Emperical Science as Dramaturgy – Hobbes as Theater Critic

Posted: June 1, 2017 in Uncategorized

For the record, I’m hardly saying that it is an established fact that what Boyle and Co. were up to in the Royal Society was nothing but chicanery and willing trickery. I’m only saying that what they were doing (was it magic? religious practice? cult ritual? fraternal brotherhood? political conspiracy? live theater?) was probably not entirely clear even to themselves, much less anybody else, until the relentless criticism of Hobbes forced them to bring their practices, observations, and hypotheses under strict control. Without any reference to overt theory, experimental science as we now know it would never have emerged. Of course Whig historians will want to leave Hobbes and his ilk out of the story, because including them makes it far more difficult to give a simple account of what lead to what. Yet genuine historical scholarship was never about telling nursery stories.

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Stephen Greenblatt
“Loudun and London”
Critical Inquiry
Vol. 12, No. 2, Winter, 1986

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Emblematic Device of The Invisible College


The Invisible College has been described as a precursor group to the Royal Society of London, consisting of a number of natural philosophers around Robert Boyle. It has been suggested that other members included prominent figures later closely concerned with the Royal Society; but several groups preceded the formation of the Royal Society, and who the other members of this one were is still debated by scholars.

RS

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So, did Hobbes clear experimental science of all extraneous residue, once and for all. No. Because after Hobbes death was see a scientist no less illustrious than Isaac Newton continuing to practice alchemy. Still, I think what we see in Locke, Newton’s contemporary, is an attempt to take Hobbes criticisms very seriously and purge science of all vestiges of thaumaturgy. Experimental science, to become science, needed not just experiments but also an openly declared theory. And this is what Locke sought to furnish in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, a theory of scientific practice and knowledge which was no longer considered an occult and exclusive craft but rather a respectable gentlemanly pursuit.

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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.

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