Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life
by Steven Shapin & Simon Schaffer
[Shapin, Steven, and Simon Schaffer. 1985. Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.]
- To interrogate questions like “Why is it that we do experiments to determine “matters of fact?” S&S look to the controversy surrounding the first laboratory experiments=Robert Boyle’s air-pump experiment (and Hobbes’s critiques of them)
- by approaching the topic like a “stranger”—even though we have come to see controlled experiments as creators of scientific fact, S&S ask what someone at the time would think of the controversy, avoiding presentism
- Very basically:
- Boyle wants to “see the house of natural philosophy in order by remedying its divisions and by withdrawing it from contentious links with civic philosophy” (21). In other words, our society is jacked-up, but we can make it so that science (natural philosophy) is not so jacked-up. How? Controlled laboratory experiments!
- Hobbes disagreed, saying that “order was only to be ensured by erecting a demonstrative philosophy that allowed no boundaries between the natural, the human, and the social, and which allowed for no dissent within it” (21). In other words, what is true is true in all aspects and you can’t just carve one facet of that truth out.
- In other other words: “Robert Boyle maintained that proper natural philosophical knowledge should be generated through experiment and that the foundations of such knowledge were to be constituted by experimentally produced matters of fact. Thomas Hobbes disagreed. In Hobbes’s view Boyle’s procedures could never yield the degree of certainty requisite in any enterprise worthy of being called philosophical” (22).
- Boyle (S&S argue) used three technologies in his experiments
- material technology—the air-pump itself and its use in experimentation
- literary technology—descriptions of the apparatus, the experiments, and the laboratory space as well as the findings of the experiments published and disseminated to the public at large
- social technology—the idea of “witnessing” (see below).
witnessing – three ways to multiply it
- make it public—use a laboratory
- “The space where these machines worked—the nascent laboratory—was to be a public space, but a restricted public space, as critics like Hobbes were soon to point out. The phenomena were not on show anywhere at all. The laboratory was, therefore, a disciplined space, where experimental, discursive, and social practices were collectively controlled by competent members” (39).
- make it replicable—so others can witness it by doing the same thing elsewhere
- This was more of a theoretical aim than a realistic one. The cost pf air-pumps, their rarity, and their different designs made direct replication almost impossible.
- Not to mention the fact that Boyles’s air-pump leaked—something that Hobbes talked about. A lot.
- “virtual witnessing”—write it down in detail, and readers will witness it in their imagination
- This could possibly reach and infinite number of witnesses, but it depends completely on the reader trusting the account, which feeds back into Hobbes’s critique of the laboratory: the people involved had to be beyond reproach, so only members of exclusive social and professional circles (The Royal Society) could contribute. They got to actually witness, so countless others could virtually witness.
- “first, the witnessing experience had to be made accessible; second, witnesses had to be reliable and their testimony had to be creditable. The first condition worked to open up experimental space, while the second acted to restrict entry” (336).
Conclusion—scientific “matters of fact” are actually political creations
- “There are three senses in which we want to say that the history of science occupies the same terrain as the history of politics. First, scientific practitioners have created, selected, and maintained a polity within which they operate and make their intellectual product; second, the intellectual product made within that polity has become an element in political activity in the state; third, there is a conditional relationship between the nature of the polity occupied by scientific intellectuals and the nature of the wider polity” (332).
- By the end S&S have shown “(1) that the solution to the problem of knowledge is political; it is predicated upon laying down rules and conventions of relations between men in the intellectual polity; (2) that the knowledge thus produced and authenticated becomes an element in political action in the wider polity; it is impossible that we should come to under stand the nature of political action in the state without referring to the products of the intellectual polity; (3) that the contest among alternative forms of life and their characteristic forms of intellectual product depends upon the political success of the various candidates in insinuating themselves into the activities of other institutions and other interest groups. He who has the most, and the most powerful, allies wins” (342).
Or more briefly said:
- “As we come to recognize the conventional and artifactual status of our forms of knowing, we put ourselves in a position to realize that it is ourselves and not reality that is responsible for what we know. Knowledge, as much as the state, is the product of human actions” (344).
- Even Boyle—who championed scientific experimentation and the ideals of natural fact divorced from all societal influence—could only prove his point through the use of social structures and media dissemination, erasing any pretense of nature’s ability to stand alone.
- “Hobbes was right” (344).
Leviathan and the Air-Pump examines the conflicts over the value and propriety of experimental methods between two major seventeenth-century thinkers: Thomas Hobbes, author of the political treatise Leviathan and vehement critic of systematic experimentation in natural philosophy, and Robert Boyle, mechanical philosopher and owner of the newly invented air-pump. The issues at stake in their disputes ranged from the physical integrity of the air-pump to the intellectual integrity of the knowledge it might yield. Both Boyle and Hobbes were looking for ways of establishing knowledge that did not decay into ad hominem attacks and political division. Boyle proposed the experiment as cure. He argued that facts should be manufactured by machines like the air-pump so that gentlemen could witness the experiments and produce knowledge that everyone agreed on. Hobbes, by contrast, looked for natural law and viewed experiments as the artificial, unreliable products of an exclusive guild. The new approaches taken in Leviathan and the Air-Pump have been enormously influential on historical studies of science. Shapin and Schaffer found a moment of scientific revolution and showed how key scientific givens—facts, interpretations, experiment, truth—were fundamental to a new political order. Shapin and Schaffer were also innovative in their ethnographic approach. Attempting to understand the work habits, rituals, and social structures of a remote, unfamiliar group, they argued that politics were tied up in what scientists did, rather than what they said. Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer use the confrontation between Hobbes and Boyle as a way of understanding what was at stake in the early history of scientific experimentation. They describe the protagonists’ divergent views of natural knowledge, and situate the Hobbes-Boyle disputes within contemporary debates over the role of intellectuals in public life and the problems of social order and assent in Restoration England. In a new introduction, the authors describe how science and its social context were understood when this book was first published, and how the study of the history of science has changed since then.