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Wakefield’s Nightmare, Pt. 2: Divided Opinion on the Political Economic Importance of Enlightenment Intellectual Culture January 25, 2015

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At the end of Pt. 1, I suggested that, in positing, respectively, the weakness and the strength of Enlightenment philosophers in pre-industrial 18th-century economic culture, Andre Wakefield and Simon Schaffer were reaching contrary historical conclusions using the same historiographical gambit. I would like to begin Pt. 2 by expanding on this point.

There is a prominent, if usually implicit, historiographical concept, which holds that injustice is allowed to occur because the cultures subject to that injustice are made invisible. Historiography, therefore, becomes a two-fold enterprise: it identifies forces of concealment, and restores visibility to hidden cultures. Labor culture, of course, has long been one such beneficiary of historians’ rescue efforts. Meanwhile, “science” (or some related concept) has often been considered a force of concealment, because it presents pictures that seem intellectually authoritative or “natural,” while failing to disclose its own biases. Both Wakefield and Schaffer apply this concept to the links between the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, albeit in different ways.

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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.

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Schaffer on the Hustings, Pt. 3: Fragmentation and Consensus August 29, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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This is the third and final part of a look at two of Simon Schaffer’s 1993 works, 1) “Augustan Realities: Nature’s Representatives and Their Cultural Resources in the Early Eighteenth Century”, and 2) “A Social History of Plausibility: Country, City and Calculation in Augustan Britain”.  In Pt. 1 and Pt. 2, and now here in Pt. 3, the focus is on the papers’ mode of argumentation and this mode’s significance within the historiographical culture of the early 1990s.

In these papers, a historiographical malignancy is identified: an insistence on seeing a rise of reasoned polity and society, and of spaces of free inquiry; this rise is attended by a decline of false belief.  This is considered a malignancy because it ignores the extensive and persistent controversies over various beliefs.  The remedy, thus, is taken to be what I call “insultography”: a charting of commonalities in the polemics used to secure the boundaries of belief about what exists, or at least what is plausible.  Historical “polemical work” consistently references widely acknowledged sources of credit-worthiness and discredit (in Pt. 1 these pervasive opinions are referred to as “grand cultural ideas”): religious piety, superstition, the vulgar crowds, the emotional manipulation and illusion of the theater, courtly society, bourgeois society, investment schemes, the legacy of Isaac Newton…  Historians’ failure to acknowledge the historical importance of this polemical work as they chart the history of knowledge is taken to stem from their own selective credulity toward of these same polemics.

The current goal is to understand why the identified historiographical issue is considered an important malignancy and why the remedy is considered apt.  As suggested in Pt. 2, portraying historiographical issues as malignancies could be used to explain a gnawing problem of historiographical craft: fragmentation.  In his (free, and well worth reading) 2005 Isis article on this fragmentation phenomenon in the historiography of science, David Kaiser traced complaints about it as far back as a 1987 article by Charles Rosenberg in Isis, a 1991 Casper Hakfoort article in History of Science, and a 1993 James Secord article in BJHS.  Kaiser suggested that the fragmentation was akin to specialization that occurred within the natural sciences as they expanded in the 20th century, pointing to similar patterns of growth in the recent history of the history of science discipline.  (more…)

Schaffer on Metrology May 10, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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This post discusses four articles that Simon Schaffer published in the 1990s on the development of standards of measurement in Victorian Britain, focusing especially on work done at Cambridge University:

1) “Late Victorian Metrology and Its Instrumentation: A Manufactory of Ohms,” in Invisible Connections: Instruments, Institutions, and Science, ed. Bud and Cozzens (Bellingham: SPIE, 1992).

2) “Rayleigh and the Establishment of Electrical Standards,” European Journal of Physics 15 (1994): 277-285.

3) “Accurate Measurement is an English Science,” in Values of Precision, ed. M. Norton Wise (Princeton UP: 1995).

4) “Metrology, Metrication, and Victorian Values,” in Victorian Science in Context, ed. Bernard Lightman (University of Chicago Press: 1997).

The rise of metrology at Cambridge coincided with the establishment of the Cavendish Laboratory in 1871 (beginning work in 1874).  Schaffer emphasizes the importance of accepted standards for industrial development, the creation of telegraph networks, the fostering of trade, and the growth of Empire.  However, he also places special emphasis on the specific questions involved in the particular history of the Cambridge standards program. When James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) became the first director of Cavendish, the use of the laboratory to develop precision instrumentation required strict group discipline from students, which ran against the grain of the liberal intent of Cambridge’s mathematical tripos, then in its heyday, as discussed in the video above.

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The Bounds of Natural Philosophy: Temporal and Practical Frontiers, Pt. 2 April 12, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
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How do we deal with this guy Faraday?

If you wanted to pick out a transitional figure between a wide-ranging natural philosophy and a more bounded science, Michael Faraday (1791-1867) would be about as good a choice as any.  On account of his experiments and conceptual developments in electromagnetism, Faraday is now most identified with the history of physics, but, as the protege of Humphry Davy (1778-1829), he established himself within the tradition of chemistry.  An enterprise lacking foundational principles, chemistry fit poorly with natural philosophy, but was also not fully at home in natural history, and became an early independent field.

This was, of course, a recent development.  As Jan Golinski has described in some detail, it was only circa 1800 that chemistry managed to shed an association with a wide-ranging philosophy and radical politics, and to establish itself as a much more constrained field.  The heyday of natural philosophers like James Hutton (1726-1797) was, for many, still a living memory when Faraday vocally reasserted the importance of an empirical and non-speculative attitude toward science, and began to be recognized by others as an exemplar of this vision of science.

According to Geoffrey Cantor in Michael Faraday, Sandemanian and Scientist (1991), early biographies also emphasized the empirical qualities of Faraday’s work, and it was only beginning with Joseph Agassi’s Faraday as a Natural Philosopher (1971) that a portrait of Faraday “as a bold theoretical speculator in the mould of Karl Popper” began to emerge (Cantor, 208).  For his part, Cantor sought to take Faraday’s empiricist rhetoric seriously while developing an understanding of the conceptual precepts underlying his work.  Following the lead of David Gooding’s early-1980s analyses of Faraday’s methodology, Cantor aimed “to locate Faraday’s metaphysics in his religion and, in particular, in his views about the structure of the divinely created physical world.  These views […] coloured Faraday’s highly idiosyncratic theories about matter and force” (161).

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The Bounds of Natural Philosophy: Temporal and Practical Frontiers, Pt. 1 March 28, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
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Lord Kelvin: still natural philosophical after all these years

If we accept the working idea that 18th-century natural philosophy could be characterized by philosophers’ willingness to incorporate ideas about the physical nature of the world into a general scheme accounting for various natural “economies” or “cosmologies” that flowed into questions encompassing the characteristics of life, body, mind, epistemology, ethics, society, theology, and politics; then we need to define how far this universalizing philosophical practice extended, both temporally and within particular cultures, and what sorts of things have happened at the boundaries.

This was an active question through the 1980s.  One common answer was professionalization and specialization (not to be conflated!—notably see Paul Lucier’s “The Professional and the Scientist in Nineteenth-Century America” in the latest Isis; the piece opens with an unusually lively historiographical discussion).  In 1983, Simon Schaffer saw boundary creation as a consequence of the political dangers attributable to public natural philosophical demonstrations.  Jack Morrell and Arnold Thackray were also very clear on this point in Gentlemen of Science: Early Years of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1981), discussing how the BA was established in the 1830s, both to promote scientific work, and to constrain the bounds of (and thus objections to) scientific investigation and thought.

It was likewise in this same early-to-mid 19th-century British context that William Whewell (1794-1866) coined the term “scientist” in response to an injunction by Samuel Coleridge (1772-1834) that men of science should not pretend to the more general and eminent title of philosopher.  (See also Schaffer (1991) on Whewell as a critic of knowledge claims.)  In 1986, Schaffer had been very explicit in denoting the establishment of new philosophies and institutions of science as signaling the “end of natural philosophy”, which also entailed the rewriting of histories of older discoveries to accommodate the new understanding of “science”, singular.

Of course, natural philosophy did not “end”.  To begin with, “scientists” were by no means prevented from discussing issues outside of their defined jurisdictions, nor, conversely, was delimited expertise devoid of broader implications.  In fact, the term “scientist” did not even catch on until much later.  However, it is clear that the situation did change, and some effort was put into figuring out how the intellectual and moral terrain of science was reconfigured. (more…)

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…)

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…)

HSS Highlights November 24, 2009

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Only a few cacti were seen in downtown Phoenix, and I am jealous of those who got a chance to get out of the city.

In the narrow space between my HSS trip, and an upcoming Thanksgiving trip, I wanted to quickly fit in a quick recap of some of the highlights of HSS.

Indiana University’s Bill Newman introduced the winner of this year’s lifetime-achievement Sarton Medal, John Murdoch.  Murdoch works on medieval and ancient science in a history of philosophy vein.  He came to Harvard in 1957, and when I was there (2002-07) his courses were of a rather different mode of pedagogy than the rest of the department.  As a 20th-century historian, I didn’t know him very well personally, but it was good to see HSS sustaining its effort to recognize and promote intellectual and philosophical history, and to bring it back into the mainstream of what we do.

[Edit, October 2011: John Murdoch died in September 2010.  An eloge written by Newman (paywall) appears in the September 2011 Isis.]

One of the big difficulties of keeping specialized intellectual history in the mainstream of a profession that has—rightly—branched out into cultural history, is how to make that work understandable and usable to those who aren’t intensively engaged with it.  On this note, I was enthused to learn about Newman’s web project,  “The Chymistry of Isaac Newton” (aka chymistry.org). (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…)