Gentle Boyle

Keith Thomas

  • A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in 17th-Century England by Steven Shapin
    Chicago, 483 pp, £23.95, June 1994, ISBN 0 226 75018 3

Most of what we know and think is secondhand. ‘Almost all the opinions we have are taken by authority and upon credit,’ wrote Montaigne, in an age when the sum of human knowledge was a great deal less than it has since become. Nowadays, we cannot begin to verify the vast structure of accepted scientific doctrine for ourselves, but have to take it on trust. Even researchers conducting laboratory experiments at the scientific coalface are heavily reliant on the say-so of others. If they are to achieve anything, they must assume that the materials with which they work are what they purport to be, that their instruments are reliable, that the tables to which they refer have been accurately printed, that accounts of previous experiments are not fabrications and that their laboratory technicians are not practical jokers. Of course, it is possible to test all these things. But not only would such checks consume an inordinate amount of time: they would be impossible to conduct without further dependence on the testimony of others. As C.A.J. Coady recently showed in his Testimony: A Philosophical Study,[*] epistemic individualism, the idea that we should doubt everything except what we have established single-handedly for ourselves, is an absurdity.

Yet it was on that very absurdity that the new science of the 17th century claimed to be based. The founders of the Royal Society chose as their motto the tag Nullius in verba (‘On no man’s word’). Nothing, they said, should be taken on trust, for it was misplaced deference to the authority of Aristotle, Galen and the other philosophers of Antiquity which had led to centuries of error. Instead, the new experimental philosophers should rely only on their own reason and experience. Sir Thomas Browne declared that ‘a powerfull enemy unto knowledge’ was ‘confident adherence unto any Authority, or resignation of our judgments upon the testimony of any Age or Author whatsoever’; and Robert Boyle ruled that it was ‘improper’ to ‘urge and rely on Testimonys for matters whose Truth or Falshood may be proved by manifest Reason or easy Experiment’.

As Steven Shapin observes in his subtle and learned book, we should get a very misleading impression of the scientific practice of 17th-century England if we were to take this individualistic rhetoric literally. The truth was that the experimental philosophers of the time were just as dependent on the testimony of others as their predecessors had been. If they really had believed nothing save what they had seen or worked out for themselves, they could not have functioned as social beings, let alone have developed a new view of the world. For without the testimony of others, they could not have known who they were, who their parents were or how to cope with the practical problems of daily living. As John Locke observed, total scepticism would have been incompatible with physical survival: ‘He that, in the ordinary affairs of life, would admit of nothing but direct plain demonstration, would be sure of nothing in this world, but of perishing quickly. The wholesomeness of his meat or drink would not give him reason to venture on it: and I would fain know what it is he could do upon such grounds as are capable of no doubt, no objection.’

Even the most sceptical investigator had, therefore, to accept that he would have to depend heavily on the testimony of other people. The key problem thus became that of how to know when such testimony could be trusted. Shapin, who is an American sociologist-cum-historian of science, gives an excellent account of the answers which 17th-century natural philosophers tacitly or explicitly gave to this pressing epistemological problem. In summary, they said that one could accept testimony which was plausible; multiple; consistent; immediate; from a knowledgeable source; given in such a way as to inspire confidence; or from a source of acknowledged integrity and disinterestedness.

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[*] Reviewed by M.F. Burnyeat, LRB, 4 November 1993.