In this study, largely influenced by sociological theory, Steven Shapin explores the origins and practices of the seventeenth-century English experimental philosophy. He contends that this is "a story about the gentlemanly constitution of scientific truth . . . preexisting gentlemanly practices provided working solutions to problems of credibility and trust which presented themselves at the core of the new empirical science of seventeenth-century England" (p. xxi). Making use of gentlemanly advice books and courtesy texts while closely following the scientific career and philosophical publications of Robert Boyle, a founding member of the Royal Society of London, Shapin shows that Boyle was a central figure in the creation of a Christian gentlemanly discourse of natural philosophy.
As is widely accepted, the distinguishing feature of seventeenth-century English science was the reevaluation and erosion of ancient knowledge-claims and testimony in favor of observational and experimental empirical science. According to Shapin, "this rejection of authority and testimony in favor of individual sense-experience is just what stands behind our recognition of seventeenth-century practitioners as `moderns,' as `like us,' and, indeed, as producers of the thing we can warrant as `science'" (p. 201). However, Shapin perceptively challenges the notion that all forms of testimony were eliminated from the realm of empirical science - natural philosophy required a reliance on the findings of others when experiments produced could not be replicated, while one's own experiences could never achieve credulity within a scientific community without testimony. Therefore, these `moderns' instead constructed a flexible methodology of testimony evaluation and presentation in order to establish the relative credibility of one's scientific argument. These mechanisms included the moral evaluation of both one's scientific findings and character as a credible source of knowledge, and were constructed from preexisting gentlemanly codes, conventions, and values.
In chapters 2 and 3, Shapin explores popular conceptions in early modern England which established gentleman as trustworthy truth-tellers. In order to establish a collective body of knowledge, trust is essential. By accepting another's notions of truth we allow them to "colonize our minds," trusting in their objectivity and moral responsibility. According to Shapin, trusting another's knowledge is a moral act. Popular trust in another's truth is determined by their objectivity, or freedom of action. To be of "free action" is to be without social constraint that inhibits objectivity of judgement, while also possessing an established public credibility or honor. In early modern England, those that possessed these qualities were gentlemen - without any constraints that could prevent them from acting out of free will.
Although there existed conflicting and overlapping opinions about who constituted gentility beginning in the mid-sixteenth century, the basic material reality of gentle life required ancestral wealth that allowed independence from labor and private interests in the production of goods or services. Similarly, traditional honor culture and Christian values emphasized the virtue of gentlemanly conduct, requiring a self-disciplined decorum and consistent display of sincerity, integrity, and credibility. Gentlemanly virtue was manifested in the rules of decorum governing discursive practice and civil conversation. As Shapin contends, "a gentleman's word was his bond." (p. 65). Truth-telling was intimately linked to gentlemanly honor, to challenge one's word was to accuse him of lying, thereby disputing the credibility of his gentile reputation and disrupting civil order and "civil conversation." Therefore, gentlemanly discourse established mechanisms which allowed one to account for the possibility of false statements without damaging credibility by requiring that all claims allowed for some a certain level of imprecision. Civil conversation depended upon a degree of moral uncertainty - precision threatened to disrupt gentlemanly social order. This discursive practice was appropriated by gentlemanly natural philosophers, most specifically Robert Boyle, as an answer to the paradox posed by establishing the veracity of philosophical testimony.
In Chapters 4, 5, and 6, Shapin traces the ways that gentlemanly trust was deployed in scientific discourse. While institutional scholars were viewed as having private interest in their intellectual pursuits, such as the achievement of fame, natural philosophers promoted an air of disinterestedness to secure objectivity of observation and integrity of testimony. Similarly, scholars were considered to be overly-confident, quarrelsome, and dogmatic while natural scientists were open to the modification of claims in order to foster "civil conversation." In his discussion of the seven maxims by which testimony was evaluated, Shapin shows how gentlemanly decorum was utilized by natural philosophers and the Royal Society of London to ascertain the relative truth of claims (p. 212). Also, he gives numerous examples of the ways that one might dispute findings without calling the credibility or ability of an individual to accurately report true observations into question.
Shapin's book is a nice edition to the body of literature which expounds upon scientific thought as a cultural creation. However, I wonder if contemporaries would have really veiwed Boyle as a gentleman. He seems to be more of a scholarly recluse that even chose not to marry, (thereby rejecting a patriarchal ideal)?