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The Historical and Sociological Leviathan December 12, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Of all the works we’ll look at by Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (LATAP) is the only one that is a book, and the only one that is co-authored.  It was published in 1985 with Steven Shapin, and is by far the most famous work in Schaffer’s oeuvre.

What has become clear to me from reading Schaffer’s other work around the time of LATAP is just how important it is to read the book as the two-authored work that it is.  It clearly served two different projects in two different ways: Schaffer’s account of the historical development of natural philosophy, and Shapin’s project to explore the social nature of science.  As such, it can be read either as a key sociological case study, or as a reinterpretation of a landmark moment in the history of science.

The majority of citations of the book (I wager) have used it as case study.  Its resoundingly bold last line—“Hobbes was right”—declared that scientific knowledge was something created by people inhabiting a world where knowledge had authority because it was proclaimed by people with authority.  Thomas Hobbes’ insights into the nature of modern scientific knowledge, it turned out, had consequences even in our own time.  The book’s last paragraphs argued that, at long last, the socially constructed nature of scientific knowledge had come under scrutiny.  We were at the end of an era established over three centuries before.  As I pointed out way back when I first started this blog, this was a weird argument to make.  Now I can more fully articulate why.

The claim presumed extreme continuities between 17th-century experimental natural philosophy and 20th-century scientific practices, as well as their role in society. The claim could only have been Shapin’s. Schaffer’s 1983 piece on natural philosophy and spectacle was clear in its assertion that intervening events had led to the intellectual and institutional arrangement of natural philosophy so that its claims were developed and deployed in socially responsible ways.  Even if the constructed nature of knowledge was not acknowledged as such, the social consequences of this construction were detected and dealt with.

Schaffer’s argument dealt with one late-18th century problem—natural philosophical spectacles and the dangers to public order they presented—but the institutional apparatuses created then have obviously become more widespread, more diverse in their function, and far more sophisticated since.  Now, certainly it is true that these apparatuses have not always been successful in their aims.  Nevertheless, anyone following the trend of Schaffer’s work could not have helped but pause at this sudden leap from the 17th to the 20th century at the end of the book that didn’t at least acknowledge the events of the intervening period, which protected experimental knowledge from the weaknesses that Hobbes pointed out.

(Apparently some version of this argument has been made by others, because Shapin starts off his new book, The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation, by admitting straightaway that the leap—replicated in 1994’s A Social History of Truth—was ahistorical.  The Scientific Life, at which we will look presently, is geared around a further exploration of the “Way We Live Now”.)

Any way you slice it, LATAP is a fantastic and important book, but its historiographical significance ought to be seen as breaking down along the lines of Schaffer’s and Shapin’s projects.  Was it a methodological model for the analysis of knowledge-producing activities across times and places, or did its analytical utility diminish the further one got from the 17th-century Royal Society?  The book began “Our subject is experiment”.  But should it have begun “Our subject is the legitimacy and uses of experimental natural philosophy in Restoration England”?

The tension between Schaffer’s and Shapin’s projects ought to have been brought to the fore, but wasn’t.  Looking at a broader professional context, this is understandable.  Shapin’s and Schaffer’s projects had common cause in defending their legitimacy  against a more classical historiography that could not see experimental practice as anything but progressive—it was, after all, at the foundations of modern science.  The idea that Hobbes’ critique of it could have any legitimacy was rather provocative.

Careful readers of the book would note that Shapin and Schaffer never suggested that the rise of experimental philosophy wasn’t progressive.  But to see this it was crucial to understand their historical argument that ideas about what kinds of knowledge claims could be made, and what manner in which those claims were presented, had to shift before experimental practice could indeed become the progressive thing that it became.

Twenty-three years later, it is safer to examine missed opportunities resulting from the failure to resolve the tensions between their projects.  In the end, I would argue, Schaffer’s powerful historiographical project has not been nearly as influential as Shapin’s efforts to depict the social circumstances under which claims are legitimized.  Notably:

I think Shapin’s project and the projects of those who have made use of Shapin’s work are by no means necessarily opposed to Schaffer’s goals.  Still, Shapin’s epistemic impulse and Schaffer’s historiographical impulse tend to proceed toward different styles of historical presentation.  Where Schaffer’s tendency is to say something about certain practices in a certain time and place; Shapin’s tendency is to say something about knowledge-building in general.  My concern is that we’ve failed to pursue interesting questions about both specific and epistemic historical changes in the content of human knowledge, and also that we’ve failed to consolidate more than a few gains by retaining facts pertinent to a history of science as a history of social structures that produce a string of fact claims, rather than as a history of developing arguments sometimes occurring between epistemologically distinct communities.


1. Michael Dennis - December 21, 2008

I would submit a much simpler reading of the final line, “Hobbes was right.” Simply put, one cannot have more than a single source of authority for a polity. That was Hobbes’ most fundamental point.

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