of historicism, namely, the philosophical history of Michel Foucault” (809).

I do not believe historians of science have in some way exchanged science studies for history, and I believe the historicism associated here with Foucault represents a continuity with the scholarship of the ’80s.

Let’s start with the intertwined set of highly productive conversations that took place around the ’80s (which we are beginning to revisit on this blog, and of which Daston was a part).  Participants understood their gains to be generated by studying things like “practice not ideas”, “instruments”, “cultures of the fact” and so forth, which are slogans that make sense if you have a (more…)