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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.


Schaffer on Gestural Knowledge and Philosophical Ideologies, and Their Historiographical Ramifications October 27, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Ideology of Science, Schaffer Oeuvre.
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In “Experimenters’ Techniques, Dyers’ Hands, and the Electric Planetarium” (1997), Simon Schaffer makes a set of ambitious arguments concerning how 18th-century natural philosophy regarded knowledge that is dependent upon, and sometimes tacit within, manual labor. His entryway into this problem is the frequently ineffable manual skill required in early electrical experimentation, and the intriguing coincidence that two of the most prominent early 18th-century electrical experimenters, Stephen Gray (1666-1736) and Charles Dufay (1698-1739), were, respectively, a former Canterbury cloth dyer and overseer of the Gobelins dye works in Paris.

dying silk

From Hellot, Macquer, and Le Pileur d’Apligny, The Art of Dying Wool, Silk, and Cotton, 1789 English edition


Schaffer on Stephen Gray and Granville Wheler’s Electric Planetarium October 20, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Over the span of a number of articles Simon Schaffer wrote in the mid-to-late 1990s, he forcefully argued for the existence and importance of a particular historical phenomenon, prevalent in the 18th and 19th centuries. This was natural philosophers’ and projectors’ use of mechanical devices to attempt to gain intellectual authority over others’ ideas and labor, which was to be accomplished by making that authority appear to emanate from the machines themselves, rather than from the deft manipulation of the social settings in which those machines were deployed.  Although Schaffer only used it a couple of times, I am using his term “machine philosophy” to refer to his conception of this strategy.  I will further explain his arguments concerning machine philosophy—and, of course, offer my opinion of those arguments—in future posts.

I had originally thought I was going to discuss Schaffer’s “Experimenters’ Techniques, Dyers’ Hands, and the Electric Planetarium,” Isis 88 (1997): 456-483 (free) in the “Schaffer on Machine Philosophy” series.  However, once I really got into the piece, I realized that he does not regard the “electric planetarium” experiment (above left) in the same vein as he regards, say, Atwood’s Machine.  In Schaffer’s historical schematic, the electric planetarium would not have been part of the machine philosophy rising at that time explicitly because what authority it commanded was held to reside in the embodied skill and social integrity of the experimenter.