The Social Construction of Scientific Knowledge

  • Everett Mendelsohn
Part of the Sociology of the Sciences A Yearbook book series (SOSC, volume 1)


In the closing pages of her remarkable study of Giordano Bruno, Frances Yates set forth the critical problem of modern science:

The basic difference between the attitude of the magician to the world and the attitude of the scientist to the world is that the former wants to draw the world into himself, whilst the scientist does just the opposite, he externalizes and impersonalizes the world… Hence, may it not be supposed, when mechanics and mathematics took over from animism and magic, it was this internalisation, this intimate connection of the mens with the world, which had to be avoided at all costs. And, hence, it may be suggested, through the necessity for this strong reaction, the mistake arose of allowing the problem of mind to fall so completely out of step and so far behind the problem of matter in the external world and how it works… This bad start of the problem of knowledge has never quite been made up (1).


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    F. A. Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, London, 1964 (Vintage Book edition, 1969, pp. 454–455).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    This point of view was summed up recently by A. R. Hall, ‘Merton Revisited, or, Science and Society in the Seventeenth Century’, History of Science 2 1963, pp. 1–16. Hall cites with admiration historians who reject economic and social influences, and instead opts for The Ascendancy of the Intellect’. John U. Nef (pp. 9–10), Alexandre Koyré (p. 11), R. G. Collingwood (pp. 11–12) are all called to testify.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    I have tried to identify some of the issues involved in comparative and cross-cultural studies in a recent paper, Everett Mendelsohn, ‘Comparative Studies in Science and Medicine: Problems and Perspectives’, in Arthur Kleinman et al. (eds.), Medicine in Chinese Cultures: Comparative Studies of Health Care in Chinese and Other Societies, Washington, D.C.: Dept. Health, Education and Welfare, 1975, pp. 659–667.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    While many authors have argued this point, two collections of essays by Michael Polanyi especially stand out: Science, Faith and Society, Oxford, 1946 and The Logic of Liberty, Reflections and Rejoinders, Chicago, London, 1951.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    The challenge brought from the outside which was forcefully stated by Theodore Roszak, The Making of a Counter Culture, Reflections on the Technocratic Society and its Youthful Opposition, Garden City, N.Y., 1969 and Where the Wasteland Ends, Politics and Transcendence in Post-Industrial Society, Garden City, N.Y., 1972. Among the historians who have turned to serious examination of the nature and meaning of these marginal activities are Robert Darnton, Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France, Cambridge, Mass., 1968; Michael McVaugh and Seymour H. Mauskopf, ‘J. B. Rhine’s Extra-Sensory Perception and Its Background in Psychical Research’, Isis 67, 1976, pp. 161–189, (this is part of a larger study to be published soon in book form); T. M. Parsinen, ‘Popular Science and Society: The Phrenology Movement in Early Victorian Britain’, Journal of Social History 8, 1974, pp. 1–20. One of the characteristics that has impressed me about these activities at the margin of orthodox and established science and medicine is the social movement nature of their organization and the intense commitment evidenced by both practitioners and lay participants. Political overtones are also often present. This emerges in Darton’s study and also in Dora Weiner’s work on F. V. Raspail, Raspail, Scientist and Reformer, New York, 1968.Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    Lynn Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science, New York, 1923–1958, 8 vols.Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    Allen G. Debus, The English Paracelsians, London, 1965. See also his review of alchemical studies in ‘Alchemy and the Historian of Science’, History of Science 6, 1967, pp. 128–138. In his Preface to a festschrift for Walter Pagel, Debus cites one of Pagel’s defenses of his study of the heterodoxGoogle Scholar
  8. … instead of selecting data that ‘makes sense’ to the acolyte of modern science, the historian should therefore try to make sense of the philosophical, mystical or religious ‘side-steps’ of otherwise ‘sound’ scientific workers of the past — ‘side-steps’ that are usually excused by the spirit or rather backwardness of the period. It is these that present a challenge to the historian: to uncover the internal reason and justification for their presence in the mind of the savant and their organic coherence with his scientific ideas. See Allen G. Debus (ed.), Science, Medicine and Society in the Renaissance, New York, 1972, Vol. I, p. 7.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    J. E. McGuire and P. M. Rattansi, ‘Newton and the ‘Pipes of Pan’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 21, 1966, pp. 108–143.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 10.
    The other volume by Frances A. Yates of most direct concern to the historian of science is The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, London, 1972. Walter Pagel’s two major studies are Paracelsus, An Introduction to Philosophical Medicine in the Era of the Renaissance, Basel, 1958; and William Harvey’s Biological Ideas, Basel, 1967.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. 11.
    Walter Pagel, Paracelsus, p. 4.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Walter Pagel, Paracelsus, p. iv. This modesty is all the more surprising in light of the view that Pagel enunciated (in note 8 above) in his later study of William Harvey (in note 10 above, p. 82).Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    I first became acquainted with the term ‘historical filiation of ideas’ in a paper by Robert K. Merton, ‘Social Conflict Over Styles of Sociological Work’, (1959) reprinted in Larry T. Reynolds and Janice M. Reynolds (eds.), The Sociology of Sociology, New York, 1970, p. 173.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    The single best way to enter the now voluminous sociological/social historical literature is through the bibliographical study by Ina Spiegel-Rösing, Wissenschaftentwicklung und Wissenschaftssteuerung, Einführung und Material zur Wissenschaftsforschung, Frankfurt/M., 1973.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    One of the earliest studies remains one of the best; see Martha Ornstein, The Role of Scientific Societies in the Seventeenth Century, Privately printed 1913. Chicago, 1928, 1938. Among recent detailed accounts are Maurice Crosland, The Society of Arcueil, A View of French Science at the Time of Napoleon I, London, Cambridge, Mass, 1967; Roger Hahn, The Anatomy of a Scientific Institution, The Paris Academy of Sciences, 1666–1803, Berkeley, Calif., 1971; Margery Purver, The Royal Society: Concept and Creation, London, Cambridge, Mass., 1967; Loren R. Graham, The Soviet Academy of Sciences and the Communist Party, 1927–1932, Princeton, 1967; Robert E. Schofield, The Lunar Society of Birmingham, A Social History of Provincial Science and Industry in Eighteenth-Century England, Oxford, 1963.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    One very recent study makes a conscious effort to address the linkage between the institutional structures of science and the development of the concepts of life in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France; see Claire Salomon-Bayet, L’Institution de la Science et L’Experience du Vivant, Méthode et Expérience à l’Academie Royale des Sciences, 1666–1793, Thèse pour le Doctorat d’Etat, Paris, 1976 (soon to be published). A brief example of this author’s conscious approach to achieve a methodology for this form of study is ‘L’Institution de la Science: Un Example au XVIIIe Siècle’, Annales, No. 5, Sept.-Oct. 1975, pp. 1028–1044.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, London, 1966. The notion of ‘pure’ science itself has an interesting history. It is an invention of the nineteenth century and seems to reflect the necessity to separate science done within the context of and control by the scientific community itself. This was juxtaposed to science conducted in industry or ‘applied’ science. The imagery created by the terminology of ‘pure’ versus ‘applied’ seemed to carry the intended message. It was connected with the mid-century efforts to professionalize scientific activity and to gain a place for science within the university. The contemporary literature is filled with attempts to create a clear distinction between the pure and applied sciences and to claim for the former a special place. Lyon Play fair developed the theme in England: “… the progress of abstract laws, however apparently remote from practice, is the real benefactor to his kind: in reality far more so than he who applies them directly to industry”. And Prince Albert reflecting in part the attitude developed toward science in Germany praised those scientists who adopted a “… self-conscious abnegation for the purpose of protecting the purity and simplicity of their sacred task”. For a fuller discussion of this issue see Everett Mendelsohn, ‘The Emergence of Science as a Profession in Nineteenth-Century Europe’, in Karl Hill (ed.), The Management of Scientists, Boston, 1964, pp. 3–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. 18.
    See the essay by Karl Mannheim, ‘The Sociology of Knowledge’, in Ideology and Utopia, transi. Louis Wirth and Edward Shils, London, 1936. A recent attempt to confront this issue and provide an alternative perspective is made by Peter Weingart, Wissenproduktion und soziale Struktur, Frankfurt/M, 1976.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Hessens’s paper appeared in collection of papers presented by the Soviet delegation to the International Congress of the History of Science, London, 1931, N. I. Bukharin et al., Science at the Cross Roads, London, 1931. The setting of the presentation and the reactions of the participants is studied by P. G. Werskey in an Introduction prepared for a recent reprinting of the original volume, London (Cass) 1971. The British historian, G. N. Clark, took up Hessen’s challenge (as did numerous others) and presented an alternate interpretation: Science and Social Welfare in the Age of Newton, Oxford, 1937, 2nd edition, 1949. The most sustained efforts at a Marxist interpretation of the development of science are those of the crystallographer, J. D. Bernai. The two most important works, one quite specifically focused and the other a wide canvas approach are: Science and Industry in the Nineteenth Century, London, 1953; and Science in History, London, 1954. While these works are enormously suggestive, they are flawed from the point of view of historical scholarship. A recent appraisal of Marxist scholarship in the field is to be found in Robert Young, ‘The Historiographic and Ideological Contexts of the Nineteenth-Century Debate on Man’s Place in Nature’, in Miklas Teich and Robert Young (eds.) Changing Perspectives in the History of Science. Essays in Honour of Joseph Needham, London, 1973, pp. 344–438.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    This point is elaborated in very useful fashion by Max Horkheimer, Critical Theory, Selected Essays, trans. M. J. O’Connell and others, New York, 1972. See especially, ‘The Social Function of Philosophy’, p. 263ff.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    The critical papers by Edgar Zilsel are: ‘The Origin of William Gilbert’s Scientific Method’, History of Ideas 2 pp. 1–32, 1941; ‘Problems of Empiricism’, in G. De Santillana and Edgar Zilsel, The Development of Rationalism and Empiricism, International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, Otto Neurath (ed.), Vol 2, No. 8, 1941, pp. 53–94; ‘The Sociological Roots of Science’, Amer. Journal Sociology 47, pp. 245–279, 1942. A German translation of these and other papers has recently been published: Wolfgang Krohn (ed.), Edgar Zilsel, Die sozialen Ursprünge der neuzeitlichen Wissenschaft, Frankfurt/M., 1976. A collection of Zilsel’s papers in English is being prepared by R. S. Cohen and E. Mendelsohn, to be published by Reidel in 1977.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    Robert K. Merton, ‘Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth Century England’, Osiris 4 pt. 2, 1938, pp. 360–632, reprinted Harper Torchbook, New York, 1970, with a new Preface by the author assessing the varied responses to the study through the three decades. See Merton’s collected contributions to the field: The Sociology of Science, Theoretical and Empirical Investigations, edited by Norman Storer, Chicago, 1973.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. 23.
    Merton, ‘Science, Technology and Society’, especially chapters 7–11 and Appendix A for his treatment of ‘extrinsic influences’.Google Scholar
  24. 25.
    Everett Mendelsohn, ‘Revolution and Reduction: The Sociology of Methodological and Philosophical Concerns in Nineteenth Century Biology’, in Y. Elkana (ed.), The Interaction Between Science and Philosophy, Atlantic Highlands, N.J., 1974, pp. 407–426.Google Scholar
  25. 26.
    The strength and clarity of the German reductionist claim is striking when compared to that of French contemporaries. See O. Temkin, ‘Materialism in French and German Physiology of the Early Nineteenth Century’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine 20, 1946, pp. 322–327.Google Scholar
  26. 27.
    Emile Du Bois-Reymond made just this claim in his lengthy obituary-biographical appreciation of Johannes Müller. He cited Theodor Schwann as the ‘first of the physicalists’. See E. Du Bois-Reymond, ‘Gedachtnissede auf Johannes Müller’ (1858), Reden, Leipzig, 1887, Vol. 2, especially pp. 206–219.Google Scholar
  27. 28a.
    See for example Radical Science Journal (London) 1974, Theodore Roszak (ed.), The Dissenting Academy, New York, 1968Google Scholar
  28. 28b.
    Louis Kampf and Paul Lauder (eds.), The Politics of Literature, Dissenting Essays on the Teaching of English, New York, 1972Google Scholar
  29. 28c.
    Bardon J. Bernstein (ed.), Towards a New Past, Dissenting Essays in American History, New York, 1968.Google Scholar
  30. 29.
    Rudolf Virchow, ‘Über die Standpunkte in der Wissenschaftlichen Medizin’, Archiv pathologisches Anatomie 1, 1847, translated in Leland J. Rather (ed.), Disease, Life and Man: Selected Essays by Rudolf Virchow, Stanford, 1958, p. 29.Google Scholar
  31. 30.
    A particularly interesting study of unrest and rebellion in the universities of Germany is, Konrad H. Jaransch, ‘The Sources of German Student Unrest, 1815–1848’, in Lawrence Stone (ed.), The University in Society, Princeton, 1974, Vol. 2, pp. 533–567.Google Scholar
  32. 31.
    See for example the claim made by Rudolf Virchow in one of his earliest lectures, ‘Über das Bedürfnis und die Richtigkeit einer Medizin vom Mechanismen Standpunkte’, Archiv pathologisches Anatomie 188, pp. 1–21, 1907. Although read in 1845, the paper was not published until 1907.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. 32.
    Paul Forman, ‘Weimar Culture, Causality and Quantum Theory, 1918–1927: Adaptation by German Physicists and Mathematicians to a Hostile Intellectual Environment’, Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences 3, pp. 1–114, 1971.Google Scholar
  34. 33.
    They were instrumental in founding the Berliner Physikalische Gesellschaft (1845), Virchow himself was instrumental in establishing a new journal, the Archiv für pathologische Anatomie und Physiologie (1847), a medico-political weekly, Die medizinische Reform (1848) and the Physikalische-medizinischen Gesellschaft (Wurzburg, 1849).Google Scholar
  35. 34.
    One of the few studies to adopt a comparative approach to the institutional forms of European science is J. T. Merz, A History of European Thought in the Nineteenth Century, Edinburgh, London, 1897, Vol. 1.Google Scholar
  36. 35.
    This point is made by Allen G. Debus in several of his studies of alchemical learning and practice in the Renaissance. See particularly The Chemical Dream of the Renaissance, Cambridge: Churchill College Overseas Fellow Lecture, 1968, passim; the same point emerges in his introduction to Science and Education in the Seventeenth Century (see note 39 below). He cites one Paracelsian, R. Bostocke “… in the scholes nothing may be received nor allowed that savoureth not of Aristotle, Galen, Avicen, and other Ethikes, whereby the young beginners are either not acquainted with this doctrine, or else it is brought into hatred with them. And abroad likewise the Galenists be so armed and defended by the protection, priveledges and authorities of Princes, that nothing may be received that agreeth not with their pleasures and doctrine…” (p. 16).Google Scholar
  37. 36.
    Frances Yates makes this point quite clearly in her explication of the role of the Hermetics. See The Hermetic Tradition in Renaissance Science’, in Charles S. Singleton (ed.), Art, Science and History in the Renaissance, Baltimore, 1968, pp. 255–274.Google Scholar
  38. 37.
    See the papers by Edgar Zilsel (note 21, above) who traces the emergence of empiricism from being the daily tool of the technologist and artisan to its inclusion as part of the broader system of explanation and action in the sciences. Francis Bacon’s plan for a ‘History of the Trades’ gives explicit recognition, to the methods of the artisan, in the scholarly and polite literature. See Paolo Rossi, Francis Bacon, From Magic to Science, (transi. Sacha Rabiovitch), London, 1968, especially chapter 1, ‘The Mechanical Arts, Magic, and Science’.Google Scholar
  39. 38.
    Galileo Galilei, Discorsi e Dimostrazioni Matematiche, Intorno à Due Nuoue Scien-ze…, Leiden, 1638. A recent English translation by Stillman Drake was published in 1974.Google Scholar
  40. 39.
    See the study by Nell Eurich, Science in Utopia, A Mighty Design, Cambridge, Mass., 1967, for a wideranging survey. In his introductory essay to the major tracts of the Webster-Ward debate, Allen G. Debus outlines the particular confrontation that was taking place between the orthodox and heterodox forces of the Scientific Revolution and the deep interest each had in education. He is particularly interested in the ‘chemists’ and attempts to correct earlier historical treatments which derided several of the educational reformers for their belief in magic and chemistry; Science and Education in the Seventeenth Century, The Webster-Ward Debate, London, New York, 1970.Google Scholar
  41. 40.
    See Carolo Cipolla, Literacy and Development in the West, London, 1969. See especially pp. 52–61.Google Scholar
  42. 41.
    In a review of a series of studies on magic, witchcraft and religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Lawrence Stone examines these issues. See The Disenchantment of the World’, New York Review of Books, December 2, 1971, pp. 17–25.Google Scholar
  43. 42.
    See Frances Yates’ description of the Rosicrucians for an example: Yates, Rosicrucian Enlightenment. Google Scholar
  44. 43.
    Debus, Chemical Dream, p. 26 and Science and Education in the Seventeenth Century, p. 20.Google Scholar
  45. 44.
    See Christopher Hill, Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution, Oxford, 1965; Michael Walzer, The Revolution of the Saints, A Study in the Origins of Radical Politics, Cambridge, Mass. 1965; Arthur Raistrick, Quakers in Science and Industry, London, 1950.Google Scholar
  46. 45.
    No discussion of the social and intellectual origins of the Scientific Revolution in England will be complete henceforth without consulting the brilliant new study by Charles Webster, The Great Instauration, Science, Medicine and Reform 1626–1660, London, 1975. A preliminary assessment of its importance is given by Quentin Skinner, ‘Projectors and Practitioners’, Times Literary Supplement, July 2, 1976, pp. 810–812.Google Scholar
  47. 46.
    See the account of Galileo’s encounter with the church in Giorgio De Santillana, The Crime of Galileo, Chicago, 1955. Considering the interest that has been shown in the role of religion, especially Protestantism, in the development and reception of science, it is surprising that so little attention has been given to the Counter-Reformation and its interaction with the sciences in those countries of Europe where it became a source of authority. One of the few recent studies is Francois Russo, ‘Catholicism, Protestantism, and the Development of Science in the Sixteenth Centuries’, Journal of World History 3, 1956, reprinted in Guy S. Métraux and Francois Crouzet (eds.), The Evolution of Science, New York, 1963, pp. 291–320.Google Scholar
  48. 47.
    See the study by R. Lenoble, Mersenne ou la Naissance du Mécanisme, Paris, 1943.Google Scholar
  49. 48.
    Paolo Rossi stresses Bacon’s role as a demarcator in a recent paper ‘Hermeticism, Rationality and the Scientific Revolution’, in M. L. Righini Bonelli and William R. Shea (eds.) Reason, Experiment and Mysticism in the Scientific Revolution, New York, 1975, pp. 247–273.Google Scholar
  50. 49.
    In the opening part of De Angmentis Scientarum, Bacon reviews contemporary attitudes to the men of learning and one comes away with the image of impracticality, contentiousness, obstinate and other less than praiseful assessments. On numerous other occasions he warns against the misuse of knowledge for private gain, pleasure of mind, contention etc. See e.g. The Great Instauration, ‘Preface’.Google Scholar
  51. 50.
    See Robert Hooke, ‘The Business and Design of the Royal Society’, from Charles R. Weld, A History of the Royal Society, with Memoirs of the Presidents. Compiled from Authentic Documents, London, 1848, 2 vols.Google Scholar
  52. 51.
    Accademia del Cimento, Essayes of Natural Experiments (1667) transl. Richard Waller, London, 1684, ‘Preface to the Reader’.Google Scholar
  53. 53.
    Ornstein, Role of Scientific Societies, p. 74.Google Scholar
  54. 54.
    Thomas Sprat, History of the Royal Society, London, 1667, reprinted and edited by Jackson I. Cope and Harold W. Jones, St. Louis, London, 1959.Google Scholar
  55. 55.
    Ibid., p. 37.Google Scholar
  56. 57.
    Interest in Isaac Newton’s heterodox interests has grown in recent years as we have learned to be more tolerant of the non-positivist approaches to the formation of modern science. The most serious study to date is Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs, The Foundations of Newton’s Alchemy or ‘The Hunting of the Greene Lyon’, Cambridge, 1975. The historiography provided in the early pages of this work gives indication of the changing interpretations of Newton’s activities. A recent brief assessment of Newton as alchemist by Richard Westfall is all the more interesting coming from a scholar whose earlier interest in Newton was uncompromisingly internalist; see ‘The Role of Alchemy in Newton’s Career’, in Righini Bonelli and Shea, Reason, Experiment and Mysticism, pp. 189–232.Google Scholar
  57. 58.
    See the papers by Zilsel noted above (note 21).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© D. Reidel Publishing Company, Dordrecht-Holland 1977

Authors and Affiliations

  • Everett Mendelsohn
    • 1
  1. 1.Harvard UniversityUSA

Personalised recommendations