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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.


Holiday & Introductory Course August 3, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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I am going to be doing some traveling for the next couple of weeks, and so there are likely to be no new posts in that time.  In other news, starting in October, I will be teaching a year-long introduction to the history of science course here at Imperial.  I’ve included a tentative lecture schedule and reading list below the fold.  This isn’t set in stone yet, so comments and suggestions are welcome.


Dear and Jasanoff on Daston on the Current Situation February 27, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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The December Isis has been published, which includes a response from Sheila Jasanoff and Peter Dear to Lorraine Daston’s 2009 Critical Inquiry article, “Science Studies and the History of Science” (paywall), entitled “Dismantling Boundaries in Science and Technology Studies” (paywall).  I posted my own two-part reaction to Daston’s piece in September 2009: “Daston on the Current Situation” and “Foucault, Ginzburg, Latour, and the Gallery” (a title that is great search-engine fodder, by the way; it is now the most visited post on this blog written by me).

I don’t really have any major new reflections here, but I will offer a couple of observations, as well as some recapitulations of points I’ve already made.  (more…)

Integration without Differentiation: The Fate of the Natural Philosophy Problem March 25, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
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As I noted in my last post, the notion that we have experienced a historiographic revolution in the history of science has often been predicated on the notion that the key insight of that revolution was a conceptual extension of epistemology into the social.  In principle, this insight should support a number of conceptual variations within the general framework.  Thus, for instance, the avowed eclecticism of Natural Order (1979), which was supposed to begin a longer process by gathering examples which would accommodate a subsequent historical and philosophical synthesis.  In their introduction to the book, Barry Barnes and Steven Shapin warned , “Our predominant concern has […] been to obtain contributions based in concrete work [i.e., empirical history], and for this reason no unified point of view, or overall framework or theory, will be found consistently used and advocated through the book” (13).

In his 1980 Isis essay review of the collection (pp. 291-295), historian of medicine Charles Rosenberg described the general project as a “laudable task” (295), but worried that the book embraced “a position so tentative and eclectic that it almost approximates the theory-starved practice of a good many historians” (292).  This quality lent cover to an undifferentiated treatment of the connections between knowledge and social relations: it concentrated on the fact of the relationship between subject and its socio-cultural context rather than offering any notions about the manner of the relationship, and what the role and importance of various contexts were.  “Such facile connection between social location and the form of a particular idea removes the historical actor from that very richness of context in which Barnes and Shapin would have him placed” (ibid) … “the contributors almost never place their protagonists in appropriately detailed social location” (293).

As far as I can discern, the whole point of putting a number of historiographical problems under the single, crucial rubric of social epistemology was that it would prompt a differentiation between different manners of subject-context relations, allowing an explicit formulation of the relationships between differentiated historical phenomena to be forged.  The benefit of placing one’s own historiographical project within this rubric was the potential that it could be productively related to others’ historiographical projects.  The danger was that one’s own historiographical project, once integrated into the rubric, would fail to be distinguished from those other projects.  We return to the “problem of natural philosophy”. (more…)

Chris Renwick on the History of Thinking about Science October 21, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Today we have the second guest post by Chris Renwick, who starting in January will be a lecturer in modern British history at the University of York.

In one way or another, most approaches to history of science share a common intellectual assumption: that science can be related to the contexts in which it is produced, even if historians can’t agree about what’s important when talking about those contexts. Indeed, such is the importance of this contextualist point that it is often seen as a crucial moment in moving history of science away from the wholly discredited study of great men and their ideas. When, though, did this shift take place and who was responsible for it?

Ever since I started out as graduate student, I’d assumed, like many others, that the effort to relate science and its contexts was originally the gift of Karl Marx and Marxism. After all, who doesn’t know the story of the letter in which Marx explained how Charles Darwin had transplanted Victorian society onto the natural world (though, for the record, the letter we always attribute to Marx was actually written by Engels) or the legend of Russian physicist Borris Hessen’s presentation on Isaac Newton to the Second International Congress of the History of Science at the Science Museum in London in 1931? However, in considering this issue recently I’ve come to the conclusion that something is missing from our understanding of the history of history of science and that it tells us something important about the intellectual trajectory of the field.

Ashley Montagu (1905-1999)

Ashley Montagu (1905-1999)

Part of what sparked my interest in this issue was a 1952 book, entitled Darwinism: Competition and Cooperation, by the British-American anthropologist Ashley Montagu, who played a leading role in the production of the famous 1950 UNESCO statement on race. In that book, Montagu argued that it wasn’t Marx or Marxists who first grasped how to relate science to its socioeconomic contexts but Patrick Geddes—the Scottish biologist, sociologist, and town planner whom I’ve spent a great deal of time studying (see pages 29 to 31 in particular). To illustrate his point, Montagu picked out a passage from Geddes’ late 1880s article on “Biology” for Chamber’s Encyclopaedia:

The substitution of Darwin for Paley as the chief interpreter of the order of nature is currently regarded as the displacement of an anthropomorphic view by a purely scientific one: a little reflection, however, will show that what has actually happened has been merely the replacement of the anthropomorphism of the eighteenth century by that of the nineteenth. For the place vacated by Paley’s theological and metaphysical explanation has simply been occupied by that suggested to Darwin and Wallace by Malthus in terms of the (more…)

Canonical: Matters of Exchange October 31, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Canon Building, EWP Book Club.
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Building off of my preliminary reaction to Harold Cook’s Matters of Exchange, the key to understanding how the book works is to take notice of its lack of authorial voice.  Evidence of intense and skilled scholarship is to be found everywhere in the numerous detailed and intertwined narratives that Cook presents (what I referred to as an “elegant” style).  But commentary to help readers understand what the scholarship has revealed is generally not to be found.  Thus, the book is not very argument-intensive.  When Cook does show up to offer commentary, it is usually pretty unadventurous.  Some variation on “a lot of different people had to come together to make this work happen” pops up for a couple of paragraphs at the end of most chapters.  Until the end, anyway….

“Just the simple, curious, unexpected facts” ma’am

As I pointed out, the book does put forward what we can call the “commerce thesis” about facts being produced by the agreements necessary in a culture of commerce and connoisseurship.  Straightforward enough.  However, commenter Loïc (of the History of Economics Playground) expressed serious reservations about the elegant style allowing for an unannounced stacking of the deck in favor of the argument.  I felt the book was responsible enough, but am now thinking that Loïc has a point that applies here, too.  In the last chapter and conclusion of the book, Cook unfurls an aggressively old-fashioned argument about the rise of science—what he calls a “new science” or a “new philosophy” in contrast to “old ways of knowing”.

Cook is very explicit in the importance he attaches to the rise of empirical knowledge obtained via the senses and communicated through networks of trusted sources and its overtaking of a natural philosophy based upon authority and theorization that was closely connected to moral philosophy and theology.  This “new science could lay claim to being a universal method of investigation, even when those participating in it hesitated or disagreed about its conceptual (more…)

Schaffer on Herschel’s Cosmology August 22, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives, Brittle Books Collection

William Herschel's 40 ft. telescope at Slough. Credit: AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives, Brittle Books Collection

In thinking about why I enjoy working in the history of science so much, the answer I increasingly come up with is that it gives us a sort of understanding of why arguments are structured in the way that they are, and, crucially, why they make sense to those who make them. Others seem to like to study science as a repository of accepted knowledge, or as a tool for technological development or for structuring society, or simply as a subset of museological reconstruction. But, in my mind, work like, say, Peter Dear’s, which regularly traces not just the connection between scientific work and its time and place, but the reason why arguments make sense in different times and places, is the most exciting. Looking at science in this vein, it is possible to see it as more than just “knowledge functioning in society” but as a social institution dedicated to the construction of highly sophisticated methods of arriving at “knowledge one can rely on”.

So, what does an article about theories of things like sunspots being holes in the solar atmosphere leading down to a temperate layer where intelligent beings live have to do with “knowledge one can rely on”? As I explored a little bit in my prior post on “cosmology and the problem of the problem”, the ability to connect knowledge into a coherent world system has long been a crucial method of argumentation. It is misleading to look at the scientific revolution and assume one of its major products was an argumentative restraint that refused to intuit knowledge where no reliable knowledge could be found (case-in-point, Newton’s celebrated “hypotheses non fingo”). This is because, first, speculation is always necessary to the development of new knowledge, and, second, it is incredibly problematic to determine when one does or (more…)

Bowler and Morus/Naive Positions March 3, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in History 174.
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In History 174 we’ve now come to the end of Peter Dear’s Revolutionizing the Sciences, a textbook which I like a great deal (and the students seemed to like it, too). For the rest of the course, the textbook is Peter Bowler and Iwan Rhys-Morus’ Making Modern Science, which I generally like, but I have one major criticism that applies both to it, and to history of science writing in general, and that is its insistence on arguing against naive positions.

We’re starting out with their chapter on “The Chemical Revolution”, which they frame around the question of whether the chemical revolution was delayed by a century from the rest of the scientific revolution (and, of course, whether it was a revolution at all). They mount a sustained attack on the notion. This general strategy is employed throughout the book. Various historians, like Kuhn, are constantly making an appearance. I can’t help but think that this is distracting to students. I would be willing to bet they have no a priori notions abut the “chemical revolution”, so why burden the text by structuring it around a refutation of such notions? I believe the point of a textbook is to tell the best, most informative history we can, not to lay bare the neuroses of our profession induced in us by our battles with our forebears [edit; rereading Bowler and Morus this morning, this last clause is too extreme a description for what they clearly have intentionally deployed as an interesting framing device–but I think the statement is valid for why it might seem like a good idea to insert the “history of science profession” so prominently into a “history of science textbook”].

Really, the strategy isn’t surprising, because it is, in general, a habit ingrained in our desire to elevate our own analyses by arguing against the naive positions of certain prior thinkers about science, or against the “science textbook presentation”, or against “pop science”, or against the notion that the progress of science is independent of its context, as if these represented a living and threatening school of historical thought. My historiography guru David Edgerton has publicly and privately criticized technology historians’ habit of taking on straw men like the “linear model” (my students will read his piece against this straw man) and technological determinism. I tend to glorify mainline historians, but they, too, tend to rail against viewing developments as inevitable, and insist on looking at how events are “contingent”. If we’re going to improve our art, we need to avoid intellectual crutches like arguing against long-comatose naive positions.

History of Science course Cliff’s Notes February 7, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in History 174.
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I think my students are getting a little blown away this early in the semester with what I have to admit is some fairly heavy stuff. We had our first sections Tuesday, and my TA showed me “one of the better” quizzes. “But Christopher,” I said, “this person didn’t get anything right!” At least they filled in the blanks. Now, mind you, I’m telling my students exactly what will be on the quiz. If the topic isn’t on my nifty Powerpoint lecture slides or mentioned three times in the textbook (and we haven’t gotten to the first textbook, Peter Dear, yet), it won’t be on the quiz–and these slides are made available on the course website. Nevertheless, I’m told, the students looked at my TA “as though he had two heads” when handed the quiz.

Anyway, I’m convinced that once it sinks in that the class isn’t going to be “nifty background for science majors” they’ll be up to the task. But I’m also giving them online Cliff’s notes to help them through the material. I thought I’d repost these here as well as my background posts, just to demonstrate what I’m up to in a bit more detail. As a warning, these will be sort of on the long side.

Reposted from the History 174 Blog

Today’s lecture blew by quicker than I thought, and with a topic as vague as medieval literary culture, a number of you seem to feel that a little more road map might have been nice. I’ll go over a few main points here, but my first point is not to worry too much. We’re still in background material, and so if you just come away with some impressions of what the medieval book culture looked like, that should be OK to get along with. But, here’s a quick recap:

1) There are a lot of different kinds of medieval books that were not well distinguished from each other: books of hours (devotional instruction manuals) blended into hagiographies (saints’ lives), which blended into history and bestiaries (for example, a bestiary might discuss St. George’s encounter with the dragon), which blended into “books of secrets” (such as The Secret of Secrets, which was supposed to be a letter from Aristotle to Alexander the Great), which were supposed to reveal hidden, occult knowledge about the way the world worked, but might also have practical advice on statecraft.

2) Books were not “books” as we know them. Except for the Bible, they were copied and rearranged, quoted and reproduced in whole or in part without attribution–and different copies of the same book might contain different material. Sometimes authors impersonated other wiser authors, so some books were supposed to be by “Aristotle” but we now know that they were written by someone we can only call “pseudo-Aristotle”

3) Books, except in matters of religion, were not supposed to tell you anything practical. The most important medieval “truths” were spiritual ones, so oftentimes their contents were supposed to offer a moral or be interpreted symbollically. In some cases, they were simply meant for entertainment, to provoke “wonder” in the minds of the readers (more on this later). Books were not intended to be scrutinized for whether or not they were “true” (as we would interpet the term), and so blended fact and fiction indiscriminately.

4) It was widely believed that the Ancients (and Biblical figures) knew everything important and wrote it down, but that that knowledge was lost as books were lost and text was corrupted (say, by a careless scribe). The key point is this: knowledge (including the allegorical kind) was supposed to be directly tied to the words the Ancients had written down–not an unusual thought for a culture where the Bible was considered the ultimate authority. Scholarship mostly involved preserving and reassembling this Ancient knowledge, not creating new knowledge.

5) Not all literary traditions followed this trend. Some authors wrote from personal experience. Gottfried of Franconia’s book on trees and wine mixed literary sources with his own reports indiscriminately. Theophilus, in his book “On the Various Arts” spoke entirely from his own experience. Frederick II (Holy Roman Emperor), in his book on falconry, openly scorned the literary tradition that valued text over experience. But, for the most part, knowledge gained from practical experience was passed on orally (say, within a guild)–it was not tied to book culture.

6) Ultimately, the medieval literary culture did not fade away but coexisted with a new experienced-based literature. We can see this in travel narratives. William of Rubruck aimed to report back to Louis IX as accurately as he could what he found out in the east. Marco Polo’s narrative (actually written down by someone experienced in writing chivalric romances), on the other hand, sought to please and entertain as well as inform his audiences. Marco Polo’s description of exotic wonders created a large audience for John de Mandeville’s Travels, which were totally untrue and replicated the earlier conventions of the bestiary and the hagiography.

[Plus some general tips on using sections to their advantage, etc.]

Cumulative History January 22, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in History 174.
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It’s now a week until my course at the University of Maryland, so increasingly this blog will be turning toward that. I’ll let my students know about it, and they can come here to look at some of the background ideas and sources behind lectures, if they like. It also makes it seem like a good time to talk about cumulative history. As I was saying earlier, the history of science does not tend to reflect historical methodology. Hence there are few textbooks. For our course, I’ll be using Peter Dear’s Revolutionizing the Sciences (which Ken Alder used when I took my first history of science course as an undergraduate at Northwestern), and Peter Bowler and Iwan Rhys-Morus’ Making Modern Science (which my AIP predecessor, Babak Ashrafi, used when he taught the same course). These are pretty good books–probably the best available for these purposes.

I’m really looking forward to teaching a “Plato to NATO” course, actually, because it gives me a chance to go back and try and assemble a coherent narrative about science. I think we need to write more long histories. When I was writing my dissertation, I was reading R. F. Foster’s Modern Ireland, 1600-1972, which I thought was a fantastic example of what such histories should look like, and was stylistically inspiring. Foster clearly incorporated historiographical insights into what his book included and how it included them.

If I were to make a sort of coarse observation about the history of science profession, it’s that there’s sort of a nervous hesitancy to paint broad pictures. One of my colleagues has noticed that we focus on the micro-level apparatus and observation, rather than on the level of the department, the university, the discipline/profession, or the nation. I can’t really say why this narrow focus exists, but I get a feeling it has to do with a reluctance to get criticized for oversimplifying historical developments–there are always more wrinkles that just have to be included, otherwise we might as well not undertake the venture of cutting a broad swathe through science; or maybe it’s that we feel we can’t say anything coherent about broad trends at all. But I’m of the opinion it’s better to write and rewrite histories rather than wait for a day when we’re confident enough to make broad statements. Following science, we should have more textbooks, certainly, but we should also have more review articles.

Anyway, busy day ahead, so I’ll cut this off fairly abruptly here.