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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


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

How do we come to trust our knowledge of the world? What are the means by which we distinguish true from false accounts? 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. Steven Shapin paints a vivid picture of the relations between gentlemanly culture and scientific practice. 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. Knowledge-making is always a collective enterprise: people have to know whom to trust in order to know something about the natural world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226750187
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 06/28/1994
Series: Science and Its Conceptual Foundations Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 512
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

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A Social History of Truth

Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England

By Steven Shapin, David L. Hull

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1994 The University of Chicago Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-75019-4


The Great Civility: Trust, Truth, and Moral Order

Suppose men imagined there was no obligation to veracity, and acted accordingly; speaking as often against their own opinion as according to it; would not all pleasure of conversation be destroyed, and all confidence in narration?

—Francis Hutcheson, System of Moral Philosophy

A social history of truth is not supposed to be possible. When people refer to some statement or belief as 'true,' they customarily mean that it 'corresponds' to 'the facts of the matter,' to how 'things really are.' In that sense, within our own scheme of things, 'truth,' 'knowledge,' and 'the facts' indicate similar judgments, enabling us to sort out, and differentially to evaluate, a range of beliefs and statements. In all probability, every community needs some such sorting mechanism, and usages of this kind may even be universal, despite the fact that what is locally meant by 'correspondence' may be vague and varying.

That same sorting function can embed a distinction between what is 'true' and what is merely taken to be so, by some people at some time. Indeed, there is a special community of language-users called 'academic philosophers' who insist very vigorously on such a distinction. The body of locally credible knowledge—what is taken to be true—cannot be the same as 'truth,' since truth is one and what people have taken to be true is known to be many. Whatever changes over time, whatever varies from one community to another, cannot be truth and honored as such: "If truth has many faces, then not one of them deserves trust and respect."

This is a restrictive notion of truth and nothing in this book counts as an argument against its legitimacy. The restrictive sensibility, after all, performs an enormously important sorting function. However, restrictive sensibilities carry with them considerable costs, and those costs become more visible as one's purpose moves from sorting and evaluating on the one hand to understanding and interpreting an array of beliefs on the other. I want to preserve from the restrictive sensibility the loose equation between truth, knowledge, and the facts of the matter, while defending the practical interest and legitimacy of a more liberal notion of truth, a notion in which there is indeed a social-historical story to be told about truth.

Communities making truth-judgments mean to distinguish statements or beliefs which correspond to reality from those which do not, and as they do so they create an automatic bias in favor of their own stock of current knowledge. We assume that all people live in a common external world and that this world has a determinate structure. So the notion of truth can point to 'what the world is like' and therefore to the culture that corresponds to it. Accordingly, this 'materialist' sense of truth grants correspondence to the beliefs we have attached to the world and may withhold correspondence from those that others have attached. This illiberality is no fault of such judgments, since sorting and differential evaluation are often just what is intended. Yet the same illiberality blocks curiosity about how it is that, if truth is one and the same, it has so many, and so various, claimants, how it is that truth comes always to be on 'our side,' whoever 'we' are.

Consequently, the distinction between 'truth' and 'what locally counts as truth' can be adequate for some purposes while being fatal to others. There are groups of people dedicated to the disinterested understanding of cultural variation in belief, and for them the restrictive sensibility lacks both value and legitimacy. For historians, cultural anthropologists, and sociologists of knowledge, the treatment of truth as accepted belief counts as a maxim of method, and rightly so. If one means to interpret variation in belief, then it seems prudent to ask how it is that truth speaks in different voices, how it is that what 'they' account to be true comes to be so accounted, and to approach those inquiries with a methodological disposition towards charity. The same maxim of method cautions us momentarily to set aside what 'we' know to be true in the interest of understanding what 'they' know to be true, even to entertain the possibility that, for methodological purposes, 'we' are another form of 'them.' The liberal sensibility towards truth, therefore, while optimistic about the potential scope of understanding, is modest when compared to the restrictive view. As ordinary social actors, truth-liberals know no less than their restrictive colleagues about the world to which knowledge-claims do or do not correspond, but they aim to set evaluation to one side in the special activity of interpreting cultural variation. The special-purpose nature of truth-liberalism is no argument against it: many of our society's most highly valued beliefs and practices, including those of the natural sciences, are adapted to quite specialized purposes. This book proceeds from the view that a social-historical approach to truth is possible, adequate, and methodologically valuable. With respect to other conceptions of truth, it is tolerant.

Set against the overall modesty of a social-historical engagement with truth is the particular nature of the knowledge to be interpreted here. I am concerned with a body of knowledge which members of our own culture routinely recognize as having special claims to truth. I will be focusing on science, on science in a setting where many aspects of what now count as reliable truth-generating practices were put in place and institutionalized, and, in general, with epistemic items widely taken to be the hardest and most fundamental elements of scientific knowledge—statements of fact, observation-reports, and the like. Olive oil freezes in a Russian winter. A comet is near the first star of Aries on the night of 18 February 1665. Minuscule 'eels' multiply in a bottle of vinegar in Delft. If such claims were judged to correspond to actual states of affairs, then seventeenth-century actors deemed them to be true and took them into their stock of natural knowledge. What we know about seventeenth-century comets draws massively on what seventeenth-century practitioners knew and therefore on how they came to know it.

If truth is not supposed to change over time—to have a history—neither is it supposed to have a sociology. Whatever bears the marks of collective production cannot be truth and honored as such, and few cultural-historical topics are more pervasive than the equation between truth, solitude, passivity, and impersonality. In contrast, I want to argue the adequacy and legitimacy of a thoroughgoing social conception of truth. What counts for any community as true knowledge is a collective good and a collective accomplishment. That good is always in others' hands, and the fate of any particular claim that something 'is the case' is never determined by the individual making the claim. This is a sense in which one may say that truth is a matter of collective judgment and that it is stabilized by the collective actions which use it as a standard for judging other claims. In short, truth is a social institution and is, therefore, a fit and proper topic for the sociologist's investigation.

The history of truth can be a social history because what we know about the world is arrived at, sustained, and recognized through collective action. Against dominant romantic and heroic views, it is argued that no single individual can constitute knowledge: all the individual can do is offer claims, with evidence, arguments, and inducements, to the community for its assessment. Knowledge is the result of the community's evaluations and actions, and it is entrenched through the integration of claims about the world into the community's institutionalized behavior. Since the acts of knowledge-making and knowledge-protecting capture so much of communal life, communities may be effectively described through their economies of truth. Indeed, there is a variety of sociological and philosophical idioms for drawing attention to such codependencies. Wittgenstein's later philosophical writings insisted that all justifications for our judgments of the proper and the improper, the true and the false, must come to an end. All such judgments are ultimately terminated not in a way of seeing but in a collective way of acting. What is accepted as a justification for the truth of a proposition is shown by how communities go on together: "The danger here, I believe, is one of giving a justification of our procedure when there is no such thing as a justification and we ought simply to have said: that's how we do it."

Pragmatist philosophers reject a static conception of truth as epistemological equilibrium and, in so doing, set truth in motion: "True ideas are those we can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify.... truth happens to an idea." Truth consists of the actions taken by practical communities to make the idea true, to make it agree with reality: "the possession of true thoughts means everywhere the possession of invaluable instruments of action." William James brilliantly noted that truth lives "on a credit system": "Our thoughts and beliefs 'pass,' so long as nothing challenges them, just as bank-notes pass so long as nobody refuses them." Richard Rorty argues that there is "nothing to be said about either truth or rationality apart from descriptions of familiar procedures of justification which a given society—ours —uses in one or another area of enquiry." The ethnomethodologist Peter McHugh stresses the "behavior of seeking truth ... the institutional and public character of truth, in contrast to the usual psychological and semantic descriptions that depict private disembodiments of that behavior." For the sociologist there is no other way of conceiving truth save through the study of what people do collectively. "Truth resides in the rule-guided institutional procedures for conceding it"; we have to accept "that there are no adequate grounds for establishing criteria of truth except the grounds that are employed to grant or concede it," and truth's grip on us resides in the forms of collective life which produce and uphold it. For either the analyst or the member to be radically skeptical would be "equivalent to challenging the rules to which members of a collectivity subscribe."

This book aims to draw special attention to some moral aspects of the collective nature of knowledge. Different members of a community hold knowledge that individuals may need to draw upon in order to perform practical actions: to maneuver in the material world, to confirm the status of their knowledge, to make new knowledge, even to be skeptical about existing items of knowledge. Accordingly, in order for that knowledge to be effectively accessible to an individual—for an individual to have it—there needs to be some kind of moral bond between the individual and other members of the community.

The word I propose to use to express this moral bond is trust. I want to leave the notion of trust diffuse at this point, allowing its sense to emerge as the inquiry proceeds. Nevertheless, a caveat about recent technical treatments of trust needs to be entered. It has become customary to make distinctions among our usable notions of trust. There is said to be trust in the fulfillment of inductively generated expectations about events in the world, as when we might say that we trust (or are confident) that many people catch colds in Edinburgh winters or that it will be a nice day tomorrow in San Diego. This is identified as an amoral sense of trust: no one will be blamed if expectations are not realized or if the case turns out to be otherwise.

By contrast, there is said to be a distinct sense of trust which is recognized as morally consequential. If I trust that you will meet me as promised in my office at two o'clock, then I can blame you if you do not show up. Both kinds of trust are systems of expectation about the world, yet only the latter is said to be morally textured. This book will mainly be concerned with the latter form, that is, trust in persons and their relations. Nevertheless, I want to suggest that this routine distinction between types of trust may be inadequately grounded. Here I will simply assert, but later will argue, that much of our sense of the world's contents and inductive regularities is built up and protected by the constitutively moral processes by which we credit others' relations and take their accounts into our stock of knowledge about the world. Indeed, the constitutive relation between the two forms of trust can be made more visible if one transforms the inductive confidence that 'many people are ill in Edinburgh in the winter' into the form 'you (and others) have told me that this is the case.' Insofar as our factual knowledge is built up through assent to what we have been told, the two, allegedly distinct, notions of trust both belong within the same moral frame, the second routinely visible as such, the first routinely not. Moreover, I recognize, but wish to blur, a distinction between trust in affirmed actions (e.g., that you will meet me tomorrow) and trust in relations (e.g., that what you tell me about Edinburgh winters is true). Both forms of trust engender states of belief, and both may be implicated in schemes of coordinated action. My stock of knowledge provides the framework for my practical orientation to the world. Accordingly, while much writing about trust has focused directly upon promised actions, I will treat relevant views as equally applicable tocommunications about the world.

Trust and the Order of Society

The trust-dependency of social order has always been recognized. The order of society depends upon (some sociologists would say that it is) a complex of normatively ordered expectancies. How could coordinated activity of any kind be possible if people could not rely upon others' undertakings? No goods would be handed over without prior payment, and no payment without goods in hand. There would be no point in keeping engagements, nor any reason to make engagements with people who could not be expected to honor their commitments. The relationship between teacher and pupil, parent and child, would be impossible if the reliability of the former as sources of knowledge were not to be granted. In all cases, the order of knowledge is recognized to be part of the normative fabric of society, and our knowledge of what people will do is considered to be reliable insofar as we believe they operate in accordance with certain moral standards, enjoining truthfulness and condemning falsehood. And our knowledge of the world is also deemed reliable insofar as we consider that certain people are reputable and veracious sources, and act appropriately with respect to their testimony.

Social theorists from antiquity to the present, writing in the most abstract or the most practical idiom, have all recognized and approved the trust-dependency of social order. Cicero stressed the virtue of "justice" in upholding society. Social order would be impossible unless one were morally enjoined "to stand to one's word in all promises and bargains." The foundation of justice was faithfulness, "which consists in being constantly firm to your word, and a conscientious performance of all compacts and bargains." To be sure, the obligation to keep a promise was not absolute; for example, if keeping it was likely to injure an individual or society, one might have no legitimate commitment. And persons "overawed by fear" or otherwise unfree when they made a promise were not deemed to have entered into a moral commitment. Yet, like other Greek and Roman social theorists, Cicero understood that social order utterly depended upon trust being rightly reposed in morally bound truth-tellers and promise-keepers. Liars and dissimulators threatened the moral fabric of society: they were "knaves" and their actions were "attended with baseness and dishonour."

Early modern ethical writers endorsed and developed the appreciation of the role of trust in social order. The sixteenth-century English humanist Sir Thomas Elyot categorized the types of faithfulness upon which moral order depended: "faith" was belief in the promises of God; "loyalty" was the keeping of promises made by a subject to his prince; and promise-keeping between "men of equal estate or condition" was "trust." All were equally essential to the maintenance of social order. There could be no such thing as civil society if there were no trust: "O what public weal should we hope to have there, where lacketh fidelity, which as [Cicero] saith is the foundation of justice?" Without trust "a public weal may not continue." In France, Montaigne brilliantly analyzed untruthfulness and the breakdown of trust this caused and expressed as the most serious subversions of social order. Order was founded upon our knowledge of others' minds and intentions. Hence it was utterly dependent upon the reliability of our communications about ourselves and about the state of our knowledge:

Lying is an accursed vice. We are men, and hold together, only by our word.... Since mutual understanding is brought about solely by way of words, he who breaks his word betrays human society. It is the only instrument by means of which our wills and thoughts communicate, it is the interpreter of our soul. If it fails us, we have no more hold on each other, no more knowledge of each other. If it deceives us, it breaks up all our relations and dissolves all the bonds of our society.


Excerpted from A Social History of Truth by Steven Shapin, David L. Hull. Copyright © 1994 The University of Chicago Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Notes on Genres, Disciplines, and Conventions
The Argument Summarized
1: The Great Civility: Trust, Truth, and Moral Order
2: "Who Was Then a Gentleman?" Integrity and Gentle Identity in Early Modern England
3: A Social History of Truth-Telling: Knowledge, Social Practice, and the Credibility of Gentlemen
4: Who Was Robert Boyle? The Creation and Presentation of an Experimental Identity
5: Epistemological Decorum: The Practical Management of Factual Testimony 193
6: Knowing about People and Knowing about Things: A Moral History of Scientific Credibility
7: Certainty and Civility: Mathematics and Boyle's Experimental Conversation
8: Invisible Technicians: Masters, Servants, and the Making of Experimental Knowledge
Epilogue: The Way We Live Now

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