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Schaffer on Machine Philosophy, Pt. 3: Perpetual Motion September 29, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Chymistry, Schaffer Oeuvre.
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A diagram of the purported interior of a perpetual-motion wheel built by Johann Bessler.  From Offyreus, Grundlicher Bericht von dem Perpetua ac per se Mobili (1715)

A diagram of a perpetual-motion wheel built by Johann Bessler. From Orffyreus, Grundlicher Bericht von dem Perpetua ac per se Mobili (1715)

In this post we look at Simon Schaffer’s “The Show That Never Ends: Perpetual Motion in the Early Eighteenth Century,” British Journal for the History of Science 28 (1995): 157-189, in which he sets himself the task of explaining the intellectual and political viability of perpetual motion schemes, particularly in “the lands dominated by the Hapsburgs, the Empire and northern Italy” (162). This is a difficult challenge, since, as Schaffer points out, such machines had been subjected to widespread doubt and criticism from the middle of the seventeenth century. Yet, they did have a place, and what Schaffer, I think, accomplishes here is that he makes that place fit more coherently into what we know about how, in general, engineering and philosophical novelties were handled in the early 18th-century milieu.


Rudwick and Newman & Principe and the Recovery of Meaning December 30, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Chymistry, Tactile History.
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Metallic 'vegetation', from The Chymistry of Isaac Newton website

One of the most pernicious obstacles to effective historical research is a phenomenon I like to call “glazing over” — a tendency to dismiss references encountered in documents as unimportant or incidental simply for a lack of familiarity with them, or interest in them. You just glaze over until you run across something you are already interested in.

I suspect glazing over is actually extremely common, but that people don’t like to discuss it, because the lack of familiarity it implies with basic facts still smacks of professional incompetence, or, more snobbishly, interest in overcoming the problem implies a banal interest in empirical history. This is too bad, because not only does systematic glazing over likely skew and limit our historiography in more radical ways than our awareness of our “inevitably subjective perspective” supposes; it prevents historians from taking steps as a profession to readmit factual dexterity back into our practices after a long period of privileging critical reflection.

In today’s post, I want to discuss tactile history that works to restore a familiar or palpable meaning to documentary descriptions of natural or experimental phenomena by actively revisiting or recreating what the text refers to.


Chalmers on Newman on Chalmers on Newman on Boyle May 13, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Chymistry.
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Alan Chalmers

There is a new entry in the dispute between Alan Chalmers and Bill Newman over the legacy of Robert Boyle (1627-1691): Alan Chalmers, “Understanding Science through Its History: A Response to Newman,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 42 (2011): 150-153 (free).  For EWP’s previous coverage, see here and here.

Although the disagreements over Boyle stretch back further, this particular back-and-forth began as Chalmers criticized Newman’s characterization of Boyle’s contributions to chemical science as presenting a misleading portrait of progress.  Newman countered that Chalmers misreads his arguments about the place of Boyle’s chemical philosophy in the history of chemistry and natural philosophy.  Further, he argued that Chalmers’ portrait of Boyle’s failure to advance chemistry or an atomistic mechanical philosophy through his chemical experiments misreads the nature of Boyle’s philosophical project.

Now Newman’s portrait of Boyle’s seems secure, and there is no question that working out historical actors’ projects is a valuable line of historical inquiry.  Instead, tables turned, Chalmers draws a programmatic distinction between his and Newman’s historical projects, and defends his project’s legitimacy: his “kind of history is not the only legitimate kind … it is an important and informative kind that does not” — contrary to Newman’s allegations — “involve a misguided integration of history and philosophy of science.”  The central question seems to have become whether histories of scientific work can be valid when divorced from an interest in projects that actors explicitly pursued.


Shapiro vs Schaffer on Newton’s Prism Experiments, Pt. 1 March 20, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility, Schaffer Oeuvre.
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This post is a response to this comment by Michael Bycroft on a 2009 post on Simon Schaffer’s well-known 1989 “Glass Works” paper, which brought to my attention a reply published seven years later by historian of optics Alan Shapiro: “The Gradual Acceptance of Newton’s Theory of Light and Color,” Perspectives in Science 4 (1996): 59-140.

“Glass Works” was itself a commentary on a large body of Newton scholarship, most especially Richard Westfall’s biography, Never at Rest (1980).  It explicitly made use of Harry Collins’ sociology of “calibration”, which pointed to the necessity that instruments and experimental procedures gain trust before assertions based on experimental results can be accepted.  Schaffer and Steven Shapin had previously used this insight in Leviathan and the Air Pump (1985) to call attention to the basis of Thomas Hobbes’ criticism of experimental philosophy as well as to the intellectual, literary, and sociological strategies Robert Boyle used to gain assent over experimental results.

Unlike Schaffer’s commentary, Shapiro assembles a synthetic history of the acceptance and replication of Newton’s important experiment showing the elongation of the light of the sun when passed through a prism, as well as his two-prism experimentum crucis, which demonstrated that white light was composed of differently refrangible rays.  (more…)

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.


The Newman-Chalmers Dispute, Pt. 2: History, Philosophy, and Demarcation May 31, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Chymistry.
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Pt. 1 of this post discussed the latest entries in a dispute, which appear in the current and upcoming issue of Studies in History and Philosophy of Science.  The papers are by Alan Chalmers and Bill Newman, and they argue over whether Robert Boyle’s “chymistry” could have proceeded without being framed within his mechanical philosophy.  The immediate issue, the nature of Boyle’s work, seems ultimately to turn on fairly subtle points about how, in the 17th century, experiment was understood to relate to natural philosophy, and how knowledge of chemical phenomena related to natural philosophy and other orders of knowledge.  As I understand this issue, one would not have thought at that time that one could understand “chemistry” to be a self-contained body of knowledge, a fundamental way of looking at nature.  While one certainly could develop a practical understanding of chemical transformations at that time, such a knowledge would not have been thought relevant to the higher natural philosophical questions that most concerned Boyle.

Outside of this main historical issue, Newman stresses the importance of reading Chalmers’ particular claims in light of his “larger agenda … concerning the nature of scientific knowledge as a whole, an agenda I do not share.”  Chalmers is primarily interested in the ability to demarcate “science”, which founds knowledge on an experimental basis, from “philosophy”, which accommodates experiment into its theoretical schemes.  While Newman waxes skeptical about the philosophical project’s validity for even the most recent period of history, in his response (entitled “How Not to Integrate the History and Philosophy of Science”), he concentrates on the ways this philosophical lens affects historiography, claiming it narrows the scope of possible questions to those that can be framed within the structure of the central demarcationist concern.  Chalmers’ approach is “binary,” a “dualist methodology”, a “toggle-switch model” of history: if a historical event cannot be classified as proper “science”, it is of no further historical concern.  This methodology “allows for no gradual development or nuance over the course of history”, it “does not give sufficient credence to reorientations in scientific reasoning and experimental practice that laid the groundwork for later fruitful developments,” and it does not “allow for any significant heuristic application of theory”.  Chalmers’ evaluative rubric allows “little room indeed for disinterested analysis of arguments, determination of the real issues at stake, or the tracing of sources and intellectual traditions, which I view as the historian’s primary responsibilities.”


The Newman-Chalmers Dispute, Pt. 1: Chymistry and Natural Philosophy May 21, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Chymistry.
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Click to go to the excellent Robert Boyle Project site

I haven’t talked about it much here, but I’ve mentioned once or twice my admiration from afar of the recent revival of an alchemy/chymistry sub-historiography spearheaded by Indiana’s Bill Newman and Johns Hopkins’ Lawrence Principe.  At a glance, this literature traffics in older methodological currents of intellectual history, but far from a musty antiquarian pursuit, those writing in it ask pointed, well-targeted questions and, sure enough, find revealing answers.  I suspect a strong case could be made that this corner of the history of science literature has been the most intellectually productive one of the past decade.

One sign of liveliness is the prospect of dispute, and it turns out there is an interesting and current one between Newman and philosopher Alan Chalmers of Flinders University in Australia about the experimental and philosophical practices of Robert Boyle (1627-1691).  The citations of present interest are at the end of this post, though the dispute has a longer historiography which you can find in the footnotes to those papers.

At one level this is a classical historian-philosopher conflict about how to read the historical record responsibly, but the dispute also has deeper currents that have a lot to say about a question in which this blog has recently dabbled: the historical characteristics of natural philosophy.  While I programmatically agree with Newman here, and while I ultimately side with him on the specifics, the specific case is not open-and-shut, so I thought I’d discuss it as well as I can make it out here in Pt. 1 of this post. (more…)

Schaffer on Language and Proper Conduct November 16, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Daniel Defoe

One of the clearest findings in my long-term exploration of the oeuvre of Simon Schaffer, is the centrality of Schaffer’s use of the idea that a thinker’s personal understanding of the arrangement of the cosmos, their process of inquiry, and their ideas about proper social order were often intimately interrelated in philosophical inquiry in the 17th and 18th centuries.  This insight provides a powerful tool for investigating different facets of the wide field of “natural philosophy” as it intersected with other realms of intellectual activity.

It is clearly the case that natural philosophy had no defined form nor any clear boundaries with other kinds of literature.  In today’s post we step slightly outside the bounds of natural philosophy with two pieces that examine writings at the beginning and the end of natural philosophy’s golden age:

1) “Defoe’s Natural Philosophy and the Worlds of Credit,” in Nature Transfigured: Science and Literature, 1700-1900, edited by John Christie and Sally Shuttleworth, 1989.

2) “The History and Geography of the Intellectual World: Whewell’s Politics of Language,” in William Whewell: A Composite Portrait, edited by Menachem Fisch and Schaffer, 1991.

In (1), Schaffer observes the novelty of natural philosophy in Defoe’s time (c.1659-1731) and notes similarities in literary strategies between it and another new form of writing, “the news journal,” both of which “appealed to a new authority relation—that of the circumstantiated report of the novel and unprecedented event…”  In (2), at the other end of the time frame, we find a portrait of Whewell (1794-1866) as a critical writer on scientific work, (more…)