In the last discussion, we talked about how Boyle’s experimental program (material, literary, and social) involves boundary drawing for an emerging scientific community. But what was the air pump debate about? It was a fight over Toricellian vacuum. Hobbes and Boyle essentially had differences over what is in the space above the tube of mercury. Boyle’s approach was to suggest the possibility of a vacuum being created (which is why he ended up creating his air pump), while Hobbes rejected the notion of vacuum. Shapin and Schaffer take great pains to show that the Hobbes-Boyle debate was not really a fight between ‘vacuist’ (those who hold that vacuums exist) and ‘plenist’ (those who say that ‘nature abhors a vacuum,’ and vacuums do not exist) natural philosophers (an argument inherited from Greek natural philosophy argument). The more important debate between Hobbes and Boyle was over boundary drawing – an ideological issue.
Hobbes is now best known now as a political philosopher who laid down the tenets of political science and liberalism; for me, Hobbes is important for understanding the concept of civil society. He went to Oxford, did the usual grand tour (the study abroad experience of the time), and worked as a tutor to various aristocrats, including the young exiled Charles, Prince of Wales. His intellectual life was also greatly shaped by the chaos arising from the English Civil War. The calamities caused by the English Civil War greatly shaped his attitude towards power, both by the “state” and the “church.” As a result, knowledge authority, epistemology (the study of knowledge, how we know what we know), therefore was an important part of Hobbes’ approach to natural philosophy.
Hobbes’ basic problem with Boyle’s experimental program was:
“first, that the boundaries Boyle proposed to erect and maintain were guarantees of continued disorder, not remedies to philosophical dissension , and, second, that order could only be won and made secure by deciding upon proper metaphysical language, not by jettisoning that language” (Shapin and Schaffer 2011:81).
At one level, we can see Hobbes’ attacks on Boyle and his gang as petty academic politics. At a deeper level, this is a battle over politics, and this Hobbes sees as dangerous because it created another ‘priestly class.’ Ideologically, Boyle’s experimental program was problematic because of how it constituted knowledge. Hobbes’ main problem was with the validity of conclusions that experiments could produce, though he did also think that ‘wild ideas’ such as vacuum were dangerous and nonsensical. ; : “In fact, Hobbes did not argue here that a vacuum does exist: he showed against the Scholastics that its existence or nonexistence could not be established through absurd speech and improper use of words. The proper analysis of mechanical motion and continuity of matter demanded some “fluid medium which hath no vacuity” (Shapin and Schaffer 2011:88).
From our modern-day perspective, it is clear that Hobbes did not have the correct scientific understanding of vacuums, ‘aether,’ and physics. But the question that Shapin and Schaffer want us to think about isn’t about vacuums, but about whether or not Hobbes was wrong about the role of experimentation as rhetoric and the resulting deconstructive approach of science.
Shapin and Schaffer argue that Hobbes’ position on science and the whole Boyle debate can best be seen in Leviathan – this is normally read as a “political science” tract, a distinction that Hobbes would not have made in the 17th century since everything was ‘natural philosophy.’ For Hobbes, it was most important to start with a proper theory of the world, an understanding of causes, instead of stumbling around in experimental method. Disorder among men of knowledge would create disorder in society (and yes, men – Hobbes was a 17th century guy).
“Leviathan radically downgraded the standing of factual knowledge, distinguished it from “science” and “philosophy” and assimilated it to the experiences of individuals. To Hobbes, knowledge of fact, “as when we see a fact doing, or remember it done,” was “nothing else, but sense and memory” (Shapin and Shaffer 2011:101).
This quote shows how thinking was elevated over feeling or sensing. This is the point about ‘phenomenology’ – Hobbes comes from the perspective that our senses can be misleading, and that true philosophy comes from pure thinking about causes and effects, method and logic. For Hobbes: “Knowledge, science and philosophy were set on one side; belief and opinion on the other. The former were certain, hard and indisputable; the latter were provisional, variable and inherently contentious, affected by man’s shifting passions and special interests” (Shapin and Schaffer 2011:102). And the latter is dangerous.
Chapter 4 in Shapin and Schaffer is all about the problem of experiments; see the list on pages 111-112. Some things to note in this chapter: both Hobbes and Boyle shared some basic ideas, such as the morality of the people (scientists, etc.) producing the knowledge was connected to the worth of the knowledge (e.g., they should be ‘noble’). But Hobbes also believed that such worthy people should also be able to discern for themselves the validity of a particular truth-claim; this is why he saw Boyle’s experimental approach, the laboratory, and its ‘witnessing’ as problematic because it was not open to all ‘worthys.’ Hobbes saw this as the creation of a new priestly class, a group we can now call scientists.
Shapin and Schaffer also bring up something about our current thinking that clouds our understanding of the Hobbes/Boyle debate: “In our culture, saying that knowledge is artifactual and conventional is tantamount to saying that it is not authentic knowledge at all” (Shapin and Schaffer 2011:150). When we talk about ‘ungrounded knowledge,’ ‘field-testing,’ etc., we are assuming that what takes place in the laboratory, the classroom, the college campus is not real life; which means it is problematic. Hobbes asserted that this limitation of ‘natural philosophy’ made it such that it could never be as ‘pure’ as philosophy (in politics, etc.). For Hobbes, thinking that experimental truths made for philosophy was like theology, not philosophy; Hobbes’ solution was “not in belief nor in witness but in behavior, not in the individual but in the social” (Shapin and Schaffer 2011:152).