You have to be educated to be educated

Adam Phillips

  • The Scientific Revolution by Steven Shapin
    Chicago, 218 pp, £15.95, December 1996, ISBN 0 226 75020 5

For the great majority of people, believing in the truths of science is unavoidably an act of faith. Most of us neither witness the successful experiments nor would be able to understand them if we did. So we put an extraordinary amount of trust in things we know virtually nothing about (very few people interrogate their anaesthetists). The reason there are ‘popular science’ books is that work has to be done to make science popular. We assume, rightly or wrongly, that scientists are not intent on mystifying what they do: it just is difficult to understand without the requisite education and talent. And yet it was part of the original intent of the so-called scientific revolution of the 17th century that legitimate knowledge should be neither a mystery (the province of occult magicians) nor a piety (based on the authority of the Ancients, and acquired by reading their books). Shareable methods of enquiry would allow at least some people to find out things for themselves. It was, William Harvey wrote, ‘base’ to ‘receive instructions from others’ comments without examination of the objects themselves, especially as the book of Nature lies so open and is so easy of consultation’. ‘Easy’, though, is the word we use to describe things we have learned how to do. What people find easy is, among other things, an indicator of social class.

Steven Shapin’s previous book, A Social History of Truth, was about the sense in which – during the period covered by this new book, the late 16th and the 17th century – what people knew depended on who they knew. And who they knew, of course, and how they knew them, were largely functions of social class. In that book he set out to show ‘the ineradicable role of what others tell us and ... how reliance upon testimony achieves invisibility in certain intellectual practices’. If all knowledge is more or less sophisticated gossip then what we believe depends on what we are in a position to hear and overhear. As the title of his book made clear, Shapin’s aim was impressively ambitious; and what he managed to do was to make a detailed and persuasive case for the idea that ‘the fabric of our social relations is made of knowledge – not just knowledge of other people, but also knowledge of what the world is like – and similarly, that our knowledge of what the world is like draws on knowledge about other people – what they are like as sources of testimony, whether and in what circumstances they may be trusted.’

Applying these thoughts to the Early Modern period – and particularly to the study of Robert Boyle – Shapin showed that science in this period, and by implication not only then, was effectively a gentleman’s agreement: that so-called objective criteria had more to do with etiquette than Truth; that Truth or what counted as truth was akin to what counted as good manners. ‘It is quite possible,’ Shapin writes in his new book, ‘that many practical problems of scientific credibility were solved by a device as apparently simple as the gentlemanly code of honour.’ There are subtle links between how one is supposed to behave and how the world is supposed to behave. Objectivity has no objective definition. Rigour is a form of social propriety.

The rhetoric of science has, however, acquired such prestige since the 17th century that it has become difficult not to believe that through science the world is finally telling us what it’s really like. That if the world could speak for itself it would speak science. Indeed it can sometimes seem as if scientific descriptions are not made by people at all, especially when these descriptions involve accounts of our cosmic irrelevance. Science often suggests that the most brilliant thing about us is that we invented science. There is something ironic about such persuasive man-made accounts of our own unfreedom and redundancy. It is like God proving that God is dead.

Science proves that science is true. In other words, scientific criteria of value dictate most of what we are supposed to take seriously, or believe in (or rather, put our money on). It is part of Steven Shapin’s point to explain how we have been prepared – taught, encouraged and sometimes coerced – to put so much of our trust in such things. And that trust is what is at issue. It’s not that Shapin is in any way anti-science: his interest is in what he calls the ‘pervasive stories’ we tend to be told about it. In his view there is no essence to the scientific revolution: what we now call science has always been – despite its will to consensus – the site of a multiplicity of competing social practices. When Shapin states in his Introduction, ‘I take it for granted that science is a historically situated and social activity and that it is to be understood in relation to the contexts in which it occurs,’ the italics are not to be quibbled with. It is the story of this distinction between the scientific and the social, between fact and value – and the fact that we talk in these terms at all – that Shapin tells so incisively.

If no one now takes seriously T. S. Eliot’s entirely self-promoting notion of a dissociation of sensibility that supposedly took place in the 17th century, it is generally acknowledged that something more momentous – less literary – than sensibilities did change in that period, a period of astonishing cultural invention and depredation. The entrepreneurs, writers, religious and political thinkers, as well as the scientists who are the heroes and anti-heroes of Shapin’s book, most notably Boyle, Bacon, Galileo and Newton, all seem, in their different ways, to be the people who made the modern world: at once our contemporaries and the people who invented us. And one of the many things they seem to have invented – or at least to have radically redescribed – was a way of talking about hierarchies, both cosmic and social: hierarchies of knowledge, of behaviour and of entitlement. The setting for these changes was ‘the state of permanent crisis’ in European ‘politics, society and culture from the late medieval period through the 17th century’.

The sheer scale of political instability in 17th-century England was unique in the country’s history. For all those who continued to believe in the divine right of kings Charles I’s execution turned the world upside down. And even for those who now contested that divine right – or who wanted to reformulate it from the point of view of the newly emerging versions of constitutionalism – it was, so to speak, a radical departure, from both ancient custom and current law. After all, if kings can be executed, what else can be done, and by whom, to the body politic? The consequences of a world in which the king’s authority was based on the consent of his subjects, but in which the subjects themselves (or some of them) might decide what consent entailed, in which real money might be made rather than inherited, and in which the Bible was newly subject to a diversity of interpretation, involved a revaluation of questions of credibility, of who believes who, and why – which are always, as Shapin makes clear, in part questions about who has access to what, and what qualifies them for such access. (You have to be educated to be educated.) ‘If uninstructed individuals,’ Shapin writes, ‘believed just what they liked, with no external authority to judge whether the beliefs were valid, then disorder would be the consequence. The experimental community, however, had shown itself able to do the job of intellectual policing effectively.’ In the crucial, essentially civic project of securing knowledge against the erosion of scepticism – of keeping lack of consensus at bay – who is doing the believing, and who sponsors the belief can be more important than what is believed. The experimental community which promoted and defined the value of reproducible scientific experiments was also an experiment in community.

Among members of the Royal Society in the 1660s and 1670s ‘it was widely considered,’ Shapin remarks, ‘that theological, moral, metaphysical and political discussions had generated divisiveness. If a reformed natural philosophy was to offer a genuine certainty, then the demarcations between it and contentious areas of culture had to be made clear.’ Scientific enquiry was to be a space set apart, a virtual retreat from the passions and prejudices and ambitions that fuelled the Civil War. If matters of fact were to provide a secure social foundation they had to be both ‘guaranteed as authentic’ and ‘protected from contamination by other less certain and less incontrovertible items of knowledge’. But the available guarantees, and the definitions of what qualified as uncontaminated knowledge, were themselves the subject of intense debate. It was a battle, in Shapin’s neat distinction, between ‘the modesty of the fact-gatherer’ and ‘the pride of the abstracted philosopher’; between concrete particulars (piles of detailed observations) and ‘universally applicable idealisations’ (grand causal explanations and mathematical formulae); between diffidence and ambition. And, emblematically, in this book, between Boyle and Newton, the conductor of small, effective experiments and the discoverer of the big system.

Both these competing and complimentary accounts of what was then called natural philosophy were, however, constituted, and indeed consolidated, more by rhetoric than by method. If there are no shared criteria of evaluation there can only be the artifices of persuasion. ‘There is much to recommend a revisionist view that formal methodology is to be understood as a set of rhetorical tools for positioning practices in the culture and for specifying how those practices were to be valued,’ Shapin writes. What he seems to mean by ‘rhetoric’ in this book – and an undefined theory of rhetoric is central to his argument – is something like a mixture (a winning mixture) of Wittgenstein’s quietism and Stanley Fish’s brash pragmatism. Boyle, for example, claimed that in doing his experiments he was intending neither to prove nor to disprove any grand theories; that, in fact, he had hardly read any ‘that I might not be prepossessed with any theory or principles’. In Shapin’s view, he was making a strategic point, wanting the reader to believe something not strictly true to secure certain other objectives. Shapin footnotes Boyle’s remark:

The rhetorical character of such stipulations needs to be stressed: it identified the proper source of authority for scientific claims. The evidence is that Boyle was, in fact, quite widely read in the systematic natural philosophical literature. In this connection he was commending a loosening of traditionally strong ties between observation and formal theorising.

Shapin, it sometimes seems, wants us to read his scientists as theatrical characters involved in – or rather, performing – elaborate language games; and so, by definition, fallible masters of their own rhetoric, pragmatists with, as it were, a cultural and cultured unconscious. The question is not simply: did Boyle prove anything that was true? But what is Boyle – in his writing – trying to persuade us he is like and to what end? What was the job he was using words to do? As one of the new breed of scientific writers, Boyle ‘appeared as disinterested and modest, not concerned for fame and not affiliated with any school of grand philosophical theorising ... Such a person could be believed, and such a person’s narratives might be treated as the transparent testimony of nature itself.’ For such qualities to be valued – as opposed, say, to arrogance, recklessness or insouciance – the scientific character created in the text has to be endorsed, or sponsored by a specific culture. The successful scientist, that is to say, has to exploit the character-ideals of his culture.

One of the things that was new about the new science was that scientific enquiry began to loosen its affiliation with religious institutions; and that ‘more and more gentlemen became avid consumers of a reformed body of knowledge.’ As the boundaries of a literate culture were reshaped, natural philosophy ceased to be the exclusive province of scholars and the clergy. It became part of the cultural prestige of princely courts to patronise scientists, as well as to exploit the military and economic advantages of their work. Quite different kinds of people now began to think of natural philosophy as an essential part of their education: crucial for both statecraft and economic expansion; for civility and power. So it could be the way to get on, while stimulating exemption from worldly ambition.

It was Francis Bacon who would, in Shapin’s words, make ‘a joint case for the reform of learning and the expansion of state power’. It was a question of how to keep curiosity and ambition – greed, as we might psychoanalytically say – on the side of consensus, on the side of the state. If the whole enterprise of natural knowledge was ‘intentionally being made attractive to, and fit for, civic gentlemen’, then there had to be something that could temper scepticism. Method, Shapin proposes, ‘was represented as a machine for producing reliable and shared knowledge’. Natural philosophy was to be reformed by making ‘the method-machine a tool of state-bureaucracy’. Shapin is nowhere more lucid and incisive than in his descriptions of the new methods and how they acquired the kind of hold that the ethos of experimentation and fact-gathering still has on our imaginations.

It is one of the many virtues of this book that the conflicts, of method, of manner and of intent, that are integral to Shapin’s account of the period are both spoken for and allowed to speak for themselves. Indeed, the way the book is organised – in three chapters entitled ‘What Was Known?’, ‘How Was It Known?’ and ‘What Was the Knowledge For?’ – and the unassertive relationship between quotation and commentary, reflects the kinds of value Shapin wants to promote. ‘A tendency to infer from the contentious status of a body of knowledge,’ he writes, ‘to the conclusion that none of it is reliable or true is probably characteristic of a wide variety of cultures, including our own.’ How this particular characteristic was managed – the terrible conflicts provoked by trying to eradicate conflict – is an effective organiser of Shapin’s arguments. If a body of knowledge is contentious it matters in ways people can’t make sense of. The ferocious calm civility of the new scientists was needed, Shapin implies, to secure the status of their explanations. What counts as evidence is as much a matter of agreement as what counts as proof.

Newton was a threat to the gentle experimenters of the Royal Society because his aim, in Shapin’s words, ‘was to bind assent in iron chains of mathematical and logical deduction, seeking to guide the mind along from necessary truth to necessary consequence’. Shapin’s rhetoric here gives us a picture of Newton’s Principia Mathematica, the book supposed to mark the culmination of the scientific revolution as something no rational (or sane) person could disagree with. For Newton, God was a superlative mathematician; and so what Newton was floating on the stock-market of ideas was a guaranteed investment. But in the triumph of deduction over the painstaking piecemeal induction of Boyle, Newton can also be seen to be trying to abolish both the possibility – and by implication the value – of competing accounts. Binding assent and guiding the mind in the way Shapin suggests would be a description of the making of a cult, as well as the making of a proof. It is not clear whether it is a characteristic of weak theories or strong theories that they tend to dictate what qualifies as appropriate dissent. Shapin’s story stresses the artfulness required to make explanations seem inevitable, irresistible, ultimately compelling, necessarily true. Unlike Boyle, Newton was not committed to experimentation, and believed in the certainty of his proof. His work on optics, he himself wrote, was ‘not an hypothesis but most rigid consequence’. Science becomes the art of preferring certainty.

The question was ‘what should be the relative knowledge-making roles of experience and rational thought,’ and how was each to be defined? What made someone a successful thinker or a reliable witness – someone whose experience could be trusted. Both rationality and the even more bewildering notion of experience – what it was to be a reliable experimenter and witness – had to be learned: that is to say, both empiricism and mathematical or causal deduction, as methods of enquiry, had to be backed by legitimate institutions. They did not have to work exactly – Shapin is shrewd about the (perhaps necessary) gap between what people did and what they said they did – because what it was for any given theory to work was not clear (many different causal theories could satisfactorily explain the same phenomenon). Learning to use a telescope, for example, is learning to see what you are looking for. People had to be told what they would see in order to be able to use it. When Galileo assembled various eminent fellow practitioners of astronomy to view the moons of Jupiter through his telescope they were mostly disappointed. But when we learned to use such instruments at school,

we belonged to a culture that had already granted the reliability of these instruments (properly used), that had already decided for us what sorts of things authentically existed in the domains of the very distant ... and that had provided structures of authority in which we could learn what to see (and what to disregard).

It is essential to Shapin’s version of this history that we should understand ‘how precarious such experience might be and how much work was required to constitute it as reliable’. If we have to be taught to see what is there we have to pay attention to how people get into a position to teach us. The confidence accruing from scientific conviction, Shapin sometimes intimates, may be a confidence-trick, but it can also be an institution-trick: to believe anything may be first and foremost to join a group. One of the most interesting sub-plots of this book is how fantasies of prestige circulate in a culture; how certain kinds of privilege produce privileged knowledge.

Indeed, one of the formative legacies of the scientific revolution has been, as Shapin says, ‘the depersonalisation of nature and the attendant practices of producing knowledge that is understood to be disinterested’. The truth is what we get when we leave ourselves out. And yet these very descriptions can only come from us. It is as though every time we say ‘this is what the world is like’ or ‘this is just the way it is’ – the sun will rise tomorrow, we will die, and so on – we disown the fact that only we could do the saying. And there are, of course, sinister political implications in denying that we are the source of our own descriptions. We can privilege what we say by claiming it comes from a superior source that we, or some of us, have unique access to – God, the Tradition, the Unconscious, Scientific Method.

The more a body of knowledge is understood to be objective and disinterested, the more valuable it is as a tool in moral and political action. Conversely, the capacity of a body of knowledge to make valuable contributions to moral and political problems flows from an understanding that it was not produced and evaluated to further particular human interests.

It’s hard to believe that there could be a more accessible, informed or concise account of how it, and we, have come to this. The Scientific Revolution should be a set text in all the disciplines. And in all the indisciplines, too.