Gimcracks Legacy: Sex, Wealth, and the Theater of Experimental Philosophy

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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. …