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Schaffer on Temporal Evolution, Pt. 1 October 12, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Finishing up our look back at some of the earliest works of Simon Schaffer, I’d like to look at the two pre-1980 works I’ve found:

1) Halley’s Atheism and the End of the World, Notes and Records of the Royal Society 32 (1977): 17-40

2) The Phoenix of Nature: Fire and Evolutionary Cosmology in Wright and Kant, Journal for the History of Astronomy 9 (1978): 180-200.  (According to this web site, this is one of Schaffer’s personal favorites).

Edmond Halley (1656-1742)

Both articles are revealing that Schaffer’s early work was specifically geared around understanding the emergence of the concept of temporal change in natural philosophical cosmologies.  The development of a temporal economy of nature was a key to the development of William Herschel’s cosmology, which Schaffer discussed in a 1980 paper that I looked at back in August.  But the idea of a transitory universe was longstanding.  Before getting into the details, though, let’s back up and look at why this is an interesting issue in the first place.

The emergence of deep time in the 18th century was an important development in geology and the development of evolutionary concepts in the history of life (exemplified in the work of Darwin, but discussed in European thought for a century prior to Origin of Species).  While, in some sense, a deep time evolutionary approach was demanded by the (more…)

Schaffer busts out the hickory October 3, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Before heading on to Leviathan and the Air-Pump, I’m heading back to some earlier Schaffer articles that I missed in my initial run-through.  This includes a couple of pieces from the late-’70s, as well as what should be required methodological reading: “Natural Philosophy” in The Ferment of Knowledge: Studies in the Historiography of Eighteenth-Century Science (1980), edited by G. S. Rousseau and Roy Porter (one of the more disciplined and useful edited volumes I’ve seen).

What fun!  Schaffer takes out a baseball bat and goes ape on the then-extant historiography of natural philosophy, moving from specific to general critiques of it, before moving on to confirm my prior guess that he saw himself as expanding upon Foucault’s “archaeological” examination of the sciences.

Schaffer places an emphasis on the need for intellectual (indeed, epistemological) conflict to resolve historiographical flaws:

…there is an important need for alternative attitudes to natural philosophy as an historical category, not merely revisions of one or other of the unifying assertions which contemporary historiography has made.  This necessarily involves a genuine confrontation with the philosophical debates on the discursive place of history of science which, significantly enough, in the work of Bachelard, Kuhn, and Foucault, have all drawn on natural philosophy in the eighteenth century for much of their evidence.  Such a confrontation is overdue.

It is far more overdue today.  I’ll explain why…. (more…)

Schaffer on Spectacle, Pt. 1 September 12, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Continuing our first career overview series on the works of Simon Schaffer, we turn to “Natural Philosophy and Public Spectacle in the Eighteenth  Century” from History of Science 21 (1983): 1-43.  The topic of science and “performance” is now pretty well-worn.  In ’83 (a quarter of a century ago now), Schaffer referred to it as “fashionable”.  But rather than jump right into the argument, I’d first like to discuss the paper’s sense of historiographical purpose.

One gets the sense that there’s a definite project at work here, as Schaffer begins by drawing on a methodological distinction that the 18th-century natural philosopher Joseph Priestley drew between “true history” and “fiction”.  According to Priestley, “fiction” is illustrative of principles, where “true history” is interrogative and experimental in the same manner as science.  Here Schaffer allies himself explicitly with John Heilbron against the “physicist-historians who were more concerned with progress rather than process.”  This is written at a time when historians of science, inspired by sociological theory, were seeking to understand history as it happened, rather than to single out accomplishments based on a post-hoc (more…)