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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.



The Intellectual Worlds of Henry C. Carey, Part 1: Some Methodological Notes and the Scientific Sources of the American School of Political Economy in the United States November 30, 2014

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences.
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Henry C. Carey (December 15, 1793 – October 13, 1879) was an economist from Philadelphia whose The Harmony of Interests: Agricultural, Manufacturing, and Commercial (1851) has attracted considerable attention for his critique of Ricardian and Malthusian economics. Like Daniel Raymond (1786–1849, who was the first sustained critic of Adam Smith, Thomas R. Malthus and David Ricardo), Carey found in particular Malthus and Ricardo’s laissez-faire outlook and quietism concerning class conflicts, and the unequal distribution of wealth between social classes factually incorrect and morally dubious. Instead, according to Jeffrey P. Sklansky in The Soul’s Economy (2002), Carey contended that “capitalist development naturally leads to class harmony rather than strife and that the free growth of market relations would result in the breakdown of class distinctions altogether, whether between master and slave or between employer and employee…” (80).


Morris R. Cohen on the Place of Logic in Law, Positivism, Deduction, and the History of Science April 18, 2013

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of the Human Sciences, Philosophy of Law.
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Morris Raphael Cohen (July 25, 1880 – January 28, 1947) is today a relatively unappreciated philosopher outside some encamped circles in the philosophy of law, intellectual history, and the intellectual study of jurisprudence.   Sidney Hook in “The Philosophy of Morris R. Cohen,” in the New Republic, outlined the reasons for this.  He noted, “Honored for his candor, his scholarship and critical insight, his philosophical colleagues with a true gesture of piety to the spirit of intelligent dissent recently conferred upon him the presidency of the American Philosophical Association.” But, “he has no following.”  Hook continuedStray-Dog, “His writings have consequently bewildered those who have sought to understand him only in the light of his negations.”  Cohen had little patience for Marxist or overly sociological discussions of law, but he was not a strident legal positivist.  He did not think that jurisprudence was a closed system of logical relationships as would a legal formalist.  Cohen was however a kind of “reductionist.”   Law was logical, and much like the natural sciences, useful due to its regularity and generality. Law, however, much like the more contemporary sciences of non-Euclidean geometry and quantum mechanics, had to be open enough to address the inherent messiness of life. (more…)

Book Club: Renwick on British Sociology’s Lost Biological Roots July 2, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club, History of the Human Sciences.
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This blog has previously spotlighted one of Chris Renwick’s articles, and he has written a couple of guest posts* for us.  With those interests declared, I’m happy to say that EWP has received a review copy of his new book, British Sociology’s Lost Biological Roots: A History of Futures Past (Macmillan: 2012).

A good way of thinking about this book is in terms of what Chris Donohue has referred to as the “nineteenth-century problem” in intellectual-scientific history.  The nineteenth-century problem is partly interpretive, in that it deals with the practical problem of sorting out the undisciplinary tangle of intellectual projects and issues and notions to be found in works of that era.

However, the problem is also historiographical, in that it is a struggle against a tide of scholarship fixated on a few select questions (the reception of natural selection, the intellectual validation of racial hierarchies and imperialism, the ascendancy of liberalism and social reformism, etc…), and a few seemingly key thinkers.  The scholarship also tends to divvy up the intellectual history arbitrarily, with historians of political philosophy studying certain thinkers, historians of economic thought others, and historians of science still others, even though a thorough and sensitive reading of texts — not to mention widely accepted historiographical wisdom — would indicate the folly in doing so.

By highlighting important historical relations between the projects of political economy, eugenics-biometrics, botany and zoology, Herbert Spencer’s social philosophy, social reformism and journalism, and the longstanding search for a science of sociology, Renwick’s book makes an important contribution to the interpretive aspect of the nineteenth-century problem.  It does, perhaps, get somewhat hung up in the historiographical aspect of the nineteenth-century problem.


Collins and Tacit Knowledge December 26, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Tactile History.
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Before proceeding further in my discussion of “tactile history”, I’d like to take a slight detour back through my discussion of Harry Collins’ “methodological relativism” to his earliest articles, in order to get at some of the ideas underlying his interest in tacit knowledge, which was highly influential in the historiography of science, and continues to play a key role in his current work on the sociology of expertise:

1) H. M. Collins, “The TEA Set: Tacit Knowledge and Scientific Networks,” Science Studies 4 (1974): 165-186

2) H. M. Collins, “The Seven Sexes: A Study in the Sociology of a Phenomenon, or The Replication of Experiments in Physics,” Sociology 9, (1975): 205-224

Throughout the history of social constructionism in the history of science, there was never any agreement as to what the relationship between sociology and history was supposed to be.  Some proponents evidently sought to reduce the history of science to a sociological process, effectively replacing philosophical accounts (see especially David Bloor’s “Polyhedra and the Abominations of Leviticus” [paywall]).  Collins attempted to come to purely sociological accounts of scientific knowledge without resorting to philosophical appraisals, but not necessarily replacing philosophy or supposing that sociology should be able to account for the history of science.  Tacit knowledge was crucial to his analysis of how and where sociological factors operate in science.


Toulmin on Cosmology and the “Theology of Nature” December 4, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
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In April I finished up a series of posts on the anthropological concept of “cosmology” (meaning a coherent system of thought), and the relationships historians of the 1980s were able to draw between it and the historical practice and fate of natural philosophy — including scientific cosmology — in the 18th and 19th centuries.  (See especially Simon Schaffer’s clear 1980 argument on this point.)

In my last post in that series, I noted that in seeking to ground Michael Faraday’s (1791-1867) physical convictions in his Sandemanian religious beliefs, Geoffrey Cantor used the term “theology of nature” to distinguish ideas implicit in Faraday’s thought from a contemporaneous, but more explicitly reasoned “natural theology”.  To quote the subtitle to William Paley’s (1743-1805) 1802 book, Natural Theology, natural theology sought “evidence of the existence and attributes of the deity” in the study of nature.  For Faraday, though, only the certain revelation of the Bible could produce knowledge of God, making it necessary for historians to excavate his personal theology of nature.

Some time later, it occurred to me it might not be a bad idea to chase down this “theology of nature” term, which led me directly to Stephen Toulmin’s 1982 essay collection, The Return to Cosmology: Postmodern Science and the Theology of Nature.  Aha.  Since today marks the first anniversary of Toulmin’s death, I thought it might be a good time to try to type something up that helps put Toulmin, a student of Ludwig Wittgenstein, into our history of the history of science of the 1980s.


Paul Lucier on “Professionals” and “Scientists” in 19th-Century America June 14, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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John Shaw Billings (1838-1913): critic of the term "scientist" and the dudes who used it.

Indepenent historian Paul Lucier’s “The Professional and the Scientist in Nineteenth-Century America,” Isis 100 (2009): 699-732, presents an excellent overview of the place of different scientific activities in that milieu, the conceptual vocabulary and nomenclature with which those activities were routinely described, and how those descriptions changed with time.  The article engages actively with other portrayals in the historiographical literature from the past century, and presents new materials and arguments.  Stylistically, it is an exemplary work of scholarship.

As an intellectual contribution, Lucier’s piece comes up very strong as well.  His most immediately valuable contribution here is a clarification of the 19th-century lexicon.  Throughout the century, Americans followed their British counterparts in routinely referring to “men of science” as a generic term for geologists, chemists, and so forth.  While the Americans also followed closely on the British in founding new institutions of science, notably the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, est. 1848) and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS, est. 1863), these and other organizations’ role in organizing American science ought not, under any circumstances, be referred to as “professionalization”.

As Lucier explains, the “professional” in 19th-century America was someone who earned a living through their educated services, especially physicians, lawyers, and clergymen.  Men of science could be professionals, because they were frequently employed on a fee-for-service basis: as geological surveyors, as chemical analysts, as tutors, etc.  But being a man of science was not in itself a “profession”.


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…)

Professional Theodicy and Synthetic Narrative August 18, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy.
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The term “theodicy” is getting a lot of exercise here recently, so, to review: a theodicy is a philosophical explanation for why there is evil in the world in spite of the existence of a benevolent deity, as in Leibniz’ Theodicy.  A theodicy almost necessarily draws on problems of free will, the hope of knowledge, and its attendant dangers.  Transforming theodicy into historical narrative, it becomes possible to periodize these themes.  Sometimes this narrative functions as an origin story (as in Genesis and the stories of Prometheus and Pandora’s Box).  Following the Enlightenment and French Revolution—just as geology and cosmology began to acquire temporal elements—more recent human history could be periodized in terms of an overarching balance of knowledge, morality, and wisdom, as in the criticism of Joseph-Marie Maistre.

Since Maistre’s time, historiographical theodicies have frequently used rationalism or scientism as explanations of evil.  Following the rise of the Soviet Union and the Nazi Party, conservative thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper regularly drew connections between the post-French Revolution thought of Saint-Simon and Comte through to Marxism, logical positivism, modernism, and the rise of totalitarian regimes.  Chris Donohue has written about this trend on this blog, and he is responsible for getting me into the topic.

Science studies has imported similar narratives of theodicy linking the philosophy of science (positivistic and otherwise), the historiography of science, and the authority of science in society.  The sociology of knowledge has, in recent years, functioned within this theodicy as a kind of deliverance from evil, restoring a true historiography undistorted by philosophy’s arbitrary elevation of science to a coherently identifiable, objective, uncultural, and therefore privileged activity.  It is the contention of this blog that this theodicy has reduced the scope of historiographical inquiry to ornamentation of socio-epistemic issues privileged by the theodicy’s narrative.  Abandoning a study of ideas for a study of practices consonant with the theodicy, our professional theodicy now deeply inhabits our historiographical synthesis.

Witness Iwan Rhys Morus’ essay review of Patricia Fara’s new book Science: A Four Thousand Year History in the latest History of Science, which he edits.  Historical explanation of evil is present and unusually explicit: “Up until the 1960s, historians (more…)

Primer: Michael Faraday June 17, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Michael Faraday (1791-1867) came from a London artisan family and as a youth became an apprentice at a bookbinding shop.  There he took the opportunity to read the books passing through, including such scientific titles as Conversations on Chemistry (1805) by Jane Marcet and Antoine Lavoisier’s landmark Elements of Chemistry (translated into English in 1790).  Supported in his explorations by his master and others, he attended popular scientific lectures, including some given by the celebrated chemist Humphry Davy (1778-1829) at the new Royal Institution (est. 1799).  In 1813 Faraday finagled a job as Davy’s assistant, and would remain at the Royal Institution for the rest of his life.

Faraday undertook his work throughout a period when the sciences were changing rapidly, as they were yoked into distinct specialties, and as his own area, the  experimental physical sciences, became dramatically more sophisticated.  Under Davy’s and other Royal Institution figures’ supervision, he learned the techniques of chemistry, and undertook all his early work in that field (and is credited with the discovery of benzene).  When Faraday initiated his interest in electricity and magnetism early in the 19th century, the harnessing of galvanic currents by means of voltaic piles was a recent innovation that had sparked extensive investigation into electrochemical effects (an alternative explanation is here).  Davy was a leader in this new field of study, and Faraday would likewise become an expert.  Faraday would eventually fall out with Davy—who would oppose his election to the Royal Society—and he came into his own at the Royal (more…)