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 critics finds the very notion of a sociology of science incongruous. Science is primarily a system of ideas and develops through an inner dialectic which can only be analyzed in categories appropriate to intellectual history; it is essentially insulated from “external” influences originating in the general social, economic, or cultural spheres.
In its extreme form, such a view has probably ceased to command general assent. If science is a system of ideas, its degree of insulation from other sorts of ideas and (since at least some of these ideas may be far more sensitive to sociological influences) its relative autonomy has to be historically investigated and established for any given period, and cannot be taken as axiomatic. More generally, the social setting of science has impinged upon the historical consciousness through the all too visible interaction between “big science” and society.
Some new developments within the philosophy of science (notably the work of Professor T. S. Kuhn) have also tended to focus greater attention on the sociological and psychological aspects at least of the scientific community. They have raised a specter much more frightening to those concerned to uphold the autonomy and rationality of the scientific enterprise in the orthodox sense than any threat from Merton’s cautious sociology of science or even the older German sociology of knowledge. The work of Kuhn and others suggests that sociological and psychological considerations may be helpful to explain not only recruitment into science or the changing emphases within or among different sciences, but also to explain largescale changes in scientific ideas themselves.
The other focus of interest has been Merton’s thesis about the relation between Puritanism and science. Much of the criticism has centered upon the ideal-type created by Merton to encompass such a protean and complex phenomenon as seventeenth-century English Puritanism. It is certainly true that what appears astonishing now is the lack of concern in Merton’s book with the fine texture of the history of the period, whether social, political, and religious history or the history of scientific ideas. Merton conceived the sociologist’s task as indicating whether and how far religious influences drew men toward or away from scientific studies. But that cannot satisfactorily be accomplished by ignoring the changes in the character of religious influences or of conceptions of the nature of the scientific enterprise. The period of Puritan dominance during the civil wars and the Commonwealth should have offered a ripe field for examining the importance of Puritan motivations in the encouragement of science. It is curious that Merton chose to dismiss it with some remarks on the discouragement that science must suffer in a disturbed time.
Yet the “Puritan Revolution” saw a confrontation between two sorts of “New Science.” Merton does not distinguish them but it is important to do so because they may have gratified different sorts of motives for the study of nature. The closer study of individuals and groups associated with each conception indicates, too, the importance of particular historical circumstances in giving them an appeal which they had otherwise lacked.
One of these scientific ideals was propagated by the group around the Palatinate refugee Samuel Hartlib, which secured the interest of leading Parliamentarians in the 1640s, and led to the Czech educationist J. A. Comenius being invited to England to establish the “Salomon’s House” envisioned by Francis Bacon. Bacon’s ideas seem, indeed, to have attained an influence they had never enjoyed during his own lifetime, and their ascendancy during the period of Puritan dominance may seem to testify to the consonance Merton suggested between the “Puritan ethos” and the study of science.
But in spite of their tributes to Bacon, the “Baconianism” of the Hartlib group and of the more extreme sectarians who proposed new scientific teaching at the universities was far more indebted to an offshoot of that Florentine Platonism which played such a crucial role in reconciling the humanistic ideals of the Italian Renaissance with the lay emotional religiosity of the northern lands beyond the Alps in the sixteenth century. I refer to Renaissance Hermeticism, especially as it played a part in the larger plans for reform of thinkers like Alsted, Valentin Andreae, and Comenius.
Allied to various currents of the Reformation, the late-antique Neo-Platonic and magical doctrines revived by Ficino and Pico were transformed into a strikingly novel vision that endless discoveries and inventions to relieve human misery would be made accessible through a sympathetic and empirical understanding of nature (of the sort especially exemplified by the Paracelsian natural philosophy). The reshaped social and religious order, in which men would study nature to glorify God and help fellow men, would be a preparation for the millennium which the apocalyptic books had described as being marked by the perfection of all arts and sciences through the workings of the Holy Spirit.
It is true that two southern Italian Dominicans, Giordano Bruno and Tommaso Campanella, gave influential formulations in the late sixteenth century of the dream of Hermetic reform in the ideal societies they planned; but such ideas really took root in the Protestant cultural area, notably in the Germanic lands soon to be devastated by the Thirty Years’ War. That refugees from that war, like Hartlib and Comenius, or the English sectarian reformers should have seen resemblances between their ideals and those of Francis Bacon was no accident. The Hermetics seem to have provided the inspiration for Bacon’s own ideas on using science for the glory of God and relief of man.
Bacon, however, wished to purge that dream of “vanity and superstition,” detach it from the magical setting in which it was embedded, cut the links which bound its empiricism with something akin to incommunicable and transcendental mystical “experience,” and apply to its concentration on the knowledge of particulars and on specificity the sophisticated techniques for collecting and sifting information emerging in a judicial and administrative context in the new centralized monarchies. (In natural philosophy it was, he complained, “as if some kingdom or state were to direct its counsels or affairs, not by letters and reports from ambassadors and trustworthy messengers, but by the gossip of the streets.”)
Bacon had no sympathy with that re-enchantment of the world brought about by sixteenth-century Platonism: in place of seeing the clear distinctions between natural and supernatural maintained in Thomistic Aristotelianism, he thought it regarded the world of nature as a sensible copy of higher spiritual realities and as wholly dependent for all life and activity on a continually creative divinity working through the agencies of the stars. There was in Bacon’s view a supreme religious duty of studying nature and applying such knowledge to human welfare, but he wanted the realms of religion and natural philosophy to be kept distinct. The initial appeal of natural philosophy during the Puritan Revolution was not so much to this disenchanted Baconianism, but to a view which assimilated Bacon to the Hermetic tradition which he had set out to purify.
The revolutionary milieu and the propagandist efforts of the Hartlib group gave these ideas a special prominence for a short time. The initial interest of men like Robert Boyle, William Petty, and John Beale in scientific study took place under the influence of these ideals. John Wilkins, enamored of Bacon’s ideas, was “intruded” at Oxford during the same time, and patronized a young group of natural philosophers out of which came some of the leading figures of the Royal Society founded at the Restoration. That group was active in the search for such practical inventions as “reformed beehives,” methods of position-finding at sea, and experiments in blood transfusion.
But the most brilliant young talent drawn by this group into scientific activities was lured by the intellectual challenge of exploring a variety of scientific problems in the light of a new natural philosophy which coincidentally emerged during this period—the “Mechanical Philosophy” of Galileo, Descartes, and Gassendi which laid the basis for dazzling achievements of a distinctively new sort of modern science. With very few exceptions, the great accomplishments of post-Restoration English science are due to those recruited during the 1640-60 period, when special factors gave scientific pursuits a prominence they had not enjoyed before.
The influence of these factors seems to have weakened in the post-Restoration environment. Even by the early 1650s, the dream of Hermetic reform had become identified with radical sectarian heresies. Menaced by “enthusiastick” sectaries who wanted to introduce at the universities the teaching of Paracelsus and Helmont, of Fludd and Jacob Boehme, leading figures in the Oxford group elaborately disavowed any intention of making scientific teaching part of a great intellectual—far less of a social or religious—reform. The emphasis continued into the Restoration.
When divorced from larger social designs, however, the stress on the combined religious and utilitarian value of science became the butt of the sharp-witted satirists like Samuel Butler, Thomas Shadwell, and Jonathan Swift. The reaction against the polemical divinity of the revolutionary period and the utilitarian temper bred in part by phenomenal mercantile prosperity did not really prove very favorable to the pursuit of a science which was in no position to prove its worth by solving outstanding technological problems or to furnish the inventions promised by the Baconian conception. It was constantly asserted that if men were to choose studies which were most consonant with the religious obligation to help their fellows, then they must devote themselves to the cultivation of literature and to morality, not to a study of nature which could neither promise any certainty in its conclusions, nor realize the Baconian promise of material plenty.
When examined in detail, then, the tendencies which have been ascribed to the influence of the Puritan ethos suggest the temporary prominence, due to specific historical circumstances, of individuals and groups who for a time were able to secure attention for a combined religious-social conception of the study of nature, whether in the form in which it had been developed in Protestant Europe, or in a purified Baconian form. Professor T. S. Kuhn has acutely pointed out that the Merton Puritanism-science thesis is far better understood as a thesis about the curious strength of Baconian experimentalism in England, rather than as a general thesis about religion and the rise of modern science. When so reformulated, it would be expected to have impact not on the astronomy and mechanics which lay at the heart of the Scientific Revolution, but in newer fields which were not significantly reordered before the mid-eighteenth century.
That Merton’s thesis about Puritanism and science should still retain its power to generate debate and suggest such possibilities indicates its originality in venturing into what still remains a largely unmapped and unexplored area of historical study. It is clear, though, that future investigations will have to be far more sensitive to the continually changing character of the science and the society whose historical interaction it studies. Nor must it be pursued by, for example, isolating English seventeenth-century natural philosophy from the much larger world of European learning of which it formed a part. These are only some of the problems of formidable complexity in an area of historical studies which is posing a new challenge to historians.