A Social History of Truth
Posted by Michael Kleen
In A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England, Steven Shapin tries to answer the question, why do we believe something is true? He argues there is a disconnect between how we think knowledge is obtained and how it is actually obtained. Like scientists today, men of learning in the seventeenth century believed direct experience was the only way to obtain factual knowledge, and they rejected the “testimony of others.” However, Shapin argues testimony and authority are the very foundations of knowledge.
Trust, a necessary ingredient for working with others, is indispensable in science. Scientists use trust to sustain the structures that allow them to maintain and build on the body of knowledge they have acquired over the centuries. This social interaction, Shapin argued, contains assumed knowledge about the external world and who is trustworthy in that world. “The identification of trustworthy agents is necessary to the constitution of any body of knowledge.”
What kind of person do we trust to tell the truth? According to Shapin, it is the early modern English gentleman. A gentleman was a person who, because he was self-sufficient and free from economic burden, had no motivation to lie. Therefore, he had both the qualities of free action and virtue. The gentleman was culturally encouraged not to deceive. Virtue was enforced by the ever-present threat of loss of his status as a gentleman, which had far reaching social and political consequences.
The culture of honor guaranteed the gentleman’s place as a truth teller, as well as provided consequences that stemmed from lying. “A man whose word might be constantly credited was a man… upon whom others might rely,” Shapin explained. The trustworthiness of the rich and powerful was always taken over that of the poor, who were considered dishonorable because they were bound by other men for their survival.
Robert Boyle and John Locke were two examples of this ideal experimental practitioner. Robert Boyle used his status as a gentleman to deflect accusations that special interests drove his research. As a free agent, his supporters argued he was above those influences, and as a good Christian gentleman, he was in the perfect position to be trusted to show ‘the way things are.’
John Locke laid the groundwork for what testimony could be relied upon and what testimony could be discarded, which, combined with other texts of the period, constituted the Maxims of Prudence. This text contained seven guidelines for considering testimony. The seventh, as summarized by Shapin, stressed that we should “assent to testimony from sources possessing integrity and disinterestedness.” In other words, a gentleman.
Shapin further argued that in order to preserve civil order in the scientific community, the standards of certainty, accuracy, and exactness had to be lowered to accommodate a wide variety of testimony and keep debates as polite as possible. Robert Boyle’s view of the correct place and expectation of mathematics in experimental natural philosophy showed that civility mattered more than mathematical precision. Boyle was nervous about the place of mathematics in experimentation and skeptical about its supposed certainty. Boyle’s alternative was a conversational style of scientific inquiry, which had mechanisms for determining when a consensus on a matter had been reached.
Shapin concluded A Social History of Truth by arguing that there has been a “fundamental shift in the nature of trust and in the practical means by which the credibility of knowledge is secured.” Persons in the seventeenth century were familiar with scientific authorities and demanded they adhere to a code of conduct to prove their trustworthiness. Today, we place our trust in institutions and other faceless entities, because sustained skepticism of those institutions wouldn’t be practical. We value expertise over virtue.
A Social History of Truth was well argued and supported by a wide variety of sources, however, its overall argument often got lost in the details. Shapin’s focus on a handful of key players also opened him up to accusations of cherry picking examples to support his argument. What about all the natural philosophers who didn’t fit into the gentlemanly ideal? Furthermore, an analytic philosopher would not agree with Shapin’s claim that truth is a social construct. If a statement is true, its truth should be self-evident by all. (A) does not equal (A) because we trust the person telling us it is. (A) equals (A) because it cannot be otherwise. This truth is independent of any human.
Despite this criticism, Steven Shapin’s philosophical inquiry into truth is compelling and thorough, and his thesis is convincing despite its inadequacies.