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Scientists and the History of Science: The Shapin View April 15, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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This post incorporates some general impressions I’ve developed over the last several years, but is most immediately motivated by Steven Shapin’s negative Wall Street Journal review* of physicist Steven Weinberg’s new book To Explain the World. I’d like, though, to make clear at the outset that this post isn’t really concerned with whether or not Shapin’s review did justice to Weinberg, specifically. I’m not especially interested in Weinberg’s views, and they are not something that worries or perturbs me. Shapin’s review is of interest here because it is written in a tradition that does see in histories such as Weinberg’s the operation of larger forces that should be a cause for concern.

Steven Shapin

Steven Shapin

A much earlier work in this tradition was the 1968 book Science in Modern Society, written by the Marxist science journalist J. G. Crowther (1899–1983). In it, Crowther criticized a trend he saw in academic scholarship toward a “disembodied history of scientific ideas.” In his view, science could only be governed to serve the best benefit of society if the unvarnished history of the “social relations of science” was understood. Crowther believed that narrowly intellectualized history concealed those relations, and thus constituted “a long-range natural protective action, by dominant interests that do not wish to have the social and political implications of their scientific policy comprehensively investigated.” 

Comparatively, Shapin plays down the dangers of improper history, but inherits Crowther’s perspective insofar as he regards macroscopic forces as responsible for such history. In Shapin’s view, the shortcomings of Weinberg’s specific history, as well as Weinberg’s concentration on what he regards as powerful about science, are, depressingly, simply what is to be expected when a scientist—any scientist—attempts to write the history of science.

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The Culture of Mechanism: Margaret Jacob versus “Proto-Industrialization” February 20, 2015

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Jacob

Margaret Jacob

Margaret Jacob’s emphasis on “scientific education” as an essential element of industrialization is best understood in view of her ongoing effort to stem the tide of portraits of industrialization that she characterizes as “mechanistic.” Such portraits, she claims, rely exclusively on “economic and social history” to identify certain “factors” as prerequisites of industrialization, which was a process that then developed more or less spontaneously.

Many of the factors comprising the portraits she opposes will be familiar to those who have taken a Western Civ course: regional population pressures, falling family income, labor availability, resource availability (notably coal), the commercialization of agriculture, access to remote markets, and innovations in socio-economic organization (notably the “putting-out system”). In such contexts, the important machines were mainly scientifically unsophisticated devices devised by artisan “tinkerers,” including such famous inventions as the flying shuttle and spinning jenny.

While such historiography of industrialization was venerable, it flourished within an influential theoretical framework provided by Franklin Mendels (1943–1988) in his article, “Proto-industrialization: The First Phase of the Industrialization Process,” Journal of Economic History 32 (1972): 241–261. In The Cultural Meaning of the Scientific Revolution (1988), Jacob points us to “Proto-Industrialization: A Concept Too Many,” Economic History Review 36 (1983): 435–448, an oft-cited polemical review by D. C. Coleman (1920–1995), covering the concept’s quick proliferation [ngram].

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Sutton vs. Jacob: Was John Desaguliers a Prophet of Industrialization? February 1, 2015

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Jacob and Stewart, Practical MatterIt’s a serious question. We come to it from my earlier look at Simon Schaffer’s “Enlightened Automata” (1999), in which he claimed that “Some historians still deny that natural philosophies ‘fed the fires of the industrial revolution.’ Others more convincingly indicate the intimate connections between the machinery of natural philosophers’ concerns and that of the new entrepreneurs and projects.” He specifically identified Geoffrey Sutton in the first camp, and Margaret Jacob and Larry Stewart in the second.

Since the 1980s Jacob and Stewart have both consistently argued that the intellectual development of the sciences, the technical development of machines, and the economic development of industry were closely intertwined phenomena, particularly in Britain where the Industrial Revolution commenced. In 2004 they jointly published Practical Matter: Newton’s Science in the Service of Industry and Empire, 1687–1851, which offered an overview of their general argument. Jacob’s new book, The First Knowledge Economy: Human Capital and the European Economy, 1750–1850 continues her multi-decadal mission.

Sutton, Science for a Polite SocietyGeoffrey Sutton’s Science for a Polite Society: Gender, Culture, and the Demonstration of Enlightenment was published in 1995, but it is based on a dissertation he finished at Princeton in 1982. By the time it came out, Sutton was already operating on the fringes of academic history, and would not (to the best of my knowledge) produce further research.

Sutton allowed, “Enlightened thinkers believed that the application of the methods and techniques of science theory could reform political and economic thought, just as the applied fruits of scientific physics and chemistry could improve the human condition” (5). But the focus of his book was on how natural philosophical demonstration and disputation had their primary influence in polite, rather than practical, environments in 17th and 18th-century France.

There is no necessary conflict between at least the rudiments of the Jacob-Stewart and Sutton points of view. It is perfectly possible for the sciences to have been integrated into both practical and polite cultures. And, in fact, if we follow Schaffer’s specific citation in Sutton, we find that, in this instance, we are actually dealing with a more specific disagreement concerning how best to interpret the significance of certain lectures offered by John Desaguliers (1683–1744).

However, as we will see, this disagreement is one that points to larger historiographical problems.

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Wakefield’s Nightmare, Pt. 2: Divided Opinion on the Political Economic Importance of Enlightenment Intellectual Culture January 25, 2015

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At the end of Pt. 1, I suggested that, in positing, respectively, the weakness and the strength of Enlightenment philosophers in pre-industrial 18th-century economic culture, Andre Wakefield and Simon Schaffer were reaching contrary historical conclusions using the same historiographical gambit. I would like to begin Pt. 2 by expanding on this point.

There is a prominent, if usually implicit, historiographical concept, which holds that injustice is allowed to occur because the cultures subject to that injustice are made invisible. Historiography, therefore, becomes a two-fold enterprise: it identifies forces of concealment, and restores visibility to hidden cultures. Labor culture, of course, has long been one such beneficiary of historians’ rescue efforts. Meanwhile, “science” (or some related concept) has often been considered a force of concealment, because it presents pictures that seem intellectually authoritative or “natural,” while failing to disclose its own biases. Both Wakefield and Schaffer apply this concept to the links between the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, albeit in different ways.

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Wakefield’s Nightmare, Pt. 1: The Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution Chain January 22, 2015

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This post discusses a new article: Andre Wakefield’s “Butterfield’s Nightmare: The History of Science as Disney History,” History and Technology (2014).

Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare (1781)

Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare (1781)

In the piece Wakefield opposes an instance of intellectualist genesis in technological and economic history, i.e., the idea that technical and economic phenomena are rooted in the realm of elite ideas. Specifically, Wakefield objects to authors who posit a “causal series” linking the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution. Even more specifically, he regards this narrative as responsible for serial anachronistic readings of the concept of “oeconomy” in 18th-century philosophy (a subject I’m very interested in), and, consequently of that philosophy’s place in the development of economic and political culture.

Mokyr

Mokyr

More specifically still, Wakefield’s primary targets are the concepts of the “industrial Enlightenment,” as used by economic historian Joel Mokyr, and the “economic Enlightenment,” as used by Marcus Popplow. Wakefield also targets the work of Margaret Jacob and Larry Stewart as abetting the development of the narrative he opposes.

Unfortunately, Wakefield only spends four paragraphs (pp. 10–12) on the subject of “oeconomy,” and only a few more on Mokyr, Popplow, and the question of what varieties of “Enlightenment” we might legitimately speak. The bulk of Wakefield’s essay is divided between contemplation of the pathological and justifiable uses of anachronism in historiography, and an enjoyably sarcastic diagnosis and etiology of his opponents’ positions.

Although I sort of agree with him, I do believe Wakefield’s polemics conceal a more difficult historiographical problem than he supposes.

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Schaffer on Machine Philosophy, Pt. 6: The Ideology of Charles Babbage January 11, 2015

Posted by Will Thomas in History of Economic Thought, Schaffer Oeuvre.
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We continue the “Machine Philosophy” series with Schaffer’s examination in two essays of the work and thought of mathematician Charles Babbage (1791–1871):

1) “Babbage’s Intelligence: Calculating Engines and the Factory System,” Critical Inquiry 21 (1994): 203-227. [BI]

2) “Babbage’s Dancer and the Impresarios of Mechanism,” in Cultural Babbage: Technology, Time and Invention, edited by Francis Spufford and Jenny Uglow (London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1996). Reproduced here. [BD]

From Charles Babbage, Passages from the Life of a Philosophy (1864)

From Charles Babbage, Passages from the Life of a Philosopher (1864)

These essays were published early on in Schaffer’s concern with “machine philosophy,” but they depict the chronological culmination of that philosophy’s ideological potential. In Schaffer’s telling, Babbage’s “lifelong campaign for the rationalization of the world” (BD, 53) was manifested in 1) his mechanization of not simply physical, but mental labor through his calculating engines; 2) his thinking concerning the factory system of manufactures, which, by the time he worked, was deep into its ascendancy in the British economy; and 3) his “Ninth Bridgewater Treatise” on the nature of God and miracles.

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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?

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

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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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Schaffer on Machine Philosophy, Pt. 4: Automata and the Proto-Industrial Ideology of the Enlightenment — Historiography August 13, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in Ideology of Science, Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Simon Schaffer, “Enlightened Automata” in The Sciences in Enlightened Europe, edited by William Clark, Jan Golinski, and Schaffer (Chicago University Press, 1999)

Maelzel Turk

“Enlightened Automata” is one of Schaffer’s few pieces that is especially forthright about the overarching scholarly project of which it is a part. It is certainly the centerpiece — and his clearest exposition — of his work on what he occasionally referred to as “machine philosophy,” a concept that interrelates several historical developments:

  1. The rising use of mechanisms in philosophical experiments, which have the virtue of preventing human fallibility and prejudice from influencing their outcomes.
  2. The use of mechanisms as explanatory metaphors in natural, moral, and political philosophy.
  3. The replication of natural phenomena and human behavior in mechanisms, i.e. automata.
  4. Industrialization, i.e., the replacement of craft processes with machinery, and the concomitant regulation and control of human action, especially manual labor, through managerial regimes.

Schaffer takes these four developments (but especially 2 and 4) to characterize the ideological ambitions of the Enlightenment.  In “Enlightened Automata,” he leverages the history of the construction and display of automata (3), and commentary on such automata, as a means of probing these ambitions.

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Schaffer, the Electric Planetarium, and the Nature of Natural Philosophy May 8, 2014

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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This post (at long last) concludes my look at Simon Schaffer, “Experimenters’ Techniques, Dyers’ Hands, and the Electric Planetarium,” Isis 88 (1997): 456-483. To refresh yourself on the history of the electric planetarium experiment, see here; for further discussion of Schaffer’s interest in the role of manual technique in that history, see here.

electric-planetariumAn important feature of Stephen Gray (1666-1736) and Granville Wheler’s (1701-1770) electric planetarium experiment was the claim that the revolution of a small, electrically charged object around a larger sphere might well illuminate the nature of the force that drives the planets in circular orbits around the sun. One obvious question—but one which Schaffer does not directly address—is how such a rudimentary and solitary experiment could credibly purport, even speculatively, to offer insight into such a grand and seemingly remote problem as planetary motion.

This, I think, is a question that forces us to think about the fundamental nature of early eighteenth-century natural philosophical inquiry.  It is especially necessary to examine the distinctions and relations between experimental and speculative philosophy.  On this distinction, also see the Otago philosophy of science group’s blog; but, where the Otago group tends to view experimentalism and speculation as different strands of philosophy, I would view them more as different facets of the same philosophical enterprise.

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