Department of History of Science and Ideas

Richard Staley: "Physicist anthropologies and the cultural history of mechanics, 1860s-1930s"

  • Date: 15 September, 13:15–15:00
  • Location: Engelska parken - The Rausing Room
  • Organiser: Department of History of Science and Ideas, Office for History of Science
  • Contact person: H. Otto Sibum
  • Seminarium

Office for History of Science

Richard Staley, University of Cambridge: "Physicist anthropologies and the cultural history of mechanics, 1860s-1930s"


Abstract
At first sight physics and anthropology appear very different activities. Studying matter through laboratory experiments and observation, or man through fieldwork and participant observation amongst different peoples, their aims, subject matter and methods seem so disparate they might be thought to share little common ground. Yet two architects of field methods in anthropology, Franz Boas and Bronisław Malinowski, were initially trained in physics, and the physicist Ernst Mach critiqued Newton and wrote on mechanics and culture. This paper outlines a project that explores formative contrast and creative borrowings across physics and anthropology in the period in which each emerged as academic disciplines, with a particular focus on the diverse ways – metaphorical and technical – in which discourse on mechanics has served as an entry point for debating metaphysics and social as well as material reality. One aim is to stimulate a discussion of the historical foundations of our basic framework of knowledge, as we understand this across disciplines and cultures. A second is to show how the politics of knowledge, stimulated especially by the challenges of socialism, has been part of several critical episodes in the development of physical relativity and cultural relativism, without yet being fully recognised.