Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth Century England
When first published in 1938, Robert K. Merton’s study was respectfully received by sociologists and historians of science but failed to arouse greater interest in the questions with which he tried to grapple. Though far more carefully formulated and documented by an ingenious use of statistical techniques then being applied to American mass communications, it seemed to sociologists like the tail end of the German Wissenschaftssoziologie then entering a period of decline. The history of science was being transformed from a dull catalogue of scientific discoveries into an exciting field of intellectual history by philosopher-historians like E. A. Burtt, Ernst Cassirer, and Alexander Koyré, and the exploration of the conceptual structures of past science pushed the study of the social setting to the periphery of historiographic interest.
Merton’s study has now been republished at a time when the relations of science and society have ceased to be merely the subject of minor academic debate and pose problems of urgent global concern. A reassessment must recognize that it raises fundamental problems which still await deeper investigation. How are science, society, and culture related at any given time? What accounts for shifts in the recruitment among different intellectual disciplines? More specifically, why did the study of nature attain such importance in the intellectual culture of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe and draw men of great talent and even genius into its cultivation? In his new Preface, Professor Merton rightly complains that concentration on his thesis about the relation of Puritanism and science has obscured the importance of such questions.
Merton adopted a highly original strategy to answer what may seem large and nebulous questions. Forsaking, like the “Baconian” natural philosophers whom he studied, the “spacious liberty of generalities” for (in Bacon’s words) the “inclosures of particularities,” Merton confined his attention to seventeenth-century England. He established such points as a shift of intellectual interest toward scientific studies during this period by an extensive pre-computer survey of the worthies included in the Dictionary of National Biography. How far did religious influences make science particularly attractive to Englishmen in a predominantly religious period? To answer this question Merton drew upon an insight buried in Max Weber’s famous discussion of the consonance between the values of Calvinist Puritanism and the spirit of capitalism: that “philosophical and scientific empiricism” may have owed something to the Protestant ethic.
Merton constructed an “ideal-type” of the ethos of English Calvinist Puritanism and suggested ways in which it could have provided a religious motive for engaging in scientific activities. His conclusion was that the Puritan structure of values and beliefs was important in fostering scientific interests in seventeenth-century England. Other parts of the book (whose neglect he laments) investigated the possible influence of socio-economic needs in orienting scientific research toward the physical sciences, and toward topics “profoundly useful for technical development.”
Two themes emerge in particular from the reconsiderations of Merton’s study in recent years—“It has not,” he admits, “exactly suffered from inattention.” One group of …