history of science

Coming to Terms with the Cybernetic Age

by guest contributor Jamie Phillips

Rare the conference attracting a crowd on a cold December Saturday morning, but such happened recently at NYU’s Remarque Institute. Space filled out early for the conclusion of a two-day conference on Cybernetics and the Human Sciences (PDF). The turnout bore out the conference’s contention of a renewed historiographical and philosophical interest in cybernetics, the science of “control and communication in the animal and the machine,” as Norbert Wiener subtitled his 1948 work that gave the interdisciplinary movement its name. As Leif Weatherby, co-organizer of the conference along with Stefanos Geroulanos, noted in his introductory remarks, the twentieth century was a cybernetic century, and the twenty-first must cope with its legacy. Even as the name has faded, Weatherby suggested, cybernetics remains everywhere in our material and intellectual worlds. And so for two days scholars came to cope, to probe that legacy, to trace its contours and question its ramifications, to reevaluate the legacy of cybernetics as a history of the present.

The range of presenters proved particularly well-suited to such a reevaluation, with some working directly on cybernetics itself, while others approached the subject more obliquely, finding, as it were, the cybernetic in their work even where it had not been named. Ronald R. Kline, author of the recent The Cybernetics Moment: Or Why We Call Our Age the Information Age, set the tone early in emphasizing the disunity of cybernetics. Despite the claims of some of its advocates and latter-day commentators, Kline contended, cybernetics never was one thing. On this point general consensus emerged the conference tended to eschew a search for definitions or classifications in favor of a wide-ranging exploration of the many faces of cybernetics’ legacy. And wide-ranging it indeed was as papers and discussion touched on topics from international relations theory and the restrainer of the Antichrist, to Soviet planning in Novosibirsk, the manufacture of telephones, brain implants and bullfights, Voodoo death, and starfish embryos.

A number of papers spoke to the pre-history (or rather pre-histories) of cybernetics. Mara Mills emphasized the importance of the manufacturing context for the emergence of ideas of quality control, as a crucial site for the development of cybernetic conceptions of feedback. Geroulanos addressed physiological theories of organismic integration, stemming from WWI studies of wound shock and concerns with the body on the verge of collapse, and leading to Walter B. Cannon’s concept of homeostasis, so pivotal for early cyberneticians. Other papers spoke to the varying trajectories of cybernetics in different national contexts. Diana West discussed the appeal of cybernetics in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s as offering promise of a more dynamic form of large-scale regional planning, a promise expressed in abstract theoretical modeling and premised on a computing power that never came. Isabel Gabel explored the intersections of biology, embryology and metaphysics in the work of French philosopher Raymond Ruyer. Jacob Krell gave an entertaining appraisal of the strange humanist engagement with cybernetics by the heterogeneous “Groupe des dix” in post-68 France, while Danielle Carr spoke to the anxious reaction against visions of human mind control in the Cold War United States, through the work of José Manuel Rodriguez Delgado. Other papers still, particularly those of Weatherby and Luciana Parisi, directly confronted a cybernetic metaphysics, and between them they raised questions concerning its novelty and significance with respect to the history of philosophy and contemporary media theory.

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Stefanos Geroulanos

Taken together, the papers compellingly demonstrated the ubiquity and diversity of the cybernetic across disciplines, decades, and geographical and political contexts. Taken together, however, they also raised a question that has long been posed to cybernetics itself. Here we might cite the words of Georges Boulanger, president of the International Association of Cybernetics, who asked, in 1969: “But after all what is cybernetics? Or rather what is it not, for paradoxically the more people talk about cybernetics the less they seem to agree on a definition” (quoted in Kline, The Cybernetics Moment, 7). Indeed, just as cybernetics itself declined as it expanded into everything, there is perhaps a risk that in finding cybernetics everywhere we lose hold of the object itself. To push the point further, we might echo the frustration of one of the interviewees cited by Diana West in her talk (and here I paraphrase): ‘They promised us cybernetics, but they never gave us cybernetics.’

Over two days, the conference answered this challenge through the productive discussion it generated. The more people talked about cybernetics, the more they seemed to find common ground for engagement.. Beyond the numerous schematics that served as the immediate graphic markers of the cybernetic imagination (see image), conversation coalesced around a loose conceptual vocabulary—of information, of feedback and system, of mechanism and organism, of governance, error and self-organization—that effectively bridged topics and disciplines, and that gave promise of discerning a certain conceptual coherence in the cybernetic age.

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A cybernetic schematic: “A Functional Diagram of Information Flow in Foreign Policy Decisions,” from Karl Deutch’s 1963 The Nerves of Government (courtesy of Stefanos Geroulanos)

This proved true even when (or perhaps especially when) understandings of the cybernetic seemed to point in very different directions. A panel of papers by David Bates and Nicolas Guilhot was particularly exemplary in this regard. Bates and Guilhot brought contrasting approaches to the question of the political in the cybernetic age. Bates presented his paper in the form of a question—on the face of it paradoxical, or simply unpromising—of whether we might think a concept of the political in the cybernetic age through the work of Carl Schmitt. Referring to Schmitt’s concept of the katechon (from his post-war work The Nomos of the Earth) as the Restrainer of the Anti-Christ, Bates proposed thinking the political as a deferral of chaos, a notion he linked to the idea of an open system that maintains itself through constant disequilibration, and to an organism that establishes its norms through states of exception. Recalling, through Schmitt, Hobbes’ conception of the Leviathan as an artificial man in which sovereignty is an artificial soul, Bates argued for a concept of the political that would enable us to think mechanism and organism together, that could recover the human without abandoning technology.

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Nicolas Guilhot, David Bates, and Alexander Arnold (courtesy of Stefanos Geroulanos)

Guilhot, by contrast, looked at the place of cybernetics in international relations theory and the work of political theorists in the 1960s and 1970s. Cybernetics, Guilhot suggested, here offered the promise of an image of the political that was not dependent on sovereign actors and judgment, one that could do away with decision making in favor of structure, system, and mechanistic process. Where Bates expressed concern that the technical had overrun the capacity of humans to participate in their own systems, for Guilhot’s theorists this was precisely the appeal: coming at a moment of a widely perceived crisis of democracy, cybernetics promised to replace politics with governance as such. For Guilhot here too, though, there was a critical intervention at stake: the image of the political as a system does not remove decision making, he contended, but rather obfuscates it. Prompted by the panel chair to respond to each other directly, Bates and Guilhot agreed that their papers were indeed complementary, with Bates speaking to an earlier moment of concern in the history of cybernetics that had subsequently been lost. The lively discussion that ensued served as proof of the productive engagement that can come from bringing it to the fore again.

Seen in this light, it was a fitting—if unwitting—coda to the conference as a whole that the menu at the post-conference lunch that Saturday afternoon rendered the title of the conference as “Cybernetics and the Human Services” (see image). One might take this as an occasion to think about the flow of information, about the place of error in systems of control and communication. But for present purposes, and for the present author, this fortuitous transposition of ‘human sciences’ into ‘human services’ serves rather to bring to the fore the question implicit in the conference’s agenda: how does the effort to reevaluate the legacy of cybernetics as a single history of the present change our possibilities for understanding and acting within it. What service, in short, can the human sciences render?

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(© Jamie Phillips)

In his paper that concluded the conference, Weatherby referred to an occasion at one of the Macy Conferences where the participants, considering the question of whether the brain was digital, confronted the further problem of defining the digital itself. Here, Weatherby suggested, they suffered from a lack of contribution from the humanities—no participant could themselves help the group to arrive upon a definition of cybernetics, what it does, how it works. Such is the work, it seems, that awaits the return to cybernetics. As the conference amply demonstrated, this will not and cannot be simply a matter of narrow definition: any attempt to come to terms with the cybernetic age and our continued place within it must pay heed to the pluralities, the disunities, the dispersed and intertwined trajectories that constitute that legacy; for all its own promise to unify the sciences, cybernetics was never one thing. At the same time, coming to terms with the cybernetic age will entail an effort to find a commonality in the plurality: if cybernetics indeed saturates the human and social sciences, how can we distill it; if it is everywhere without being named, what does it mean to name it, and what does it allow us to see. In this respect, one hopes, the menu will not be the last word, but will point rather to the urgency of continuing the ongoing reevaluation. An edited volume, I am told, is in the works.

Jamie Phillips is a Ph.D. candidate in modern European history at NYU. His dissertation examines the history of psychoneurology as a total science of the human in early twentieth century Russia, and its relation to the project of creating a ‘New Man.’ 

The Brain-for-Itself: Soviet Psychoneurologists Debate the Psychophysical Problem

by guest contributor Jamie Phillips

At a meeting of the Society of Psychoneurologists-Materialists in Moscow in 1930, the Chairman of the Society, Aron Zalkind, appraised the current the state of their field in the Soviet Union, and spoke in particular about the work of the Institute of Higher Nervous Activity at the Communist Academy: “here they not only work experimentally,” he said, “but also sometimes philosophize” (Arkhiv Rossiiskoi Akademii Nauk [ARAN], f. 351 op. 2 d. 25 l. 23ob).

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Workers at the Institute for the Study of Higher Nervous Activity, part of the Communist Academy, Moscow, 1931. It is not immediately clear from their behavior to what extent they are philosophizing. (Image Source: Arkhiv Rossiiskoi Akademii Nauk, f. 350 op. 1. d. 1077 l. 15)

Such a remark might evoke Monty Python-esque images of a workday never begun, of materials left untouched on tables, as white-robed scientist-philosophers pace about the lab in anticipation of the eureka moment. Coming from Zalkind, however, these were words of praise. Soviet psychoneurologists frequently bemoaned and disparaged what they saw as the naïve empiricism of their Western scientific counterparts, their lack of theory, their reluctance to philosophize. And nowhere was this truer than at the Communist Academy, and its Society of Psychoneurologists-Materialists, formed in 1928 with the express goal of bringing ideological direction to the scientific study of psyche, brain and behavior, and of uniting the work of these sciences into a materialist, dialectical theory of the human.

But what was a materialist—let alone dialectical—theory of the psyche? The Soviet Union in this period saw some rather spectacular attempts at reductive explanations of the psyche through correlations in the structures of the brain. Most famously (or notoriously), a group of researchers at the Moscow Brain Institute spent several years cutting Lenin’s brain into thirty thousand little slices in search of the material substrate of his genius, and claimed to find it, at least in part, in an exceptional development of the pyramidal cells of the third layer of the cerebral cortex. Around the same time, the psychoneurologist Vladimir Bekhterev issued a proposal for a “Pantheon of the USSR,” a Pantheon of Brains, in which the brains of outstanding dead Soviet individuals would be displayed in glass cases, alongside their biographies and list of works, with accompanying diagrams and explanations to demonstrate the correlation between them. Such a Pantheon, Bekhterev suggested, would serve both to advance scientific understanding of the brain and psyche and as “propaganda for the materialist view on the development of creative human activity.” (V. M. Bekhterev, “O sozdanii panteona SSSR,” Izvestiia, June 19, 1927).

For all the fanfare of such endeavors—and they seem to have been greeted enthusiastically by both government and public—doubts remained. Bekhterev’s own brain, removed from his skull mere months after its proposal for the Pantheon (and intended, ironically, to be its first occupant), proved in death to be rather unremarkable, in mute defiance, as it were, of the ideas of its living predecessor, as if to say, ‘What, after all, is there to see here?’

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The material substrate of his genius: microphotographs of slices of the brain of Lenin (right) and an “ordinary person” (left). From N. I. Prozorovskii, “Problema anatomicheskoi osnovy odarennosti i mozg V. I. Lenina,” Chelovek i priroda No. 2, 1929, p. 16.

The claims made of Lenin’s brain provoked skepticism as well. A discussion in the Presidium of the Communist Academy briefly considered whether it might be possible to put the brain back together again to subject it to other methods of study. “They’ve shredded it to smithereens,” one lamented, “the conclusions are negligible, and the brain is lost” (ARAN f. 350 op. 1 d. 188 ll. 36-39). More than mere empirical questions, there were conceptual concerns about the overly “mechanistic” understandings of the psyche that such explanations offered. Where in these big or small cells, to paraphrase one objection, was class consciousness? (ARAN f. 350 op. 1 d. 269 l. 8). Such research might be useful, it was argued, but was in need of ideological direction, a push toward more “dialectics.” They didn’t philosophize enough, it would seem, or they philosophized badly.

It was in the context of such concerns that, in late 1928 and early 1929, philosophers, psychologists, physiologists and others came together at the Society of Psychoneurologists-Materialists for a discussion between mechanists and dialecticians on the psychophysical problem. The transcripts remain preserved in the archive of the Communist Academy in Moscow (ARAN f. 350 op. 2 d. 337, 393). They make for dense and at times inscrutable reading; a full exegesis would require volumes. But a brief consideration might provide some insight into what—if anything—came of this meeting of minds and brains.

Comrade V. N. Sarab’ianov, a mechanist philosopher, gives the principal paper. Are our thoughts, or ideas, our sensations, he asks, material or not? When Marx says that “being determines consciousness,” does he mean to oppose consciousness to being, in the sense that consciousness is not being, is not objective, spatial, material? Absolutely, as Sarab’ianov affirms: he opposes them. That which in itself is objective, a physical act in the body, Sarab’ianov continues, , is for me subjective, a psychical act. To the disappointment of the reader, he then launches into a long disquisition on primary and secondary qualities, from Locke and Galileo to Plekhanov and Lenin. (Sarab’ianov’s preferred example, fitting for the circumstances, was the quality of red-ness). But his point, in effect, comes to this: subjective phenomena are immaterial and cannot be objectively observed, and the only path to an objective materialist science of the psyche is through what is directly observable in the body and behavior. The dialecticians’ attempts to treat the psyche as “objective being,” Sarab’ianov contends, prove essentially wrong-headed.

The dialecticians, in turn, counter that

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What is there to see here? A cabinet full of brains in the Institute for the Study of Higher Nervous Activity, Moscow, 1931. (Image Source: Arkhiv Rossiiskoi Akademii Nauk, f. 350 op. 1. d. 1077 l. 18)

Sarab’ianov has confused the ontological problem with an epistemological one, and that the mechanists fail to understand, as one dialectician puts it, “the development of the world,” the emergence of new orders of lawfulness at different stages of development. The mechanists, they argue, conceive of the world only in terms of physical and mechanical forms of motion, and either attempt to reduce the psyche to primary elements, to the brain and physiology, or—what amounts to much the same—isolate consciousness from the world, and render it unintelligible. Either way, they are “unwitting idealists,” for they ignore the problem of the psyche as a distinct property of highly organized matter, as a distinct property of that specially organized piece of matter called the brain. The problem with the mechanists, the psychologist-dialectician Iu. V. Frankfurt asserts, is that they cannot imagine that matter can think. They fail to understand the brain as a thinking thing; they fail to understand the brain, he says, as a “thing in itself and for itself.”

Does any of this make any sense? Certainly, there is no eureka moment here—or in the discussion that follows—and indeed the prevailing sense is of an immense confusion. The psychophysical problem is not solved. Rather, what we begin to see is that they are in fact posing different questions. At the risk of stretching Frankfurt’s use of the term here (though not, I think, the stakes of a broader intervention), the problem of the brain ‘for-itself’ for the dialecticians was not, in the first instance, a question of matter and sensation, but of the possibility of conscious and purposeful action, of the active role of consciousness, as they liked to say, in human behavior. It was a problem of the place of the psyche in the world.

In this respect, we might begin to see how a push towards “dialectics” could point to a different approach to the brain, and to what a materialist explanation of the psyche would be. On one hand, it entailed a turn away from the physical and immediately observable as the privileged form of explaining the psyche: thinking the brain as a thinking thing, the demonstration of “substrates” and “correlates” in itself was of no explanation at all. On the other, it focused attention, above all, on the question of development, and the relation of the brain to the structure of consciousness. Posed in this way, the question to be answered was not one of how the brain produced ideas and sensations, but rather of why, of the role of thought and affect in conscious human activity. In this vein, a number of Soviet psychologists in these years would turn to evidence from the clinic, from child development, and even from socialist construction, to understand the development of specifically human higher psychological functions. As Alexander Luria would later say of the work done in this period by Lev Vygotsky (himself one of the participants in the psychophysical discussion), it was a question of how “history ties new functional knots in the cortex” (Luria, “L. S. Vygotsky and the Problem of Localization of Functions,” p. 391).

The fate of that research is a story for another time. The idea here is not that such attempts to rethink the brain came out of this one discussion, or even that they had much to do with dialectics as we might understand it. Rather, it is to consider how such attempts at “ideological direction” may have raised significant questions about what it is we can see, and what it is we explain, when we look at the brain—dead or alive. In this respect there is still perhaps some value in not only working experimentally, but also, sometimes, philosophizing. And, just maybe, in thinking historically as well.

Jamie Phillips is a Ph.D. candidate in modern European history at NYU. His dissertation examines the history of psychoneurology as a total science of the human in early twentieth century Russia, and its relation to the project of creating a ‘New Man.

Further reading:

For more on the dispute between the Mechanists and Dialecticians, see David Joravsky, Soviet Marxism and Natural Science, 1917-1932 (Routledge, 2009)

For lighter fare, join Joy Neumeyer as she takes A Visit to Moscow’s Brain Institute to explore what’s left of the Pantheon in a delightful article for Vice.

 

Prophetic Medicine in the Indian Yūnānī Tradition

by guest contributor Deborah Schlein

When Greek medical texts were transmitted and translated in the ʿAbbasid capital of Baghdad in the ninth and tenth centuries, they paved the way for original Arabic medical sources which built off Greek humoral theory (the four humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile; in Arabic: dam, balgham, ṣafrāʾ, and sawdāʾ). The most famous of these sources is Ibn Sīnā’s (d. 1037) Qānūn, Latinized to Avicenna’s Canon. The Qānūn is often cited as the foundation of what became known as Yūnānī Ṭibb, or Greek medicine, hearkening back to its use of Greek humoral theory as the basis of aetiology, diagnosis, and treatment. With the movement and transmission of texts such as the Qānūn, the study and practice of Yūnānī Ṭibb flourished and adapted to new surroundings.

While Yūnānī medicine has a long history in the Islamic world, popular medicine also drew enthusiastically on other traditions. Practices included the use of amulets, local knowledge of flora and their medicinal properties, prayer, and al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī, or Prophetic medicine. This last is characterized by the use of folk remedies, medical traditions cited in the Qur’an, and, most notably, the use of medical ḥadīth, or sayings of the Prophet Muḥammad, which were collected in book form.

Both al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī and Yūnānī Ṭibb had a large following in the Islamic world, and still do to this day. India is a perfect example of the staying power of these kinds of medicine. When Yūnānī arrived in South Asia, scholars and intellectuals fleeing the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century brought with them medical knowledge based on Arabic sources, beginning a medical tradition which would adapt and thrive from the period of the Delhi Sultanate (1206-1516) into the modern day. Knowledge of al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī also accompanied these scholars to India. Today, Yūnānī colleges are supported by the Indian government, and medical practice in the region is a mixture of the traditions that flourished there, including Yūnānī, Ayurveda, al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī, and allopathy (often called Western medicine).

Yet, too often, the medical traditions are discussed separately, without mention of the ways in which they influenced one another, particularly in regard to Yūnānī‘s adoption of treatments from al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī. Even a cursory glance at the sources, however, can tell a reader how these medical traditions interacted and shaped each other over the centuries. A study of Yūnānī manuscripts and their reception gives a clearer picture of that mix of Yūnānī Ṭibb and al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī during such earlier periods as the Mughal empire, showing that the different bodies of knowledge in fact interacted.

One way to better understand the reception of these texts and the interactions of these medical traditions is to study the marginal notations in the premodern manuscripts. These notes are a window into the thoughts of the readers themselves: they refer to other medical sources, describe prescriptions the readers used and knew to be beneficial, and relate the realities of the medical traditions in practice. One single manuscript can have marginal notations with references to Galen, Ibn Sīnā, and the Prophet Muḥammad, all concerned, for example, with the best remedy for toothache. These notes, therefore, tell us a great deal about the usage and understanding of the text at hand.

The major medical encyclopedia of Najīb al-Dīn al-Samarqandī (d. 1222), al-Asbāb wa alʿ-ʿAlāmāt (The Causes and the Symptoms), and its attendant commentaries follow Yūnānī medical theory. Copies of both the commentaries and the original work number in the hundreds in the Indian manuscript collections, not far behind Ibn Sīnā’s Qānūn and its commentaries. Al-Samarqandī’s sources come from medical greats such as al-Rāzī (d. 925), al-Majūsī (d. 994), and, of course, Ibn Sīnā, but unlike the five-volume medical compendium that is the Qānūn, al-Samarqandī’s al-Asbāb wa al-ʿAlāmāt is a handbook of medical diagnoses and treatments that was meant for personal use, to be referred to and utilized in practice. Other medical scholars, such as Nafīs b. ʿIwad al-Kirmānī (flourished 1437) and Muḥammad Akbar Arzānī (flourished 1700) took up the text and wrote major commentaries on it, in Arabic and Persian respectively. I now turn to an Indian manuscript of al-Kirmānī’s Sharḥ [commentary of] al-Asbāb wa alʿ-ʿAlāmāt in an effort to shine light on the interactions of Yūnānī Ṭibb and al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī.

Al-Kirmānī dedicated this Sharḥ to his patron, the Timurid ruler Ulugh Beg, in whose royal court he was a physician. Copies of the Sharḥ can be found all over India, and are even more common in the region than al-Samarqandī’s original text, upon which the commentary is based. The Raza Library in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh holds six manuscripts of al-Kirmānī’s Sharḥ al-Asbāb wa alʿ-ʿAlāmāt, ranging in date from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries and covering the transition of power from the Mughals to the British Raj. One particular manuscript, No. 3999 (Raza Library, Acc. No. 4195 M), is an eighteenth-century copy of al-Kirmānī’s Sharḥ, and its margins are littered with explanations, prescriptions, and references to other medical sources, mostly in Arabic. While some notes offer quotes from Galen or Ibn Sīnā, others refer to the works of al-Samarqandī himself. What makes this manuscript important to the study of Yūnānī and Prophetic medicine’s interactions, however, are the many notations citing early Islamic and, in some cases, pre-Islamic medical advice.

The margins of fourteen folios exhibit references to the Prophet’s advice and actions in the realm of medical practice. These various ḥadīth are reported by a total of twelve different companions and members of the Prophet’s family, and they showcase Muḥammad’s own knowledge of the region’s flora and their medical benefits, as well as the traditional folk medicine of the Arabian peninsula. For example, the mid-point of al-Kirmānī’s Sharḥ advocates the use of medicaments to rid the body of excess fluid to relieve dhāt al-janb, or pleurisy, which is an inflammation of the tissue lining the lungs and the chest cavity. The marginal note on this page relates the report of Zayd b. Arqam, a companion of the Prophet, who says that Muḥammad named zayt (oil) and wars (memecylon tinctorium, a Yemenite dye-yielding plant) as treatment for pleurisy (MS. No. 3999, f. 166b). Similarly, while al-Kirmānī explains al-Samarqandī’s definition of kulf, or freckles, as localized changes of color in the face to shades of black or red, the ḥadīth states that Umm Salama, one of the wives of Muḥammad, related that the Prophet spoke of the use of wars (seemingly, a common medicament at the time) to coat the affected areas of the face in order to counteract these spots (MS. No. 3999, f. 336a). Here, these marginalia serve to underscore the accuracy of the lessons of the text’s author, but they also give more specificity to how the ailment should be treated.

One additional notation is worth noting because it predates Islam: it is attributed to Luqmān the Ḥakīm (literally, wise man), a pre-Islamic sage who is mentioned in the Qur’an. His treatments (Elaj-e-Lokmani, or “treatment of Lokman”) are still practiced today in an orally-transmitted medical tradition in Eastern India, particularly Bengal. Luqmān’s medical advice, like the ḥadīth of the Prophet, recalls the medicine practiced in Arabia at the time. The notation before the text begins prescribes a treatment using gharghara (a gargle) and julāb (julep, a fruit- or petal-infused drink) for problems originating in the stomach (f. 1a, MS 3999) and is written in Persian. The Arabic note following it describes the above treatment’s source, denoting Luqmān the Ḥakīm as its originator. This reference to a pre-Islamic sage’s medical advice brings to the fore the Arabian medicine upon which al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī is based. These references reveal the thoughts of the manuscript’s reader, and force the scholar to question the boxes to which these medical traditions have often been assigned.

It is clear that the early Arab medicine described by the Prophet, and practiced before and during his lifetime, was very much alive and influential throughout the time of Yūnānī medical manuscript production and study in India. The treatments explained in al-Kirmani’s Sharḥ must have reminded the reader of the Prophet’s own medical advice. He may have written these thoughts down as a memory aide, for future readers of the text, or to underscore the benefits of these remedies. Whatever the reasoning behind these notations, the margins of this particular Yūnānī manuscript show that there was an awareness of al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī in the study of Yūnānī Ṭibb, and the two were not at all mutually exclusive.

Deborah Schlein is a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. She is currently pursuing archival research in India with the support of a Fulbright-Nehru grant.

Malthus Redivivus/Malthus Revisited

by guest contributor E.G. Gallwey

In the history of ideas, the rate of population growth or decline has carried strong associations with the trajectories of societies and states. The eighteenth-century writer Thomas Robert Malthus’s principle of population has set the standard for discussion of the implications of demographic change, and placed the problem of scarcity at the center of human experience. For Malthus, scarcity of food (the limits to what could be produced from the earth’s resources), coupled with the continuous desire for sexual reproduction, was the abiding condition of human existence.

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Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) by John Linnell (1834)

Malthus was not the first to talk about the implications of scarcity on economic life. But since his work was first published, he has been associated with a profoundly unfeeling attitude towards the fate of the poor. Thomas Carlyle branded political economy the “dismal science” on account of Malthus’s contention that human beings would always have to live within the limits of natural law, and that human attempts to alter natural law by schemes of improvement would most likely have negative long-term effects. Such views were largely a consequence of Malthus’s position relative to the social reform schemes championed by advocates of human plenty and invention who had developed their ideas in the context of the French Revolution, the pinnacle of Enlightenment optimism.

Just as scholars of the eighteenth century have done much to rehabilitate the tired and outdated picture of Adam Smith, Malthus’s reputation has been deemed ripe for re-evaluation. Coinciding with the 250th anniversary of Malthus’s birth and the publication of Joyce Chaplin and Alison Bashford’s exciting new book, The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus, a conference at Malthus’s alma mater, Jesus College, Cambridge on June 20-21 engaged in a substantial and timely reassessment of Malthus’ thought. Scholars from a range of disciplines, including history, political science, demography, and economics, gathered for the two-day meeting.

A series of panels on day one explored the historical origin, intention, reception, and propagation of Malthus’s thought from the eighteenth through to the twenty-first century. The opening session provided re-readings of Malthus’s principles in the context of the eighteenth century’s relationship to enlightenment and revolution and to European powers’ imperial expansion in the “new worlds” of the Americas and Pacific.

Joyce E. Chaplin’s paper on the reception history of Malthus’s thought demonstrated how the 1803 “Essay on Population” not only drew directly from new world societies in its evidence base, but also sought directly to engage in a debate about the future of colonial settler societies. Largely forgotten as a critic of imperial schemes of territorial conquest and settlement, Malthus cast serious doubt on the settler fantasy of a terra nullius in the ideology of settler imperialism. Instead, writing in the vein of Enlightenment universal histories, Malthus aimed to demonstrate how new world societies illustrated the limits of resources and the dangers of displacing indigenous populations from the land. Timing was fundamental, however, to the reception and circulation of Malthus’s work; and when the revolutions and subsequent independence of North and South American colonies, suggested the possibility of an escape from the dynamics and limits of the old world, the ensuing optimism resulted in a highly partial reading of Malthus.

Christopher Brooke’s paper reconstructed the possibility of Malthus’s unacknowledged debt to the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a relation deriving at least in part from the influence of Malthus’s father, a devoted follower of Rousseau. Though both Rousseau and Malthus have long been recognized as expounding influential theories of property relations, the latter has often been depicted as a theologically-driven theorist, engaged in formulating a theodicy for lapsarian man. Brooke instead placed Malthus within a tradition of thought initiated by Montesquieu and carried forward by Rousseau, wherein the question of population was part of a broader debate on the role of climate, the size and scale of states, and their relationship to the moral sentiments of the poor as much as the wealthy. Such republican concerns engendered an interest in the form of economic development most conducive to the stability of political regimes and to the maintenance of constitutional liberties.

Such an alternate reading of Malthus, placing him outside the traditional stress on his combative engagement with the progressive reformist schemes of Condorcet and Godwin, was echoed by Niall O’Flaherty in his paper on Malthus’s approach to the amelioration of poverty. Situating his ideas within Enlightenment debates about the stadial progress and poverty of nations. O’Flaherty identified Malthus’ scientific arguments on the elements of European culture which had alleviated some of the worst population checks, suffered by earlier more primitive societies. Malthus was influenced by Adam Smith and William Paley in his utilitarian analysis of the conditions for the improvement of the poor, including his account of self-love and the role of decent and useful pride in encouraging prudence.

Alison Bashford provided a powerful explanation for Malthus’s curious non-engagement with the question of slavery, even as the multiple editions of the essay spanned the course of the debate on abolition. Citing archival evidence on the Malthus family’s involvement in a protracted legal dispute over the inheritance of a Jamaican plantation, Bashford helped contextualize the omission, which was particularly glaring given the economic significance of the Caribbean colonies in the British empire—a fact of which Malthus, as professor of political economy at the East India Company’s own college, could hardly have been unaware.

The afternoon session considered Malthus’s influence on the trajectory of economic thought and analysis in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Gareth Stedman Jones addressed the afterlife of Malthusian thought in the socialist circles of utopianism and early Marxism. Though Malthus’ thinking on the the poor evoked vituperative responses from radicals like William Godwin and the later Owenites, Stedman Jones pointed toward some important areas of synergy. These included the preponderance of mind over matter in Malthus and Godwin’s account of human nature and the contribution of Malthus’ theory to Marx’s own writing on the declining rate of profit.

This latter point formed a nice transition into Duncan Kelly’s assessment of John Maynard Keynes’s engagement with Malthusian thought. Keynes himself pursued a substantial reassessment of Malthus’s legacy, including an adumbration on the greater advantages to the development of nineteenth-century political economy if the science had followed Malthusian rather than Ricardian logic. Many of the key problems Keynes tackled in his formal economic work, as well as his polemical and political writing, drew on Malthus’s originality in thinking about deficiency in demand and economic cycles: the usefulness, in macro terms, of public-works projects in depression-hit economies. Kelly explained how the connection between social reform, eugenics, and human agency in Keynes’s mature thought intended to address intergenerational justice and the quality of states’ populations, over the traditional geopolitical concern to boost population numbers as an assurance of national strength.

Three final papers by Leigh Shaw-Taylor, Richard Smith, and Paul Warde tested Malthus’ claims against the evidence of centuries of economic and demographic change in England. There followed a public lecture, in which E.A. Wrigely provided a thorough recapitulation of the close link between Malthus’s observations on the laws guiding the behavior of land, labor, and capital and his theory of human nature. He concluded with an observation on the irony of Malthus’s theory governing the limits to growth of organic economies having been brought forth just as human societies began to discover new forms of energy which would revolutionize economic production.

The shifting perspectives of the past, present, and future on the question of scarcity and the morals and politics of human agency were frequently addressed on day two of the conference. The series of panels brought a more contemporary and global focus, though historical treatments of the role of Malthusian language and traditions of thought in the politics and economics of international development allowed for important critiques of the application of Malthusianism in non-western settings. Much of the discussion in the morning centered on how mid-twentieth-century anxieties over an impending food crisis drew on a neo-Malthusian revival. The role of states and of non-governmental institutions like the Rockefeller Foundation, and the revival of disciplines like demography, spurred a renewed interest in earth’s carrying capacity and the damage being done by the manipulation of new technologies in botany and human fertility.

The concluding panel offered a vivid sense of the way in which climate change has replaced food crisis as the dominating concern of the twenty-first century. Yet the origins of ecology and climate science, and even key concepts like the anthropocene, can be understood to have borrowed much from Malthusian thinking. Indeed, the application of temporal and geographic scale in understanding the direction of human and planetary history is by no means the only legacy Malthus imparted to his readers.

E.G. Gallwey is a PhD candidate in American History at Harvard University. Her dissertation research explores the intellectual history of political and economic thought in the long eighteenth century, with a focus on republican debates over public credit in the revolutionary Atlantic.

Félix de Azara: Drawn from Life

by guest contributor Anna Toledano

Decades before Darwin set out on his voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle, Félix de Azara (1742–1821) observed many of the same species of animals and plants that the famed Englishman would see during his journey. Charged by the Spanish army with the task of drawing maps of the Spanish and Portuguese territories in the Río de la Plata region of what is now Paraguay and Brazil, Azara arrived in South America on March 12, 1781 and remained in the region for twenty years. The expedition proved long and monotonous, providing the curious, assiduous Azara with much time to observe the wildlife and peoples near the Río de la Plata.

During his time in South America, Azara amassed a significant collection of natural history objects. In 1788, he sent an extensive set of birds for study to the Royal Cabinet of Natural Sciences—what is now the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid—by way of José Moñino y Redondo, the Conde de Floridablanca (1728–1808), who was chief minister in charge of Spain’s foreign policy. Azara had preserved the birds using aguardiente, a strong grain alcohol. In a letter dated September 13 of the same year to Eugenio Izquierdo de Rivera y Lazaún, the director of the Royal Cabinet, Azara indicated that he hoped to “gather all of the species of birds, describe them and send them” to Spain (Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales and Calatayud Arinero 1984, 198). The box later arrived at the Cabinet with 107 specimens inside.

The personnel in Madrid did not view the specimens with as much enthusiasm as Azara did. The arduous journey—as well as the alcoholic aguardiente—had been unkind to the “avecillas.” Vice director of the Cabinet, José Clavijo Fajardo, sent his thanks to Azara via the Conde de Floridablanca, but only for drafts of Azara’s Remarks on the Natural History of the Birds of Paraguay and Rio de la Plata and not for the ill-preserved birds. The naturalists at the museum saw them as worthless for taxidermy and study. Tragically, the Cabinet could not accommodate the unidentified, aboriginally-named birds in Azara’s collection (Figueroa 2011). Since neither Buffon nor Linnaeus had referenced any of the species that Azara identified, Clavijo considered them uninteresting and disposed of them (Calatayud Arinero 2009, 90-91).[1]

While this anecdote serves as an example of the capriciousness of what survives the sands of time and what does not in terms of objects of natural history, it also illustrates the attitude at the Spanish institution—and among educated Spaniards themselves—toward Azara during his lifetime. The Cabinet rejected Azara’s specimens because it operated within a different knowledge paradigm that did not value the same objects and methods of science that Azara, separated by an ocean, had developed for himself. Azara was not Bernard Shaw’s itinerant British sailors in the South Pacific, for whom “the problem of observing and interpreting what they saw…was…a simpler matter…than for the exiles and missionaries who followed them” and began this new, foreign way of life. Azara was not enjoying merely “extended, if dangerous, holiday;” he had, in fact, a “deep emotional break…[from] a homeland never, perhaps, to be seen again” (Shaw 1950, 85).

Azara’s lack of professional training as a naturalist may have played a role: although he was well-versed in mathematics and the physical sciences, his practical biological knowledge was self-taught. Azara maintained that his observations of animals as they lived in the wild prevented him from drawing the same mistaken conclusions as European naturalists. In his introduction to his treatise on quadrupeds, Azara stressed that he

[put] all my care to tell the truth without exaggerating anything, and to know and express the characters of the animals whose descriptions I made in their presence. Because of this I have been less at risk to fall into the errors that those who have not been able to observe them alive have not been able to avoid; those who have beheld them emaciated, hairless and dirty in cages and chains; and those who have sought them in cabinets: where, in spite of care, the injury of time must have altered the colors heavily, changing the black into brown, etc.: and no skin, nor the best-prepared skeleton, gives the exact idea of the shapes and sizes (Azara 1802, i-ii).

He lambasted armchair scientists who made all of their discoveries not in the field but using stuffed skins and bones in the museum (Cowie 2011, 5).

Azara’s professional contemporaries at the Royal Cabinet did not refuse his work in its entirety. Azara enjoyed some success from his publications in his home country as well as other European nations. Yet his books were not as effective at describing the birds as were the birds themselves. Different forms of knowledge held value over others.

Through illustrations was one way that Azara could command an audience. As Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison argue in their work on objectivity, “Whatever the amount and avowed function of the text in an atlas, which varies from long and essential to nonexistent and despised, the illustrations command center stage” (Daston & Galison 1992, 85). Azara incorporated drawings of the bird and animal species he discussed in his numerous multi-volume tomes on the flora, fauna and ecology of the South American region where he lived. His best-known works include the aforementioned Remarks on the Natural History of the Birds of Paraguay and Rio de la Plata and Remarks on the Natural History of the Quadrupeds of Paraguay and Rio de la Plata, for which he tried his hand at illustration as well, despite his admitted lack of skill (Azara 1802, iv). For the French edition, Azara hired an illustrator, but he drew from the specimens in the Paris Museum rather than from life (Cowie 2011, 135). Azara could not have it all: he had to choose between his crude drawings from the field or professional depictions of dead museum specimens. Explore the pictures below to make your own assessment. What explanatory power do these images hold?

1 Anteater

The black anteater, one of the two varieties that Azara studied, as illustrated in the French edition of his Voyages. Azara commissioned these illustrations from specimens that he identified in the museum in Paris as correctly corresponding to those in his notes from South America (Azara 1850, 4). He corrected a falsely held notion in Europe that every anteater was female and that their proboscides substituted for something more phallic in the act (Azara 1802, 65).

2 Azara's rat

Azara was the first to identify a significant number of animal and plant species during his time near Río de la Plata, including this species of rat. Modern evolutionary biologists continue to examine his own taxonomic and naming practices as well, since he classified many mammals and birds using hybrid binomials that scientists still employ today, despite his ignorance of proper practice in Linnaean nomenclature. One set of researchers, hailing from institutions such as the American Museum of Natural History as well as the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid, updated Azara’s taxonomic description of varieties of opossums in order to conform with present-day research. They state that Azara’s “descriptions are detailed enough to permit unambiguous identifications of many species” (Voss et al. 2009, 406-407).

3 Azara's bird

Forty pages of descriptions and notes accompanied the birds that Azara sent to the Royal Cabinet, which totaled 84 specimens of 61 different species. He listed the birds’ descriptive, hybrid indigenous-and-Spanish names such as the “Tugüay-machete” and the “Yby̆y̆aù sociable” (Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales and Calatayud Arinero 1984, 197). In a detailed four-columned list, he also included the sex and assessments of the condition of the individual specimens (Figueroa 2011).

4 Azara map 1809 English

Azara did adhere to his original mission, lest one forget what that was. He made some efforts to draw maps of the region, such as the snippet of this comprehensive one included in the beginning of the 1838 English edition of his treatise on quadrupeds. The act of surveying proved extremely difficult not just for him but also for the Spanish representatives sent to other South American regions. Historian of Latin America Tamar Herzog describes the hurdles that they encountered, such as

treaties [that] often mentioned rivers, settlements, and mountains that never existed or were not located where the parties had imagined. Others had a different name in Spanish and Portuguese. Because the territory was not only huge but also unknown, experts[’]…work degenerat[ed] into endless debates regarding where rivers flowed and where mountains were located.

Just as with the sixteenth-century treaty of Tordesillas, Herzog writes, “these experts thus failed to reach concord on how a theoretical, imaginary line described in a European document would become a concrete, material reality in the Americas” (Herzog 2015, 32).

5 Azara Goya

A work featuring Félix de Azara appears in yet another Spanish institution, but it is perhaps neither in the expected medium nor in the expected museum. In 1805, the Spanish artist Francisco Goya painted Azara’s portrait, which now hangs in the Goya Museum in Zaragoza, Spain. Azara wears his military regalia, replete with sword, cane and well-pressed uniform. Yet, his intellectual pursuits also figure into the symbolism of the scene. He holds in his right hand a paper, indicating he is a learned man. Most wonderfully, behind him is a veritable cabinet of curiosities. Taxidermied felines grace the lowest shelf while his beloved birds overflow on the others, tucked away for study when necessary.

Anna Toledano is pursuing a PhD in history of science at Stanford University. A museum professional by training, her research focuses on natural history collecting in early modern Spain. Follow her on Twitter at @annatoledano.

Thinking About Knowledge in Motion and Social Engagement at HSS

by guest contributor Patrick Anthony

Amidst the great diversity of ideas and perspectives circulating at this year’s History of Science Society (HSS) meeting in San Francisco, two themes continue to resonate in my mind: knowledge in motion and social engagement. Indeed, the annual HSS meeting is itself an example of the far-ranging mobility of ideas and the impulse of many scholars to engage with diverse and interdisciplinary audiences. It is fitting then that some of the most palpable themes at HSS concerned the transmission and translation of scientific knowledge on the one hand and the social and political engagement of scholars on the other.

With sessions and round-tables like “Knowledge in Motion,” “Translation as Process,” and “Translation as an Epistemic Tool,” I was reminded of the text of James A. Secord’s plenary lecture at a Halifax conference titled “Circulating Knowledge” in 2004. Under the title “Knowledge in Transit,” Secord expressed his concern that a focus on localized sites of knowledge creation had lead to a “loss of direction,” suggesting in stead that we begin to view “knowledge as communication” and shift our gaze toward “patterns of circulation.” “It means thinking about statements as vectors with a direction and a medium,” Secord argued — and this is precisely how many of his colleagues were thinking at this year’s HSS meeting.

The “Knowledge in Motion” session featured a host of scholars who had indeed found direction. In his analysis of letters to and from the twentieth-century physicist Paul Dirac, Aaron Wright, for instance, sought to identify the “Principles of Correspondence.” Wright suggested that correspondence contains a unique “form of knowledge” akin to Michael Polanyi’s “tacit” or “personal knowledge,” one that allows for a freer and more metaphysical exchange of ideas than we find in published works. Also in this session, Noah Moxham reconstructed the eighteenth-century distribution circuits of the scientific periodical, the Philosophical Transactions; Barbara Di Gennaro traced pathways of knowledge concerning the origin of the “true” balsam plant through a network of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian thinkers that spanned the Eastern Mediterranean in the sixteenth-century; and Sophie Brockmann’s “Geography of Knowledge in Central America” followed roads, trade routes and correspondence networks to elucidate the role of “local ‘lived’ and ‘imagined’ landscapes” in the creation of geographic knowledge.

With an eye toward both the visual and the textual, the public and the private, scholars are currently not only concerned with how knowledge travels, but also with the ways in which knowledge is reconfigured while in transit. Studies of translation figure centrally here. In “Translation as Process,” Martina Schlünder examined the 1979 English translation of Ludwik Fleck’s Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact (first published in German in 1935) to further Fleck’s own argument. Fleck argued that scientific knowledge is conceived, situated, and, as Schlünder phrased it, “trapped in” but “blind to” socially conditioned “thought styles.” Can the same be said for translations? Schlünder said yes, suggesting that the English translation of Genesis and Development is itself an example of a text being appropriated by a different thought collective.

Historian Lynn K. Nyhart was thinking along similar lines. In her exciting new project, presented at HSS under the title “Reproducing Science: William B. Carpenter and the British Reception of German Ideas on Generation, 1839-1854,” Nyhart set herself the task of explaining how scientific knowledge changed while en route from Germany to Britain in the mid-nineteenth century. Thus far, Nyhart has found that ideas once rooted in Germany were, by the time they reached British students by way of French and then English translations, heavily “mediated,” and in some respects “decisively Anglophilic.” I was struck by the affinities between Nyhart’s project and Nick Hopwood’s new book Haeckel’s Embryos: Images, Evolution, and Fraud, which explores the social life of a set of controversial drawings by Ernst Haeckel to argue that images, like texts, are not just mindlessly recycled, but creatively reproduced. My sense is that the red thread here — in studies of translation and circulation as in the work of Nyhart and Hopwood — is an enthusiasm for studying the mobility of ideas as they evolve through time and space.

If “translation” and “motion” were on the minds of many in San Francisco, “engagement” and “justice” seemed to be rival buzzwords. While one session, facilitated by Janet D. Stemwedel, exchanged ideas on “How to Engage with Government and Beyond Using the History of Science,” another round-table, chaired and organized by Joanna Radin and Myrna Perez Sheldon, posed the bold and noble question, “How Should the History of Science Engage with Political Activism and Social Justice?” Of the sessions I was able to attend, the most dynamic and compelling was a roundtable titled “Historians of Science in the Public Sphere.”

Chaired by Joshua Howe of Reed College, the panel featured a set of scholars working at the intersection of academia and social justice: Erik M. Conway, co-author of Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming; Jane Maienschein, director of the Embryo Project at Arizona State University; Alice Dreger, whose work on intersex research and identity politics has courageously fused scholarship and activism; and Robert Proctor, who in 1999 became the first historian to testify against the tobacco industry, and continued to do so in over one hundred cases.

“What happens,” Howe began, “when historians of science use their craft to make the world a better place?” In their profound and inspiring answers (and in spite of their differences) the panel revealed many commonalities. Most panelists had received hate mail, and some, death threats; all expressed a deep resentment of relativism, and alternatively, for “ultra-postmodernism”; and each expressed a commitment to truth and justice. While Proctor and Maienschein set their social/academic aims within a broad “Enlightenment” tradition, Dreger spoke of relativism as a position held by those who have not had to consider justice—that is, as a privilege. Only briefly mentioned then, but certainly worth recalling here, was the gendered nature of hate mail. As Conway related, Naomi Oreskes, his co-author of Merchants of Doubt, had received thousands of hate e-mails after the book’s publication — a striking quantity beside his few.

The panel agreed that much of the value in the study of history lies in its potential to humble us. “Humility,” Dreger said simply and sardonically, “might be a good way to approach things.” But the problem with being a historian in the public sphere, Dreger continued, is that people want simple, black and white, stories of good and evil. Proctor concurred: “Complexity can get in the way,” he said, especially in the courtroom. But it was Proctor’s stirring meditations on humankind that seemed to dominate the tenor of the session. Beginning with the premise that “to be human is to want to make the world a better place,” Proctor’s principal message was that one ought to be “a human first and a historian second,” and that we ought to be wary of the evils that follow from the reversion of this relationship. He concluded with a bit of levity and the words of a Rabbi: “Nonsense is nonsense, but the history of nonsense is scholarship!”

Patrick Anthony is a first year graduate student working on the history of science and exploration at Vanderbilt University. At the HSS meeting in San Francisco, Patrick presented a poster titled „Views of Justice in Views of Nature: Mapping Alexander von Humboldt’s Cosmic Law.“ Aside from his work on Humboldt’s Romantic conception of justice, Patrick is also developing a project on Americans’ views of revolutions in Saint-Domingue and Latin America during the early national period.

The “Conquest of the Sun” and Ideas about Energy

by contributing editor Carolyn Taratko

In late summer of 1878, a visitor strolling the park at Trocadéro on a sunny day during the 1878 Exposition Universelle in Paris would have encountered an enormous silver-plated cone. Twenty-four square meters of reflective surface trapped the sun’s rays and converted their heat into usable energy, performing an astonishing array of tasks. Next to this strange contraption, a roast beef rested, having just emerged from the solar-powered oven. It cooled beside a rumbling steam engine that curiously lacked a combustion chamber. Behind this device, the world’s first solar-powered engine, was a provincial mathematics teacher from Tours, Augustin-Bernard Mouchot (1825-1912). His work, now forgotten, piqued the interest not only of the scientific establishment in Paris but also of the popular press long before its debut at the Exposition Universelle. After a trial run in Algeria, the device captured the French public’s imagination, the interest of the notoriously exclusive Académiciens at the Academy of Science and the patronage of France’s two successive political regimes between the construction of the first prototype in Tours in 1860 and the scaled-up model displayed at the 1878 Exposition.

sciencepopulaire.jpg

The receptor sits amid several contraptions, similar to those that were displayed on the Champs de Mars at the Exposition Universelle. At the bottom of the page, a banner reading “The sun—cooking aid—distiller—printer—photographer—rotisserie—fire starter—electrician—mechanic—etc.—etc.” appears, heralding its versatility. Strikingly, two men, noticeably dark and lacking shirts, occupy the middle ground. One appears to be in the midst of tending to a machine (perhaps peeling potatoes before boiling them in a trough?) while the other sits, half-reclined upon the frame of the receptor, at rest. In the background, a small figure in a suit stands at the gate, surveying what lies in front of him. The self-assured title, “La Conquête du Soleil” suggests the conquest at work in the image: of the sun in its role as prime mover of nature, harnessing the rays to suit the needs of colonists. La Science Populaire. Paris, no.131 (17 Aug 1882).

Mouchot’s story is an interesting one, and not just on account of the delightful tremor of self-recognition upon discovering that something so apparently cutting-edge belonged to an earlier century. Mouchot’s device and its trajectory also allow us to pose questions about how he and his contemporaries thought about natural resources and energy. Seen in this way, it belongs to the “new” intellectual history which explores the ideas of individuals who are not normally considered intellectuals and are far outside the pantheon of celebrated scientists. Since the legacy of the man (as so often is the case) was eclipsed by his invention, the ideas he engaged with provide a more fruitful path for further inquiry than any sort of biographical preoccupation.

Not much is known of Mouchot’s life before his construction of the receptor. His earliest published work, La chaleur solaire et ses applications industrielles, appeared in 1869. In it, he describes the properties at work in the solar receptor and in early-stage experimentation. He credited recent developments that explored the role of heat in machines for opening the possibility of his invention. Mouchot’s first experiments with the solar receptor date from 1860 in Alençon, where he began his career as a mathematics teacher at the local lycée. Using modest materials—his first prototype involved a receptor fashioned from the blacked interior of a wooden crate—Mouchot began to apply the principles of solar heat and mechanical work.

In La chaleur solaire, Mouchot, a specialist in neither geology nor political economy, confidently asserted that Europe’s coal stocks would become exhausted. “Unlike our forests,” he wrote, “the coal stocks are not replenished, and yet we have seen the wood supply become more rare. Is there any reason to imagine that the situation with coal, one in which the deposits are never refilled, can avoid dearth?” And yet, Mouchot continued, “the consumption of coal worldwide increases annually, while scientists scramble to calculate the expiration date of this period of bounty.” With this in mind, Mouchot aimed to disabuse his readers of their false sense of security in the current coal-based energy regime.

This is a story about coal as much as it is one about solar power. La chaleur solaire provides a genealogy of the principles that informed Mouchot’s research, but it is also a tool of self-promotion. Mouchot self-consciously reproduces the language of a coal shortage, drawing attention to the promise of the solar energy as a “free resource” (ressource gratuite) in a way that was meant to draw the attention of official networks of patronage. Put differently, the problem he seeks to address is not just solely the creation of usable energy from the sun, but the creation of usable energy that does not rely upon coal.

While we are accustomed to hearing about “peak oil”, we often forget that “peak coal” was a legitimate concern in the nineteenth century. Western European nations, whose enormous industrial growth was predicated on a reliable supply of the stuff, fretted over its eventual exhaustion. Mouchot’s own vague allusions to the calculations of the rate of coal exhaustion drew upon the work of Louis Simonin in France and, more famously, William Stanley Jevons in Great Britain, both popularizers of the idea of coal shortage. Exhaustion, explained Jevons in his 1865 publication The Coal Question, signified a time when the costs of extracting coal rose to a point that it was no longer feasible. Jevons wrote within a British context, but these same anxieties made their way across the channel to France (a nation already poorly endowed with accessible coal). Innovations in mining technology had overcome these setbacks for the time being, but the growing demands of industry ensured that France would be playing consumption brinkmanship if alternatives were not sought out.

appareil solaire.jpg

“Appareil pour l’utilisation de la chaleur solaire,”Dictionnaire encyclopédique et biographique de l’industrie et des arts industriels, (Paris: Lami, Tharel et Compagnie, 1891)

In the two decades spanning 1860 to 1880, the conversation about resource management was a conversation about coal extraction and trade– petroleum was slowly making inroads, but coal reigned. “Coal,” wrote Roderick Murchison, director of the British Geological Survey, was “the meter of power of modern nations” (Murchison to Layard, 23 Feb. 1866, Layard Papers, BLAM 39118, ff.410-411). The geological survey inaugurated an age in which mineral wealth provided an index of national power. The late nineteenth century displayed a tendency to measure its power not solely in terms of its standing army, but also its feedstock resources.

Mouchot set out to create a means for collecting and utilizing solar rays for the profit of agriculture and industry in warm regions. His technology was not merely one with applications confined to the borders of France; in fact its conditions for optimal results lie beyond the Hexagon. After nearly a decade of promoting his technology before provincial and national audiences, he secured support for an expedition Algeria in 1877. The results were promising. His application-first approach tested the utility of the receptor for tasks suited to the everyday needs of a military expedition. He traveled the country and systematically tested the caloric yield of his devices at various locations and altitudes. These included the distillation of water and alcohol, the baking of bread and cooking of meat, which were all tasks of great importance to the French military in light of the shortage of naturally occurring coal and tinder in Algeria. These minor uses were subordinate to the primary goal, which was to determine the utility of a large solar powered engine for agriculture, to power a motor for elevating water for irrigation purposes, and industry.

The journey to Algeria and the display at the 1878 Exposition Universelle furnish the climax of this story; afterwards both the man and his machine fade into obscurity. The difficulties of finding dependable sunlight in France proved to be a damning drawback, cited again and again in scientific proceedings and reports. Its utility in other climes was plain, but investment in technology solely suited to France’s colonial possession (which was itself an engagement of questionable at best economic return) was hard to justify. Eventually, the idea of a solar-powered engine was altogether abandoned and treated as a curiosity on display in a courtyard on the rue d’Assas in Paris.

This post begins with a story and finishes with a set of questions about what a history of ideas about the environment might offer. In addition to sufficient institutional resources, an energy shift requires a degree of imagination; it requires us to imagine alternatives that are not readily apparent. In its brief lifespan, Mouchot’s device captured the imagination of his contemporaries. (Mouchot appears as footnote in August Bebel’s sketch of socialist future outlined in Die Frau und der Sozialismus, which is how I myself came upon the topic.) Mouchot’s device partakes in the wider phenomenon of the forgotten history of alternative energy sources. These projects have been largely neglected by historians. They are either been taken as unremarkable, and thus unworthy of study (such is the case of wind and watermills); or due to their failure to take hold (as in this early case of solar power), they appeared casualties of “inevitable” progress fed by fossil fuels. Returning to these stories and attempting to reconstruct the moments of possibility can help us to see beyond the blinders of fossil fuel dependency that govern the modern world and to recapture earlier ideas about natural resources.

Goodnight Moon: Kepler’s ‘Somnium’

by guest contributor Nicholas Bellinson

One Bohemian night in 1608, the Imperial Mathematician gazed up at the moon and the stars. In the seven years since he had received that title, Johannes Kepler had discovered many things about these celestial bodies, some true and some (as Hesiod said) like the truth: that planets moved around the sun, not the earth; that they moved in ellipses, not perfect circles; that they were enormous magnets – to name a few. The following year, he would publish these discoveries as his New Astronomy, a book which would make his name a fixed star in the firmament of science. On this particular night, however, a different book was on Kepler’s mind. His curiosity had been aroused by popular historical comparisons to the current troubles between Emperor Rudolph and his brother, the Archduke Matthias; while investigating Bohemian legends, Kepler had come across the story of Libuše, a prophetess associated with the founding of Prague and “most famous for her skill at magic.” With Libuše and the moon swimming in his head, Kepler got ready for bed and fell into an unusually deep sleep.

Kepler's 'Somnium' and other writings, published posthumously in 1634

Kepler’s ‘Somnium’ and other writings, published posthumously in 1634

Kepler circulated but never published a written account of the bizarre dream which ensued; after his death, his penniless wife persuaded his destitute son (an aspiring doctor) to complete and publish the work. For us, the text is marvelously rich in astronomical, literary, and sociological significance. He dreamed that he was reading a book—a realistic enough start—about an Icelandic boy named Duracotus. When the curious boy cuts open one of the pouches of herbs his mother Fiolxhilda has promised to a skipper, she sells him instead and keeps the money; the skipper takes the boy and sails for Norway. Eventually, Duracotus is charged with delivering some letters to Tycho Brahe (Kepler’s predecessor as the Imperial Mathematician), and the man becomes his mentor. Having made startling progress in his astronomical studies (though with only middling Danish) Duracotus sails home to his mother. Fiolxhilda is overjoyed at Duracotus’s astronomical knowledge, and Duracotus is surprised to discover that his mother knows as much as he. She explains that she is visited by nine spirits of the moon (called by them “Levania”) and conjures one to expatiate on his homeworld.

Caspar David Friedrich, “Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon," 1835 (Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin).

Caspar David Friedrich, “Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon,” 1835 (Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin).

What follows in Kepler’s dream is a detailed astronomical account of Levania punctuated with fantastic and often humorous details about the journey from one to the other realm. A man who wishes to be whooshed away to Levania, for example,

…must first be tranquilized with narcotics and opiates and stretched out by the limbs, lest the body be separated from the rectum or the head from the body, but so that the force may be divided among the individual limbs. Then begins a new problem, namely a great chill and difficulty breathing… to counteract which we place wet sponges at his nostrils.

Voicing both fact and fantasy, the Levanian spirit spoke to serious issues in current astronomical debates by providing desiderata like the length of the lunar day; at the same time, Kepler managed to translate his brand-new astronomy into Levanian terms—that is to say, from the point of view of an observer on the moon. In such terms, the work exhibits a daring relativism, suggesting not only (with Copernicus) that the planets revolve around the sun, but that scientific designations are contingent rather than absolute. The earth is called “Volva”—from the Latin root volv– ‘turn, revolve’—and contemplation of it is a favorite activity on Levania; Levanian geographers and astronomers subdivide the surfaces of the earth and the moon differently from their terrestrial counterparts. “Even if all Levania has the same views of the fixed stars as we do,” Kepler posited, setting up a dizzying thought experiment, “yet it sees [observat] planetary motions and quantities very different from those which we see here [sc. on earth], so that the mode of reckoning [ratio] of their whole astronomy is entirely different [sc. from ours].”

At the end of the dream, Kepler awoke with his head on a cushion and his body wrapped in blankets, a suggestion of precautions for the journey to Levania – also a complicated and literary gesture which points either to the influence of the waking world on dreams or to a claim that the dream actually took place. Kepler’s own, copious notes to the text preserve this ambiguity while treating the reader to certain authorial insights: “I’ve forgotten the real reason for this number,” he wrote, glossing the nine spirits, “… I’m certain I was thinking of Urania from the number of the muses or of Astronomy out of the nine sciences.” He chose a remote place like Iceland “in order to imitate the philosophers in this genre of writing.” In fact, the notes tell us as much about what Kepler was reading as about what he was writing. Cicero’s Dream of Scipio, Plato’s tale of Atlantis, and Lucian’s True Story are all named as influences, but as for Plutarch’s treatise on the face of the moon, Kepler had not yet read it, and later marveled “by what chance our dreams or tales [somnia seu fabulae] accorded so exactly.”

The notes also contain a tirade against the dogmatism of Augustinians in relation to astronomy. One wonders at the wisdom of this, given that the text (in an earlier form, without Kepler’s notes) may have been a factor in accusations of witchcraft against Kepler’s mother. The woman, whom Kepler nastily described as mean-spirited, illiterate, and a chatterbox, could not much have resembled the sage Fiolxhilda, but to contemporary readers, Kepler’s dream could have seemed autobiographical as well as fanciful and didactic. The Copernican matter was inflammatory to begin with, but to mix it with magic probably increased the violence of certain readers’ reactions.

Even in the time of trigger warnings, the extent to which seventeenth-century readers believed in the power of books will continue to surprise and enchant us. Kepler’s reading brought about his dream; in his dream, he read a book which he suggests transported him to the moon. For centuries, people had imagined Vergil as a magician (and told the most spectacular tales about his magical feats) thanks in part to a few lines of the witch’s song in his eighth eclogue: “spells can bring down the moon from the heavens,” Vergil wrote, and in the notes to his dream, Kepler quoted him, though he nearly brought down the heavens instead.

Nicholas Bellinson is a second-year graduate student in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. He has studied Renaissance literature, art history, and history of science. He is writing his dissertation on Shakespeare.

The Archival Agenda: Thinking Through Scientific Archives at the Royal Society

by guest contributor Brooke Palmieri

Imagine that an archivist’s child is raised from birth as a professional archivist to see how they documented their life. Imagine that toddler making a finger painting, taking a digital image, filing away the physical copy into an acid-free folder, alerting its parents as to the proper terms from the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative, uploading it to Omeka. Even with training from birth by archivist parents, decisions would be made about what to keep as much as what to discard, how to form an archive from preservation as well as loss. Maybe there would be moments of sabotage, like the burning of notebooks filled with teenage poetry. The experiences that matter most in life would be over-represented, like vacations.

Beyoncé in the archives (wallpaperstock)

Beyoncé in the archives (wallpaperstock)

Or imagine Beyoncé’s “Crazy Archive”: it includes every photograph, interview, and performance she’s ever done, combined with tens of thousands of hours of footage. Unlike most, Beyoncé has the resources to employ “visual directors,” who have documented every day of her life since 2005.

Neither example provides total recall, but rather a lesson in managing expectations: all archives are meant to include just what they include, and it’s only the expectations of outsiders that find fault or shortcomings in their contents. For example, it is likely that scholars in days to come will ask: what did Beyoncé do every day of her life before 2005, before the birth of her daily archive?

Either way, experimenting on children or following the example of Beyoncé is the closest we could get to a true “archival agenda” shaping the product, rather than some other agenda that happens to manifest as an archive. Which is to say that there is no such thing as an archive that is first and foremost archival. Archives are secondary in nature, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing: it doesn’t take away from their importance in preserving heritage, nor does it make reading their contents any less empowering or infuriating or educational. Which brings us to the archives of scientists, and an excellent conference that was held on 2 June at the Royal Society: “Archival Afterlives: Life, Death, and Knowledge-Making in Early Modern British Scientific and Medical Archives.”

One of the most important remarks made in the conference was by Victoria Sloyan, an archivist at the Wellcome Library. When asked about the contents of the Collecting Genomics Project, which brings together born-digital contents from a number of different scientists from different institutions who were part of the Human Genome Project, Sloyan stressed that different people have different ideas of what an archive should contain, and act accordingly. Some scientists hand everything over; some preserve only evidence enough to trace the the progress of “successful” ideas. In practice, individual archives fall somewhere between these extremities, but such decisions haunt the work of anyone accessing their material.

Theoretically, not much has changed between Sloyan’s very contemporary moment of archival collection, highly transparent in its obstacles (including born-digital material and a whole lot of floppy disks), and those of scientists past. The multiplication of media platforms has multiplied the kinds of things that can be found in the archive, and the trouble it takes to get them there, but human emotions around the preservation of knowledge only have so many expressions. It was useful then, as the conference did, to ask: “How did disorderly collections of paper come to be the archives of the Scientific Revolution?” Presentations sought to examine the many factors baked into the survival of archives: for instance, Elizabeth Yale looked at the “entanglement of emotion and paper” that is the naturalist John Ray’s archive. Its survival depended on his wife and daughters and the relationship his publishers maintained with them, but also the significance of his biographer Samuel Dale’s role in establishing a legacy for Ray. That legacy also happened to include rewriting and recasting Ray’s lifelong religious beliefs from nonconformist to Church of England.

This is easier to stomach within the libraries and archives of the humanities: we have long sought to make silences speak, fill the gaps between shortcomings, question received truths and their canonical authors. For decades, the dialectic of the humanities archive has been between preservation and loss, histories from above and histories from below. By contrast the dialectic of the scientific archive tends to formulate itself as objectively observed rather than subjectively felt. Conferences like “Archival Afterlives” implicitly fire the opening shots in a bigger battle to knock the sciences down a peg, to reframe the argument as one familiar to humanities classrooms, as something we’ve known all along. The information of scientific archives is more likely to be medical, natural, or celestial, symptoms of disease, fossils, planetary angles—but that makes it no less subject to the inherent distortion of human intervention.

petiver herbarium

A page from James Petiver’s herbarium (c. 1718), featuring specimens of the Carolina Laurel Cherry (Prunus caroliniana Aiton) and the Virginia Willow (Itea virginica L.). (East Carolina University Digital Collections)

In his presentation, Arnold Hunt completely recovered the reputation of James Petiver, dragging him out from the shadow of Hans Sloane and piecing together his dispersed archive and natural history collection to show a methodical, self-taught collector of high quality: only his humble beginnings had caused him to be dismissed as a serious naturalist thinker. In other words, religion, politics, and class have always mediated admittance to the pantheon of thinkers we exalt. And if contemporary circumstances were not enough of a minefield for the archival process, Leigh Penman’s presentation created fresh dangers. His work on Samuel Hartlib’s papers highlighted the formative role of loss: “all his best papers” had “suffered… embezzlement” in Hartlib’s lifetime, including his universal bibliography, meaning that what survives is a collection of “loose papers” of little value to Hartlib himself.

Overall, “Archival Afterlives” subjected scientific knowledge to the more elemental truth: that every archive is an afterlife. Despite the many uses and transmissions of archival information, we cannot forget that there was a first purpose, an initial passion, and a strategy for survival that saw the production and persistence of an archive, and that sets a path for possible uses afterward. The archive begins as the residue of some encounter or event, and only later does it accrue layers of meaning through varieties of use. Maybe this is one of the greatest paradoxes of endurance: renewed interest in mining the archives ensures their survival, both as cited sources and as bodies of material that require funding to remain intact, but at the same time, new agendas have a tendency to obscure old ones, and it’s the old ones that archives have a difficult time preserving. Nevertheless, it is crucial to work to understand their occult influences over the shape of the historical record as much as the scientific record. The first step in doing so is in making the archival agenda visible. Otherwise, we risk misidentifying invisibility as infallibility.

Out of chaos, some sort of order: The International Congress on Medieval Studies at 50, May 14-17, 2015

by guest contributor Elizabeth Biggs

The International Congress on Medieval Studies held in Kalamazoo last week was immensely diverse, given its 3,000 attendees, but a good reflection of medievalists generally. It didn’t take itself particularly seriously, the alcohol flowed generously, and a good book or argument was warmly welcomed. It was the fiftieth birthday of the conference, as well as other major anniversaries such as 600 years since the Battle of Agincourt and 750 years since the first acknowledged Parliament.Agincourt Everyone was there to have a good time, hear excellent papers and meet old and new friends. Every evening ended with multiple wine receptions, often with an open bar, sponsored by publishers, universities or learned societies. The book exhibit was equally generous, with huge numbers of publishers, secondhand book dealers, and manuscript dealers swarmed by eager delegates. Perhaps the most popular session of all was that of the Pseudo Society on Saturday evening, when a lecture hall was filled to bursting with medievalists there to hear about how IKEA is a secret society where Viking survivors are hiding, among other papers that toyed with academic norms for laughs as well as making a serious point about the absurdities of being an academic.

Some speculations about the true nature of IKEA.

Some speculations about the true nature of IKEA.

Medieval history has certainly changed and grown in the last fifty years. The dizzying array of topics in medieval studies that were included in the thick program ranged from experimental archaeology using ballistics gel to gauge the effects of different arrows on different types of armor, to digital humanities efforts to edit texts online and the England’s Immigrants project database. None of these topics would have been conceivable at the first major conference at Kalamazoo in 1964, when the cost was just $5, and there were five parallel sessions in a two-day event rather than the current just under fifty parallel sessions across three and a half days. Even then, the conference was already self-consciously interdisciplinary. It featured theology, liturgy, philosophy, history, and English literature, although in separate disciplinary sessions. All of those themes were still present this year, even if they are now often couched in different language. Liturgy is as likely to be discussed in terms of space and ritual as in terms of the books used by nuns. The study of how other periods conceptualized the idea of the “medieval” has hearteningly become popular, and illuminates both our understanding of the term “medieval” and the later periods under consideration. Kalamazoo now also is doing useful work in thinking about the changing state of the profession in the age of adjunct teaching. There were sessions on being a medievalist in a small college where no one else does what you do, on the possibilities of alt-ac careers of all types, and on how best to teach medieval topics in diverse settings. All of this was an important reminder that being a scholar is wider than research, and that teaching and working outside the ivory tower are vital parts of medievalists’ experiences.

The sessions I ultimately chose to go to were all fascinating and made me think in new ways about the work I’m doing. The sheer size of the conference meant that I created, in effect, a mini-conference of late-medieval English history, with a side jaunt to medicine and canon law, to pick up some of the ways in which scholars are thinking about these issues. I went to a session on Magic and Medicine in which Kristen Geaman looked at a court case that I’ve been trying to write about for my own thesis, the 1441 treason and witchcraft trial of Eleanor Cobham, through the lens of medieval infertility treatments.

Humphrey and Eleanor Cobham.

Humphrey and Eleanor Cobham.

She argued that we should take Eleanor at her word that she wanted a child, and so she might well have commissioned magical activity. I’d never thought before that Eleanor might actually have done more than play around with horoscopes, and have always read the court records as politically motivated, given that Eleanor’s husband was the heir presumptive to the young Henry VI and his enemies were circling. I’m glad to be able to rethink those assumptions! Even very old forms of scholarship, such as prosopography, gained new life. Caroline Barron on the glovers of London or John McEwan’s work on the distribution of wealth in the city used older methods to assess new questions in social and economic history that often reflect the experiences of modern society: experiences of inequality, how to survive in a rapidly changing world, and how best to create supportive institutions that protected members’ careers and incomes.

The reason I could be there at all was thanks to a travel bursary from the Society of the White Hart, as I was speaking in their session on political power. I think they found my interdisciplinary paper—with its architectural study alongside chronicle evidence of politics in Richard II’s reign—different, but the comments and questions were unfailingly generous and helpful.

The restored St. Stephen's Cloisters, looking west to Westminster Hall, also part of Richard's repair work at the Palace.

The restored St. Stephen’s Cloisters, looking west to Westminster Hall, also part of Richard’s repair work at the Palace.

They left me heartened about the work that I do, looking outwards from an institution to the cultural and political world around it, rather than the general inward-looking run of institutional history. It is amazing how much it helps to know that I’m doing work that people from a range of fields think is interesting. Kalamazoo reminded me of the range of work medievalists do and the range of settings they do it in, from research universities to public engagement, to teaching colleges. It reminded me that my day job may well turn out to be outside academia entirely, but that I can still be a small part of a huge, sprawling conversation. I’ll hopefully be back next year, to drink more wine, meet more people, and continue to reflect on what it means to identify oneself as a medieval historian, whether teaching inside or outside a university.

Elizabeth Biggs is a Ph.D. student in History at the University of York. She is researching Stephen’s College, Westminster, from 1348 to 1548, as part of a larger AHRC-funded project on St Stephen’s Chapel from 1292 to the Blitz in 1941. Her work focuses on the people who worked at the college, donated money and lands to the college, or who knew it through its presence at the heart of the medieval Palace of Westminster. She can be reached on Twitter and via email.