Sociology of Science

Science and Religion Around the World

Brooke and Numbers - Science and Religion Around the WorldAs we have seen, one of the most prominent, persistent, and popular myths about science and religion emerged in the nineteenth century. John William Draper (1811-1882), author of History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science (1874), followed by Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918), author of The Warfare of Science (1876) and A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896) held that science and religion were inherently opposed and necessarily in conflict, thus ushering what was to become the widely current views of today.

John Hedley Brooke and Ron L. Numbers in Science and Religion Around the World (2011) assemble essays aimed at challenging this “warfare” narrative with interactions between science and early Judaism (Noah Efron), modern Judaism (Geoffrey Cantor), early Christianity (Peter Harrison and David C. Lindberg), modern Christianity (John Hedley Brooke), early Islam (Ahmad S. Dallal), modern Islam (Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu), early Chinese religions (Mark Csikszentmihalyi), Indic religions (B.V. Subbarayappa), Buddhism (Donald S. Lopez Jr.), African religions (Steven Feierman and John M. Janzen), including a chapter on “unbelief” (Bernard Lightman), and an comprehensive conclusion, bringing together previous chapters and distilling a “geography of science-religion relations” (David N. Livingstone).

The book opens with the Abrahamic traditions. Noah Efron claims that “there has been no single, enduring Jewish attitude toward nature and its study. In each age and locale, a mix of theological, social, and practical concerns determined how large a role natural knowledge would take in Jewish intellectual life and how creative and original the contributions of Jews would be.” Efron traces this ambivalence in early Judaism’s attitude toward the natural world in the Hebrew Bible, Talmud, and writings in the Middle Ages.  Although the “Hebrew Bible records little about the nature of the cosmos,” the earth was a different matter. “Ancient Israelites,” Efron writes, “sought to divine the pattern behind the animals and plants they came across.” This is evident, he says, in the rule of kashrut—of what is prescribed to eat and what is proscribed.

Other prohibitions, against medicine, astrology, and magic, were not always followed. Astrology in particular found “purchase in ancient Hebrew culture.” Some scholars were impressed with the distinct elements of Hebrew tradition, such as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who observed that the Israelite religion altered the very nature of nature itself: “Nature [in the Old Testament] is now degraded to the condition of something powerless…it is made a means.” More recent commentators have also argued that the Bible desacralized nature, stripping it of the inherent and independent forces that pagan cultures had attributed to it.

Composed over hundreds of years and across thousands of miles, the Palestinian and the Babylonian Talmud reveal interesting tidbits of the cultures that produced them. Mathematics and astronomy, for example, served many practical ends because of its relevance in determining religious feasts and Sabbaths. There are also incidental references to illness and cure, disease and medicine. But as Efron notes, “the Talmud, like the Bible before it, served as a source for all of these attitudes toward nature and none of them.” The Talmud prohibits magic and sorcery, and physicians and surgeons were often treated with suspicion within its pages.

In the Middle Ages, we find intermittent Jewish cooperation in science and philosophy with Christians and Muslims. Particularly, Jews “found a place in Arabic mathematics, natural philosophy, and medicine. Isaac ben Solomon Israeli (ca. 855-955),  Sa‘adya  ben  Yosef
al-Fayyūmī (882-942), Abraham Bar Hiyya (d. ca. 1145), Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1167) were known by contemporaries as enthusiasts for natural philosophy. They were not without critics, however.  Both Judah Halevi (ca. 1075-1141) and Moses ben Maimon (1135-1204) rejected astrology, the former warning: “Let not Greek wisdom tempt you, for it bears flowers only and no fruit.” The latter, known more commonly through his Latin name, Maimonides, “propounded a limited sort of natural theology, in which nature—God’s handiwork—bears testimony to God’s power. At the same time, he insisted that humans were incapable of achieving positive knowledge of God’s essence,” thus restricting man’s ability to know with certainty anything about the natural world. “Maimondies,” writes Efron, “would be an inspiration and a prooftext for Jewish scholars writing about natural philosophy for generations to follow.”

In the early modern period, Jews like David Gans (1541-1613), Joseph Solomon Delmedigo (1591-1655), Tobias Cohen (1652-1729), Jacob ben Isaac Zahalon (1630-93), David Nieto (1654-1728), Jacob Hamiz (d. ca. 1676) embraced natural philosophy, in part because they saw it as a sort of ecumenical wisdom, and, in part, because they recognized in nature traces of God’s handiwork.

Transitioning to the modern period of Jewish-science relations, “Jews continued to find science intertwined in complex patterns with their own identities.” In the first part of his essay, Geoffrey Cantor focuses on Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews following the scientific revolution, relaying Jewish anxieties about natural philosophy possibly supplanting attention to Torah study. While the “Jewish enlightenment,” or the Haskalah, its proponents being maskilim (“those who possess understanding”) emerged in the late eighteenth century, its most eminent exponents being the self-proclaimed messiah Sabbatai Zevi (1626-76), Aaron Gumpertz (1723-70), Moses Mendelssohn (1729-86), Mordechai Gumpel Schnaber (1741-97), it peaked during the final two decades of the century, when many rabbis condemned it for fear that it would “erode traditional Jewish observance and that they would lose influences over their congregations.”

Cantor also surveys a spectrum of Jewish responses to Darwin, emphasizing the diversity of views in the Jewish tradition. English naturalist of Sephardi descent Raphael Meldola (1849-1915) “fell into the ranks of Darwinism.” Torah and Talmud scholar Naphtali Levy (d. 1894) wrote a book which argued that “Jewish thought and Darwin’s theory of evolution were in harmony with one another.” Enthusiasm for Darwin’s theory is also found among a small number of nineteenth-century rabbis, including Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel. Others, however, took the opposite view, such as Abraham Geiger, a leading reform rabbi in Germany, who rejected evolution in the 1860s because of “the gap he envisaged between humans and animals,” or Menachem Schneerson (1902-1994), who once told a “wavering student not to overrate the claims of science because it possesses a very limited factual base.”

Cantor closes his essay with a synopsis of “Jews in the Modern Scientific Community,” from Nobel Prize-winning physicist Albert Abraham Michelson (1852-1931), Manhattan Project director J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967), sociologist Robert K. Merton (1910-2003), Albert Einstein (1879-1955), another Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg (b. 1933), Jewish biologists Robert Pollack (b. 1940), Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002), and Richard Lewontin (b. 1929), to Austrian neurologist and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). One wonders, however, in selecting these “Jewish” actors, if family descent is a sufficient reason for their classification as “Jews.” Furthermore, in saying that there have never been an “antievolutionist movement among Jews comparable with the very hostile creationist opposition by some Christians and Muslims,” Cantor seems to have forgotten the recent theatrical release of Expelled! No Intelligence Allowed (2008), written, narrated, and hosted by Jewish actor and former Nixon/Ford presidential speechwriter, Ben Stein, which leans heavily on Jewish intelligent design theorists and/or creationists.

Turning to Christianity, Peter Harrison, David Lindberg, and John Brooke record “both opposition and encouragement between Christianity and science.” Beginning with the “advent of Christianity as an organized religion,” to the Patristic period, Middle Ages, and Reformation, Harrison and Lindberg demonstrate that there is abundant “encouragement” between Christianity and science. However Christianity’s cultured dispersers have obscured the evidence, “scientific activity flourished during a Middle Ages that was dominated by ecclesiastical institutions and an intellectual culture that was oriented primarily toward theology.” Later, the idea that science was a “handmaiden” to theology was the guiding principle of figures such as Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle. Beyond this, Francis Bacon  suggested that natural philosophy was itself a form of religious activity. Indeed, Johannes Kepler once wrote, “I wished to be a theologian; for a long time I was troubled, but now see how God is also praised through my work in astronomy.” Harrison and Lindberg conclude  that relations between science and Christianity from the Patristic period and through the Middle Ages were, for the most part, “peaceful” and that “Western Christendom actually provided the institutional and intellectual setting that made possible the emergence of modern science.”

Brooke begins his chapter on “Modern Christianity” by reminding the reader that there is no single “Christian tradition.” The Latin West, the Eastern Orthodox, the Protestant Reformation, and the ensuing multifarious traditions and denominations stemming from it,  reveal numerous forms of Christian life, worship, and church governance. Thus in evaluating the relevance of scientific culture to the Christian faith it is often necessary to distinguish opinions from particular traditions, and beyond this to particular individual thinkers, as in the case of the famous controversy between Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) and Samuel Clarke (1675-1729) in the early eighteenth century. Most often, scientific activity had been “defended on the ground that it furnished evidence for the power and wisdom of God.” In this sense seventeenth-century science was sanctioned by Christian theology. During the eighteenth century “many attacks on the Christian faith were launched”; not by science, however, but by biblical criticism and certain radical philosophies.

But perhaps the biggest intellectual threat to Christianity came during the nineteenth century—”not only from the historical sciences of geology and evolutionary biology but also from the practice of history itself.” David Friedrich Strauss’ Life of Jesus (1835), for example, argued that the miracles of Christ were a fabrication of the early church, who used Jewish ideas about what the Messiah would be like in order to express the conviction that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. Bishop John Colenso of Natal published a controversial collection of Essays and Reviews (1860) in which several Anglican clergy argued that “the Bible must be read like any other book—a product of its time and therefore fallible in its cosmology.”

During the second half of the nineteenth century, both geologists and evangelicals, devised elaborate attempts to harmonize the new science with Scripture. Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847), William Buckland (1784-1856), Edward Hitchcock (1793-1864), and Hugh Miller (1802-56) were some of the most well known. But by the end of the century, “it would be rare to find theological references in technical scientific treatises.” This transformation was not caused by Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection—but it certainly served as a catalyst. Figures such as Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-95) and John Tyndall (1820-93) used it as a foil in their aggressive attacks against the clergy and the pretensions of theology. It was in this way that Darwin’s naturalistic account became a divisive force within Christendom. Perhaps weary from such aggressive polemics in the previous century, during the twentieth century “there were serious deterrents to combining Christian theology with scientific discourse.” Karl Barth (1886-1968) rejected natural theology as misguided and presumptuous. But Christian apologists were tempted by new scientific discoveries, particularly the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics, Big Bang cosmology, and the fine tuning underlying the laws of physics. The spread of intelligent design theory, Brooke concludes, “is indicative of a widespread popular disenchantment with liberal values associated with Darwinism and especially with the materialism superimposed on it.”

The chapters on “Early Islam” and “Modern Islam” offer a spirited perspective on the complex relation of Islam and the natural sciences. Ahmad Dallal argues that “Arabic science did more than simply preserve the Greek scientific legacy and pass it to its European heirs.” Because the legacy came in a package, including science and philosophy, astrology and astronomy, medicine and alchemy, “Muslims, for several centuries, tried to sort out the part that contradicted their faith.” This process came to be known as the “Islamization of science.” Key contributions of Arabo-Islamic science came through astronomy, mathematics, optics, and medicine. Dallal challenges the assertion that “the lack of institutional support in Muslim societies for the rational sciences is responsible for their marginalization and eventual demise.” He also challenges traditional accounts of al-Ghazali, who is “often considered an enemy of science and one of the main causes of its decline” in Islamic culture. Dallal examines Qur’anic references to nature, concluding that “religious knowledge and scientific knowledge are each assigned to their own compartments,” thus justifying “the pursuit of science, and even a limited use of scientific discourse in commenting on the Qu’ran.” Dallal ends his chapter with some brief comments on the intersection of science and religion in Islamic speculative theology, or kalam. “One of the consequences of the Islamization of science in medieval Muslim practice,” he writes, “was the epistemological separation of science and philosophy and thereby the separation of religion and science.”

Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu extends this discussion into the relations between Islam and science to the modern period, describing the “selective transfer of ‘European’ science” to the Ottoman Empire, when Ottomans pursued geography, cartography, astronomy, technology, and even alchemy. His account is infused with the works of little-known figures, such as Piri Reis (1465-1553), Seydi Ali Reis (d. 1562), Matrakçı Nasuh (1480-1564), Abu Bakr al-Dimashqi (d. 1691), Ibrahim Müteferrika (d. 1745), Ibrahim Hakki of Erzurum (d. 1780), and many others. But in this montage of names, one wonders about the inclusion of some, such as Müteferrika, who “had once been a priest” and became “a Hungarian convert to Islam.” His voluntary affiliation with Islam may make him something other than a representative Muslim. This is the same problem with Efron’s inclusion of avowed atheists as “Jewish” actors in modern Jewish-science relations.

İhsanoğlu’s most interesting discussion in this chapter is the impact of Darwin’s evolutionary theory on Ottoman intellectuals. First, he says, the theory reached Ottoman intellectuals by way of the French, which often favored Lamarck over Darwin. Evolutionary theory was viewed, moreover, through Ludwig Büchner’s materialistic ideas in Kraft und Stoff (1855). Unlike Europe, Istanbul began with evolutionary and social Darwinist thought rather than biological Darwinism. Then there is Ahmet Midhat’s (1844-1912) translation of John William Draper’s Conflict between Religion and Science, in four volumes, 1895, 1897, and 1900. Midhat wanted to assure young Muslims that Draper’s arguments concerning Catholicism did not hold true for Islam, so he included long supplements in each volume. In the twentieth century, discord appeared between science and Islam. But, according to İhsanoğlu, the discord was “between Islam and modern philosophical currents like positivism, naturalism, and social Darwinism, which challenged religion and the belief in God.” There is, however, only scant reference to the rise of Islamic anti-evolutionary sentiment in the late twentieth century, the focus being only on Iranian University professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr, who has publicly dismissed evolution “as an ideology and not as a scientific theory which has been proven.”

The following chapters explore the relation of science and religion in Chinese, Indic, and African religions. Particularly interesting is Mark Csikszentmihalyi’s claim that Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, and their wider religious-cultural matrix, influenced the development of natural sciences in different ways. B.V. Subbarayappa classifies Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism as “Indic religions,” casting traditional Indian astronomy, mathematics, medicine, and biological ideas as developing within or because of these religions. Indian astronomy, for example, “was essential for determining the timing of rituals and sacrifices…the construction of several forms of sacrificial altars…determination of celestial events such as solstices, when sacrifices had to be performed.” It is often said that a particular feature of Indian culture is a peaceful co-existence between science and its religious traditions. But this is, of course, not the whole story. Intriguing is Subbarayappa mention of Jawaharlal Nehru’s (1889-1964) convocation address at Allahabad University in 1946, where he expressed the conviction that “Science and Science alone could solve the problems of hunger and poverty, of insanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening custom and tradition, of vast resources running to waste, of a rich country inhabited by starving people,” thus indicating a functional approach to science and technology as a guide to greater material prosperity. Despite the many claims that “Buddhism is most compatible with modern science” than any other religion, writes Donald Lopez Jr., Buddhism has existed in many forms and manifestations, and during the nineteenth century, attempts by Western scholars to reconstruct the life of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, and his teachings, led to portrayals that would have been unrecognizable to Asian adherents. During the “colonial encounter,” where Europeans began investigating Buddhism in its original languages, Buddha was “exported back to Asia and sold to Asian Buddhists, who sent him into battle against the Christians.” Lopez cites Buddhists who see Buddhism as a science of the mind, “not only…compatible with modern science but superior to it.” “Once declared to be a science,” he writes, “Buddhism—condemned as a primitive superstition both by European missionaries and by Asian modernists—jumped from the bottom of the evolutionary scale to the top, bypassing the troublesome category of religion altogether.” He concludes that in “each of its periods of conjunction with science, a different form of Buddhism has been called upon to play its part.” Finally, Steven Feierman and John M. Janzen show that colonial African societies integrated science and spirits, “the idea of technical actions that have a powerful symbolic valence.” The efficacy of such technical processes as the smelting of iron, for example, “depended on the moral context in which they were performed.” A similar emphasis on moral and symbolic ways of constituting technical acts are also found in agricultural practices and the treatment of diseases through a combination of ancestral, holistic cosmologies and biomedical knowledge. Feierman and Janzen clearly demonstrate that examining science-religion relations in societies other than our own can be even more challenging.

Perhaps the most fascinating, and important, chapters—at least from this reader’s perspective— are the last two. Bernard Lightman covers some of the same material as Harrison, Lindberg, and Brooke, but focuses on a history of “unbelief.” Richard Dawkins, that enfant terrible of the so-called “New Atheism,” argues that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is “the ultimate scientific consciousness-raiser” for it “shatters the illusion of design within the domain of biology, and teaches us to be suspicious of any kind of design hypothesis in physics and cosmology as well.” It was Darwin, he wrote in The Blind Watchmaker (1996), that “made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” In short, “atheism lies at the heart of modern science.”

But according to Lightman, such an account of unbelief is far too simplistic. Not only were there a multiplicity of national contexts in which unbelief developed, its takes “more than just a new scientific theory to make unbelief acceptable to members of the intellectual elite and the public.” The social respectability of unbelief is crucial here. Lightman begins his account with Newton’s consent to Richard Bentley (1662-1742) and Samuel Clarke (1675-1729) to use his science for social purposes, “to shore up the newly reconstituted monarchy and the established church as the bulwarks of order and stability.” Newtonianism was therefore used as a “defense of the status quo.”

This alliance between Newtonian science and religious belief is nowhere more evident than in the career of Voltaire (1694-1778). Committed to a strongly providential deism, Voltaire “drew extensively on Newtonian science to undermine forms of unbelief based on Cartesian science and Spinozism.” In his Letter Concerning the English Nation (1733) and Elements of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophy (1738) he aimed to demonstrate that Newtonianism curbed materialism and Spinozism far more effectively than Cartesianism, and to defend Newton against accusations of atheism. Making Newton’s natural philosophy intelligible to a wider public, Voltaire made Newtonian science a “bulwark of Christianity against atheism not only in England but…throughout much of Europe.”

Others would take Newtonianism in the completely opposite direction. Radical enlightenment thinkers such as Denis Diderot (1713-84), Claude Adrien Helvétius (1715-71), Baron d’Holbach (1723-89), and others used Newtonianism as a foil in their cause for republicanism, personal liberty, equality, and freedom of thought and expression. Soon these thinkers would reject the British political system, along with the Newtonianism closely associated with it. Lightman credits Diderot and d’Holbach in particular as key players in the history of unbelief. Diderot, collaborating with Jean d’Alembert (1717-83), began producing the Encyclopédie (1751-72) as an “antidote to English cultural and intellectual hegemony.” D’Holbach’s System of Nature or Laws of the Moral and Physical World (1768) wanted to distinguish between Newton the natural philosopher and Newton the religious thinker. The “God of Newton,” he declared, “is a despot.” Newton, “whose extensive genius has unraveled nature and its laws has bewildered himself as soon as he lost sight of them.” According to d’Holbach, when Newton “left physics and demonstration, to lose himself in the imaginary regions of theology,” he was “no more than an infant.”

The French atheists were quickly criticized and condemned by British thinkers. The attitudes and reactions of Joseph Priestly (1733-1804), David Hume (1711-1776), and Edward Gibbon (1737-94) are nicely summed up in Horace Walpole’s (1717-87) pronouncement: “the philosophes—are insupportable, superficial, overbearing, and fanatic: they preach incessantly, and their avowed doctrine is atheism; you would not believe how openly—Don’t wonder, therefore, if I should return a Jesuit.” The attempt to link unbelief with Newtonian science was not widely received.

It was “only after the troubled social and political unrest of the 1830s and 1840s had passed in Britain and prosperity returned,” writes Lightman, that agnosticism was born. Ironically, the rapid growth of evangelicalism at the start of the nineteenth century gave way to a gradual drop in the rate of church attendance by mid-century. There were many concerns, about the absence of the working classes from church, a middle class that ceased to attend regularly, and a rejection of the social and moral authority of the church. More than anything else, the Victorian crisis of faith was a “moral rather than an intellectual matter.”

At the intellectual front, although Darwin did not attempt to construct a link between evolution and unbelief, others definitely—and defiantly—tried. These “architects of evolutionary agnosticism,” as Lightman calls them, consisted of Thomas Henry Huxley, Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), John Tyndall, William Kingdon Clifford (1845-79), Francis Galton (1822-1911), and others. It is important to note that unlike contemporary unbelievers, these evolutionary agnostics rejected atheism and offered a less militant version of unbelief. Huxley’s efforts, more than any of the others, “led to the public acceptance of agnosticism as a form of unbelief.” He advocated that science and religion were separate spheres and had to be kept apart from each other; in short, a declaration of the independence for scientists operating in a space dominated by the established Anglican Church. He even coined catchy names for this new vision: “scientific naturalism” and “agnosticism.” And by distinguishing agnosticism from atheism or materialism, he presented unbelief as both intellectually viable and eminently respectable.

Although Huxley averred that the respectable agnostic was not to be confused with the atheist, when evolutionary theory was applied to other disciplines, particularly anthropology, it proved to be corrosive to religious faith. The anthropological writings of Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917) and James George Frazer (1854-1941), for example, shows how the social sciences, when influenced by evolutionary theory, were used to understand religion in a way that was inimical to religion itself. Evolutionary theory was also applied in Spencer’s reconstruction of a new system of nature. After deducing that law of evolution was a unifying truth, Spencer “offered empirical proof drawn from astronomy, geology, biology, psychology, and sociology that ‘the Cosmos, in general and in detail, conforms to this law.'” In other words, all phenomena were subject to the evolutionary process.

In his conclusion Lightman states that it was a “post-9/11 environment” that “spawned the ‘New Atheists,’ an aggressive and militant group far more vocal” than their agnostic and unbelieving predecessors.

David N. Livingstone’s concluding essay brings together the previous chapters and articulates a series of imperatives: “pluralize, localize, hybridize, politicize.” The essays in this volume “disturb the presumption of a singular relationship between science and religion”; they “advertise complexity in science-religion discourses at different points in time and in different locations.” In pluralizing the discussion, these chapters reveal multiple “religions” and “sciences,” neither “tidily segregated” nor identical, but “delightfully” complicated. “The singularity that ordinarily attends public discussion of the subject needs to replaced by a recognition that it is more helpful to think in terms of the encounter between sciences and religious traditions.” In localizing the encounters between religions and sciences, social geography has been absolutely necessary. In hybridizing science, unbelief, and varied religious traditions, they have integrated, intertwined, and amalgamated in “cross-cultural syntheses.” This “impurity” writes Livingstone, alerts us to the ways “science” and “religion” have been mobilized in the interests of cultural politics. “All this serves to remind us that ‘science and religion’ are always embedded in wider socio-political networks and their relationship is conditioned by the prevailing cultural arrangements.”

In addressing the “relationship between science and religion,” the authors in this volume “pluralizes the entire enterprise,” identify “cross-cutting themes,” highlight “the role of cultural politics,” and attend to “difference and divergence from time to time and place to place.”


Geographies of Scientific Knowledge: Site, Region, Circulation (Part 3 – Final)

Livingstone’s chapters on “Site” and “Region” followed recent scholarship, showing how historians have begun addressing the significance of the publication and spatial differentiation of science. In his final chapter on “Circulation,” he looks at the ways science moves from location to location and to how fundamentally local knowledge has taken on the appearance of universality.

On Circulation

“Circulation” considers the transmission of scientific knowledge from the local site to the validating authority, or from one experimental observation location to another. Livingstone challenges the idea that the movement of scientific knowledge is a function of its transcendent, neutral, and disembodied character, or, more fundamentally, it inherent universality. For Livingstone, what looks like universality has a great deal to do with the standardization practices across locales.

All aspects of science diffuse differently in different contexts. Take the diffusion of the Copernican theory throughout Europe during the early seventeenth century. While copies of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus were censored in Italy, elsewhere it found little suppression. In France, for example, most copies were available in Jesuit libraries.

The means of transmission of scientific knowledge varied greatly. Scientific societies, learned academies, field clubs, and circulating libraries diffused “ideas and instruments, texts and theories, individuals and inventions” from one place to another. Alongside these organizations there were peripatetic mathematical practitioners, public lecturers, merchants, itinerant clergyman, journalists, and a host of others who acted as conduits in the flow of knowledge.

But the transmission of scientific knowledge is never a straightforward process. Livingstone uses the case of the air pump, invented by Robert Boyle. In the 1660s various efforts were made throughout Europe to construct replicas of Boyle’s celebrated air pump. But the “air pump was in constant alteration: transmission meant transformation.” Because circulation required calibration, disputes arose. According to Livingstone, the knowledge acquired from the air pump experiments depended on “craft knowledge of the working of experimental devices.” “Its circulation beyond the confines of one venue is not simply the story of universal truths being manifest in particular settings.”

Scientific knowledge, for scientist and non-scientist alike, is often inextricably bound up with traveling reports from distant realms. Sciences like observational astronomy, geography, natural history, surveying, meteorology, hydrology, medicinal botany, and so on, depends on eyewitness accounts detached from the controlled environment of the laboratory. Travelers experience necessarily created problems for the ways of knowing for the new science. Who could be trusted? According to Livingstone, “finding out about distant things required discernment about people.” Traveling reports, moreover, were rarely composed spontaneously. They were usually the product of lengthy compositional revision. They were the outcome, writes Livingstone, of “editorial fashioning and rhetorical flourish…a composite product of stylistic convention, personal experience, and travelogue heritage.” The circulation of scientific knowledge, then, raised profound cultural and conceptual challenges.

Livingstone pursues in the next section the problem of verifying the credibility of scientific knowledge presented by local informants, maps, drawings, and photographs. Each of these “objective” formats, he argues, are constrained both by the local conditions of their making and by the community conventions that govern their interpretation.

The challenge of eyewitness testimony encouraged early scientists to develop certain techniques to circumvent these cognitive difficulties. Guaranteeing the trustworthiness of knowledge was supposed by “properly trained eyewitnesses.” This meant disciplining the senses through suitable instruments, instruction in technique, and data gathering. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a slew of texts were published intended to instruct travelers in the art of geographical observation. “Just what should be observed and how such observation should be taken were rehearsed in detail.” But acquiring trustworthy knowledge depended on more than technical know-how—it required moral fiber. “Trustworthiness and personal character,” writes Livingstone, “was all of a piece with trustworthiness in scientific reporting.” The mental, the moral, and the material of scientific traveler were thus merged. The circulation of knowledge, therefore, was an “inescapably social affair involving judgments about people.”

Maps, seemingly objective representations of reality and repositories of trust, were more than just typographic mapping of terrain. They charted magnetic deviation, atmospheric circulation, ocean currents, linguistic families and climate patterns, distribution of animal species, poverty and disease, mammal migration, and religious affiliation. But the idea that the map is a straightforward representation of reality is a deception. According to Livingstone, “every map is a controlled fiction.”  When Christopher Columbus produced a new world map he effectively dissolved the local geography of its natives. When James Cook named hundreds of Australian capes, bays, and isles after European naturalists, he at once effaced local designations and brought those spaces into European vernaculars. More examples are readily available, but suffice it to say, “the maps uses of projection and simplification render it a useful fiction.” The map is thus a cultural production.

In the 1800s, photography became yet another strategy for accurately depicting reality. Artistic renderings, just as eyewitness testimony, were quickly called into question and thus untrustworthy. As a consequence, the photograph was a much welcomed instrument, for it was not only empirical, simple, and precise, it also provided vicarious travel, ecstatic visual experience, accurate representation, and unvarnished truth. In reality, however, photographic evidence created as many problems as it solved. Photography is undoubtedly an “artistic craft.” In reproducing the world, travel photographs constructed an imagined world through the lens of the camera. There was much deliberate set up to give the impression of something more visually appealing. “Photographs, then, like paintings and maps, have always been the work of situated observers.”

In the final section of “Circulation,” Livingstone turns to examining the mechanism by which science standardized its findings. What looks like the universality of science turns out to have much to do with replicating, standardizing, or customizing of local procedure. Instruments, training, questionnaires, maps, and images are the techniques of trust that instills knowledge as dependable. All of these techniques help create the illusion of “placelessness,” a requirement to give “universal science” credibility and objectivity.

In conclusion Livingstone offers suggestions for further work, the biographical, or life geographical studies, of the mutual making of scientist and science. Most provocatively, Livingstone calls for a closer examination of rationality itself, “the customary conventions of practical reasoning” as adapted and employed in local settings. “Rationality,” he says, “is always situated rationality. And it is always embodied rationality.”

Science for Livingstone is not a transcendental entity; it is a human invention that necessarily has a history and geography. The implication of this emphasis on social processes erodes naively realistic beliefs about the progress of science. “Bringing science within the domain of geographical scrutiny seems disquieting. It disturbs settled assumptions about the kind of enterprise science is supposed to be.” It complicates the taken for granted division between science, society, and nature. “It [even] renders suspect the idea that there is some unified thing called ‘science.'” Science is not about culture; it is part of culture. For all the rhetoric that science is independent of class, politics, gender, race, religion, and much else besides, Livingstone’s Putting Science in its Place demonstrates how science indeed bears the marks of these very particularities.

Geographies of Scientific Knowledge: Site, Region, Circulation (Part 1)

Steven Shapin has called historians of science to take up the task of providing a more “contextulaized” historiography of the history of science. Since then there has been much progress in putting science in its historical context. In his well-written small book, Putting Science in its Place: Geographies of Scientific Knowledge (2003), David N. Livingstone sets out to evince scientific knowledge and practice as deeply embedded in specific times, places, and local cultures—science, in fact, is always “a view from somewhere.” Documented by an extensive bibliography, Livingstone’s Putting Science in its Place convenes much of the best recent research in history, geography, and social studies of science.

Livingstone - Putting Science in its PlaceLivingstone divides his book into three sections: “Site,” “Region,” and “Circulation.” In his introduction, “A Geography of Science?” Livingstone relates the inherent bias in studying the enterprise of science. “Science, we have long been told, is an enterprise untouched by local conditions. It is a universal undertaking, not a provincial practice.” Science is not to be touched, not to be reduced to the social, to its locality. Livingstone questions this bias. He argues that “space matters,” that place is central to the constitution of society. One’s life is greatly controlled by environment, “human life” has a “spatial dimension, and where an individual, a social group, a state, or a subcontinent is located in material space is therefore highly significant.”

But there are also “abstract spaces.” “We also occupy a variety of abstract spaces, and we infer in spatial ways to the intellectual, social, and cultural arenas through which we move.”

The “social” is another important, ever shifting and overlapping, space. The factory floor, the sports field, the dinner party, the dance floor, the office, the home are all sites that provide “repertories of meaning that facilitate communication.”

Space thus enables and constrains us; dictates what we can say and do; allows only a range of possible, permissible, and intelligible utterances and actions. This is Livingstone’s emphasis of “location and locution”: the positions we speak from are crucial to what can be spoken.

Space is thus significant to the scientific enterprise. In 1863, for example, the Southern Monthly Magazine of New Zealand proclaimed Darwinism as “demonstrating how a ‘weak and ill-furnished race’ inevitably had to ‘give way before one which is strong,'” thus justifying New Zealand imperialism. In the American South, on the other hand, Darwinism was opposed by racial politics because it “threatened traditional beliefs about the separate creation of the different races and the idea that they had been endowed by the Creator with different capacities for cultural and intellectual excellence.” As Livingstone puts it, Darwinism enjoyed remarkably different fortunes in different places, “in one place it supported racial ideology; in another it imperiled it.” Darwinism meant different things in Russia and Canada; in Belfast and Edinburgh; in clubs and church halls. “Scientific theory,” according to Livingstone, “evidently does not disperse evenly across the globe form its point of origin. As it moves it is modified; as it travels it is transformed…[thus] scientific theories [are] not stable; rather, [they] are mobile and varies from place to place.”

Space is thus not immune to the vicissitudes of international exchange. This is particularly important in how we imagine distant people and places, and how we choose to represent them to ourselves and to others. This is of immense moral and political significance, as was the case with Europe’s rendezvous with the New World, or the construction of the South Pacific or the “Orient” by Victorian imperialists. “What is striking about these representations,” Livingstone writes, “is the complicity of scientific endeavor in their propagation.” As such, science did not reveal “truth”; it only continued stereotypes.

Science is concerned with things that have spatial dimensions, with ideas and institutions, with theories and practice, with principles and performance. But who imagines this space? What are its boundaries? Who is allowed access? Can certain types of scientific inquiry be correlated with certain social classes, or with those of a particular religious persuasion, or with metropolitan or provincial cultures?  Has scientific work been used to sustain the ideology of particular groups and to promote their interests over those of others?

According to Livingstone, “What is known, how knowledge is obtained, and the ways warrant is secured are all intimately bound up with the venues of science.” Investigating the local, regional, and national features of science means that science is not to be thought of as some transcendent entity that bears no trace of the parochial or contingent. “We must work,” writes Livingstone, “with a less fixed conception of what science is.” What passes as science is contingent on time and place; it is persistently under negotiation. After all, science is a human enterprise: “it is not some preordained entity the fulfilling an a priori set of necessary and sufficient conditions for its existence; it is a human enterprise, situated in time and space.”

These are some of the geographical questions central to Putting Science in its Place. Livingstone is aware that this little book is not exhaustive in scope. His focus is rather on and around historical examples drawn from the sixteenth century to the early twentieth. Although brief and concisely written, each chapter discloses a considerable amount of information and erudition. In this post we will look at the content of chapter one, “Site.”

On Site

In the first chapter, “Site,” Livingstone surveys a spectrum of locations where scientific work is done—the laboratory; the cabinet, which evolves into the museum; the field; botanical and zoological gardens; the hospital; and the human body.

Scientific practice is undoubtedly influenced by spatial settings. Equipment regulates human behavior in one way or another. The scientific site is often constructed so as to restrain or promote certain interactions. It is also within these sites that students socialize with their respective scientific communities; here they learn the questions to be asked, the appropriate methods of tackling problems, expected codes of conduct, and interpretation. “Here decisions are settled about what passes the scientific knowledge, how it should be acquired, and the means by which claims are warranted.”

The most common scientific site is the laboratory. A long-standing tradition in the West was the idea that retiring from society was a precondition for securing knowledge that was of universal value. “Ironically, to acquire knowledge that was true everywhere, the seer had to go somewhere to find wisdom that bore the marks of nowhere.” This tradition originates from the monastic life of solitude and was central to the practice of science.

But during the emergence of English science in the mid-to late seventeenth century laboratories were erected in homes. This change was significant, because while solitude was still important, these “houses of experiment” instilled scientific knowledge as public. “In order to achieve the status of knowledge, claims had to be produced in the right place and had to be validated by the right public.” Where science was conducted was thus a crucial ingredient in establishing whether an assertion was warranted. But these “houses of experiment” were not public in today’s sense. They were only open to “the experimental public,” privileged gentlemen “whose presence was essential to the confirmation of empirical findings.” Women, children, laborers, and the like were not allowed entry.

Establishing experimental claims, however, was simply not just a matter of disclosing them; it was frequently necessary to dramatize. This meant that experimental display inhabited a space poised between conjuring tricks and scholarly authority, between theater in the academy. Serving at theater and microworld, manipulated, controlled, and reconstructed nature, the laboratory was an “emblematic space replete with cultural meaning,” functioning only in the “presence of the geographically privileged who were permitted to cross the threshold.”

Predating the laboratory were spaces of accumulation such as the museum and the archive, where specimens and samples were collected and organized according to the prevailing norms. These “cabinets of curiosities” served as an insignia of a civilized household. It was a social standing to have a collection of the “wonders of the world.” When these cabinets transformed into museums they were more than just collection sites; they were a synthetic space, a place for scholarly conversation. Thus while museums exhibited real world objects, they refashioned reality, through classification, location, and genealogy. In this sense they were more than the accumulation of global objects to gain knowledge; they were a form of global control: “by accumulating, reorganizing, and reproducing information on the remotest corners of the earth, the Victorian archive played its part in shaping worldwide geopolitical relations.”

The museum performed a variety of roles in the historical unfolding of scientific inquiry. “In the museum people learned how to look at the world, to value the past, and how to visualize relations between specimens.”

Yet no matter how extraordinary the exhibit, no matter numerous the specimens, no matter how categorized its contents, the museum was not the world itself. To view that required moving outside the confines of laboratories and collection cabinets and into the open spaces of the field. But the field, according to Livingstone, turns out to be anything but the obvious scientific site. It was often characterized by ambiguity. “The observations of the field worker were broken and fleeting; by contrast the bench-tied student of nature had time to spread out samples to collate and analyze them, and thereby to come to reliable conclusions.” The field was fragmentary, precarious, and unprofessional. The laboratory encouraged patient comparison, correlation, and contemplation. Indeed, “the rhetoric of adventure dominated the culture of field science: adventurousness conveyed its own authority. Laboratory opponents, by contrast, thought that high adventure and uncontrolled wilderness delivered nothing like the precision good science demanded.”

Between the archive and the field, the world of the museum and the world of nature, stands the garden. “Enclosed yet expansive, open yet delimited, natural yet managed, the garden occupies a place between the great outdoors and the cloistered cabinet.” Gardens “depended on its capacity to represent order over against chaos, cultivation in opposition to wilderness, art as opposed to nature.” They were an attempt to return to the Paradise of Eden, an escape from the postlapsarian world. In the wake of the European voyages of reconnaissance in the New World, the conception of the garden as a hollowed refuge from the world began to be supplemented by a vision of the garden as a “living encyclopedia.” But as well as being sites for accumulating botanical specimens, gardens also became maps of both social status and buying power. Indeed they were increasingly seen in political metaphors. Botanical gardens were agents of Empire. Insofar as zoological gardens were bound up with animal domestication, they were invariably implicated in colonial projects. Gardens, then, were multifarious spaces. They “hankered after the Garden of Eden; they sought to reproduce global biogeography; they exhibited social standing; they wielded biomedical power.”

Like the museum, the garden, and the zoo, the hospital stands somewhere between the worlds of science and public culture. In the beginning the hospital was feckless and friendless — it served in general as a correctional facility, for paupers and petty criminals. “The history of the modern hospital can be traced back to the monastic infirmary, almshouse for the hopeless, army barracks adapted to attend to tend the wounded in wartime, plague houses, and various other institutions that from time to time had to care for the sick.” Hospitals, in other words, was a place of more harm than good.

Hospitals were also moral spaces, manifesting the values of their surrounding cultures. According to Livingstone,  “medical prescription and moral orderliness” went “hand in hand” with hospital care.

The meaning of hospital space moved with social judgment as well as changing architecture. The “hospital,” writes Livingstone, “was a sermon in bricks and mortar on the medical benefits of moral discipline as fundamental to healing.” The idea that hospital interiors are readable cultural spaces is perhaps nowhere more closely disclosed then what were called insane or lunatic asylums. “Asylums have regularly been sites of surveillance dominated by the imperatives of supervision and control.” In the Middle Ages asylums were spaces of exorcism; in the seventeenth century they were used for reestablishing political order; and during the enlightenment they were used for disciplining “unreason.”

In the final section of chapter one Livingstone considers the body, human or otherwise, as a space for scientific knowledge. Rabbits used in toxicology work, rhesus monkeys for experimental surgery, rats in polio research, horses in investigations of emphysema, tests carried out on women in Puerto Rico using oral contraceptives in the 1950s, racial hygiene in Nazi Germany, are all examples of embodied scientific knowledge. “Given that bodies are resolutely located in space, there are grounds for suspecting that scientific knowledge is always positioned knowledge, rationality always situated rationally, inquiry always local inquiry” (my emphasis). Accordingly, “science displays rather than transcends human particularity—in terms of race, gender, class, and in all likelihood a host of other factors.” Whether science is practiced in a laboratory, a museum, a garden, a field station, a hospital or whatever, “these spaces are always occupied by embodied investigators.”

There are other spaces Livingstone considers. From cathedrals, ships, tents, royal courts, coffeehouses, lecture theaters, to salons, what all these spaces share is that they are made. “Space is therefore not dead, inert, and fixed; rather it is lively, shifting, fluid. Space is animated by events. It is always a production. And scientific space is no exception.”

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.”

Our Pervasive Stories about Science

Shapin - The Scientific RevolutionIn an oft quoted sentence, Steven Shapin opens his The Scientific Revolution (1996) with dramatic flourish: “There was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution, and this is a book about it.” He begins his introduction with a brief historical survey, citing the scholarly opinion of generations past. A familiar cast appears. Koyré had judged the scientific revolution as a “profound intellectual transformation” and a “dissolution of an older worldview.” Likewise, Buttefield had said that the scientific revolution “outshines everything since the rise of Christianity,” reducing the Renaissance and Reformation to the “rank of mere episodes.” A. Rupert Hall also claimed that it was “an a piori redefinition of the object of philosophical and scientific inquiry.” These scholars would go on to influence and shape historical scholarship of the next generation. There was something truly “revolutionary,” “cataclysmic,” and “coherent” that occurred in seventeenth-century Europe, something that “irrevocably changed what people knew about the natural world and how they secured proper knowledge of that world.”

But his introduction Shapin also lists reasons why today’s historians of science, himself included, are reluctant to embrace such pronouncements. First, historians are no longer satisfied with treating ideas as if they were autonomous, disembodied, free-floating conceptions, and as a result have insisted on the importance of cultural and social context. Second, and related to the first, ideas ought to be understand in the context of human practices. And finally, it follows that historians now look more closely into the “who” of the scientific revolution, those who wrought such changes.

Claiming to take full account of recent scholarship about the period of the scientific revolution, he posits that science is a “historically situated and social activity and that it is to be understood in relation to the contexts in which it occurs.” He does not consider that there is “anything like an ‘essence’ of seventeenth-century science or indeed of seventeenth-century reforms in science.” He observes that important as developments in mathematical physics were in the seventeenth century, this does not provide a model adequate for explaining developments in every other area of science. For these reasons he rejects the possibility of providing a “single coherent story that could possibly capture all the aspects of science or its changes.”

In short, the historiographic notion of the scientific revolution is mistaken. The development of the modern scientific worldview was a complex process contested by many seventeenth-century practitioners (note that this is an altogether distinct argument than what I. B. Cohen and D. Lindberg have put forward): experimentalism was both advocated and rejected; mathematical methods were both celebrated and treated with doubt; mechanical conceptions of nature were seen both a defining proper science and as limited in their intelligibility and application; and the role of experience in making scientific knowledge was treated in radically different ways.

But like his predecessors, Shapin losses some nerve, claiming that his aim is not a full-scale rejection of the scientific revolution. For starters, many key figures in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw themselves as “modern.” Secondly, and quite simple, historians—like most of people—want to find meaning in history, we “want to know how we got from there to here.” The key, according to Shapin, is recognizing that “intellectual change occurred while at the same time recognizing that change is not necessarily linear or self-evident progress toward our modern way of thinking.” Shapin thus settles for the following understanding of the scientific revolution: “We can say that the seventeenth century witnessed some self-conscious and large-scale attempts to change belief, and ways of securing belief, about the natural world. And a book about the Scientific Revolution can legitimately tell a story about those attempts, whether or not they succeeded, whether or not they were contested in the local culture, whether or not they were wholly coherent.”

Shapin divides his book into three substantive chapters: “What Was Known?” “How Was It Known?” and “What Was the Knowledge For?” In “What Was Known?” Shapin gives an account of some of the major scientific advances , from Galileo to Newton, from cosmology to microscopy, from the mechanical philosophy to the mathematization of nature. It was Copernicus and Galileo who established a new cosmology. Boyle and Descartes popularized the new mechanical philosophy. And Kepler and Newton ushered in a mathematical framework for natural philosophy.

But Shapin also wants to divulge the complexity in what was known. Galileo’s discovery of sunspots, along with a body of other observations and theorizing, “profoundly questioned a fundamental Aristotelian distinction between the physics of the heavens and that of the earth.” According to that tradition, the sun, stars, and planets obeyed different physical principles than did those objects on earth. In their domains there was no change and no imperfection. Galileo was not simply documenting observational data from his telescope, he was undermining the “traditionally accepted belief that the sun was immaculately and immutably perfect.” Thus when some (careless) historians claim that Copernicanism demoted humans from their egocentric center, what heliocentrism actually did was wrest the immutable to the mutable, to an earthly existence which was regarded as miserable and corrupt.

Aristotelian physics also came into question. Aristotle and his followers believed that natural motion had a developmental character. “Bodies naturally moved so as to fulfill their natures, to transform the potential into the actual, to move toward where it was naturally for them to be.” In some sense, Aristotelian physics was modeled on biology and employed explanatory categories similar to those used to comprehend living things. Thus with Copernicus and Galileo the teleological and animistic features of the traditional physics of motion were rejected.

The framework that modern natural philosophers preferred was one that explicitly modeled nature on the characteristics of a machine. Descartes, for instance, announced that “there is no difference between the machines built by artisans in the diverse bodies that nature alone composes.” And of all mechanical constructions whose characteristics might serve as a model for the natural world it was a clock more than any other that appealed to many early modern natural philosophers. Kepler, for instance, described his aim as the attempt to “show that the machine of the universe is not similar to a divine animated being, but similar to a clock.” Boyle likewise wrote that the natural world was “as it were, a great piece of clockwork.” Thus Boyle, Kepler, Descartes and other mechanical philosophers recommended the clock metaphor as a philosophically legitimate way of understanding how the natural world was put together and how it functioned. But this mechanical account of nature was anything but atheistic. In fact, mechanical philosophy was used to defend monotheism, and was explicitly contrasted with the anthropomorphism and animism, or occultism, of much traditional natural philosophy.

The mathematization of reality was just as a complex process has its mechanization. Early modern natural philosophers turned to Pythagoras and especially Plato to legitimate a mathematical treatment of the world, quoting Plato’s dictum that “the world was God’s epistle written to mankind” and that “it was written in mathematical letters.” Thus Shapin concludes in the first chapter that there can be no “facile generalizations” about Copernicanism, mechanical philosophy, or the mathematization of nature.

In “How Was It Known?” Shapin deals with experience, experiment, and authentication. Among the topics covered are Bacon’s advocacy of a new method, Boyle’s pump experiments, observational methods, development of experimentalism, and the formation of the Royal Society. Shapin argues that the seventeenth century’s supposed emphasis on experience and observation over authority was not as clear-cut as banal versions of the scientific revolution have always insisted. Modernist rhetoric embracing a totally new and wholly rejecting the past does not adequately describe historical reality. The very identity and practice of early modern astronomy, for example, depended on observational data compiled by the ancients. Copernicus himself, and many of his followers, liked to argue that heliocentrism was in fact an ancient view, corrupted over the centuries, and only renewed or restored in modern times. Newton likewise believed that natural philosophy had been corrupted over generations, and that his life work would restore it to its original, pristine quality.

But what was said to be overwhelmingly wrong with existing natural philosophical traditions was its dependence on textual authority. “The proper object of natural philosophical examination,” Shapin writes, “was not the traditionally valued books of human authors but the Book of Nature.”

This is the root idea of modern empiricism, the view that proper knowledge of nature is derived from direct sense experience. But as Shapin is careful to note, both the practice of observation and the credibility of observation reports in the early modern period could be intensely problematic. “It is important to understand how precarious experience might be and how much work was required to constitute it as reliable.” Christian theology, for example, proclaimed that the senses of human beings following the Fall were utterly corrupt, and that reliable knowledge could not be trusted by such debased sources.

One way of resolving this problem has already been mentioned: one was to get ahead by going back, progress through restoration. Newton, for example saw his task as recovering the lost wisdom of the ancients, and he undertook painstaking philological studies to support this enterprise.

What kind of experience was to be sought? How was it reliably attained? And how was one to infer from experience to general principles about the natural order? As Shapin points out, “what counted in one practice as reliably constituted experience, and reliable inference, was commonly identified by another as insecure or unphilosophical.” Indisputable and universal conclusions require indisputable and universal premises. The testifying person might be lying or deluded; the instruments used might distort rather than merely observe the natural order of things; the events reported might be not ordinary but anomalous.

According to Shapin, many seventeenth-century practitioners developed a new and quite different approach to experience. Bacon, for example, argued that the condition for a proper natural philosophy was its foundation in a laboriously compiled factual register of natural history — a catalog, compilation, a collection of all the effects one observed in nature. Yet the emblematic feature of modern natural philosophical practice was that it relied for its empirical content not just on naturally available experience but also on experiments artificially and purposefully contrived to produce phenomenon that might not be observed in the normal course of nature.

This brings us to Shapin’s discussion of “controlling experience.” Bacon judged the ills of contemporary natural philosophy, and then proffered a set of rules for “careful and severe” examination. One rule was collection, thus justifying the programmatic “cabinets curiosities” then fashionable in gentlemanly circles throughout Europe. But perhaps most important rule, for Bacon and others, was proper method. Method was what made knowledge about the natural world possible. Despite the stress on direct sensory experience, Bacon argued that uninstructed senses were apt to deceive and that the senses needed to be methodically disciplined if they were to yield proper knowledge. Thus one can only arrive at proper knowledge through a disciplined or instructed mind. What is meant by “discipline” and “instructed”? It depended on the natural philosopher you asked. This is, according to Shapin, the fragmented knowledge-making legacies of the seventeenth century.

In the third and final chapter, “What Was the Knowledge For?” Shapin treats the cultural uses of natural knowledge. In an extended discussion of natural knowledge and state power, he considers Bacon’s views on the ways that natural philosophy could increase such power, which provides the context for his examination of the establishment of the Royal Society and the Académie des Sciences. He demonstrates the ways in which natural knowledge was used to reinforce religious belief and theology. He concludes by asserting that this contextualized understanding of early modern science “as the contingent, diverse, and at times deeply problematic product of interested, morally concerned, historically situated people” seems paradoxical, because it was the interests of such people that led to the modern separation between science and religion and between science and society.

In the end, what remains of the scientific revolution? According to Shapin, it was “a diverse array of cultural practices aimed at understanding, explaining, and controlling the natural world, each with different characteristics and each experiencing different modes of change.” Consequently, nothing remains here of the idea the Scientific Revolution. Shapin’s Scientific Revolution is not a critique of science. Rather, it is a critique of “pervasive stories we tend to be told about science.”

Stephen Gaukroger, H. Floris Cohen, and the Scientific Revolution (Part Two)

Of all the prominent historians responding to Gaukroger’s essay in Historically Speaking (April, 2013), H. Floris Cohen’s is the most interesting.

Cohen, a professor of comparative history of science and chairman of the Descartes Centre for the History and Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, adheres to the idea, first made popular by the influential Cambridge historian Herbert Butterfield, that the scientific revolution of the early modern period “outshines everything since the rise of Christianity and reduces the Renaissance and Reformation to the rank of mere episodes, mere internal displacements, within the system of medieval Christendom.”

According to Cohen, historians of science hold a  “secret treasure,” a key to understanding the rise of the west in world history. Without this “secret treasure” general historians, sociologists, economists, and virtually all other students of human thought and activity, can never make sense of the rise of western Europe to world-wide cultural domination.

Cohen- The Scientific RevolutionBut before writing his own over-arching interpretation of the scientific revolution, Cohen decided that it was necessary to consider what has already been said about it. Cohen’s The Scientific Revolution: A Historiographical Inquiry, first published in 1994, is his attempt at accounting the historiographical history of the scientific revolution from the late eighteenth century to the 1990s.

According to Cohen, the scientific revolution is by no means a term of convenience for historians. No, for Cohen the scientific revolution was a real historical event. Indeed, he laments the fact that the way a number of historians of science have treated the subject now threatens to undermine it: “it is at least conceivable,” Cohen writes, “that the concept of the Scientific Revolution may evaporate entirely.” If this were to happen it would be, Cohen believes, “a major intellectual disaster,” and part of his aim in writing the book was to restore the concept to its previous “robust health.”

In dealing with the historiographical thesis that the history of science is best understood as a continuity with no revolutionary breaks, for example, Cohen refers to Butterfield’s notion of “relative discontinuity.” It is possible to accept the continuous development of science through the ages while still acknowledging that there are periods of crucial transition.

Cohen has put a career’s worth of thought into this framework for interpreting the scientific revolution. A Chinese translation of The Scientific Revolution appeared in 2012 with an appended postscript, surveying fourteen books on the scientific revolution that have appeared since (Steven Shapin’s The Scientific Revolution [1996]; John Henry’s The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science [1997]; Rienk Vermij’s De wetenschappelike revolutie [1999]; James R. Jacob’s The Scientific Revolution: Aspirations and Achievements, 1500-1700 [1999]; Michel Blay’s La naissance de la science classique au  XVII e  siècle [1999]; Paolo Rossi’s The Birth of Modern Science [2000]; Peter Dear’s Revolutionizing the Sciences: European Knowledge and Its Ambitions, 1500-1700 [2001]; Wilbur Applebaum’s Encyclopedia of the Scientific Revolution from Copernicus to Newton [2000] and his The Scientific Revolution and the Foundations of Modern Science [2005]; Marcus Hellyer’s The Scientific Revolution: The Essential Readings [2003]; Margaret J. Osler’s Reconfiguring the World: Nature, God, and Human Understanding from the Middle Ages to Early Modern Europe [2010]; and finally Lawrence M. Principe’s The Scientific Revolution: A Very Short Introduction [2011]).

Cohen - How Modern Science Came Into the WorldIn this postscript Cohen also explains how he first gained new insights that helped him “reconceptualize” the scientific revolution, leading him to his most recent work, How Modern Science Came Into the World (2010). In this work Cohen utilizes his skills as a comparative historian to identify six transformations that, taken together, answers the perennial questions: How did modern science begin? Why did it begin in Europe? How was its development in the seventeenth century able to be sustained? According to Cohen, the transformations began with separate advents of “realist-mathematical” science and “kinetic-corpuscularian” natural philosophy, culminating in the Newtonian synthesis.

What Cohen attempts to account for is not simply the unique circumstances that brought about the scientific revolution, but why an event sufficiently like the scientific revolution did not happen in other cultures that seem to him to have been likely candidates: Han and then Sung China, Medieval Islam, high Medieval Europe, and Renaissance Europe.

Cohen’s general thesis is that the potential for the scientific revolution existed in Greek antiquity but was not realized until the seventeenth century when two traditions came together with a third to produce what we call modern science. Two traditions in classical antiquity existed side by side but did not interact. The first tradition reflects the speculative natural philosophy of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and the Epicurean skepticism. The second was based in “mixed and pure mathematics,” such as mechanics, astronomy, and conic sections. This tradition consisted of the mathematical studies of nature that developed slightly later within the Hellenistic realm: Euclid’s geometry, Archimedes’ statics, Hipparchus’s and Ptolemy’s astronomy. Cohen knits these complex traditions into two board categories: “Athens” and the latter “Alexandria,” after their place of origin and cultural locus.

Cohen weaves a story of these two traditions, recounting the failures of Athens, Alexandria, early medieval China, early medieval Islam, and medieval and Renaissance Europe to realize the potential scientific revolution latent in these intellectual traditions. Each cultural transplantation produced an initial flourishing of intellectual activity and innovation that was slowly replaced by a reversion to traditional authorities. This he labels the “boom-bust” pattern, first coined in Joseph Ben-David’s The Scientist’s Role in Society: A Comparative Study (1971).

But in a series of cultural transformations occurring in sixteenth-and seventeenth-century Europe, a way was finally paved for the proper scientific revolution. The scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, Cohen contends, is the result of the successful merging of the two traditions. It also required the rise of a new, peculiarly European, “fact-finding experimentalism” whose origins lie in exploration, mining, and commerce. As it was more “interventionist,” and “oriented toward control and domination,” Cohen terms this intellectual trend “coercive empiricism.” Together these produced the type of mathematical-empirical “nature knowledge” that we recognize today as modern science.

This truncated description of Cohen’s work cannot do justice to his subtle comparative analysis and complexly layered inquiry dispersed throughout his work. His massive text—much like Gaukroger’s—must be read slowly, patiently and sympathetically, to fully appreciate the narrative he constructs. Be that as it may, I briefly turn to some difficulties with Cohen’s narrative, his comments to Gaukroger’s essay, and Gaukroger’s reply in turn.

Gaukroger’s work certainly handles more detail than even Cohen does, including more on contextual issues in intellectual history. They also display an unremitting brilliance of conceptual analysis, unfolding a profound explanatory narrative about the shifting tenor and ultimate fate of holistic natural philosophy and the modes of emergence of more narrow mathematicised, experimental or natural historical fields of natural inquiry. But unlike Cohen, Gaukroger does not undertake the examination of seventeenth century natural philosophy and sciences in structured comparison to the regimes of natural knowledge of classical Athens, Hellenistic Alexandria, early medieval China, early medieval Islam, and medieval and Renaissance Europe.

Huff - The Rise of Early Modern ScienceIn that sense Cohen’s work is better compared to Toby Huff’s The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West (1993) or his more recent Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution: A Global Perspective (2011). Both of Huff’s books are informed by neo-Weberian comparative macro-history and sociology. Cohen, in contrast, eschews such explicit conceptual framing from, or direct application of social science, especially from any species of micro-sociology of science dynamics, despite the rich heuristic services they can provide. However, Cohen makes excellent use of a controlled, historically sensitive application of Weber’s comparative sociology of religion (rather than the more narrow thesis on the rise of capitalism and the spirit of Protestantism). He does this in dealing with differences in the goals of nature-knowledge traditions and the values informing them in Islamic, Chinese and European civilization. In this regard Cohen’s work derives from the style and methods of the sort of large scale European social history in which he was trained and which he rightly admires—a history that deals with comparative revolutions, the broad history of European capitalism or the formation of states and the state system.

But Cohen demonstrates that he is a supremely equipped historian of science. Bringing these two disciplines together, Cohen stands apart from his competitors in his effort to both broadly and thickly narrate the course of the scientific revolution. Hence, in the end, he is more concerned than either Gaukroger or Huff with a tight, definitive explanation of the process of change in European structures of nature–knowledge between 1550 and 1750.

But perhaps this is also his greatest apparent pitfall. Some critics have argued that Cohen’s narrative is teleological—the suspicion that the original Athens and Alexandria somehow contained in potential the essence of later modern science, awaiting only suitable socio-cognitive conditions in which to be actualized through unfolding of a foreordained process.

The assumption that modern science lay in potential within Greek thought, waiting for the proper conditions to unfurl, Gaukorger argues in his reply, “simply does not make for good historiography.” The reduction of the complex—and extremely contingent—way in which the concept of universal gravitation was formed in the late seventeenth century to a “derivation” from Kepler and Galileo is one particular example of its futility. A more general example is Cohen’s analyses of other cultures’ failure to produce or maintain a “realist-mathematical science.”

Although Cohen underscores the contingency that ultimately resulted in Newton’s synthesis, he is not advancing a historicist argument. “He does not seek to understand what scholars in the ancient world, medieval China, medieval Islam, or medieval Europe were trying to do when they investigated the natural world using the tools they had developed. Instead, he treats science as perennial project aimed at articulating a mathematical-physical theory of the natural world.” Consequently, Cohen’s book is structured around a genealogical narrative that identifies the key characteristics of modern science and searches back in time to find their immature antecedents.

Each of his cultures—Athens, Alexandria, medieval China, medieval Islam, and medieval Europe—perhaps tried but ultimately failed to cultivate the seeds of science. Thus it is legitimate to ask: To what extent were these different cultures interested in the same intellectual activity that ultimately developed in the seventeenth century? “Can we assume,” Gaukroger asks, “that when an ancient Greek observed the stars, a Muslim scholar mapped the constellations, a Chinese scholar recorded sun spots, and a medieval European scholar witnessed a comet they were all engaged in a similar project to understand that natural world?” “To what extent,” he goes on, “were scholars in the seventeenth century merely reviving or extending the intellectual traditions they inherited?” In other words, how and why did the sets of questions, the resources used to answer those questions, and the criteria by which the answers were assessed change in each period and culture?

Cohen ultimately concludes that what served to legitimate the new modes of investigating nature rested not an actual, practical accomplishments, but in a leap of faith in the power of a newly emerging science, which became embodied in what he terms “the Baconian ideology.” By “faith” Cohen means a “confidence in what practitioners of the new science could do to improve human destiny” and—and this is where he is in agreement with Gaukroger—”as a Christian conviction that in doing so they were fulfilling a divine calling.”

Gaukroger concludes that he is not a “continuist.” The key for him is not to uncover some underlying story but to bring together two different sets of issues— the emergence of a scientific culture in the development of a viable physical theory— and explore how they interact. This exploration led him to develop an account of the “persona of the natural philosopher,” something that has no place in the kind of linear account that Cohen offers. In his account changes in the self-image of the natural philosopher in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are crucial. Indeed, Guakroger argues that his reading is more discontinuous than that offered by Cohen. He rejects Cohen’s account because it “implies a kind of teleology that strikes one as question begging: as if everyone, from antiquity onward, were ultimately aiming at the same thing.”

Gaukroger agrees that there is a need for big history but “you can’t do it without having done a significant amount of detailed micro-history; both need to be combined in a work.” Ultimately, however, “if you don’t think explicitly about big history, you are condemned to making all kinds of assumptions that may be unfruitful, counterproductive, or just plain ignorant.”

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.