The next few days I am blogging from a workshop, Observations in Economics and Natural Science, hosted and organized by my colleague, Harro Maas (a trained economist turned historian/philosopher of science). Most of the participants are historians of science, including Lorraine Daston, Mary Morgan, Ted Porter, and folks influenced by them (they are very influential around Europe), and historians/philosophers of economics (most of which once trained as economists), including Bob Sugden, Wade Hands, John Davis, Marcel Boumans, and a terrifc young Italian scholar, Ivan Moscati. Margaret Schabas and David Teira are the other philosophers in the group.
Harro Maas divides observation at three sites: i) observatory; ii) laboratory; iii) armchair. (the first two will be PhD projects, the latter his own.) During presentations by Loic Charles/Christine There (two economists on 18th century Physiocrats) and Mary Terrell (a historian who wrote a wonderful biography of Maupertuis on the 18th century French naturalist Reaumur), two more 'sites' were introduced: iv) the artisinal workshop (mainly distinguished from the laboratory because it is not rule/protocol bound), and v) the household (where home/garden are investigated--for those of you who think this is not 'real science,' read Darwin on worms or orchards or his observations of his dog).
Terrell's presentation about Reamur was quite lively--learned a lot about efforts to study frog-mating (in a chateau not far from Paris). Weirdly, her account matches the summary by (presumably) Adam Smith (some think it is by Hume, but about that some other time) in "Letter to Editors of Edinburgh Review" (ca 1757); the piece is mostly studied by folks interested in Smith's treatment and translation of Rousseau, but it has a very nice analysis of the state of 18th century science (especially notable because Smith develops a Kuhnian story full of revolutions, incommensurability, national styles in a closely related piece, "The History of Astronomy,"). The importance of national styles is also relevant for the quote below, but after the quote I'll direct to another issue.
I quote Smith's paragraph: "None of the sciences indeed seem to be cultivated in France with more eagerness than natural history. Perspicuous description and just arrangement constitute a great part of the merit of a natural historian; and this study is perhaps upon that account peculiarly suited to the genius of that nation. In Mr. Reaumur’s history of insects,15 a work of which we are still to expect some volumes, your readers will find both these in the highest perfection, as well as the most attentive observation assisted by the most artful contrivances for inspecting into such things in the oeconomy and management of those little animals, as one would have imagined it impossible that he ever should have discovered. Those who complain of his tediousness, have never entered regularly upon his work, but have contented themselves with dipping into some parts of it. As mean as the subject may appear, he never fails to carry our attention along with him, and we follow him thro’ all his observations and experiments with the same innocent curiosity and simple–hearted pleasure with which he appears to have made them. It will surprise your readers to find, that this Gentleman, amidst many other laborious studies and occupations, while he was composing, from his own experiments too, many other curious and valuable works, could find time to fill eight volumes in quarto with his own observations upon this subject, without ever once having recourse to the vain parade of erudition and quotation. These, and all other such works as these, which either seem to add something to the public stock of observations, if I may say so, or which collect more compleatly, or arrange in a better order, the observations that have already been made, the public will be pleased to see pointed out to them in your periodical Review, and will listen with attention to your criticisms upon the defects and perfections of what so well deserves to be criticised in general. As the works of all the academies in the different parts of Europe, are the objects of a pretty universal curiosity, tho’ it would be impossible for you to give an account of every thing that is contained in them; it will not be very difficult to point out what are the most considerable improvements and observations which those societies have communicated to the public during the six months which preceed the publication of every Review."
Both Terrell and Smith emphasize Reamur's experimental interventions, his 'artful contrivances'; that is, Reamur moved the study of insects from close inspection/anatomical analysis through dissection under microscope to experimental interventions in the 'field'. What is entertaining about Smith's treatment of it is that he treats the activities of the different scientific academies as worthy not merely of (highlighting) summary but also of critical study themselves. While Smith doesn't draw out the analogy, the reader is left to wonder what kind of artificial interventions can be contrived to study the special features of scientific academies. Experiments on the experts....