Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life

Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life

Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life

Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life


Leviathan and the Air-Pump examines the conflicts over the value and propriety of experimental methods between two major seventeenth-century thinkers: Thomas Hobbes, author of the political treatise Leviathan and vehement critic of systematic experimentation in natural philosophy, and Robert Boyle, mechanical philosopher and owner of the newly invented air-pump. The issues at stake in their disputes ranged from the physical integrity of the air-pump to the intellectual integrity of the knowledge it might yield. Both Boyle and Hobbes were looking for ways of establishing knowledge that did not decay into ad hominem attacks and political division. Boyle proposed the experiment as cure. He argued that facts should be manufactured by machines like the air-pump so that gentlemen could witness the experiments and produce knowledge that everyone agreed on. Hobbes, by contrast, looked for natural law and viewed experiments as the artificial, unreliable products of an exclusive guild.

The new approaches taken in Leviathan and the Air-Pump have been enormously influential on historical studies of science. Shapin and Schaffer found a moment of scientific revolution and showed how key scientific givens--facts, interpretations, experiment, truth--were fundamental to a new political order. Shapin and Schaffer were also innovative in their ethnographic approach. Attempting to understand the work habits, rituals, and social structures of a remote, unfamiliar group, they argued that politics were tied up in what scientists did, rather than what they said. Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer use the confrontation between Hobbes and Boyle as a way of understanding what was at stake in the early history of scientific experimentation. They describe the protagonists' divergent views of natural knowledge, and situate the Hobbes-Boyle disputes within contemporary debates over the role of intellectuals in public life and the problems of social order and assent in Restoration England. In a new introduction, the authors describe how science and its social context were understood when this book was first published, and how the study of the history of science has changed since then.


Introduction to the 2011 edition
Up for Air:
Leviathan and the Air-Pump
a Generation On

When Princeton University Press asked us whether we were in
terested in participating in a new edition of Leviathan and the
Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life
, first published
in 1985, we were pleased to have an opportunity to reflect on
the circumstances of the book’s original composition and some
aspects of its early reception. in addition to this substantial
new introduction, a decision was made to omit the translation
of Thomas Hobbes’s Dialogus physicus; otherwise, the text is

There are two technologies especially relevant to this new edition of Leviathan and the Air-Pump. the first one is obvious: the air-pump. Its physical operation and its role in making seventeenth-century scientific knowledge were this book’s stated subjects. It has been said that what distinguished this way of telling a historical story about science is that its “real hero” was not a person but an instrument. the second technology is not so obvious, nor was it obvious to the authors when they wrote the book over a quarter century ago. Just as the air-pump was a device for making scientific knowledge of a certain kind, so this technology was a device for making historical knowledge of a certain kind. That technology was a typewriter.

It’s useful to bear this second knowledge-making technology in mind since its workings were transparent to the authors in the mid1980s when it served their knowledge-making purposes. But it was just about the last piece of work either of them produced using that technology. Within a year or so, like practically every other academic, they entered the digital age. They did not reflect on the relationship between the typewriter’s capabilities and limits, on the one hand, and the forms of intellectual and social order it produced, on the other.

Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993), p. 17; also Ian Hacking, “Artificial Phenomena,” Brit. J. Hist. Sci. 24 (1991), 235–241, on 235–236.

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