Bazerman, Charles. “How Natural Philosophers Can Cooperate: The Literary Technology of Coordinated Investigation in Joseph Priestley’s History and Present State of Electricity (1767).” Textual Dynamics of the Professions. Eds. Bazerman, Charles and James Paradis. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991. 13-44. Print.

  • Bazerman begins by noting that scientific publications are often viewed as “persuasive briefs for claims seeking communal validation of knowledge” (13).  The citations B. provides point to Latour and Woolgar’s Laboratory Life.  So, in other words, the publication of scientific data is as much a rhetorical act as humanities based research (especially when empirical).  The data of the scientific publication is cross-referenced with “extratextual” resources (social, economic, intellectual, and empirical) which are then redeployed in the text itself as a support mechanism.
  • B. claims that the tradition of scientific communication has long been theorized as a cooperative endeavor.  Despite the sciences being competitive (especially in light of the contest for research monies in the ever-corporatizing university research center), science continues to construct it’s knowledge through communal interaction and cooperation (14).
  • B. asks the question (his main research question in this article), “If even the degree of cooperation we manage in everyday affairs remains beyond our full comprehension, how can we begin to account for the much more remarkable cooperation evident in scientific work, a cooperation which seems to span religions, philosophies, national boundaries, and centuries?”  (15).    He asks this in the interest of sketching out how cooperation and coordination are actually social activities.  By looking at Priestley’s History and Present State of Electricity, Bazerman intends to reveal how coordination of a scientific community toward the production of a theory depends on language, cooperation and competition, and codification and originality (15).
  • B. notes that the development of a scientific culture – through academic journals and societies – facilitated coordination across vast expanses of geotemporal and theoretic space (16).
  • How did Priestley’s text coordinate the emergent group of electricians in the late 18th century?

o    First, it created a sense of community by reviewing the extant literature in the field concerning this area of study.  This creates a “corpus of communal experience” and defines the research agenda for the book as well as the field.  The generalized set of concepts that resulted from this lit review created a shared knowledge base.

o    A list of open issues factored into the development of future research (hence coordinating future scientific endeavor) and the description of how to construct a particular electrical apparatus provided a “common material basis for generating phenomena” to be investigated in the future (16).

  • B. thesis:  Priestley’s thoroughgoing interest in fostering coordinated work of an extensive community offers a striking point for examining the complexity of cooperative textual machinery that has developed to coordinate the voluminous and undeniably competitive work of contemporary science” (17).
  • Philosophical basis for Preistley’s work:  A steadfast belief in the idea that studying “natural philosophy” or the hard sciences can give human beings a way to order the accumulated human experience. . . ideally leading to improvements in the human condition (19-20).  In other words, Priestley saw history as open-ended and open to revision.  His work on electricity and “history graphs” demonstrates this belief.  So, Priestley’s commitment to the development of humanity vis-à-vis the study of the natural sciences underscores his commitment to communally produced and sanctioned scientific discoveries.
  • Priestley’s literature review serves an interesting purpose:  Instead of adopting a Baconian perspective that emphasizes the “natural history of the phenomena themselves” Priestley’s work instead provides a history of “natural philosophy embodied in publications” (21).  This allows for a historical reading of previous scientific discoveries (he uses Boyle as an example) and underscores the progressive nature of natural science inquiry.  This element is emphasized in his organization of the literature review around particular scientific concepts as opposed to individual thinkers in temporal progression.  This creates a sense of communal work that may or may not have actually existed and establishes an empirical grounding for generalizations about particular scientific theories.  So, what is history in this author’s telling: the “emergent principles that order accumulated experiences” (26).
  • Priestley describes the movement from theory to knowledge in the last section of his work.  By highlighting how hypotheses frame experiments which lead to newly observed phenomena Priestley sketches the movement toward knowledge (28-9).    B. notes that “Theories, then, are useful but uncertain and historically bounded accounts.  They are heuristic” (29).  Likewise, questions are provided as starting points for future research.  Questions center around conceptual problems and provide a communal set of queries to be taken up by future researchers.
  • By sharing the plans for mechanical construction of machines to facilitate inquiry into electrics, Priestley provides the entire scientific community the ability to reproduce particular phenomena for further investigation (32).  This sharing (IP?!?!?) is essential to the communal project of coordinated experimental science.
  • By sharing phronesis about experimentation procedures, B. argues that Priestley was engaged in an open-handed offering to expand the scientific endeavor to neophyte electrician researchers.  This open-hand increases the size of the community while enrolling individuals into networks of coordinated research (34).  In B.’s words, “Priestley well understood that no communal research program will prosper without the personnel to carry it forward” (34).
  • Using Priestley’s “analytical argument” (an argument that doesn’t try to sew up all loose ends but provides findings and presents problems for future research) the science of electrics’ “intellectual coordination” was the result of this form of “complete sharing of the research experience” (35).  In other words, the open-ended, always inquisitive approach assisted in the coordination and extension of the community rather than a shutting down of its discourse toward absolute ends.
  • A central tension in Priestley’s work:  how to encourage development of new scientific endeavors without codifying findings (thus shutting down future endeavors) while still relying on codifieds to structure future investigation (38).  As B. notes, “Priestleyian codification has created an evolving and contingent – but at any moment predominately stable and communally recognizable – playing field, upon which focused and fruitful struggle can take place” (39).


  • B. does a close reading of Priestley’s texts to draw out his conclusions. He then pushes these critical/analytical readings up against the historical context to provide claims about community, coordination, and scientific progress.

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