Looking twice at the history of science

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

A Critical Second Look: Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air Pump (1985)

Overinflated? The second (2011) edition of LAP
There are many books that polarise their readership, causing some readers to swoon and others to spew (so to speak). There are not many books that polarise individual readers, causing them to swoon and spew simultaneously. I place Leviathan and the Air Pump: Hobbes, Boyle and the Experimental Life (LAP), the classic 1985 work on the history of science by Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, in the latter category. When I read this book for the first time, as a Masters student in History and Philosophy of Science, I was doubly impressed—firstly by the scope and subtlety of the argument, secondly by the conviction that said argument was seriously flawed. Time has not dulled these impressions, as I discovered when I reread the book a few months ago. The latest number of Isis carries ten essays on the book, none of which mention the deep problems that account for the negative part of my reaction—a reaction I have not just to this book but to many of the works that have been, and continue to be, influenced by it. Expand post.