“To know the Supreme Cause from the causes of things”
Why do scientists do experiments? This is the main point of Leviathan and the Air Pump, but the issues brought out in answering that simple question are obviously deeper than simply a particular subgroup of society achieving consensus about the proper methods within their community. In fact, as you read this classic in the History of Science, think of a different question – do we have these kinds of debates today? Or perhaps think of this issue: why do I, as an anthropologist, have the same terminal degree (doctor of philosophy) as a physicist and biologist at this college? Here’s another question that may help you better understand the issues in Shapin and Schaffer: why did we start using the term scientist? We really didn’t start using the term scientist until the turn of the nineteenth century. Prior to then, people who explored the natural world were ‘natural philosophers.’ Shapin and Schaffer put it this way:
“Why does one do experiments in order to arrive at scientific truth? Is experiment a privileged means of arriving at consensually agreed knowledge of nature, or are other means possible? What recommends the experimental way in science over alternatives to it?” (Shapin and Schaffer 1985:3)
Why is this particular debate over the air pump of particular significance? At one level, the two protagonists are still part of our historical memory – we remember Robert Boyle’s name because of Boyle’s Law, and we know Thomas Hobbes because of Calvin and Hobbes (or possibly because our social studies teacher or political science professor made us read Leviathan to understand why life is nasty, brutish, and short. We could instead read about the development of the Royal Society (a.k.a. The President, Council, and Fellows of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge) to understand the development of what we now call modern science. In fact, you may want to read (for fun) a fictional account: see Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle, using different characters – Newton-Leibniz feud, Sophia of Hanover, and William of Orange. But the focus on Boyle vs. Hobbes combines the individual agendas, structural issues, and processual ones (e.g., scientific methodology, peer review) together in a way that lets us see the contested, temporal, and emergent properties of science and technology. Natural philosophy, as practiced by Hobbes and Boyle, can be seen as the ‘true liberal arts.’ Nowadays, we would put Hobbes in the Political Science department, and Boyle in the Chemistry department. This very debate over the air pump shows the artificiality of our current disciplinary distinctions. Or perhaps it shows the validity of academic disciplines, in that Hobbes made for a ‘bad’ scientist, while Boyle made for a mediocre humanist.
Another argument that is embedded in this debate is the ‘rationalism’ vs. the ‘empiricism’ schools and the role of the human senses in the production of knowledge. Rationalists stress the independence of thinking over sensory experiences, while empiricists stress the role of the senses (in anthropology, we refer to this as phenomenology).
But again, most central is the issue of scientific experiments in the production of ‘facts.’ Shapin and Schaffer will demonstrate that “experimental production of matters of fact involved an immense amount of labour, that it rested upon the acceptance of certain social and discursive conventions, and that it depended upon the production and protection of a special form of social organization” (2011:22). In short, this is Boyle’s experimental program: material technology, literary technology, social technology:
- Material: the air pump; augmenting/replacing the fallibility of human senses with instruments
- Literary: a type of functional writing: plain, ascetic, unadorned – “facts” would stand out on their own merit
- Social: the Royal Society, the group of people who would “witness” experiments, the laboratory: “The laboratory was, therefore, a disciplined space, where experimental, discursive, and social practices were collectively controlled by competent members.”
These ‘technologies’ were part of the process of objectifying knowledge, a type of rhetoric, and one that had authority as a collective enterprise. Science can then be seen as a form of discourse backed up by social solidarity. But to achieve Boyle’s experimental program, there needed to be a lot of boundary drawing as part of the emergence of institutionalized, rationalized practices: crossing the border between experimental matter of fact and the ultimate physical cause/explanation; boundaries between social groups; and boundaries created by material objects.
Explanatory note: Wittgenstein: language-game. Main point of this is that speaking is part of an activity, so language cannot be understood as separate, objective; saying something (or writing it) is like making a move on a game; but game does not imply trivial