At the Margins of Modern Science: Leviathan and the Air-Pump as a Case Study for Meta-analysis of Contemporary Science and Technology Studies

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Virginia Tech


In this thesis I will offer an extended discussion and critique of an important social constructivist book, Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer's Leviathan and the Air-Pump (1985), focusing on its reception and its standing in science and technology studies in the fifteen years since its publication. This work claims to be an "origins" story for the modern form of life that we now call the scientific community, and this claim has not itself been contested strongly by other scholars. Central to Shapin and Schaffer's argument for the socially constructed nature of scientific knowledge, is the contrast they find between the community orientation of Robert Boyle and the anti-community stance of Thomas Hobbes. In the course of this thesis, I question the validity not only of this contrast, but of the origins story itself. I suggest that while experimental, communally-practiced science and modernity did emerge together around the end of the seventeenth-century, the qualities of science that Shapin and Schaffer suggest are distinctive of modern science might more accurately be represented as distinctive of modern science. In other words, I suggest that the story of Leviathan and the Air-Pump is not so much an origins story for science as it is emblematic of the early influence of widespread European modernist culture on scientific practices. Leviathan and the Air-Pump is an important case to study in order to unravel the strands of science and modernity because it occupies simultaneously both the early and late margins of the modern period: first, by taking the contested but emergent modernism represented by Robert Boyle as its subject and, second, as a work of scholarship that sits on the far margins of the modern period. My method is to treat Shapin and Schaffer's work as a central primary source for understanding how contemporary science and technology studies scholarship deals with early modern science. A side product of this analysis is to suggest strongly that Shapin and Schaffer's account of the social construction of scientific knowledge is itself socially constructed: that is, it is highly selective in its presentation and interpretation of historical evidence. I also consider what the implications may be for separating modernity from science, and for thinking about how science might be practiced in the age that will follow -- perhaps is already following -- the modern period.



Leviathan and the Air-Pump, Social Constructivism, Robert Boyle, Scientific Community, Thomas Hobbes