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Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life Paperback – September 4, 2011
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Praise for Princeton's previous editions: "Leviathan and the Air-Pump [is] the most influential text in our field since Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions."--James Secord, Isis
Praise for Princeton's previous editions: "Shapin and Schaffer work out the implications of these debates [between Hobbes and Boyle] for the history of science with great skill of interpretation and exposition. They use their findings and their analysis to give an explanation of the experimental enterprise in general, which, although it is not philosophical in nature, always takes philosophy most seriously. This is simply one of the most original, enjoyable and important books published in the history of science in recent years."--Owen Hannaway, Technology and Culture
Praise for Princeton's previous editions: "Shapin and Schaffer have written one of the very first lives of an instrument. . . . They [also] had the wit . . . to take virtually the first piece of apparatus of the new laboratory science, and so have given us an unparalleled vignette of the birth pangs of a new style of reasoning."--Ian Hacking, British Journal for the History of Science
Praise for Princeton's previous editions: "Before Shapin and Schaffer, other historians of science had studied scientific practice; other historians had studied the religious, political and cultural context of science. No one, before Shapin and Schaffer, had been capable of doing both at once."--Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern
Praise for Princeton's previous editions: "No other text in the field has the canonical status--for friend and foe alike--that this one study has assumed. . . . There is every reason to regard this as one of the most important achievements in science studies in the late twentieth century."--John H. Zammito, A Nice Derangement of Epistemes
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Their stated reason for adapting a pro-Hobbes stance is that the opposite view (that Hobbes was wrong) has been so thoroughly documented that not much new could be added. Only by adopting a "charitable" view of Hobbes, and a critical view of his opponents, could they make a significant new contribution. They wanted to make a splash, not a ripple!
Their bias is expressed by selective omission of information unfavorable to Hobbes. In particular, readers are not informed that a "Torricelli apparatus" and a "mercury barometer" are functionally identical; the height of the mercury column varies with altitude and weather conditions. The temporal variability was predicted and observed by Torricelli, a decade before Boyle built his air pump. But Shapin and Shaffer do not even mention it, except in connection with a suggestion (p164) that one experimenter may have fudged his data. These variations were inexplicable to Hobbes, and falsified his theory.
[There is evidence here of a missed opportunity. Boyle's air pump was very expensive, but the Torricelli apparatus was much cheaper. If Boyle and his associates had improved it for ruggedness, portability, and easy reading, made and distributed many copies, and recorded and compared the temporal variations at different locations (or in the same locality) they could have conclusively proved the atmospheric-pressure theory, popularized it beyond dispute, and jump-started the infant science of meteorology.]
Also, the authors should have noted that Hobbes's a-priori rationalist "demonstrative" philosophy is not a viable alternative to observation and experiment, because it is based on an elementary logical fallacy: one cannot make up definitions and postulates arbitrarily AND claim that deductions from them give certainty about the real world.
Their final remark is worth quoting in full: "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. Hobbes was right."
But this remark is more premise than conclusion, since they began by saying (p14) that "'Truth'. 'adequacy', and 'objectivity' will be dealt with as accomplishments, as historical products, as actor's judgments and categories. They will be topics for our inquiry, not resources unreflectingly to be used in that inquiry." A clearer statement of the postmodern doctrine of "social construction" of science, truth, and reality could hardly be made.
In a way, Thomas Hobbes is the whipping-boy of the Scientific Revolution. Though his own political philosophy was epochal, and he ensured the best audience for it by carefully navigating the more or less literal minefields of 17th century Britain, tales of his mathematical and physical ineptitude are still told to amuse young scientists. Robert Boyle, whose theories are the distant ancestors of the modern doctrine of gases, engaged in controversy with Hobbes over the possibility of a vacuum completely empty of matter: since we now think of vacuum as what most of the universe is composed of, this incident surely could only be played for laughs, right? Shapin and Schiffer take it perfectly seriously, and the aforementioned social history is constantly invoked to provide background for the conflict.
The debate between Hobbes and Boyle took place during the "Restoration", the period of a few decades between the fall of Oliver Cromwell's Protectorate and the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688. Best known to the educated planet for its comedies of manners, the Restoration saw the founding of the Royal Society, which Boyle was a member of and which Hobbes was excluded from: since Hobbes was on good terms with the monarch, this can only be chalked up to the enmity of the Society's central figures. Though Hobbes was unabashedly modern in many of his philosophical stances (he was certainly as close to atheism as the era permitted), his natural philosophy was of a piece with Aristotle's desire to categorically state the nature of the physical world. Approaching natural phenomena by approximation and conjecture, as scientists were beginning to do, did not sit well with him. The authors, however, show how Hobbes cannot simply be viewed as an ostrich with his head in the sand: his vigorous contestation of the Royal Society's claims that Boyle's air-pump demonstrated the existence of a vacuum, which Hobbes denied the metaphysical possibility of, is treated as a piece of intellectual craftsmanship on a par with Boyle's faltering steps towards a "new consensus".
This was a hell of a book as originally published, and has been widely read; the 2011 edition, however, is distinctly inferior to the original. A translation of Hobbes' *Dialogus physicus*, which directly relates his views, was included in the original edition -- it has been cut and a "contextualizing" introduction, steeped in the office politics and catchphrases usually associated with "science studies" and blessedly missing in the book's text, has been included instead. This is a serious step back: if at all possible, buy the earlier edition.
science in the 17th century (the scientific revolution) and has great relevance for today's discussions about science, "theory" and belief.
The controversies between the philosophy/scientist Thomas Hobbes and the scientist/philosopher Robert Boyle and their colleagues
show how difficult it is to establish facts, and how little people who are not directly involved in doing science understand the process.