A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England

A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England

by Steven Shapin

Why do we credit one observational statement over another?In A Social History of Truth, Shapin engages these universal questions through an elegant recreation of a crucial period in the history of early modern science: the social world of gentlemen-philosophers in seventeenth-century England.

He argues that problems of credibility in science were practically solved through the codes and conventions of genteel conduct: trust, civility, honor, and integrity.

These codes formed, and arguably still form, an important basis for securing reliable knowledge about the natural world.Shapin uses detailed historical narrative to argue about the establishment of factual knowledge both in science and in everyday practice.

Accounts of the mores and manners of gentlemen-philosophers are used to illustrate Shapin's broad claim that trust is imperative for constituting every kind of knowledge.

  • Language: English
  • Category: History
  • Rating: 4.00
  • Pages: 512
  • Publish Date: November 15th 1995 by University of Chicago Press
  • Isbn10: 0226750191
  • Isbn13: 9780226750194

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The one is an understanding of 'science' as permanently true and independent from social and cultural conditions in which it was produced, this body of knowledge being created/discovered through methods strictly grounded in universal reason, rigour and impersonality. The social view of science instead insists on studying the necessarily imperfect and self-interested institutions and conditions in which each scientific discovery is achieved, and the unavoidable influence that those structures will have both on orienting the research and in formulating the discoveries. Shapin's work is a history of XVIIth century science written from the sociological perspective, meaning it takes the second road mentioned above, focusing on the inescapable biases and conditions embedded in the institutions necessary to the production of scientific knowledge. Nonetheless, Shapin's work constitutes an attack on the 'heroic' narrative of science because he takes to task one of its sacred cows, namely the Scientific Revolution, or more precisely its later British phase in the second half of the XVIIth century. This period, according to the heroic narrative, saw the birth of modern science, generally depicted as a skeptical rejection of the long established Aristotelian models endorsed by the Church (and by the universities). There are, of course, many problems with this narrative not least the fact that observation, in the first place, is conducted by people who bring their own presuppositions to the experiment however Shapin focuses here on another issue, one particularly suitable to his sociological approach, the question of trust. Shapin unfortunately spares little thought on the subject of the management of trust prior to the scientific revolution, a subject which would have been very interesting: to what extent was it distributed through the Church(es) and how did it circulate from there to the university and political institutions, for example. We can however conjecture that in the European pre-modern paradigm, the religious monopoly on culture, including science, meant that practical knowledge and theological doctrine were intricately intertwined, to the point that the acceptation of the one entailed the acceptation of the other (a particular case of what Gellner calls 'multi-stranded knowledge', if I remember well). In contrast, Shapin tells us that in the early-modern context, "'moderns' celebrate proper science as a culture which has indeed rectified knowledge by rejecting what others tell us and seeking direct individual experience" (xxv). His main contention is that the giving or withholding of trust has a moral character, and that it participates in crucial ways in establishing and maintaining the social order: he carefully qualifies his statement in order to avoid the pervasive accusations of relativism levelled against his kith, writing that "the identification of trustworthy agents is necessary to the constitution of any body of knowledge. The following two chapters concerns themselves with the mechanics of trust in the specific context of the British XVIIth century, and more particularly of its entanglement with gentlemanly culture.

In A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England, Steven Shapin tries to answer the question, why do we believe something is true? Like scientists today, men of learning in the seventeenth century believed direct experience was the only way to obtain factual knowledge, and they rejected the testimony of others. However, Shapin argues testimony and authority are the very foundations of knowledge. This social interaction, Shapin argued, contains assumed knowledge about the external world and who is trustworthy in that world. As a free agent, his supporters argued he was above those influences, and as a good Christian gentleman, he was in the perfect position to be trusted to show the way things are. Shapin further argued that in order to preserve civil order in the scientific community, the standards of certainty, accuracy, and exactness had to be lowered to accommodate a wide variety of testimony and keep debates as polite as possible. Shapin concluded A Social History of Truth by arguing that there has been a fundamental shift in the nature of trust and in the practical means by which the credibility of knowledge is secured. A Social History of Truth was well argued and supported by a wide variety of sources, however, its overall argument often got lost in the details.

Shapin was trained as a biologist at Reed College and did graduate work in genetics at the University of Wisconsin before taking a Ph.D. in the History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania in 1971. This is why it is important to keep explaining how sound knowledge is generated, how the process works, who takes part in the process and how." His books on 17th-century science include the "classic book" Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (1985, with Simon Schaffer); his "path-breaking book" A Social History of Truth (1994), The Scientific Revolution (1996, now translated into 18 languages), and, on modern entrepreneurial science, The Scientific Life (2008).