Experimental philosophy in the late seventeenth century depended upon what Stephen Shapin and Simon Schaffer have famously characterized as the "modest witness" that is, a gendered figure of authority, gentility, and privilege measured for "[his] moral constitution as well as [his] knowledgeability." (1) The modest witness was a subject position that emerged in "the laboratory" itself "a disciplined space, where experimental, discursive, and social practices were collectively controlled by competent members." (2) The authenticity of the "modest witness" was borne out of performance, policing, and collective agreement, but it also depended upon the idea that these practices produced a modest witness who merely reflected the results from scientific experimentation. (3) While the benefits of Shapin and Schaffer's work are multiple, their insights have invited a range of reconsiderations, most notably by Donna Haraway. (4) The role of the modest witness and the rise of experimentalism in general, contends Haraway, generated a model of gender difference that Shapin and Schaffer assume existed a priori. The scientific gentleman was distinguished from laboring (professional) men and women more generally by means of his intellectual modesty, that key practice of experimentalism, and this configuration exposes experimentalism as dependent upon this gender-in-the-making. The theory of the modest witness, as understood by Shapin and Schaffer, and as modified by Haraway, significantly expands our understanding of the culture of seventeenth-century experimentalism and its development into modern scientific practice. But the "modest witness" concerns what ends up being a winner of history--it is the source of modern scientific objectivity--and fails to account for variant identities and engagements with experimental philosophy outside of the confines of the Royal Society. In particular, the alternative discourse of the virtuoso emerged alongside, historically, the modest witness, and was its cultural and ideological antithesis, though some seventeenth-century skeptics suspected that the modest witness might actually devolve into a virtuoso. If the modest witness "factored out human agency" and acted as "objects' transparent spokesmen," (5) then the virtuoso was defined by his or her inability to overcome prejudice and desires, speaking for himself or herself rather than for the object, thus illuminating the cultural implications and potential of popular scientific practice.
The term virtuoso, first recorded in English in 1598, was not closely allied with natural philosophy until the 1640s; by the 1660s, it connoted an exclusively scientific interest. (6) As with the modest witness, to be a virtuoso one needed wealth and leisure (as one scholar notes, "he is a gentleman" (7)). Also, the virtuoso was motivated by a desire for reputation and social standing, even "snob-appeal." (8) The virtuoso originally had positive associations, referring to a man of learning, though once the Royal Society acquired its first charter in 1662, the meaning of virtuoso quickly transformed into a person engaged in "futile and indiscriminate study." (9) Virtuosos were also associated with the growing marketplace for optical and other scientific instruments, as well as the consumer desire for "public science" manifest in numerous print publications and lectures. (10) Scientific instruments were considered by some to be a luxury good, even a plaything for England's wealthy and fashionable or a toy for ladies. (11) Of course, experimental philosophers such as the virtuoso were, by this point, often considered amateurs and were thus not necessarily subject to the dictates of performance and collective agreement authorized by the Royal Society. But the contrast is revealing: if the Royal Society's modest witness is ideally a figure of authority, gentility, and privilege, then the theatrical virtuoso exposes the ways in which the practice of experimental philosophy is ideologically biased and socially grounded.
In what follows, I discuss two theatrical incarnations of the virtuoso, one a married male, Gimcrack in Thomas Shadwell's The Virtuoso (1676), and the other an unmarried female, Valeria in Susanna Centlivre's The Basset-Table (1706). (12) Given the theatrical motifs inherent to the Royal Society and the New Science--Haraway calls them "new theaters of persuasion" (13)--these dramatic representations of experimental philosophy offer a unique site of contestation and clarification. Shadwell's Gimcrack is drawn from the popular conception of the Royal Society practitioners and alludes to the famous experimental philosopher, Robert Hooke, author of Micrographia (1665), which was one of the first two books published by the Royal Society; he also served as the Royal Society's Curator of Experiments (1662), Cutlerian Lector in Mechanics (1664), and Gresham Professor in Geometry (1664). (14) As recorded in the Society's Philosophical Transactions, many of the weekly meetings, especially during the Society's first two decades, involved staging experiments and reading about others, work that depended upon Hooke's labor and expertise. (15) Due to the nature of his publications and his roles within the organization, Hooke was in many ways the public face of experimentalism. After Hooke attended a performance of The Virtuoso on 2 June 1676 at Dorset Garden, he complained in his diary that the audience knew the characterization of "Sir Nicholas Gimcrack, F. R. S" was a satire of him: "Damned dogs. Vindica me Deus. People almost pointed." (16) But Hooke's own role in the development of experimentalism and natural philosophy is complicated and vexed. Even within his own lifetime, Hooke's status threatened always to fall to that of a professional mechanic, rather than a gentlemanly natural philosopher. Moreover, as one biographer recently noted, Hooke "lost" the seventeenth-century public relations battle for scientific innovation to Isaac Newton. (17) Shadwell's Gimcrack is thus an immediate and satiric commentary on experimental philosophy, a parody of a person widely associated with the Royal Society, though not one of its powerful leaders. The poignancy and applicability of Shadwell's satire lingered long after the play itself, as numerous scholars have noted, if only to quibble over the specifics of Shadwell's scientific critique. (18) By the end of the century, William Wotton complained of "the sly Insinuations of the Men of Wit, That no great Things have ever, or are ever likely to be perform'd by the Men of Gresham, and, That every Man whom they call a Virtuoso, must needs be a Sir Nicolas Gimcrack." (19) In a 1710 paper of The Tatler, Joseph Addison penned Gimcracks will, in which the virtuoso bequeaths butterflies, shells, a "female skeleton" and a "dried cockatrice" to his "dear wife." (20)
Beyond the legacy of satire, however, Shadwell's Gimcrack and his later incarnation as Centlivre's Valeria more suggestively alert us to a specific set of associations with sexual desire and the circulation of wealth implicitly bound up with popularization and practice of experimental philosophy. In them, the ideal of the modest witness is recalibrated into theatrical characterizations that bear out the social and ideological stakes of natural philosophy's claims to privilege, prestige, and authority. As we shall see, for Shadwell, experimentalism ushers in the simultaneous depletion of sexual opportunities and personal wealth. For Centlivre, the theater of experimental philosophy enables a new model of female agency and independence.
I. "I Study Insects"
Thomas Shadwell's main character in The Virtuoso, Sir Nicholas Gimcrack, has a passion for experimental philosophy. He devotes much of his leisure time and conversation to it, and expends a substantial portion of his income on expensive specimens and scientific instruments, including "microscopes, telescopes, thermometers, …