Steven Shapin

Scientific Epistemology as Moral Narrative

The latest hierology is hitting the big screen in November, director James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything.  Based on the trailer, the film sets out to tell the “love story” between world-renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking and his (first) wife, Jane Wilde. Nevermind that Wilde and Hawking divorced in 1995, after years of what she has called absolute “misery” (but which had little to do with his motor neuron disease ). The same year they were divorced, moreover, Hawking married one of his nurses, Elaine Mason, whom he also later divorced in 2006.

Upon watching the trailer, however, one of course only sees Hawking’s nobler traits. At least that is how the narrative unfolds. This reminds me of George Levine’s fascinating book, Dying to Know: Scientific Epistemology and Narrative in Victorian England (2002). In this book Levine examines the narratives underlying Victorian scientific epistemology, which he locates in themes of self-sacrifice, self-denial, self-effacement, self-abnegation—in other words, in dying to self. “There is something in our culture,” he writes,” that drives it to find things out, even at the risk of life.” This is the central metaphor underlying Western culture’s quest for truth as well as the underlying narrative of scientific epistemology. The narrative of renunciation is found, for example, in Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes; in the dying-to-know narrative of Thomas Carlyle, which he seems to have derived from Goethe and a “rigid Calvinism”; in John Stuart Mill, Charles Darwin, John Tyndall, Thomas Henry Huxley, Anthony Trollope, and Francis Galton, among others; and finally in the autobiographical texts of Mary Somerville, Harriet Martineau, and Beatrice Webb.

Levine - Dying to KnowThis “new” narrative of science was also the “new” narrative of morality. Levine argues that the narrative of scientific epistemology had ethical underpinnings, which are still present in discussions today: the notion that to gain reliable knowledge, observers must die as individuals. The scientist must repress his or her desires, emotions, and “everything merely personal, contingent, historical, [and] material that might get in the way of acquiring knowledge.” Paradoxically, then, “all who rightly touch philosophy, study nothing else than to die, and to be dead.”

“The model for scientific investigation,” Levine writes, “is heroic, self-humiliation; the seeker of natural knowledge puts aside worldly things, the idols of theater, cave, and marketplace, and prepares to submit to the blows of reality for the sake of a pilgrimage to the promised land of pure knowledge, human enrichment, and material progress.” In short, universal, valid, and objective knowledge required a kind of pilgrimage from “humanness.”

This narrative of pursuing knowledge, a secular pilgrim’s progress, however, cannot be fully trusted. Levine cites philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s argument that the narrative of repudiation is impossible, for the language we use is part and parcel of the same intellectual inheritance we are trying to repudiate! In other words, these narratives were often self-serving and disingenuous. Nevertheless, what emerged from writers such as Bacon and Descartes, Herschel and Whewell, and from Huxley, Tyndall and the scientific naturalists, is a narrative of scientific epistemology, a kind of “heroic epistemology.”

The Victorian narrative of scientific epistemology, much like the one we see in the trailer on Hawking, implies moral rigor: impartiality, patience, self-denial, the rejection of authority for experience, a strong intellectual independence, a willingness to face the facts, no matter how detrimental to tradition—in short, the total surrender of self to the thing being studied. Levine demonstrates that the story of dying-to-know has become the dominant story in our times and that the propagation of that story allows science to displace religion as the ultimate authority for all knowledge.

But in an ironic twist, as Steven Shapin has shown in various works, but which Levine only hints at, the narrative of scientific epistemology is undeniably intertwined with the religious—and particularly the Christian—ideal of self-renunciation: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9.23).

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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.”

Images of the Man of Science

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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.