Post-Scepticism

Richard Tuck

  • Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle and the Experimental Life by Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer
    Princeton, 475 pp, £40.00, February 1986, ISBN 0 691 08393 2

‘Scientists’ in our culture are (in many disciplines) people who perform ‘experiments’ in ‘laboratories’ and ‘testify’ about them to a wider community of like-minded people who then try to draw conclusions from the ‘facts’ put before them. The subject of this entertaining and important study is in effect the emergence of this practice and the removal of quotation-marks from these hitherto contentious or puzzling terms. Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer are historians of ‘science’ who were led by their discontent with the hegemony of experimentation to study the controversy between Robert Boyle, patron saint or founding shaman of the experimental method, and his most profound and systematic opponent Thomas Hobbes: a controversy which began in 1661 with the publication of Hobbes’s Dialogus physicus de natura aeris and which continued in a variety of forms into the 1670s. Leviathan and the Air-Pump is the result of that study, and it includes as an appendix an almost complete translation (by Schaffer) of the Dialogus physicus.

The air-pump in the book’s title was Boyle’s proudest example of experimentation. It was a glass globe which could be evacuated of air by means of a piston, and into which experimental apparatus (such as the Torricellian column of mercury, or barometer) could be inserted. On one occasion a live pigeon was placed in the globe and the assembled philosophers watched it suffocate. As Shapin and Schaffer stress, air-pumps were ‘big science’, being expensive objects which were difficult to make and were thinly distributed among the European philosophical community. It is no accident that Boyle’s father had been the richest man in the British Isles before the Irish Rebellion of 1641, and the family was still immensely wealthy after the Restoration. With a characteristically sardonic touch, Hobbes alluded to the ‘mechanical’ character of Boyle’s experimental labours: ‘not every one that brings from beyond seas a new gin, or other jaunty device, is therefore a philosopher. For if you reckon that way, not only apothecaries and gardeners, but many other sorts of workmen, will put in for, and get the prize.’ (Boyle’s supporter John Wallis retaliated by openly sneering at Hobbes’s plebeian-sounding surname.)

Shapin and Schaffer were quickly led to realise that much wider issues were at stake in the controversy than merely the status of experiment. ‘Testifying’ about experiments to a community of ‘scientists’ raises the question of who constitutes that community and what witnessing experiments consists in. As they point out, the very term ‘laboratory’ originally had overtones of hermeticist secrecy, whereas it was a key feature of Boyle’s experimental programme that his laboratory and those of his friends in the early Royal Society should be open to a public. But they were not open to the public, a point Hobbes made much of: access to the experiments was still controlled by their ‘master’, as Hobbes described him. Questions of political control were thus directly raised by the use of experiments to authorise scientific theories: for experiments were the preserve of a self-appointed group of professionals whose claim to authority was no better than those of the other groups which Hobbes devoted his life to attacking – notably the clergy of an established church.

You are not logged in