Friday, April 08, 2005

Reading :: Leviathan and the Air-Pump

Originally posted: Fri, 08 Apr 2005 19:55:32

Leviathan and the Air-Pump

by Steven Shapin, Simon Schaffer

This book is referenced frequently in the STS literature, particularly in Latour's We Have Never Been Modern and Haraway's Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium.FemaleMan_Meets_OncoMouse. After reading it (mostly on the plane back from San Francisco), I can see why. Shapin and Schaeffer have produced a painstaking examination of the battle between Hobbes and Boyle to create a discourse and a social contract that would legitimize scientific knowledge.

Not to give away the ending of the book, but here's the last sentence: "Hobbes was right" (p. 344). What was he right about? Shapin and Shaffer argue -- well, forcefully, and with considerable evidence -- that knowledge is the product of human actions, just as much as the state is. And this is the key disagreement between Hobbes and Boyle -- although the surface agreement was about whether Boyle could actually produce a vacuum with his air-pump. Boyle insisted that he was actually evacuating air from the chamber, while Hobbes argued (improbably, from our view) that the chamber was actually filled with an undetectable supple fluid or ether to which the chamber's glass was permeable.

The question of whether the chamber is evacuated is an empirical one -- and this book does much to examine to what extent an empirical question is constructed through social relations. Boyle, the authors argue, developed not just a research program but a language game with rules that practitioners had to follow if their experiments were to be accepted as scientific knowledge (p.22). This language game shifted agency to nature and required multiple witnesses (p.25). Importantly, it also used three technologies: material (in Boyle's case, the air-pump); literary (the textual conventions used to disseminate the results to those who could not be direct witnesses); and social (the conventions for dealing with each other and for considering truth-claims) (p.25). In Boyle's new program, questions that could not be settled experimentally ceased to be legitimate questions (p.45). "The language-game that Boyle was teaching the experimental philosopher to play rested upon implicit acts of boundary-drawing" (p.51), and those acts involved managing dissensus by focusing on findings rathr than persons -- no ad hominem attacks allowed (p.72). In this new settlement, a new set of social relationships were enacted through such boundaries, bringing a sort of order to experimental philosophy (p.80).

But Hobbes didn't buy it. This settlement, he contended, would lead to disorder; the boundaries, in Hobbes' measure, were not effective. Hobbes was interested in and worried about the question of political power. His worry about men's divided loyalty between church and state led him to theorize the Leviathan, a monist, materialist philosophy that collapsed hierarchical divisions between matter and spirit (p.98). Under this philosophy, there could be no private judgment in religious matters -- that led to too much fragmentation of authority (p.103). At the same time, there could and must be individual beliefs. The sovereign (as represented by the church) could exercise control over behavior but not belief (p.104).

And here's the nub of the disagreement. Boyle's knowledge was founded in consensus of freely, independently developed belief. Hobbes separated belief and profession: profession could be controlled, and had to be if one were to form a social order (p.105). So "for Hobbes, the rejection of vacuum was the elimination of a space within which dissention could take place" (p.109).

In Chapter 5, the authors discuss how this confrontation plays out. Boyle, they say, had constructed a particular language game, and did many things to continue and reinforce that game: he praised those who played it well (p.163), gave instructions in how to play it properly (p.165), and recast Hobbes' objections as a poorly played instantiation of the game (p.174). His reply to Hobbes was an opportunity to reinforce that game further (p.176).

Hobbes wasn't entirely defenseless in this argument, though. He countered by displaying the intense labor required to make a fact under Boyle's regime: the replication of equipment, observations, and witnesses (p.225). "In principle, Hobbes' argument is correct," the authors tell us. "Establishing matters of fact did require immense amounts of labor." And they assert further that "a fact is a constitutively social category: it is an item of public knowledge" (p.225). Replication was Boyle's way to produce it: "Replication is the set of technologies which transforms what counts as belief into what counts as knowledge" (p.225). Hobbes found this stance to be dangerous: The real fight was over whether politics had to depend on assent, which translated into the question of what separated common belief and reason. "Hobbes alleged that if the experimental form of life were adopted, this difference would be lost, and the result would be political disaster" (p.331).

Political disaster? You be the judge. But as the authors point out, Hobbes had a point: in his questioning of Boyle's air-pump, he established the difference between Hobbes' public (everyone) and Boyle's public (qualified witnesses: professionals) (pp.333-334), and he questioned the separation of nature and politics. And after leading the experimental life for centuries, we're beginning to reconsider Hobbes' interpretation.

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