Contemporary View

Contemporary View

Boyle held a reputation of the highest eminence during his lifetime.  His centrality in 17th Century scientific research is indubitable but more crucially the application of his syllogistic progressive methodology to contemporary social and political theory generated an enormous debate stoked by Thomas Hobbes [1588-1679] the founding father of modern Western Political Philosophy.  A fascinating insight into this dispute is provided by Shapin and Schaffer in “Leviathan and the air-pump” and though Michael Hunter casts considerable doubts on their analysis, I find their thesis convincing and persuasive in contextualising the man rather than in assessing the scientist and in fairness Hunter does postulate just such a conclusion.

In an earlier skirmish the Jesuit Franciscus Linus [1595-1675] had partially precipitated a response from Boyle in which he propounded Boyle’s Law for first time.  It is, however, Hobbes’s criticism of the use of the Air-pump; superficially a critique of a vehicle for scientific research, but essentially a seminal assault on a methodology for the development of a Philosophy and Sociology of Knowledge and more centrally for Hobbes Political Science; that is paradoxically axiomatic in positioning Boyle at the apex of 17th Century intellectual thought.

In an interesting coincidence Hobbes spent several years as tutor to William Cavendish later Earl of Devonshire and later taught the Earl’s son with whom he made the Grand Tour and thus played an important role in a family that would soon become guardians of the Boyle inheritance and heritage.  Hobbes was extremely interested in the fields of geometry, history, physics, theology and ethics.  His central works are “De Cive” published in 1642 and “Leviathan, or the Matter, Forme, and Power of a Common Wealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil” published in 1651.

During the early 17th Century Europe and England experienced a period of cataclysmic upheaval in social and political life which culminated with the Thirty Years War [1618-48] and the English Civil War.  As in many such periods throughout history this upheaval precipitated an extraordinarily rich intellectual progress and spawned radically different alternative visions of humanity.

Boyle’s approach to knowledge had several central foundations: firstly the acquisition of knowledge is important in its own right; secondly knowledge [science] is acquired through the evolution of a theory, the testing of that theory through experimentation, the recording publication & sharing of observations and finally the analysis and modification of the conclusions where appropriate.  This process is set out as a theorem in the work of Shapin and Shaffer (37) as: Progress from Material technology [experiment] through a Literary technology [publication] and a Social technology [consensus] to a conclusion of “probability” rather than a “universal theory.”

Hobbes, on the other hand, relied on a “mechanistic view of science and knowledge, one that models itself very much on the clarity and deductive power exhibited in geometry” and led to an “absolute conclusion.”  Hobbes chose the air-pump” as the point of attack to outline his objections to Boyle’s methodology and indeed experimental science as a whole.  He invoked Plenism (38) and suggested that “the boundaries Boyle proposed to erect and maintain were guarantees of continued disorder not remedies to philosophical dissension.” (39) 

It was as if the very stability of society was at stake and the “debate between the these two contemporaries had political fallout beyond the academic community, and that accepting Hobbes or Boyle’s method of knowledge production was to accept a social philosophy as well.” (40)

The denial by Hobbes of a vacuum stems in part from his need for political stability.  As he ranged through ontology and epistemology Hobbes announced:

“Show men what knowledge is and you will show them the grounds of assent and social order (41).” In the universe of Hobbes there was no room for “belief” and behavioural control rather than internal moral control was required and experimental enquiry was otiose. Like most debates the conclusion at this period was uncertain but in time the approach of Boyle was soon predominant.

(37) Shapin Steven & Schaffer Simon.  Leviathan and the Air-pump: Hobbes, Boyle and the Experimental life.  1985
(38) A theory originally propounded by Aristotle that a vacuum could not exist.
(39) Shapin Steven & Schaffer Simon.  Leviathan and the Air-pump: Hobbes, Boyle and the Experimental life.  1985 pg. 81
(40) Do. pg. 14
(41) Do. pg. 100




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