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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.

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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.

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Sociology, History, Normativity, and Theodicy August 9, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy, Methods.
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“For my part I see no danger of ‘the history of science losing its science’, but much literature in the social history of science has less of a connection with the sociology of knowledge than many apparently traditional exercises in the history of ideas.”

“Finally, there is a marked lack of rigour in much social history of science; work is often thought to be completed when it can be concluded that ‘science is not autonomous’, or that ‘science is an integral part of culture’, or even that there are interesting parallels or homologies between scientific thought and social structures.  But these are not conclusions; they are starting points for more searching analyses of scientific knowledge as a social product.”

—Steven Shapin, 1982

To my mind, Shapin’s “History of Science and Its Sociological Reconstructions,” (History of Science 20 (1982): 157-211) is perhaps one of the best articulations of how sociological methodology could augment historiography.  It is a manifesto for the sociology of knowledge program against critics (Joseph Ben-David, Rupert Hall, and Larry Laudan are specified).  It’s also an argument against more sterile sociology-based historiographical methods—the “social history of science”.  As pointed out in the quotes above, these methods draw no substantive connections between sociology and the intellectual production of knowledge: society is simply something that imprints itself on scientific institution-building, practice, and claims.

To put it another way, Shapin ought to be understood as an epistemological sociologist, one who in 1982 was apparently fighting against many of the same problems that bedevil us today.  No one, to my mind, better articulated how integral things like proper institution-building and proper etiquette have always been (more…)