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Boyling over: a commentary on the preceding papers [delivered at the 'Psychoanalysing Robert Boyle' meeting

Cantor, G. (1999) Boyling over: a commentary on the preceding papers [delivered at the 'Psychoanalysing Robert Boyle' meeting. British Journal for the History of Science, 32 (3). pp. 315-324. ISSN 1474-001X


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When Michael Hunter first publicized the idea of `Psychoanalysing Robert Boyle' I understood that his main aim was to test three competing psychoanalytical theories against the historical evidence provided by the life and work of Robert Boyle. Although this would have been a valuable exercise, and one that the British Society for the History of Science meeting partly engaged, the papers by Brett Kahr, John Clay and Karl Figlio published here raise some far more compelling issues which I shall explore in the ensuing discussion. Before turning to this discussion I offer a few introductory remarks.

Like many historians of science who have worked on biographical material, I recognize that the methods of analysis in which I was trained do not enable me to probe the `personality ' of the scientist. Thus when writing on Michael Faraday I became aware of some fundamental aspects of his personality that eluded me; in particular an aspect of his ` self ' that provided a connection between his approach to science and his religious convictions. After many false starts I found a tentative answer in the writings of the American psychologist George Kelly, who articulated a theory of development in terms of the dynamic interaction of polar opposites. This seemed applicable to Faraday, who appears to have approached both his science and his religion with the need to make firm distinctions between opposites. Thus he stood for theism, order and (God-given) facts against atheism, chaos and hypotheses of human construction. Moreover, in line with Kelly's theory he suffered severe mental anguish on certain occasions when he was unable to keep separate these opposing constructs." While pursuing that research I became aware of several practical problems. First, how does the historian choose between the many different and incompatible theories of mind? In my work on Faraday I made some use of Kelly's theory because Faraday's view of the world involved the kind of conceptual oppositions which Kelly discusses in his account of psychological development. Second, when using any theory of mind, especially any theory of psychoanalysis, the historian or biographer is confronted by a ready-made ontology; thus Kahr, Clay and Figlio devote significant proportions of their articles to articulating the theories of Freud, Jung and Klein respectively. So does the historian have to accept the whole intellectual package or can these theories be used in a purely instrumental manner? Third, how intrusive should the use of psychoanalysis be? Should the historian present Newton as a case study in (say) Freudianism or can Freudian ideas be used in a subtle and unintrusive manner to illuminate Newton's life and work?

Item Type: Article
Copyright, Publisher and Additional Information: © 1999 British Society for the History of Science. This is an author produced version of a paper published in British Journal for the History of Science. Reproduced in accordance with the publisher's self-archiving policy.
Institution: The University of Leeds
Academic Units: The University of Leeds > Faculty of Arts (Leeds) > School of Humanities (Leeds) > School of Philosophy (Leeds) > Division of the History and Philosophy of Science (Leeds)
The University of Leeds > Faculty of Arts (Leeds) > School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science (Leeds) > School of Philosophy (Leeds) > Division of the History and Philosophy of Science (Leeds)
Depositing User: Leeds Philosophy Department
Date Deposited: 05 Nov 2007 10:35
Last Modified: 08 Feb 2013 16:55
Published Version: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0007087499003684
Status: Published
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Refereed: No
Identification Number: 10.1017/S0007087499003684
URI: http://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/id/eprint/3220

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