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

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.

The trouble was that all but the last of these criteria were highly contestable. Plausible testimony might be wrong, because the truth could be surprising. Multiple testimony could be fallible, because widely-held opinions were often false. Consistent testimony could be merely the symptom of a carefully prepared falsehood, truth often being a good deal messier. Immediate testimony could mislead, for it might take time before the truth could be sorted out. Knowledgeable testimony might merely reflect institutional or professional bias. Confidently-delivered testimony could be the hallmark of the trickster; evidence that was diffidently given or haltingly expressed might well be more reliable. Only the integrity and disinterestedness of the witness were universally accepted as strong presumptions in favour of the testimony offered. One had, therefore, to acquire a knowledge of persons before one could achieve a knowledge of things.

What, then, made some persons more credible than others? According to Shapin, the criterion was essentially social. Buttressing his argument with an extensive survey of Early Modern writings on civility and the nature of gentility, he urges that, in 17th-century England, most categories of people were thought to be more or less unreliable. Politicians were Machiavellian. Foreigners were insincere. Merchants and traders told lies for commercial advantage. The common people were low in perceptual competence (hence the prevalence of ‘vulgar errors’) and their economic position denied them intellectual independence. Women also lacked independence, as well as being, in some people’s view, inherently weaker vessels. Only one social group had the wealth, virtue and independence necessary for truth-telling: and that was the gentry. A gentleman’s word was his bond. To doubt it was to give him the lie; and the usual consequence of that was a challenge to a duel, often to the death. In Shapin’s opinion, the existence of this sanction encouraged the development of social practices within the gentry class which were designed to prevent such direct confrontations and to enable men of honour to live peaceably with each other. Chief among these lubricants was the practice of civil conversation.

The essence of conversation was that it existed for its own sake. It was a means of achieving social harmony. Direct contradiction was therefore to be avoided and participants were to refrain from being unduly pressing or assertive in the expression of their own opinions. Polite conversation required agreement, not argument. Genial tolerance was preferable to logical exactitude. In the 17th century, no less than today, scholarly pedants were unwelcome in the drawing-room.

Shapin argues that the conventions of genteel conversation were carried over into the scientific discourse of the natural philosophers. In place of the brawling and bickering which had characterised scholastic dispute, there emerged a more moderate and equable style of debate in which disagreement could be accommodated without intolerable affronts to honour and where conflicting arguments were not pressed à l’ outrance. By maintaining a judicious scepticism about the possibility of certain knowledge and by refraining from aspersions on the competence or honesty of other practitioners, the scientific community could concentrate on its task and avoid tearing itself apart over each new addition to truth.

Having established that gentlemanly conversation was the model for the new experimental science and that gentlemen were regarded as uniquely reliable truth-tellers, Shapin focuses on the work and personality of Robert Boyle (1627-91) as the embodiment of the distinctively genteel qualities which, in his view, characterised the natural philosophy of the later 17th century. For twenty-five years or so after the Restoration, Boyle was the leading English scientific figure, notable for his experiments on the physical properties of air, specific gravity, the expansive force of freezing water, crystals, electricity, colour and chemical combination. He contributed an unsurpassed amount of new information to the repertory of English science and in his person he exemplified the contemporary ideal of the experimental philosopher. Shapin regards him as the ‘artful creator’ of the new identity of the Christian virtuoso. Younger son of the Earl of Cork, immensely rich, pious, a bachelor, wholly devoted to his studies, physically delicate yet a relentless exponent of the work ethic, modest in style, Boyle quintessentially represented the spirit of disinterested inquiry.

According to Shapin, it was Boyle’s visible personal integrity, stemming partly from his gentlemanly status, which helped to give credibility to the new knowledge. His financial security enabled him to pursue ‘luciferous’ experiments rather than ‘lucriferous’ ones, and his expository style was invariably courteous. Declaring that men should ‘mind more the advancement of natural philosophy than their own reputations’, he gave the impression of being both reluctant to publish and only too ready to reveal his own errors and false starts when he did go into print. Never knowingly offending anyone, he was described by a contemporary as ‘as much a master of civility as of knowledge’.

Shapin suggests that it was Boyle’s commitment to the ideal of civility in scholarship which made him so cautious about the use of mathematics. For mathematics, as the Tudor humanist Roger Ascham had long ago observed, was an uncivil activity which made men ‘unfit to live with others’. Mathematics did not brook contradiction and left no room for tactful compromise. There was a lack of decorum about this relentless quest for precision and certainty which gentlemen disliked, just as they had disliked the pedantry of the scholastics. Boyle respected mathematics, but he thought it wrong to impose mathematical precision on experimental philosophy, because accuracy was not possible where matter was involved. Substances like air and water varied in their physical properties from one time and place to another. He therefore tended to avoid mathematical formulations. Even the Law About the relationship between the pressure and volume of gases with which Boyle’s name is for ever associated was one which he himself never expressed mathematically and for which he was diffident about claiming universal validity.

Shapin implies that underlying Boyle’s rejection of the ideal of mathematical certainty in experimental science lay the conviction that the pursuit of such an objective would have imperilled the community of inquirers. Since his science had the characteristics of conversation as well as of inquiry, it was necessary for it to stop this side of absolute exactitude. Shapin observes that the toleration of a degree of moral uncertainty is the condition of the collective production of any future moral certainty. He may be right to imply that mathematical precision and collective endeavour do not go together, though one wonders how modern mathematical communities manage to sustain themselves if that is so. But, right or not, he seems to be putting words into Boyle’s mouth at this stage, for the virtuoso himself did not make the case against mathematics in quite this way.

Shapin also goes rather beyond the evidence in claiming that gentlemen were uniquely privileged as truth-tellers in Stuart England. Admittedly, he has some telling examples of the doubts which could surround testimony which came from outside the charmed circles. Humble people seeking to communicate interesting facts to the Royal Society usually found it advisable to cite gentry as referees who would vouch for their trustworthiness: when the Delft draper Antoni van Leeuwenhoek claimed to have seen through his microscope vast numbers of little animals swimming around in pond-water, he invoked eight local worthies to endorse his claim, mainly clergy and lawyers, people lacking any technical expertise themselves but reputable because of their social position. Asserting that Boyle ranked the testimony of gentlemen above that of the common people, Shapin cites his experiments on water-pressure, in which Boyle upheld the evidence of a mathematician who had found that pewter bottles, after being lowered into the sea, came up with their sides much compressed, against the testimony of ‘vulgar’ deep-sea divers, who claimed that they had felt no extra weight when underwater. Shapin regards this as a typical instance of ‘gentlemanly culture’ at work, discrediting the evidence of the vulgar. But the reasons which Boyle gave for setting aside the accounts of the divers were perfectly plausible in themselves, and he was, after all, right to take the view he did. Indeed, for all their sensitivity to imagined slights to their honour, it is far from obvious that the gentry really were regarded by contemporaries as necessarily more dependable individual witnesses than their social inferiors. Certainly, in the literature of the period, can dour and honesty are as frequently associated with lack of sophistication as with high social status. Courtiers, by contrast, were notorious for flattery and insincerity.

Where Shapin scores most spectacularly, however, is in his brilliant chapter on Boyle’s invisible paid assistants. The names of only two of the people who worked in his laboratory in Pall Mall are known to us, yet, on the basis of incidental references, Shapin estimates that on a busy day there might have been anything between two and six technicians involved. These were what contemporary scientists vaguely called ‘operators’, ‘assistants’ or ‘servants’. Through a close reading of Boyle’s reports, Shapin is able to show that there were times when these ‘servants’ not only made the apparatus and did the experimental work, but even wrote the narratives and supplied some of the interpretation. When seeking to refute Aristotle’s assertion that previously-heated water would freeze faster than unheated water, Boyle put one of his ‘servants’ to stand outside in the ‘sharp air’ (being too delicate ‘to support such weather myself’) and to report what happened. When testing materials likely to explode, he let his assistants get on with it.

In this respect, Boyle was rather like a successful painter with a busy workshop, or a master chef with a large kitchen staff. His role was to supply the overall conception, but much of the execution was carried out by his subordinates. Doubtless, this is equally true of today’s scientific mega-stars, but the difference is that Boyle was working at a time when a great deal was being said about the importance of scientists getting their hands dirty and generalising only on the basis of their own direct experience.

Yet, though Boyle was heavily indebted to the skill and reliability of his assistants, it was he who was the public author of their work. Scientific knowledge was part of a gentlemanly culture and, according to Shapin, Boyle’s own position as a gentleman made it easier for him to be trusted as a reporter of truth. Conversely, it was easy for him to blame the ineptitude of his assistants when an experiment went wrong. Their non-gentle status meant that their testimony could be rejected without difficulty, whereas if they had been gentlemen, the setting aside of their evidence would have been a much more delicate matter.

Shapin’s thesis is lucidly expounded in prose which is remarkably fluent, sometimes almost garrulous. His manner is unstrident and his argument consistently intelligent and thought-provoking. A remarkable collection of blurbs from notables on the dust-jacket announces that the book has proved that all scientific knowledge rests on social conventions ensuring trust and truthfulness, and that Shapin has firmly located the scientific revolution of the 17th century within the aristocratic society of the time. The first of these claims is certainly justified. The second is true only to the extent that he has demonstrated that the scientists of the 17th century were not exempt from the social prejudices of their day. His book throws valuable light on the way that scientific testimony was weighed and assessed. How much it tells us about the intrinsic content of Boyle’s researches is more debatable. Far more would need to be said about the character of scientific debate before Boyle’s time and about the nature of contemporary controversy in adjacent areas, political, religious, legal or antiquarian, before one could know what, if anything, was distinctive about the implicit epistcmology of the scientists of the later 17th century. However, at the very beginning of his book, Shapin explains that he intends to argue that the new experimental philosophy was (only) ‘partly’ the result of the assimilation of the values of gentlemanly conversation. This is a much more modest claim than the book itself seems to make and no one could object to it.

Shapin concludes with some interesting reflections on the nature of scientific knowledge and the way it gains credibility. In the 17th century narratives were trusted if they came from reliable people, ‘persons of credit’, ‘men of honour’. In the 20th century we put our faith in systems and institutions. We do not feel it necessary to know who the pilot is before we can safely board our plane. Modern scientists are distinguished by their expertise, not their exceptional personal virtue, and there is an anonymous quality to most scientific knowledge. Shapin, argues, however, that, within the scientific community, personal credibility and face-to-face interaction (for example, at conferences) remain important. He speculates that in every field there are specialised subgroups, sometimes comprising no more than a dozen or twenty people, who know each other in the way that the gentry of Early Modern England knew each other; and he concludes that it is on the mutual trust within such groups that the progress of science depends.

There is much to be learned here about the working of scholarly communities, whether scientific or otherwise. This book makes one think again about a range of matters from the role of academic referees to the treatment of research assistants. If it were not for the emasculating effect it might have on this paper’s correspondence columns, one could add that it also makes an unanswerable case for the importance of good manners in scholarly controversy.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 16 No. 20 · 20 October 1994

The motto of the Royal Society hardly supports Keith Thomas’s belief that its founders subscribed to the ‘absurdity’ of holding ‘that we should doubt everything except what we have established single-handedly for ourselves’ (LRB, 22 September). Nullius in verba is not about the non-acceptance of another’s testimony (‘On no man’s word’), but a statement that the Society was not committed to the doctrines of any one thinker, or as Horace put it (Epistles 1.1.14), ‘not bound to swear allegiance in the words laid down by any master’ (nullius addictus iurare in verba magistri).

M.J. McGann

Vol. 16 No. 19 · 6 October 1994

Is Keith Thomas (LRB, 22 September) having us on? ‘Good manners in scholarly controversy’! Who wants those? They would emasculate more than the LRB’s letters page. So let me, as a supportive reader, say that Keith Thomas is talking through his hat.

Nigel Batcombe

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences