Monthly Archives: September 2015

Friday, 25 September 2015 — 12:00 noon — WAG 316

Christopher Heaney, University of Texas

“The Pre-Columbian Exchange; or Crosby, Syphilis, and Peruvian Trepanation, Revisited”

This presentation revisits Alfred W. Crosby’s groundbreaking The Columbian Exchange to re-consider the assumptions behind its construction. Firstly, and most briefly, the lack of exchange between the Americas and the rest of the world before 1492, and the possible limitations that assumption places on deep indigenous history. Secondly, and less speculatively, the moral stakes of the exchange of New World biota for Old World biota, and Old World disease for New World disease—smallpox for syphilis. Whereas the rest of The Columbian Exchange is undisputed, the argued New World origin of syphilis continues to be a source of debate, underlining the moral stakes of its diagnosis and transmission. Without Indian syphilis to European smallpox, does ‘The Columbian Exchange’ become even more unbalanced? Is its New World presence disputed because of its identification as an index of ‘miscegenation’? Lastly, what does it mean to define a disease’s history by its pre-European origins, but not its pre-European treatment? How does a Columbian Exchange of disease occlude Pre-Columbian indigenous exchange?

The second half of the paper turns to an indigenous Peruvian who engaged in such a thought experiment well before Crosby. In the early twentieth century, a Harvard-trained archaeologist named Julio C. Tello used pre-Columbian ceramic depictions of disease, bones collected from pre-Columbian mummy bundles, and trepanned pre-Columbian skulls to argue that syphilis was not only indigenous to the New World—and not brought by enslaved Africans, as many white scholars tellingly believed in the nineteenth century—but that it had also been diagnosed and treated by Indian surgeons long before Columbus. In other words, Tello argued that before the Columbian Exchange made Indians seem like they were ‘born to die,’ they had access to a pre-Columbian reservoir of knowledge by which they healed to live—whose legacy Tello believed the Indians of the Americas deserved to reclaim.

Christopher Heaney is an advanced doctoral candidate in the Department of History at the University of Texas at Austin. His first book, Cradle of Gold (2010), explored the fight between Peru and Yale University over the Inca artifacts and human remains excavated at Machu Picchu in 1912. His SSRC- and Fulbright-Hays-supported doctoral research explores the European encounter with Inca and “ancient Peruvian” dead from the sixteenth to twentieth centuries. It argues that the intellectual and physical circulation of Inca mummies and trepanned skulls provided a common material base of comparison for what became archaeology in the Americas, as well as an indigenous anthropology that esteemed pre-colonial Peruvian ancestry, mortuary knowledge, and sovereignty.




Friday, 11  Sept. 2015 — 12:00 noon — WAG 316

Daniela Helbig, University of Sydney

‘Scientific description versus ordinary experience? On Eddington’s philosophy of physics’

In his philosophical writings, the astronomer and physicist Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington famously dramatised the difference between the world described by the physical sciences, and the world as commonly experienced. These dramatisations have polarised Eddington’s readers. While some criticised them on moral grounds as “dangerously misleading” (L. Susan Stebbing), others appreciated his sense of genuine philosophical problems in asking about the sciences’ “direct signification for the real world” (Hans Reichenbach). Walter Benjamin referred to one such passage of Eddington’s as “describing the experience of the modern city-dweller like no other”. In this paper, I argue that Eddington’s polarising passages are the result of his problematic attempt to investigate the meaning of matter in terms of the theory of relativity, an attempt that became the foundation for his later and more general philosophy of science.  The unresolved tensions within this attempt are singled out by Walter Benjamin’s reading of Eddington’s passages, which suggests that scientific descriptions of reality do indeed undermine ordinary experience to the extent that both are linguistically articulated.


Daniela Helbig teaches in the Unit for the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Sydney. Her main area of research is the history and philosophy of 20th century technoscience; she also takes a keen interest in linguistics and the theory and practice of linguistics.