Images of the Man of Science

What images do we have of the man of science?

Historian and sociologist of science Steven Shapin is one of the leading practitioners of constructivist historiography. Constructivitism assumes that scientific knowledge is locally created, produced, and situated. The local in scientific knowledge and the processes by which it becomes universally accepted are the two central issues in constructivist historiography. Constructivists, moreover, view scientific knowledge not as revealed, but rather as “made” using methods, tools, and materials available in culture. In Constructivism, truth does not figure; perceptions of the strengths and weaknesses of the epistemic foundation of knowledge do.

Dominated by local studies, constructivist historiography marginalizes “big picture” studies of universally accepted and acquired scientific knowledge. Shapin, for instance, challenges prevailing traditions about a reigning grand narrative, that of the Scientific Revolution. In anticipating my review of Shapin’s The Scientific Revolution, I want to address some points he makes in another context, in writing about images of the early man of science.

According to Shapin, there was no such thing as the early man of science. He was not a “scientist,” for the English word did not exist until the nineteenth century. Nor did he define the social and cultural position in modern discussions. According to Shapin, “the man of science did not occupy a single distinct and coherent role in early modern culture. There was no one social basis for the support of his work.” Everywhere the social role of the man of science was heterogeneous, the pursuit of natural knowledge adventitiously attached in all sorts of ways to preexisting roles. The representations and expectations bearing on those who happened to pursue different sorts of natural knowledge within those roles were not those of the professional scientist—that social kind did not, of course, exist—but rather were predominately those of what Shapin calls the “host social role.”

In two different places, Shapin identifies these roles as either the university professor or scholar, the medical man, the gentlemen, the courtier, the crown or civil expert, the godly naturalist, or the moral philosopher, among many others. These roles, moreover, are always substantially constituted, sustained, and modified by what members of the culture think is, or should be, characteristic of those who occupy the roles. Thus the very notion of “social role” implicates a set of norms and representations—ideals, prescriptions, expectations, and conventions thought properly, or actually, to belong to someone performing an activity or a certain kind. Such images are part of social realities. The images of the early man of science were very significantly shaped by appreciations of what was involved in the host roles: what sorts of people occupied such roles, with what characteristics and capacities, doing what sorts of things, and acquitting what sorts of recognized social functions, with what sorts of value attached to such functions? What representations were attached to the person of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century man of science? What virtues, vices, dispositions, and capacities was such a person thought to possess, and in what combinations?

Shapin argues that “to do science—as current sensibilities recognize it—was not necessarily the same thing as to be a man of science, to occupy that social role. What historians recognize as crucially important scientific research might be, in contemporary terms, only a moment or an element—among others—in a life fundamentally shaped by other concerns and lived out within other identities.”

Indeed, there were a whole range of roles important for acquiring natural knowledge. There was, for example, the clerical role. A number of key figures spent their whole lives, or very considerable portions, working within religious institutions or sustained by clerical positions: among them were Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543) in his Ermland chapter house, Marin Mersenne (1588-1648) in the order of Minims in Paris, and Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655), whose canonry at Digne assured his financial independence. “The significance of the priestly role for contemporary appreciations of the proper relationship between natural knowledge and religion,” contends Shapin, “cannot be overemphasized.”

Other key figures spent much of their careers as amanuenses, clerks, tutors, or domestic servants of various kinds to members of the gentry and aristocracy. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), for example, functioned in a variety of domestic service roles to the Cavendish family for almost the entirety of his adult life, and one of John Locke’s (1632-1704) first positions was a private physician, and later as general secretary, to the Earl of Shaftesbury.

Of course, the man of science represented a subset of the early modern learned class. But not all noteworthy early modern men of science were systematically shaped by university training. Among those who did not formally attend university at all were Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), Robert Boyle (1627-1691), and Rene Descartes (1596-1650). For others, university education was part of a background preparation for roles in civic life, and the acquisition of scientific expertise occurred elsewhere. The mathematician Pierre de Fermat (1601-1665) and the astronomer Johnannes Hevelius (1611-1687) studied law at a university; William Gilbert (1544-1603) and mathematician and physicist Isaac Beeckman (1588-1637) studied medicine; and Johnannes Kepler (1571-1630) studied mainly theology.

In their mature careers, however, many men of science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were professionally engaged by universities or related institutions of higher learning. Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564), Galielo Galilei (1564-1642), and Isaac Newton (1642-1727) were professors. Others, however, never acquired any professional affiliation. For example, Copernicus, Kepler, Bacon, Descartes, Mersenne, Pascal, Boyle, Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), and Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695) were never professors. As Shapin puts it, “although for late twentieth-century scientists a permanent university appointment generally represents a natural career culmination, this was not necessarily the case for the early modern man of science.”

What’s more, professional affiliation with institutions of higher education included a variety of other social roles. First, the professorship was often consorted with organized forms of Christianity. Second, the university combined curatorial and culturally reproductive roles, and its professors’ activities and identities were primarily understood in that context: “universities signified both responsible custodianship of the knowledge inherited from the past and its reliable transmission to future generations.” Third, affiliation with the university associated the man of science with specific hierarchical social forms. Thus, as Shapin puts it, “the identification of scientific work with the professorial career was significant but tenuous and patchy during the early modern period.”

The profession of medicine also joined the pursuit of natural knowledge with recognized and authoritative early modern social roles, and many medical men pursued scientific investigations within the rubric of a professorial role, such as Vesalius (1514-1564) (at Padua) and Marcello Malpighi (1628-1694) (at Bologna). Unlike the role of the university scholar in general, however, the social role of the medical man strongly linked natural knowledge with practical interventions. Moreover, medical roles were centrally concerned with the description, explanation, and management of natural bodies. This naturally gave way toward the study of anatomy and physiology. The participation of medical men was not confined to subjects strictly related to medical practice, however. Physicians such as Gilbert, Nicholaus Steno, and Henry Power studied magnetism, geology, and experimental natural philosophy respectively. John Locke earned a medical degree prior establishing himself as a political philosopher. Nor was substantial interest in medical subjects restricted to those occupying the social role of physician or surgeon: Bacon, Descartes, and Bolye lacked professional qualifications but either theorized on medical subjects or dabbled in medical therapeutics and dietetics.

Often, both professorial and medical roles were sustained by the imperative role of the “pious naturalist” and, more specifically, of the parson-naturalist, especially in Protestant culture. The argument that God had written two books by which His existence, attributes, and intentions might be known was foundational for a “natural theology.” The “argument from design” seemed overwhelmingly persuasive to such English clerics such as John Ray in the 1690s, Stephen Hales in the 1720s, Gilbert White of Selborne in the 1780s, and of course William Paley in the 1800s. “The naturalist-parson,” writes Shapin, “belonged to the century’s inventory of recognized characters, and the scientific portion of his activities was understood to flow from some version of what it was to be a minister. And, in the parson’s self-understanding, doing science might not be a mere avocation; it might be counted as a legitimate and important part of his priestly vocation.” He continues, “The parson-naturalist’s scientific inquiries were surrounded by the aura shed by his priestly role.”

But natural theological justifications and motives were never confined to clerics alone. Both the virtues and capacities of the priest were available to those “godly investigators,” the “priests of nature.” These justifications and appreciations were a ubiquitous feature of eighteenth-century culture, again especially in Protestant culture, and they might be importantly expressed by the occupants of a great range of roles: the university professor, the medical man, the gentleman, the instrument-maker, and the popular lecturer, writer, and showman, as well as by those whose roles were contained within formal religious institutions. In England, the Unitarian chemist Joseph Priestley summed things up well when he wrote that “a [natural] Philosopher ought to be something greater, and better than another man.” If the man of science was not already virtuous, then the “contemplation of the works of God should give a sublimity to his virtue, should expand his benevolence, extinguish every thing mean, base, and selfish in [his] nature.”

A natural order bearing the sure evidence of divine creation and superintendence was understood to edify those who dedicated themselves to its study. “Godly subject matter made for godly scholars.” This was the major way in which the culture of natural theology sustained an image of the man of science as virtuous beyond the normal run of scholars. And eighteenth-century cultures that were not marked by natural theology borrowed such imagery to produce a man of science as specially or uniquely virtuous. The eloges presented in commemoration of recently deceased members of the Paris Academy of Sciences offer the most highly developed and influential portraits of the virtuous man of science. Composed by Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle (and his successors Jean-Jacques Dortous de Mairan, Jean-Paul Grandjean de Fouchy, and the Marquis de Condorcet) from 1699 to 1791, these eloges drew upon Stoic and Plutarchan tropes to establish both the special moral qualities possessed by those drawn to science and the additional virtues that a life dedicated to scientific truth encouraged in its devotees. By the 1770s these sentiments were supplemented by Condorcet’s Renaissance-humanist preferences for a life of action and civic benevolence. The man of science, in Condorcet’s image, had the capacity to benefit the public realm both materially and spiritually.

The same images of vocation, dedication, and detachment that testified to the virtue of the man of science also constituted a potential handicap to his membership in polite society. Scholars might in many cases be genuinely respected by polite society, but that society importantly distinguished the roles of the gentleman and the professional scholar. Particular targets of criticism were, for example, the scholar’s traditional isolation, his “morose” or “melancholic” complexion, his tendency toward  disputation, and his pedantry. On the other hand, the polite classes were widely literate, sometimes well educated, and often disposed to act as patrons to men of science—in the case of the mathematical sciences because of their acknowledged utility to the arts of war, wealth-getting, and political control, and, in the case of other scientific practices, such as astronomy or natural history, because they lent luster to the patron and sparkle to civil conversation. The gentry, aristocracy, and nobility therefore controlled an enormously important pool of resources for supporting the work of men of science.

Beginning in the late sixteenth century, Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, Boyle and others all proposed to remedy scholarly wrangling by arguing for methodological, conceptual, and organizational reforms in natural knowledge that would at once make that knowledge an effective arm of state power and render it a pursuit suitable for civically engaged gentlemen. According to Shapin, “natural knowledge was to be hauled out of the privacy of the traditional scholar’s study—which made science disputatious, wordy, and barren—and into the bright light of real-world phenomena and practical civic concerns.” The reformed man of science was thus called to live vita activa, and science was to be done in public places.

This point of living vita activa will have tremendous ramifications for the pursuit of natural knowledge, up to our own day. To some extent, natural knowledge had always had a place in courtly and commercial society, and it continued to enjoy that place through the eighteenth century. Wonder, weapons, gadgets, glory, and natural legitimation had long been socially desirable, and these goods might be supplied at least as visibly and efficiently by eighteenth-century scientific practitioners as by their predecessors.

To varying extents each of the characters of the early modern man of science succumbed to this emerging civic role. When nature was no longer conceived as a divinely written book, the study of nature had diminished power to edify, and the credibility of ancient conceptions of philosophic disengagement and heroic selflessness was undermined by the professionalization and bureaucratization of scientific research and teaching. As Shapin writes, “both the receipt of government subvention and the institutionalization of scientific research in the professorial role made it harder to portray the man of science as fulfilling his calling through ascetic self-denial.”

With the advent of the eighteenth century we witness a vast expansion in the numbers of scientifically trained people employed as civic experts in commerce, the military, and the government settings. The character of the man of science as godly naturalist and moral philosopher buckled under the emerging identity of valued civic expert. Throughout eighteenth-century Europe and North America, governments increasingly drew on the services of scientifically skilled people and thus helped to constitute the character of the man of science as civic expert. Examples of civic expertise for hire in the context of trade, war, and imperialism could be multiplied indefinitely in a wide range of scientific disciplines: mathematics, astronomy, geography and cartography, geology and mineralogy, meteorology, medicine, chemistry, and physics. Although the role of the man of science as civic expert was not new in the eighteenth century, the numbers occupying that role were increased concomitantly with the expansion of trade, war, and imperialism. “Everywhere men of science were employed by governments to standardize weights and measures.” Governments became the paymasters for scientific inquiry.

A number of examples can be cited. Since the 1960s, many have identified modern universities with radicalism, sexual libertinism, and moral relativism. That is certainly part of the crisis of modern higher education. Less publicly, though, scientific and technical research has been coopted to a remarkable extent by the military-industrial complex. In America alone $277 million of Carnegie Mellon’s $315 2006 research budget came from the federal government, and 23% of that total is from the Department of Defense (DoD). In March, the Air Force granted University of Dayton Research Institute $45 million for research in the “Quick Reaction Evaluation of Materials and Processes Program.” Penn State received $149 million in defense grants in 2003. A 2002 study found that over three hundred colleges and universities engage in Pentagon-funded research, universities receive more than half of the DoD research funds, and over half of the funding for university research in electrical engineering and computer science comes from the DoD. The DoD funds Duke research in mathematics, engineering, and biology. According to the DoD, “expenditures at Duke University increased from $17.7 million in fiscal year 2008 to more than $30 million by 2011.” It is indeed disquieting, but perhaps inevitable, that the DoD holds the purse strings of American higher ed.

Although heterogeneous in his social roles, it is undeniable that the man of science was brought into being in a deeply religious context. Today, however, he is largely detached from those presuppositions and motivations that sustained his initial development. Today’s scientists are increasingly becoming the civic experts (servants?) of governments and corporations.


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