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Schaffer on Machine Philosophy, Pt. 5a: Automata and the Proto-Industrial Ideology of the Enlightenment — History September 18, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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This post continues my look at Simon Schaffer, “Enlightened Automata” in The Sciences in Enlightened Europe, edited by William Clark, Jan Golinski, and Schaffer (Chicago University Press, 1999).

Pin manufacturing, detail of a plate from the Encyclopédie

The division of labor in pin manufacturing.  From the Encyclopédie.

Pt. 4 examined Schaffer’s characterization of an ideology associated with the Enlightenment, reflected in the era’s fascination with automata. This ideology revolved around the belief that physiology, labor, cognition, and social relations could be comprehended in mechanical terms, and governed according to philosophically derived managerial regimens. Pt. 4 also explored Schaffer’s situation of his arguments within a large, diverse, and venerable historiography of the mechanistic aspirations of the Enlightenment.

Pt. 5 turns to look at the historical events that Schaffer marshaled into his history of this ideology.


Derek Price on Automata, Simulacra, and the Rise of “Mechanicism” August 28, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Price. Click for original at Yale University Manuscripts and Archives

Derek J. de Solla Price (1922-1983). Click for the full-size photo at Yale University Manuscripts and Archives

Before we proceed further with our discussion of Simon Schaffer’s “Enlightened Automata” (1999), I’d like to go back a further 35 years to take a look at Derek J. de Solla Price, “Automata and the Origins of Mechanism and Mechanistic Philosophy,” Technology and Culture 5 (1964): 9-23. This should give us some sense of how much and how little the literature had changed by the time Schaffer wrote.

Price’s article was written in a period when historians were interested in defining and tracing the shifts in thought that they took to be crucial to the development of modern science. The tradition of scholarship is closely associated with figures such as Alexandre Koyré (1892-1964) and Rupert Hall (1920-2009), whose touchstone work, The Scientific Revolution: The Formation of the Modern Scientific Attitude, appeared in 1954.

Probably the most important shift these authors attended to was the rise of “mechanistic” modes of explaining natural phenomena, punctuated by the philosophy of René Descartes (1596-1650) and the achievements of Isaac Newton (1643-1727). Price’s aim was to investigate the intellectual relationship between mechanistic philosophy (“or mechanicism to use the appropriate term coined by Dijksterhuis,” 10*) and the creation of sophisticated mechanisms.


Clericuzio on Alchemy, Chemistry, Medicine, and Natural Philosophy December 26, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Chymistry.
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First off, for readers interested in current efforts to refine historical knowledge about early modern natural philosophical programs: there is a project blog, founded this past August, being run out of the University of Otago in New Zealand, called Early Modern Experimental Philosophy.  Do read.

Andreas Libavius (1555-1616)

This post is a further look at intellectual issues surrounding the relationship between early modern “chymistry” and the pursuit of natural philosophy, as discussed in a much earlier post on the dispute between Bill Newman and Alan Chalmers concerning the nature of Robert Boyle’s chymistry.  There I understood Newman to argue that, to Boyle, philosophically important chemical knowledge deriving from experiment would have had to be fit within his mechanical philosophical framework, and that chemical taxonomies would not have fit that bill.  Of course, in the seventeenth century, natural philosophy occupied one niche amid a full array of agendas to which chemistry was relevant.  Many of these are dealt with in a recent article by the University of Cassino’s Antonio Clericuzio: “‘Sooty Empiricks’ and Natural Philosophers: The Status of Chemistry in the Seventeenth Century,” Science in Context 23 (2010): 329-350.


Toulmin on Cosmology and the “Theology of Nature” December 4, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
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In April I finished up a series of posts on the anthropological concept of “cosmology” (meaning a coherent system of thought), and the relationships historians of the 1980s were able to draw between it and the historical practice and fate of natural philosophy — including scientific cosmology — in the 18th and 19th centuries.  (See especially Simon Schaffer’s clear 1980 argument on this point.)

In my last post in that series, I noted that in seeking to ground Michael Faraday’s (1791-1867) physical convictions in his Sandemanian religious beliefs, Geoffrey Cantor used the term “theology of nature” to distinguish ideas implicit in Faraday’s thought from a contemporaneous, but more explicitly reasoned “natural theology”.  To quote the subtitle to William Paley’s (1743-1805) 1802 book, Natural Theology, natural theology sought “evidence of the existence and attributes of the deity” in the study of nature.  For Faraday, though, only the certain revelation of the Bible could produce knowledge of God, making it necessary for historians to excavate his personal theology of nature.

Some time later, it occurred to me it might not be a bad idea to chase down this “theology of nature” term, which led me directly to Stephen Toulmin’s 1982 essay collection, The Return to Cosmology: Postmodern Science and the Theology of Nature.  Aha.  Since today marks the first anniversary of Toulmin’s death, I thought it might be a good time to try to type something up that helps put Toulmin, a student of Ludwig Wittgenstein, into our history of the history of science of the 1980s.


Primer: The Royal Academy of Sciences May 22, 2009

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An imagined visit by King Louis XIV to the Royal Academy of Sciences, 1671.

OK, Hump-Day History got a bit lost the last couple weeks, but to restore some momentum, we present a special Friday edition.  I hope American readers have a fine long Memorial Day weekend.

The organization of scientific work and its communication necessarily involves the reconciliation of tensions between the inherent elitism of advanced inquiry and the aspirations of inquirers to produce universally valid knowledge, as well as between the individualism of personal initiative and the collectivism of rational agreement.  Cultures of inquiry and invention have a wide variety of choices of how to enact such reconciliations, and their choices often create a conceptual resonance between scientific practice and the culture and politics beyond the community.  This was clearly and influentially the case with the Royal Academy of Sciences, established in Paris in 1666 under the authority of absolutist monarch Louis XIV.

When the Academy was established, it represented a culmination of a decades-long proliferation of circles dedicated to the discussion of philosophical and cultural issues.  In the middle of the seventeenth century, the interests of these circles crossed freely between art and rhetoric, general scholarship, the philosophical reformism of people like René Descartes (Jacques Rohault’s, 1618-1672, “Cartesian Wednesdays” in particular), and, of course, the then-recent vogue for experimental natural philosophy often associated with Francis Bacon (and exemplified by the “Academy” run by Melchisédech Thévenot, c.1620-1692).

The short-lived Accademia del Cimento in Florence (est. 1657), and the Royal Society in London (est. 1660), suggested the possibility that centralizing inquiry (more…)

Schaffer on the Politics of Inquiry March 29, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)

One of the ongoing themes in Schaffer’s work—perhaps the primary theme—is his commitment to the detailed investigation of the relationship between political ideology and natural philosophical inquiry from the 17th to the 19th centuries.  It was at the center of Leviathan and the Air Pump, was central to his work on Priestley in the Enlightenment era, and his concern with the relationship between the natural philosophy of pneumatics and spirits (same post as Priestley).

Schaffer took pains to discuss politics as not simply something that interferes with inquiry, or as something that motivates inquiry, or something for which inquiry has implications.  For Schaffer, both the subject and manner of inquiry were understood as being political themselves, linked intimately with principles of good governance.  Politics not only defined what arguments one could make without incurring charges such as atheism, but, because these convictions were also held by natural philosophers, politics went so far as to define what kinds of questions and manners of inquiry made sense.

Today I’d like to do some sweeping up on this subject from Schaffer’s 1980s writings:

(1) “Occultism and Reason in the Seventeenth Century,” in Philosophy: Its History and Historiography (1985), edited by A. J. Holland.  (Schaffer’s entry is available in full through Google Books.)

(2) “Wallification: Thomas Hobbes on School Divinity and Experimental Pneumatics,” Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science (1988): 275-298.

(3) “The Glorious Revolution and Medicine in Britain and the Netherlands,” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 43 (1989): 167-190.

There is also one article I do not have easy access to that looks relevant:

(*) “The Political Theology of Seventeeth-Century Natural Science,” Ideas & Production 1 (1983): 1-43.

What must be the most interesting thing about being a historian of seventeenth-century natural philosophy is the sheer number of epistemological flavors deployed to address the same problems.  In the 1980s, conscientious historians took it upon themselves to sort out different epistemological commitments, rather than to rely on wholly (more…)

Primer: Pierre Gassendi’s Natural Philosophy January 29, 2009

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Pierre Gassendi (b. 1592, d. 1655) was born at Digne, France, became a priest in 1617, and later a professor of philosophy at Aix while still in his mid-twenties.  As Saul Fisher notes in his excellent Pierre Gassendi’s Philosophy And Science: Atomism for Empiricists (Brill, 2007), “Gassendi’s career as a priest is a crucial intellectual facet of intellectual constitution: his writings reflect an unbending allegiance to Holy Scripture and Church teachings, though not necessarily in orthodox doctrinal lights” (1.)   In 1624, he met Mersenne, and between 1629 to 1630, while traveling in the Low Countries, he met Isaac Beeckman.  In his 1632 work, Mercurius in sole visus,  he described his 1631 observation of the transit of Mercury as a confirmation of Kepler’s theories.  In 1632, after returning to Digne, he began a study of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus.

Gassendi spent the remaining twenty or so years of his life going between Provence and Paris due to his involvement with a group of philosophers who had gathered around the French philosopher Mersenne.  As Fisher details, in the Mersenne circle, “debates ranged over numerous topics central to the dismantling of the Aristotelian and Scholastic world-views” (3.) Mersenne, an associate of Descartes, was instrumental in allowing Gassendi’s objection to Descartes’ Meditations to be included in the published appendix entitled Objections and Replies.

While some historians consider Gassendi’s signature achievement to be his revival of ancient atomism, a complete (more…)