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Schaffer on Machine Philosophy, Pt. 5b: Automata and the Enlightenment December 13, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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This post concludes 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).

As detailed in previous posts, Schaffer’s interest in 18th-century automata in this piece is mainly a means of making larger points about the intellectual culture of the Enlightenment, and its links to an emerging economic order of industrialism and managerialism. In doing so, he contributes an interpretive gloss that joins an existing general historiography of Enlightenment ideology, with a historiography of the automaton creations of such figures as Jacques de Vaucanson (1709–1782), Pierre Jaquet-Droz (1721–1790), and John-Joseph Merlin (1735–1803). This post discusses this second facet of the history.

For Schaffer, the key questions are: 1) what interests did automata engage, allowing them to proliferate as objects of display and fascination? and 2) in what ways did they speak to the concerns of philosophers and other commentators of the period, making them into salient metaphors and objects of intellectual reflection?


Schaffer Summarized May 27, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Discussion of this early-’80s vintage video follows below the fold.

Between 2008 and 2010, I wrote a large series of posts looking at Simon Schaffer’s oeuvre, from his earliest publications in the late 1970s to articles published in the early-to-mid ’90s, with the idea of being as comprehensive as practically possible. I picked Schaffer’s work for the experiment basically because he’s a famous historian, and I’d met him a couple of times, and, like most people who meet him, I found him very engaging.


Schaffer on Bodies, Evidence, and Objectivity February 21, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Bodies of evidence: frontispiece of Nollet’s Essai sur l’electricité des corps

In 1983’s “Natural Philosophy and Public Spectacle in the Eighteenth Century,” Simon Schaffer set himself the task of determining whether “some of the more fashionable themes in current historiography” could be made to yield real explanatory gains.  Among these themes was “the notion of scientific production as performance”.  The gist of that piece was that natural philosophical arguments, as illustrated through public demonstration, had trouble fostering social agreement because of the requirement that the audience be able to interpret the performance and its implications correctly.  Here was a tension that, especially when connected to the social and political dangers of rationalist Jacobin politics, could help explain the nineteenth-century rise of contained scientific communities.

Much of Schaffer’s output in the 1980s and early 1990s filled out various instances where natural knowledge was linked to problems of maintaining proper behavior, and, thus, political order.  He especially concentrated on the cases of pneumatics (and the related practice of eudiometry), and cometography.  He also highlighted pointed criticisms of the idea that experimentally-gained knowledge could solve problems of social order, particularly those of Hobbes, Burke, and Whewell.

“Self Evidence,” Critical Inquiry 18 (1992): 327-362 returns us to 1983’s general point—the problematic relationship between experimental evidence and its implications for knowledge—and returns to some of the same electrical experimenters.  There is however a new wrinkle: the emphasis now is on self-experimentation and the difficulties of evidence produced specifically through the experimenter’s body.  How could a savant or an audience trust in reports of the medical benefits of electrical therapy, for example?  Accordingly, Schaffer does not point to the rise of the contained community.  Instead the consequence of the identified tension is the rise of mechanical instrumentation designed to measure physiological effects.  “The lesson of the story of self-evidence may … be that there is an intimate relationship between the trust placed in evidence of self-registering scientific instrumentation and the moral authority of the scientific intellectual” (362). (more…)