Social Uses of Science

The intellectual history of the eighteenth century, including the history of eighteenth-century science, used to be summed up in the term “Enlightenment.” However, as we have seen, no one has been able to define the term with any precision; nevertheless, most historians continue to use it to identify a set of opinions that characterized the century. In The Ferment of Knowledge: Studies in the Historiography of Eighteenth-Century Science (1980), edited by G. S. Rousseau and Roy Porter, the term scarcely makes an appearance. This is deliberate. The editors and authors of this collection of essays believe that historiography of science of the eighteenth century has been utterly changed by the advent of “contextual” scholarship in a number of disparate disciplines, from the history of ideas, mythology, new approaches within Marxism and French structuralism, techniques of historians of art, religion, philosophy, and ideology, to the seminal writings of anthropologists and psychologists and others.

In their introduction the editors rightly emphasize that we can “no longer ignore the fact that the eighteenth century ‘geography of knowledge,’ the relations between the sciences, was then markedly different from our own.” The introduction explains:

The last generation has wrought a revolution in the history of science…Certainties have given way to questions. The history of science is no longer a scientist’s hymn to science: it has become part of history itself…The development of science can no longer be served up as the sure tread towards truth. But exactly how it should be viewed is a question on which no consensus is in sight…This revolution is, of course, very familiar. Its relevance here is that this profound change in the orientation—one riddled with methodological anxieties—has as yet done little for the eighteenth century.

The aim, and hope, of the present volume is thus to present a “contextual historiography” of the eighteenth century as a corrective:

…we now take it as axiomatic—and correctly—that eighteenth-century science can be properly grasped only if its “external” relations to other intellectual and cultural systems, such as theology and epistemology, are tackled head-on…It seems elementary to us (now!) that eighteenth-century scientific ideas cannot adequately be translated one-to-one into twentieth-century terminology. Indeed, one of the aims of this book is precisely to distil and evaluate this substantial body of empirical research that has been conducted in the last generation.

To achieve its ends, the editors have compiled a series of twelve essays by twelve knowledgeable authors. Of all the contributions in this volume, Steven Shapin’s “Social Uses of Science” is perhaps the most provocative and stimulating contribution.

Shapin discusses the social uses of science by analyzing a number of studies which deal with the social significance of Newtonianism, “it is in the area of Newtonianism and its career in the eighteenth century that such perspectives show their greatest inadequacies and where new notions of science and its uses display greatest promise.” An essay by Arnold Thackray looks at political interpretation of the Leibniz-Clarke debate, “The priority disputes between Newton and Leibniz…cannot be understood without examining the dynastic politics of the period from the 1680s to the 1710s.” According to Thackray, “Newton set in motion a sustained collective effort to discredit the worth, religious significance, and originality of the German’s [i.e. Leibniz] science.” An essay by Frank Manuel supports Thackray’s account that Newton was an “autocrat of science.” And George Grinnell’s argument that Newton’s own motivation was not merely proprietary but party-political interprets Newton as an anti-Catholic Whig. Shapin concludes from these contextualist interpretations that “one cannot  understand scientific judgements without attaining to the context wherein scientific accounts were deployed.”

In several articles Margaret Jacob sets out to develop a connection between Newtonian natural philosophy and Low Church politics. Shapin positively evaluates M. Jacob’s view that “conceptions of nature are tools, instruments which historical actors in contingent settings pick up and deploy in order to further a variety of interests, social as well as technical.” According to James R. Jacob and Christopher Hill, “natural philosophy in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century was powerfully shaped by the social uses of natural knowledge during Civil War, Interregnum, and Restoration” periods.

From the contextualist interpretations of M. Jacob, J.R. Jacob, and Hill, Shapin offers a number of suggestions to explain how eighteenth century matter theory could be given a social interpretation:

First, it is to be noted that philosophies of nature were routinely seen by the actors as imbued with social meaning. This is not because of “mere” metaphorical glossing, but because in these (and later) cultural contexts nature and society were deemed to be elements in one interacting network of significances…Second, groups with conflicting social interests developed and sustained interestingly different natural philosophies; moreover, these philosophies were often produced explicitly to combat and refute those of rival groups. Third, the distribution of attributes between “matter” and “spirit” was an issue of intense concern in all these philosophies; the relations between the two entities seemed to be something upon which all cosmologies “had to” decide, and the boundaries between “matter” and “spirit” were treated as having particularly strong social significance.

Thus “contextualism” for Shapin is the study of natural philosophy “entirely in terms of its uses in specific historical contexts,” or, as his title suggests, its “social uses.”

In the next section of the essay Shapin wants to juxtapose this new contextualist approach, of which he is a member, against the historiographic theories of post-Koyréan “intellectualist” practice, which includes, he argues, Gerd Buchdahl, Henry Guerlac, P. M. Heimann, Robert Kargon, David Kubrin, J. E. McGuire, Ernan McMullin, P. M. Rattansi, and Richard Westfall. In short, Shapin concludes that while traditional intellectualist histories of science situate scientific thought in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries firmly within the intellectual context of metaphysics and religion, the context of ideas, both in their formation and in their use, has not been treated adequately. At best, he argues, we have been given “footnote contextualism,” an “apparent stipulation that such context impinged peripherally or in some unspecified, but insignificant, way.” In other words, the intellectualist historiographic approach relegates the effects of social-political context on scientific ideas to footnotes and asides, therefore to an implicitly peripheral and unimportant role. Shapin disagrees and argues that in the contextualist historical research: “what we begin to see in work of this kind is a sensitivity to a variety of conceptions of nature distrubuted among different social groups. We see how divergent bodies of natural knowledge were used to further social interests and were produced in processes of social conflict.”

In the final sections of his essay, Shapin provides a contextualist interpretation of the “new science” of the early and mid-eighteenth century as a strategy reflecting its social-political uses. He maintains, for example, following M. Jacob, “where the Newtonian cosmology of the Boyle Lectures was developed partly as a defense of the Protestant succession and the court which underpinned the moral and social authority of the latitudinarian Low Church,” the hylozoist cosmology—in which outside, immaterial forces are unnecessary to move matter—of “freethinkers” such as John Toland “was the voice of conflicting social tendencies.” The latter were at odds with the Newtonians because they “perceived them to be ‘propagandizers for a science of God that would enhance the authority of ruling oligarchies and established churches.'”

Although M. Jacob’s thesis has received criticism, particularly from Christopher Wilde, who provides similar historiographic techniques to show an important English anti-Newtonianism of High Church divines, both work demonstrate that “‘dialectical’ processes of social conflict in the cultural domain may be needed to account for historical changes in dominant cosmologies.”

But intellectualists and the new contextualist can work together, according to Shapin. For example, there has been some major historiographic bridge-building between the two in accounting for Joseph Priestly’s natural philosophy. The work of J.G. McEvoy and J. E. McGuire have demonstrated that “Priestly was not embarked upon any ‘atheistical’ or ‘secularizing’ enterprise,” but a cosmology of “rational dissent,” one specifically committed to “undermining the authority of the state Church and justifying liberalism and toleration in religious matters.” Thus Priestly’s materialist monism becomes a “hierarchy-collapsing strategy.”

In conclusion Shapins lists three themes that emerge from social studies of uses of scientific knowledge in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. First it shows the important role for social interests in scientific change or in sustaining scientific accounts. Second, science is revealed to us only in some context of use; “science” is never disembodied—it is always put to use in some particular social context. And third, historians of science are revealed to be implicit anthropologists, considering “collective representations of nature…to be institutions inextricably bound up with the social affairs of the communities which generate and sustain them; they are explained by identifying the ‘social work’ the beliefs do in these communities.”

Finally, this anthropological perspective, according to Shapin, represents a non-deterministic sociology of scientific knowledge. “By emphasizing that cosmologies are constructed in the contexts of use, they replace the ‘automaton-actor’ of metaphysical-influence studies with an active, calculating actor whose intellectual products are crafted to further the variety of his interests.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s