Thursday, March 12, 2009

Observations in Economics and Natural Science

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....


  1. Sounds interesting. What's John Davis talking about? (Say hi to him for me if you get a chance.)

  2. Interesting indeed! I didn't know about the Kuhnian streak in Smith.

    Though my favorite discussant of national styles in science remains Pierre Duhem. Unequalled in his rudeness about the English!

    Keep posting about the workshop!

  3. Yes, it's funny how often that part of Duhem's work is overlooked!

    I do think, though, that he identified different modelling strategies: mechanistic (and analogy-based) versus abstract, let's say.

  4. Anna, I'll try to post more about Harro's workshop in a few days.

    Smith (if it is him and not Hume) anticipates Duhem's views on national styles:
    "If we may pass any general judgment concerning the literary merit of those two great rivals in learning, trade, government and war: Imagination, genius and invention, seem to be the talents of the English; taste, judgment, propriety and order, of the French. In the old English poets, in Shakespear, Spencer and Milton, there often appears, amidst some irregularities and extravagancies, a strength of imagination so vast, so gigantic and supernatural, as astonishes and confounds their reader into that admiration of their genius, which makes him despise, as mean and insignificant, all criticism upon the inequalities in their writings. In the eminent French writers, such sallies of genius are more rarely to be met with; but instead of them, a just arrangement, an exact propriety and decorum, joined to an equal and studied elegance of sentiment and diction, which, as it never strikes the heart like those violent and momentary flashes of imagination, so it never revolts the judgment by any thing that is absurd or unnatural, nor ever wearies the attention by any gross inequality in the stile, or want of connection in the method, but entertains the mind with a regular succession of agreeable, interesting and connected objects.

    In natural philosophy, the science which in modern times has been most happily cultivated, almost all the great discoveries, which have not come from Italy or Germany, have been made in England. France has scarce produced any thing very considerable in that way. When that science was first revived in Europe, a fanciful, an ingenious and elegant, tho’ fallacious, system was generally embraced in that country: nor can we with reason wonder that it was so. It may well be said of the Cartesian philosophy, now when it is almost universally exploded, that, in the simplicity, precision and perspicuity of its principles and conclusions, it had the same superiority over the Peripatetic system, which the Newtonian philosophy has over it. A philosophy, which, upon its first appearance, had so many advantages over its rival system, was regarded by the French with peculiar fondness and admiration, when they considered it as the production of their own countryman, whose renown added new glory to their nation; and their attachment to it seems among them to have retarded and incumbered the real advancement of the science of nature. They seem now however to be pretty generally disengaged from the enchantment of that illusive philosophy; and it is with pleasure that I observe in the new French Encyclopedia the ideas of Bacon, Boyle, and Newton, explained with that order, perspicuity and good judgment, which distinguish all the eminent writers of that nation. As, since the union, we are apt to regard ourselves in some measure as the countrymen of those great men, it flattered my vanity, as a Briton, to observe the superiority of the English philosophy thus acknowledged by their rival nation. The two principal authors of that vast collection of every sort of literature, Mr. Diderot and Mr. Alembert, express every where the greatest passion for the science and learning of England, and insert into their work not only the discoveries and observations of those renowned philosophers I just now mentioned, but of many inferior English writers, whose names are now almost unknown, and whose works have been long disregarded in their own country. It mortified me, at the same time, to consider that posterity and foreign nations are more likely to be made acquainted with the English philosophy by the writings of others, than by those of the English themselves. It seems to be the peculiar talent of the French nation, to arrange every subject in that natural and simple order, which carries the attention, without any effort, along with it. The English seem to have employed themselves entirely in inventing, and to have disdained the more inglorious but not less useful labour of arranging and methodizing their discoveries, and of expressing them in the most simple and natural manner. There is not only no tolerable system of natural philosophy in the English language, but there is not even any tolerable system of any part of it. The Latin treatises of Keil and Gregory, two Scotsmen, upon the principles of mechanics and astronomy, may be regarded as the best things that have been written in this way by any native of Great Britain, tho’ in many respects confused, inaccurate and superficial. In Dr. Smith’s Optics, all the great discoveries which had before been made in that science are very compleatly recorded, along with many considerable corrections and improvements by that Gentleman himself. But if, in the knowledge of his science, he appears much superior to the two Scotsmen above mentioned, he is inferior even to them, who are far from being perfect, in the order and disposition of his work. It will not I hope be imputed to any mean motive, that I take notice of this fault, which in these subjects is not of the highest importance, and which that Gentleman himself would, I dare say, be willing to acknowledge; for whose knowledge and capacity I have the highest esteem, whose book has every other quality to recommend it, and who is himself, along with Dr. Bradley, almost the only person now remaining in England to put us in mind of their illustrious predecessors. The learned world has been highly instructed by the labours and ingenuity of both these Gentlemen, and I will venture to say would have been much more so, if in their own country they had had more rivals and more judges. But the English of the present age, despairing perhaps to surpass the inventions, or to equal the renown of their forefathers, have disdained to hold the second place in a science in which they could not arrive at the first, and seem to have abandoned the study of it altogether." (Letter to Edinburgh Review)