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Primer: William Thomson January 26, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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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…)

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…)

Primer: Adolphe Quetelet, Statistics, and Social Physics June 4, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Adolphe Quetelet (1796-1874)

Adolphe Quetelet (1796-1874)

Throughout the 19th century, the nature of social changes and regularities in social activity remained an intense concern as population growth, urbanization, industrialization, and political upheaval captured the attention of scientific and political thinkers throughout Europe and America.  As today, this thought necessarily spanned political, popular, philosophical, and scientific realms of thought as debates ensued concerning what could be said about societies and what could and should be done to affect how they function.

In the early 19th century, keeping and deploying statistics was already widespread, but their use as a tool of political discourse remained novel, and thus a subject of general and heated discussion.  The astronomer and essayist Adolphe Quetelet proved to be one of the century’s most singular and influential thinkers concerning the use of social statistics.  Born in Belgium in 1796 shortly after French annexed Austria’s Belgian provinces in the wars following the Revolution, Quetelet was educated in a French lycée, and as a youth took notice of the place accorded to the sciences in the Napoleonic empire.  After Napoleon’s fall in 1815, Quetelet taught mathematics in Ghent, earned a doctorate in the subject, and, after convincing the government to build an observatory in Brussels, he departed to Paris—still the intellectual center of the world—to learn astronomy.  Quetelet took up his post as director of the new Brussels Observatory in 1828, and the observatory began operation in 1832.

By no coincidence, it was in this same period that Quetelet first began writing about statistics and “social physics” (a phrase taken from contemporary “positivist” philosopher and social theorist Auguste Comte).  Principles of statistics and probability had been worked out by key figures in the development of the technical methods of astronomy in France who were also interested in social statistics, particularly Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827).  And, like many others writing (more…)

Schaffer on the Nebular Hypothesis February 6, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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We’re going to be skipping around in the Schaffer bibliography a little bit now in the hopes of approaching his articles in a way that makes the most sense to me.  Today I want to look at “The Nebular Hypothesis and the Science of Progress” from History, Humanity, and Evolution: Essays for John C. Greene, edited by James R. Moore (1989).  This work is fascinating to me for a few reasons.

1850 sketch of the Orion Nebula

1850 illustration of the Orion Nebula by Lord Rosse

First and foremost, it represents Schaffer’s attempt to translate his methodology for studying natural philosophical cosmologies into the era of disciplined science.  Natural philosophical cosmology was not a tightly restrained genre.  While we might say that there were identifiable sub-genres of cosmology that adhered to fairly specific methodologies and cosmological possibilities, the boundaries between these were very porous, and ideas transplanted themselves fairly easily between them.

Schaffer liked to use the term “resource” to describe these ideas.  Certain kinds of philosophical argument became “possible” (though, of course, not (more…)