Boundaries of Natural Philosophy

One of the issues important in scholarly communication is the concept of boundaries within particular disciplines.  In the nineteenth century, as the concept of modern disciplines is first being developed, understanding these boundaries becomes even more difficult.  Theophilus Wylie is actually an interesting case study for understanding how the disciplines of natural philosophy and physics was first developing.  Between 1884 and 1886, Wylie became a professor of Physics in addition to being a professor of natural philosophy.

Wylie it seems was more of a natural philosopher than a physicist (at least in the modern sense of the term).  For him the ultimate task of a scholar was to find the ultimate origins of the forces acting upon the universe.  Physical forces were ultimately controlled by God who was the ultimate cause.  Yet Wylie also recognized the importance of the kinds of observed phenomena that science could provide in helping to explain those ultimate causes.  Additionally, in order to truly determine ultimate causes it was essential, for Wylie at least, to be a “wise” and moral person who could understand and utilize the tools of both science and religion in order to understand the ever increasing mysteries of nature.  Though the discipline of physics changed significantly in how it discussed these issues during the late nineteenth century, Wylie did not. In his diary on May 11, 1890, only a few years before he died, Wylie wrote “there is a great (first) cause — intelligent — Nature, the developer by which quoting Isaiah — the way will be prepared. Prepare ye Way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God, &c. This is what science is doing.”  Thus Wylie still sought to utilize both scientific and religious techniques even toward the end of his life.  For him these were the boundaries of natural philosophy, a discipline altogether different from, though perhaps closely related to, modern Physics.

Interestingly, Wylie’s own students criticized him because of his lack of changing with the times.  In the 1880 issue of The Dagger, a student publication rating professors and commenting on Indiana University news, one rather scathing critique of Wylie commented that he “knows almost nothing outside of physics and astronomy, and in these even is forty years behind the time. . . .  It is unnecessary to add that this incubus should be removed from the chair of Physics.” While one hesitates to put too much credence in the writings of a single student, Wylie’s own definitions show how defining disciplines is still a tricky concept and was even more so in the late nineteenth century when the modern idea of disciplines was still in formation.

Philosophical Transactions

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Lately I’ve been working on a kind of pre-history of scholarly communication in the United States by looking at what is often referred to as one of the first scholarly journals in the world, the Philosophical Transactions of the the Royal Society of London (the Journal des Sçavans being the other).  Though the story is often repeated that the Philosophical Transactions became the first mode of scientific communication.  The story is actually a great deal more complicated.  Noah Moxham has suggested that the articles that later appeared within the Philosophical Transactions were actually a combination of two kinds of content, correspondence that provided news from around Europe and registration of discoveries noted within the public register of the Royal Society. It also seems that there other factors that also contributed to the Philosophical Transactions becoming such a major broker for research communication.  The evolution of the Philosophical Transactions from a newsletter of correspondents around Europe and facilitated by a single editor (Henry Oldenburg) to a register of knowledge claims from around Europe was also result of the confluence of both construction of authority and a particular social context within England.  All of these factors allowed for the creation of a new genre of material that appeared in Philosophical Transactions, which eventually became the genesis of what we might now recognize as the research article.

Authority in the case of the Royal Society was a combination of governmental power, driven by a social need for gentlemen to achieve patronage within England and also a governmental infrastructure that imposed a kind of self-censorship and avoidance of controversy through a system of licensing presses.  Such a system encouraged a particular authority, that of the editor, to serve as a kind of middle-man who channeled the authority of the prince and the society toward individual authors from whom, in a way, the editor himself derived authority because the more scientific practitioners the editor knew, the more valuable his expertise as a source of information.

In the case of the Royal Society, the editor, Henry Oldenburg, was well-positioned with other scientists throughout Europe, but at the same time he existed in a social context that was different from Europe.  He lived among people who valued modesty and had to seek a wide array of potential patrons in order to sustain themselves.  Such social norms led to particular institutional realities within the Royal Society such as mutual witnessing of experiments (which was not particularly unique to England), and, more importantly, a distributor of credibility within England and over time, even outside of it.

The Royal Society’s position as a purveyor of credibility allowed Oldenburg to distribute that authority to his network of correspondents.  It also allowed experimenters within the society to distribute it more locally to those who registered their work in the meetings of the society.  As Noah Moxham has suggested, these two forces of publishing materials from a network of correspondents and registering  the credibility of experiments eventually combined with the already existing journal to create a system whereby individual authors would register their work by publishing it in the Philosophical Transactions.  This combination of various authorities, social contexts, and practical realities created an interesting combination of characteristics for articles within the Philosophical Transactions, and these characteristics would now be considered fundamental attributes of any research article in an academic publication.

Thus perhaps one can view the Philosophical Transactions not so much as a modern scholarly journal as much as a framework that helps to lead to certain defining characteristics of scientific writing within England.  This framework was created by a variety of social factors including the nature of authority and social norms among the writers of the Royal Society.  All of those social realities affected the creation of the genres within the Philosophical Transactions like the research article, and these social realities along with their links to the genres within the journal need to be better understood not only for modern scholarly communication, but for its origins in the seventeenth century as well.  Moreover, it is important to understand which of these norms came to America when journals like the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society and the American Journal of Science began to appear.

(Image from Wikimedia Commons