Carnegie Mellon University

Rhetorical Circulation and Discursive Perceptions of Science: How science’s public role emerged in the late 18th and early 19th centuries

Author: Kristin Shimmin
Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 2016

This dissertation examines the relationship between dominant narratives about science, and the ordinary everyday discussions of science that often disappear beneath these dominant narratives. In this dissertation, I use the concept of circulation in order to bridge the disciplines of history of science and of rhetoric. The first half of the dissertation establishes the domain and the scope of this theoretical extension. It argues that history of science’s interest in circulating knowledge needs a rhetorical approach in order to move outside of teleological narratives—like Kuhn’s—and analyze circulation in terms of space, context, and time. Then it uses contemporary language theory and public sphere theory to outline a method for studying circulating public talk about science.

This method examines repeated small-scale discursive units—like phrases, short narratives, or examples—that appear in varying situations, texts, and contexts. It correlates data on the circulating discursive units from both digital and manuscript archives with close readings of primary texts, thick description, and cultural history. The second half of the dissertation applies the theoretical extension and method to prominent cases of science applied for the public’s use. The third chapter situates Humphry Davy’s invention of the safety lamp (1816) within a field of emerging discussions of science’s public application, and argues that Davy’s invention responds to a shift in public understanding of science’s role in the polity.

The fourth chapter argues that Edward Long’s The History of Jamaica (1774) reframed circulating discussions of natural history in order to create an argument for a specifically Jamaican polity. Through this work, I bring close attention to the way discourse about science circulated through multiple publics in order to examine its link to public understanding of science. I also bring the focus of the historical critique of circulation into rhetorical theory. In doing so, I examine ordinary conditions of discourse movement, not just rhetor focused presentations.