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Leviathan and the Air-Pump


Leviathan and the Air-Pump

Leviathan and the Air-Pump
Author Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer
Country United States
Language English
Publisher Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey
Publication date
Media type Print
OCLC 21974013
533/.5 19
LC Class QC166 .S47 1985

Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (published 1985) is a book by Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer. It examines the debate between Robert Boyle and Thomas Hobbes over Boyle's air-pump experiments in the 1660s. In 2005, Shapin and Schaffer were awarded the Erasmus Prize for this work.

On a theoretical level, the book explores the acceptable methods of knowledge production, and societal factors related to the different knowledge systems promoted by Boyle and Hobbes. The "Leviathan" in the title refers to Hobbes's book on the structure of society, Leviathan, or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil and the "Air-Pump" refers to Robert Boyle's invention. The book also contains a translation by Schaffer of Hobbes's Dialogus physicus de natura aeris. It attacked Boyle and others who founded the society for experimental research, soon known as the Royal Society.


  • Intention of the work 1
  • Reception of Leviathan and the Air-Pump 2
  • Editions 3
  • Notes 4
  • External links 5

Intention of the work

Shapin and Schaffer state, in their first chapter Understanding Experiment, that they wish to answer the question, "Why does one do experiments in order to arrive at scientific truth?"[1] Their aim is to use a historical account of the debate over the validity of Boyle's air pump experiments, and by extension his experimental method, to discover the origins of the credibility that we give experimentally produced facts today. The authors wish to avoid "'The self-evident'"[2] method, which (they explain) is when historians project the values of their current culture onto the time period that they are studying (in this case valuing the benefits of empiricism). They wish to take a "stranger's"[2] viewpoint when examining the debate between Hobbes and Boyle because, in the 1660s, both methods of knowledge production were well respected in the academic community[3] and the reasons that Boyle's experimentalism prevailed over Hobbes's natural philosophy would not have been obvious to contemporaries.

They explain that, traditionally, Hobbes's position on natural philosophy has been dismissed by historians because historians perceived Hobbes as "misunderstanding"[4] Boyle's work. Thus, in Leviathan and the Air-Pump, Shapin and Schaffer aim to avoid bias and consider both sides' arguments with equal weight. In addition, they comment on the social instability of Restoration society post-1660. They aim to show that the debate between these two contemporaries had political fallout beyond the intellectual sphere, and that accepting Hobbes or Boyle's method of knowledge production was also to accept a social philosophy.[5]

Reception of Leviathan and the Air-Pump

The work has been described as a classic example in the history of science of the posing of a basic question on scientific rationality. Can the rationality of two sides in a debate be described, from outside, when hindsight operates and the "road not taken" by science is known?[6] Margaret C. Jacob wrote that, for a time, it was the most influential book in the field of history of science, following the trend to relativism with its equation of "scientific discourses" with "strategies of power".[7]

J. L. Heilbron credits Shapin and Schaffer with picking important aspects of the development of experimental culture that are still relevant, citing specifically the problems with replication. However, he casts doubt upon the strength of the relationship between politics of the greater society and the politics within the Royal Society. In addition, Heilbron laments the absence of comparisons to the development of empiricism in the rest of Europe because it blinds the reader to what may have been peculiar to England's case.[8]

Anna Marie Roos, on the other hand, writes that Shapin and Schaffer do indeed draw a connection between the history of science and the history of political thought, and that their resolution to remain impartial when examining the argument between Hobbes and Boyle forces historians of science and politics alike to recognize the relationship between the two branches of knowledge.[9]

Lawrence M. Principe, in The Aspiring Adept: Robert Boyle and His Alchemical Quest, argues extensively that many of the conclusions reached by Shapin and Schaffer rest on inaccurate and at times presentist conceptions of Boyle's work.[10]

Noel Malcolm and Cees Leijenhorst deny the political background of the Hobbes-Boyle controversy. They argue that Hobbes’ rejection of the void has no political agenda and has nothing to do with his attack on incorporeal substances, as Shapin and Schaffer claim. Both Malcolm and Leijenhorst call attention to the remarkable fact that Hobbes was already attacking incorporeal substances when he was a vacuist, and long before he became a plenist.[11][12]

Frank Horstmann, in Leviathan und die Erpumper. Erinnerungen an Thomas Hobbes in der Luftpumpe, has devastating comments on the historical evidence. He makes a careful examination and argues that Shapin and Schaffer have a lot of important facts wrong. Before May 1648, for example, Hobbes preferred vacuist interpretations of experimental pneumatics and strictly rejected plenist interpretations as not imaginable;[13] but Shapin and Schaffer turn the vacuist into a plenist by ignoring all the vacuist interpretations and by producing a very faulty translation as a putative proof for a plenist interpretation.[14] Horstmann refers to a plenty of similar errors and wrong quotations in Leviathan and the Air-Pump and points out that the chapters dealing with Hobbes are constructed on heavy and sometimes systematic misrepresentations of the historical record.[15]


  • Hardcover ISBN 0-691-08393-2, OCLC 12078908
  • Paperback ISBN 0-691-02432-4, OCLC 21974013


  1. ^ Shapin & Schaffer 1985, pp. 3
  2. ^ a b Shapin & Schaffer 1985, pp. 4
  3. ^ Shapin & Schaffer 1985, pp. 8
  4. ^ Shapin & Schaffer 1985, pp. 12
  5. ^ Shapin & Schaffer 1985, pp. 14
  6. ^ austin harrington; Barbara L. Marshall; Hans-Peter Mèuller (2006). Encyclopedia of Social Theory. Routledge. pp. 534–5.  
  7. ^ Victoria E. Bonnell; Lynn Avery Hunt; Richard Biernacki (1999). Beyond the Cultural Turn: New Directions in the Study of Society and Culture. University of California Press. pp. 101–2.  
  8. ^ Heilbron
  9. ^ Roos
  10. ^ Lawrence M. Principe. The Aspiring Adept: Robert Boyle and His Alchemical Quest. Princeton University Press, Princeton 1998. ISBN 0-691-01678-X.
  11. ^ Noel Malcolm: Aspects of Hobbes. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2002. ISBN 0-19-924714-5. pp. 187-191.
  12. ^ Cees Leijenhorst: The Mechanisation of Aristotelianism: the Late Aristotelian Setting of Thomas Hobbes’ Natural Philosophy. Brill, Leiden 2002. ISBN 90-04-11729-6. p. 127.
  13. ^ Thomas Hobbes: Thomas White’s De Mundo Examined. Bradford University Press, London 1976. p. 47
  14. ^ Shapin & Schaffer, p. 84
  15. ^ Frank Horstmann: Leviathan und die Erpumper. Erinnerungen an Thomas Hobbes in der Luftpumpe. Mackensen, Berlin 2012. ISBN 978-3-926535-52-8

External links

  • Leviathan and the Air PumpUnderstanding Experiment: Shapin and Schaffer's
  • Richard C Jennings' Review
  • J.L. Heilbron's Review
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