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Schaffer on the Hustings, Pt. 2: Malignant Historiography and Self-Healing August 26, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Pt. 1 of this post began a discussion that stems from (but extends well beyond) two works of Simon Schaffer: 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”.  These works identified misleading narratives within a broader social and cultural historiography: a rise of reasoned polity and culture, and a decline of superstition and enchantment.  I suggested that in critiquing these narratives Schaffer had taken to the hustings to show how these narrative faults could be remedied by making use of then-recent insights in the historiography of science.  According to Schaffer, in order for all historical beliefs (scientific or superstitious) to survive and proliferate, their proponents had to engage in polemics that portrayed the beliefs as beneficial — and opposed beliefs as dangerous — to the social order.

In a sense, Schaffer was playing a role that is quite similar to the people he was writing about.  As he wrote in (1), “Representations about nature were stabilized … because … natural philosophers made their representations grip key interests within culture.”  His diagnosis of a historiographical ill and offer of a remedy from the historiography of science should invite us to consider why the diagnosis and remedy were deemed apt by the critic, and why he thought it would be received as apt by his intended audience.  Also, as Aaron suggested in the comments to Pt. 1, we should likewise be open to questioning who this audience really was. (more…)

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)

Likewise:

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…)