Tag Archives: Adam Smith

Reporting From the Front Lines of the Enlightenment



Robert Zaretsky, Boswell’s Enlightenment

           The 18th century Enlightenment was an extraordinary time when religious skepticism rose across Europe and philosophes boldly asserted that man’s capacity for reason was the key to understanding both human nature and the nature of the universe.   In Boswell’s Enlightenment, Robert Zaretsky, Professor of History at the University of Houston, provides a highly personalized view of the Enlightenment as experienced by James Boswell (1740-1795), the faithful Scottish companion to Dr. Samuel Johnson and author of a seminal biography on the learned doctor.  The crux of Zaretsky’s story lies in  Boswell’s tour of the European continent between 1763 and 1765 – the “Grand Tour” – where, as a young man, Boswell encountered seemingly all the period’s leading thinkers, including Jean Jacques Rousseau and François-Marie Arouet, known to history as Voltaire, then Europe’s two best known philosophes. Zaretsky’s self-described purpose is to “place Boswell’s tour of the Continent, and situate the churn of his mind, against the intellectual and political backdrop of the Enlightenment” (p.16-17). Also figuring prominently in Zaretsky’s account are Boswell’s encounters prior to departing for Europe with several leading Scottish luminaries, most notably David Hume, Britain’s best-known religious skeptic. The account further includes the beginning phases of Boswell’s life-long relationship with Johnson, the “most celebrated literary figure in London” (p.71) and, for Boswell, already a “moral and intellectual rock” (p.227).

         But Zaretsky’s title is a delicious double entendre, for his book is simultaneously the intriguing story of Boswell’s personal coming of age in the mid-18th century – his “enlightenment” with a small “e” – amidst the intellectual fervor of his times. The young Boswell searching for himself  was more than a little sycophantic, with an uncommon facility to curry favor with the prominent personalities of his day – an unabashed 18th century celebrity hound.  But Boswell also possessed a fertile, impressionable mind, along with a young man’s zest to experience life in all its facets. Upon leaving for his Grand Tour, moreover, Boswell was already a prolific if not yet entirely polished writer who kept a detailed journal of his travels, much of which survives. In his journal, the introspective Boswell was a “merciless self-critic” (p.97). Yet, Zaretsky writes, Boswell’s ability to re-create conversations and characters in his journals makes him a “remarkable witness to his age” (p.15).  Few individuals “reported in so sustained and thorough a manner as did Boswell from the front lines of the Enlightenment” (p.13).

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        In his prologue, Zaretsky raises the question whether the 18th century Enlightenment should be considered a unified phenomena, centered in France and radiating out from there; or whether it makes more sense to think of separate Enlightenments, such as, for example, both a Scottish and a French Enlightenment. This is a familiar theme to assiduous readers of this blog: in 2013, I reviewed Arthur Hermann’s exuberant claim to a distinct Scottish Enlightenment; and Gertrude Himmelfarb’s more sober argument for distinctive French, English and American Enlightenments. Without answering this always-pertinent question, Zaretsky turns his account to young Boswell’s search for himself and the greatest minds of 18th century Europe.

        Boswell was the son of a prominent Edinburgh judge, Alexander Boswell, Lord Auchinleck, a follower of John Knox’s stern brand of Calvinism and an overriding force in young Boswell’s life. Boswell’s effort to break the grip that his father exerted over his life was also in many senses an attempt to break the grip of his Calvinist upbringing. When as a law student in Edinburgh his son developed what Lord Auchinleck considered a most unhealthy interest in theatre — and women working in the theatre — he sent the wayward son from lively and overly liberal Edinburgh to more subdued Glasgow. There, Boswell came under the influence of renowned professor Adam Smith.  Although his arguments for the advantages of laissez faire capitalism came later, Smith was already a sensation across Europe for his view that empathy, or “fellow feeling,” was the key to understanding what makes human beings good.    A few years later, Lord Auchinleck started his son on his Grand Tour across the European continent by insisting that young Boswell study civil law in the Netherlands, as he had done in his student days.

        Throughout his travels, the young Boswell wrestled with the question of religious faith and how it might be reconciled with the demands of reason. The religious skepticism of Hume, Voltaire, and Rousseau weighed on him.  But, like Johnson, Boswell was not quite ready to buy into it. For Boswell, reason was “not equal to the task of absorbing the reality of our end, this thought of our death. Instead, religion alone offered respite” (p.241). In an age where death was a “constant and dire presence,” Boswell “stands out for his preoccupation, if not obsession, with his mortal end” (p.15). Boswell’s chronic “hypochondria” – the term used in Boswell’s time for depression — was “closely tied to his preoccupation with his mortality” (p.15).  For Boswell, like Johnson, the defense of traditional religion was “less fear of hell than fear of nothingness – what both men called ‘annihilation’” (p.85).

      Boswell’s fear of the annihilation of death probably helps explain his life long fascination with public executions. Throughout the Grand Tour, he consistently went out of his way to attend these very public 18th century spectacles, “transfixed by the ways in which the victims approached their last moments” (p.15). Boswell’s attraction to public executions, whose official justification was to “educate the public on the consequences of crime” was, Zaretsky notes, “exceptional even among his contemporaries” (p.80). But if the young Boswell feared death, he dove deeply into life and, through his journal, shared his dives with posterity.

        A prodigious drinker and carouser, Boswell seduced women across the continent, often the wives of men he was meeting to discuss the profound issues of life and death. At seemingly every stop along the way, moreover, he patronized establishments practicing the world’s oldest profession, with several bouts of gonorrhea resulting from these frequentations, followed by excruciatingly painful medical treatments. Boswell’s multiple encounters with the opposite sex form a colorful portion of his journal and are no small portion of the reason why the journal continues to fascinate readers to this day.

        But Boswell’s first significant encounter with the opposite sex during the Grand Tour was also his first significant encounter on the continent with an Enlightenment luminary, Elisabeth van Tuyell van Serooskerken, whom the young Scot wisely shortened to “Belle.” Boswell met Belle in Utrecht, the Netherlands, his initial stop on the Grand Tour, where he was ostensibly studying civil law. Belle, who went on to write several epistolary novels under her married name, Isabelle de Charrière, was a sophisticated religious skeptic who understood the “social and moral necessity of religion; but she also understood that true skepticism entailed, as Hume believed, a kind of humility and intellectual modesty” (p.127). Belle was not free of religious doubt, Zaretsky notes, but unlike Boswell, was “free of the temptation to seek certainty” (p.127).   Boswell was attracted to Belle’s “lightning” mind, which, as he wrote a friend, “flashes with so much brilliance [that it] may scorch” (p.117). But Belle was not nearly as smitten by Boswell as he was with her, and her father never bothered to pass to his daughter the marriage proposal that Boswell had presented to him. The two parted when Boswell left Utrecht, seeking to put his unrequited love behind him.

        Boswell headed from the Netherlands to German-speaking Prussia and its king, “enlightened despot” Frederick the Great.  Zaretsky considers Frederick “far more despotic than enlightened” (p.143), but Frederick plainly saw the value to the state of religious tolerance. “Here everyone must be allowed to go to heaven in his own way” (p.145) summarized Frederick’s attitude toward religion.  Frederick proved to be one of the era’s few luminaries who was “indifferent to the Scot’s irrepressible efforts at presenting himself to them” (p.141), and Boswell had little direct time with the Prussian monarch during his six month stay.

          But Boswell managed back-to-back visits with Rousseau and Voltaire in Switzerland, his next destination. Rousseau and Voltaire had both been banished from Catholic France for heretical religious views. Rousseau, who was born in Calvinist Geneva,  was no longer welcome in that city either because of his religious views.  Beyond a shared disdain for organized religion, the former friends disagreed about just about everything else — culture and civilization, theater and literature, politics and education.  Zaretsky’s chapter on these visits, entitled “The Distance Between Môtiers and Ferney” – a reference to the remote Swiss locations where, respectively, Rousseau and Voltaire resided — is in my view the book’s best, with an erudite overview of the two men’s wide ranging thinking, their reactions to their impetuous young visitor, and the enmity that separated them.

         Zaretsky describes Rousseau as a “poet of nature” (p.148), for whom religious doctrines led “not to God, but instead to oppression and war” (p.149).   But Rousseau also questioned his era’s advances in learning and the Enlightenment’s belief in human progress. The more science and the arts advanced, Rousseau argued, the more  contemporary society became consumed by personal gain and greed.  Voltaire, the “high priest of the French Enlightenment” (p.12), was a poet, historian and moralist who had fled from France to England in the 1730s because of his heretical religious views. There, he absorbed the thinking of Francis Bacon, John Locke and Isaac Newton, whose pragmatic approach and grounded reason he found superior to the abstract reasoning and metaphysical speculation that he associated with Descartes. While not an original or systematic thinker like Locke or Bacon, Voltaire was an “immensely gifted translator of their work and method” (p.172).

         By the time Boswell arrived in Môtiers, the two philosophes were no longer on speaking terms. Rousseau publicly termed Voltaire a “mountebank” and “impious braggart,” a man of “so much talent put to such vile use” (p.158). Voltaire returned the verbal fire with a string of vitriolic epithets, among them “ridiculous,” “depraved,” “pitiful,” and “abominable.” The clash between the two men went beyond epithets and name-calling. Rousseau publicly identified Voltaire as the author of Oath of the Fifty, a “brutal and hilarious critique of Christian scripture” (p.180). Voltaire, for his part, revealed that Rousseau had fathered five children with his partner Thérèse Levasseur, whom the couple subsequently abandoned.

        The enmity between the two men was not an obstacle to Boswell visiting each, although his actual meetings constitute a minor portion of the engrossing chapter. Boswell had an “improbable” five separate meetings with the usually reclusive Rousseau. They were wide-ranging, with the “resolute and relentless” Boswell pursing “questions great and small, philosophical and personal” (p.156). When Boswell pressed Rousseau on how religious faith could be reconciled with reason, however, Rousseau’s answer was, in essence, that’s for you to figure out. Boswell did not fare much better with Voltaire on how he might reconcile reason with religious faith.

          Unlike Rousseau, Voltaire was no recluse. He prided himself on being the “innkeeper of Europe” (p.174), and his residence at Ferney was usually overflowing with visitors. Despite spending several days at Ferney, Boswell managed a single one-on-one meeting with the man he described as the “Monarch of French Literature” (p.176). In a two-hour conversation that reached what Zaretsky terms “epic proportions” (p.178), the men took up the subject of religious faith. “If ever two men disputed with vehemence we did” (p.178), Boswell  wrote afterwards.  The young traveler wrote eight pages on the encounter in a document separate from his journal.  Alas, these eight pages have been lost to history. But we know that the traveler  left the meeting more than a little disappointed that Voltaire could not provide the definitive resolution he was seeking of how to bridge the chasm between reason and faith.

          After a short stay in Italy that included “ruins and galleries . . .brothels and bawdy houses. . .churches and cathedrals” (p.200), Boswell’s last stop on the Grand Tour was the island of Corsica, a distant and exotic location where few Britons had ever visited.  There, he met General Pasquale Paoli, leader of the movement for Corsican independence from the city-state of Genoa, which exercised control over most of the island. Paoli was already attracting attention throughout Europe for his determination to establish a republican government on the island.  Rousseau, who had been asked to write a constitution for an independent Corsica, wrote for Boswell a letter of introduction to Paoli.  During a six-day visit to the island, Paoli treated the mesmerized Boswell increasingly like a son. Paoli “embodied those ancient values that Boswell most admired, though frequently failed to practice: personal integrity and public authority; intellectual lucidity and stoic responsibility” (p.232). Paoli’s leadership of the independence movement demonstrated to Boswell that heroism was still alive, an “especially crucial quality in an age like his of philosophical and religious doubt” (p.217). Upon returning to Britain, Boswell became a vigorous advocate for Paoli and the cause of Corsican independence.

        Boswell’s tour on the continent ended — and Zaretsky’s narrative ends — with a dramatic flourish that Zaretsky likens to episodes in Henry Fielding’s then popular novel Tom Jones. While Boswell was in Italy, Rousseau and Thérèse were forced to flee Môitiers because of hostile reaction to Voltaire’s revelation about the couple’s five children. By chance, David Hume, who had been in Paris, was able to escort Rousseau into exile in England, leaving Thérèse temporarily behind. Boswell somehow got wind of Thérèse’s situation and, sensing an opportunity to win favor with Rousseau, eagerly accepted her request to escort her to England to join her partner.  But over the course of the 11-day trip to England, Boswell and Thérèse “found themselves sharing the same bed. Inevitably, Boswell recounted his sexual prowess in his journal: ‘My powers were excited and I felt myself vigorous’” (p.225). No less inevitably, Zaretsky notes, Boswell also recorded Thérèse’s “more nuanced response: ‘I allow that you are a hardy and vigorous lover, but you have no art’” (p.225).

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       After following Boswell’s encounters across the continent with many of the period’s most illustrious figures, I was disappointed that Zaretsky does not return to the question he raises initially about nature of 18th century Enlightenment.   It would have been interesting to learn what conclusions, if any, he draws from Boswell’s journey. Does the young Scot’s partaking of the thoughts of Voltaire, Rousseau and others, and his championing the cause of Corsican independence, suggest a single movement indifferent to national and cultural boundaries? Or should Boswell best be considered an emissary of a peculiarly Scottish form of Enlightenment? Or was Boswell himself too young, too impressionable – too full of himself – to allow for any broader conclusions to be drawn from his youthful experiences about the nature of the 18th century Enlightenment? These unanswered questions constitute a missed opportunity in an otherwise engaging account of a young man seeking to make sense of the intellectual currents that were riveting his 18th century world and to apply them in his personal life.

Thomas H. Peebles

Florence, Italy

January 25, 2017



Filed under European History, History, Intellectual History, Religion

Northern Light I, Epiphany


Arthur Herman, How the Scots Invented the Modern World:
The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World
Everything in It

          As one whose paternal ancestors migrated to the United States in the 18th century from Peebles, Scotland — a charming town 30 miles south of Edinburgh on the river Tweed – I should be gushing with ethnic pride after reading Arthur Herman’s “How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything in It.” Herman may fall short of meeting the heavy burden he sets for himself with his impossible but surely at least partially tongue-in-check title. Nonetheless, he makes a compelling case that Scottish contributions to the 18th century Enlightenment, to the 19th century industrial revolution, and to the United States throughout its history have long been undervalued. While he disclaims Scottish ancestry for himself, Herman tells his story of Scotland with an infectious exuberance which readers of all ethnic stripes should find endearing. You don’t have to be Scottish to enjoy this book.

          Herman divides his book into two parts, “Epiphany” and “Diaspora.” “Epiphany” concentrates on 18th century Scotland and particularly the emergence of new thinking throughout that century. This part is primarily an in-depth look at what Hermann considers to be a distinctive Scottish Enlightenment. In Herman’s estimation, 18th century Scotland became the birthplace of that most elusive concept, modernity. Meanwhile, and more concretely, 18th century Scottish thinkers sketched out a conceptual blueprint for the laissez faire capitalism that would transform the world in the following centuries. “Diaspora,” as the title suggests, focuses on emigration out of Scotland, especially to North America. But Hermann also addresses here Scotland’s pragmatic application of Enlightenment principles in science and technology in the 19th century, both in Scotland and beyond its borders. A short conclusion covers 20th century Scotland and the reasons for the emergence of a new form of Scottish nationalism, with what Herman considers alarming implications for 21st century Scotland. This review addresses “Epiphany,” with “Diaspora” and Herman’s conclusion to follow.

* * *

          “Epiphany” starts with an account of the hapless Thomas Aikenhead, a 19 year old theology student from Edinburgh who in 1696 was tried in Britain’s last blasphemy prosecution, having been accused of ridiculing the Christian faith. After a trial which attracted the attention of the renowned political philosopher John Locke, Aikenhead was sentenced to death and, in January 1697, executed. Scotland was then a nation of an “unforgiving and sometime cruel Calvinist religious faith” (p.9). But Aikenhead’s execution marked the “last hurrah of Scotland’s Calvinist ayatollahs” (p.10). As the 18th century dawned, Scotland prepared to cast off the rigid Calvinist Presbyterianism that had dominated Scotland throughout the 17th century. Before the new century was over, Scotland would “generate the basic institutions, ideas, attitudes, and habits of mind that characterize the modern age. Scotland and the Scots would go on to blaze a trail across the global landscape in both a literal and a figurative sense, and open a new era in human history” (p.11).

          In 1707, the Scottish and English Parliaments united to form a new entity, known as Great Britain, governed by a single monarch and a single British Parliament. The Act of Union, although yoking Scotland to England, proved to be a “powerful engine for change, which expanded men’s opportunities at the same time as it protected what they held dear: life, liberty and property” (p.59). The Act of Union unleashed an economic boom which, in a single generation, would “transform Scotland from a Third World country into a modern society, and open up a cultural and social revolution. Far from finding themselves slaves to the English, as opponents had prophesied, Scots experienced an unprecedented freedom and mobility” (p.54). Because the English Parliament largely ignored its northern realm, Scotland ended up with the best of both worlds: “peace and order from a strong administrative state, but freedom to develop and innovate without undue interference from those who controlled it” (p.59).

          18th century Scotland attained the highest level of literacy in Europe, with Scottish intellectuals writing “not just for other intellectuals but for a genuine reading public” (p.23). Despite Scotland’s relative poverty and small population, Scottish culture had a “built-in bias toward reading, learning and education in general. In no other European country did education count for such much, or enjoy so broad a base” (p.25). Further, Scots led both their English and continental counterparts in developing new ways of thinking about the world and man’s place in it, Herman contends. Although less glamorous than the Enlightenment in France, the new wave of thinking that swept Scotland in the 18th century was in Herman’s view “in many ways more robust and original. . .[and] at least as influential” (p.63).

          In arguing that there was a distinctly Scottish Enlightenment, Herman rejects the approach of Gertrude Himmelfarb, discussed here in January, who folded the Scottish Enlightenment into that of England. But Hermann sees in the Scottish Enlightenment the same accommodation between reason and religion which Himmelfarb highlighted as key to the endurance of Enlightenment values in Great Britain and the United States. Unlike their French counterparts, the “great minds of the Scottish Enlightenment never saw Christianity as the mortal enemy” (p.81-82). Rather, the Scottish Enlightenment was supported by “erudite and believing clergymen” who “resolutely believed that a free and open sophisticated culture was compatible with, even predicated on, a solid moral and religious foundation” (p.193).

          But Scotland’s unique contribution to the new thinking of the 18th century was the priority it accorded to commercial interaction and free trade, the underpinnings of modern capitalism. “Scottish merchants and capitalists, like their American counterparts, recognized the advantages of a laissez-faire private sector far earlier than did the English or other Europeans” (p.59). Philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) and economist Adam Smith (1723-1790) are the best-known figures of the Scottish Enlightenment. But Hermann starts his discussion with an analysis of two lesser-known thinkers from the generation before Hume and Smith, Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746) and Henry Home (1696-1782), who became Lord Kames. Each had a strong influence on Hume and Smith. Together, Hutcheson and Kames “revolutionized the Scottish intellect, and created a new understanding of human nature and society that has lasted down to today” (p.62).

          Hutcheson led Scottish thinking away from the austere view of human beings as “innately depraved creatures, incapable of a generous or self-sacrificing action” (p.70). He found a middle way that “preserved the notion of an unquestionable moral law governing men’s actions, but without the austere tyranny of a jealous God” (p.70). For Hermann, Hutcheson is:

Europe’s first liberal in the classic sense: a believer in maximizing personal liberty in the social, economic, and intellectual spheres, as well as the political. But the ultimate goal of this liberty was . . . happiness – which Hutcheson always defined as resulting from helping others to be happy (p.83).

          Lord Kames was an eminent Scottish lawyer with an omnivorous intellectual appetite, combining his interest in the law with an affinity for philosophy, history, geography, and foreign travel. His “tireless energy” reflected a “key characteristic of the Scottish enlightenment mind, its passion for organizing and systematizing knowledge” (p.91). Kames viewed law not as a listless chain of precedents, but a “flexible instrument, a means for attaining order and justice . . . [which] must change as society changes, and human beings with it” (p.91). Men institute law above all to protect property. A sense of property “marked the starting line for all social arrangements” (p.95). Our desire to protect our property “forces us to take the plunge, to enter into [a] network of rights, duties, and obligations with other people, because without it we will never feel secure about our property” (p.96).

          Kames’ disciple Hume was “modernity’s first great philosopher” (p.199) who, according to Herman, “swept away all that was pretentious and sanctimonious from the Scottish intellectual scene” (p.204). Hume taught that in order to survive, society must devise strategies to channel men’s passions in constructive directions. Hume thus gave particular emphasis to the notion of self-interest. The “overriding guiding force in all our actions is . . . the most basic human passion of all, the desire for self-gratification. It is the one thing human beings have in common. It is also the necessary starting point of any system of morality, and of any system of government” (p.200).

          “In all government,” Hume wrote, “there is perpetual intestine struggle, open or secret, between Authority and Liberty, and neither of them can ever absolutely prevail in a contest” (p.203, emphasis in original). Hume was therefore clear that liberty needed a counterbalancing principle as a check on unbridled passion. Hume saw government as the force that could redirect potentially destructive passions, punish transgressors and “preserve the conditions under which liberty can be enjoyed” (p.203). Central to society’s long-term advancement was the role of commerce, to Hume the “great engine of change” (p.203).

          Although generally thought of as an economist and the founder of modern political economy, Smith considered himself “primarily as a moral philosopher” (p.197). Herman describes Smith’s Wealth of Nations as the “Summa of the Scottish Enlightenment, a summation of its exploration of the nature of human progress – and its salute to the triumph of the modern” (p.211). Its hypothesis was that “commerce and manufactures gradually introduced order and good government, and with them, the liberty and security of individuals” (p.211). Wealth of Nations thus captured the essence of the Scottish Enlightenment and the spirit that infused laissez faire capitalism.

           Capitalism for Smith brought “an intellectual as well as an economic change. It alters the way we think about ourselves and about others; we become buyers and sellers, customers and suppliers, who strive to improve the quality and quantity of our output, in order to gratify our needs” (p.212). Under Smith’s notion of capitalism, the “pursuit of our own self-interest actually causes us to reach out to others” (p.214). Further, the interdependence of the market begets independence of the mind, “meaning the freedom to see one’s own self-interest and the opportunity to pursue it” (p.215).

          Smith clearly foresaw that the division of labor which capitalism engenders can lead to focusing more and more on less and less, contracting the mind and rendering it “incapable of elevation” (p.220). Well before the outbreak of the Industrial Revolution in the early 19th century, Smith anticipated the “mental mutilation” that accompanies mass production, thereby grasping the problem of alienation that would be at the heart of Karl Marx’s theories. Although Smith defined the benefits of capitalism for a modern society, he also “opened up a whole new territory for discussion and debate, the cultural costs of capitalism” (p.220).

* * *

          “Epiphany” ably captures how, in unusually literate 18th century Scotland, Scottish thinkers forged a new vision of man and his role in society, emphasizing individual autonomy and pursuit of self-interest, but exercised within a framework of state-created rules and community mores. Readers whose enthusiasm for political theory may be less than mine will be pleasantly surprised by the liveliness of “Epiphany,” as Herman delivers his analysis of the evolution of new thinking in Scotland with ardor and wit. In “Diaspora,” which will reviewed here next month, Herman shows how the fundamental principles of the Scottish Enlightenment were applied, both in 19th century Scotland and beyond.

Thomas H. Peebles
Rockville, Maryland
March 26, 2013


Filed under British History, Intellectual History, Uncategorized

Dummy for Science

Timothy Ferris, The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature 

Steven Shapin, The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation

I revere science.  Those who know me know there is much irony in that simple sentence.  Here’s the sorry record: I struggled with high school chemistry, knowing throughout that I was in way over my head.  I dropped out of high school physics, realizing early on that I was even further over my head and headed toward a failing grade.  In an overall lackluster undergraduate academic career, by far my worst grade came in fulfilling the science requirement during my sophomore year in introductory geology, affectionately known as Rocks I — a science course deliberately tailored to the scientifically challenged.  I never again came close to a science course.  Yet, I revere science.  So I was drawn to Timothy Ferris’ “The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature,” and Steven Shapin’s “The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation.”   Although both are about science, these are very different books: Ferris treats how the scientific spirit influences democratic governance; Shapin addresses how the scientist fits into our society.

A professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, Ferris contends that the rise of modern science and the scientific spirit are linked to democratic governance.  The democratic revolution, Ferris argues, was “sparked – caused is perhaps not too strong a word – by the scientific revolution.”  Science “continues to foster political freedom today. . . [S]cientific skepticism is corrosive to authoritarianism and . . .scientific experimentation provides a better model for governance than any of the systems that preceded it”  (p.2).

Shapin, a professor at Harvard specializing in the history of science, describes the role and perception of the scientist in Western societies, particularly the United States, from the mid-19th century to the present day.  During this time, a career in science transformed from a calling to a job.  Scientists enjoyed an exalted role in the 19th century, when they were likened to philosophers whose calling was to discover the laws of nature.  This role gradually yielded to one more in keeping with modern democratic sensibilities, where scientists began to work in large corporations and government, advancing corporate and governmental interests rather than simply pursuing scientific knowledge for its own sake.  In the process, the scientist came to be perceived as being on the same moral plane as the engineer, insurance salesman and automobile mechanic.  Shapin terms this the “moral ordinariness” of the scientist.


It is important to note what Timothy Ferris’ book is not about.  It is not an argument for utilizing the scientific method to resolve the problems democracies must confront.  Nor is it an argument for government by technocrats.  It does not emphasize technical expertise as the key to democratic governance.  Rather, to be successful, democracies need the same open-minded, open-to-change spirit which characterizes scientific inquiry.  Both science and democracy “start with tentative ideas, go through agonies of experimentation, and arrive at merely probabilistic conclusions that remain vulnerable to disproof” (p.13).  Like scientific experiments, democracies tend to be “untidy, patched up affairs that seldom work out as expected.” Although repellent perhaps to the perfectionist, democracy has proven to be “tougher, more resilient, and better able to answer the needs of its citizens than any other.” And that is because democracy, like science, is “not built on hopes of human perfection but on an acknowledgement of human fallibility” (p.103).  Indeed, claims of perfection are anti-scientific and anti-democratic.  “The scientist who claims his theory is perfect is a crank; the politician who claims his administration is perfect is a tyrant” (p.14).

Although written well before the outbreak of democratic sentiment in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere during the “Arab spring,” Ferris’ view of science leads him emphatically to the conclusion that democracy is not inherently Western.   Just as science is “practiced by persons of all races and religious beliefs, speaks a universal language, and evaluates results on the basis of merits rather than place of origin,” democracy is the province of “no particular culture but belongs to everyone willing to plant and cultivate it” (p.13).

Democracy first appeared in states where science and technology were most advanced, Ferris argues, in England, America and the Netherlands (and “more fitfully” in France, Italy and Germany) because “science demanded liberty and demonstrated its social benefits, creating a symbiotic relationship in which freer nations were better able to carry on the scientific enterprise, which in turn rewarded them with knowledge, wealth and power” (p.7). The notion of democracy gained strength in the eighteenth century Enlightenment, when philosophers turned away from traditional beliefs and toward the  values of inquiry, invention and improvement.  Although other forces were at work, the Enlightenment without science would have been a ”steamship without steam” (p.57).

Ferris addresses what might appear to be an obstacle standing in the way of showing how science is integrally linked to the 18th century Enlightenment and its democratic revolution: the huge influence that France had on the Enlightenment, and the undemocratic character of much of what passed under the banner of the French Revolution.  Ferris sees the French Revolution as profoundly anti-scientific, the progenitor of modern totalitarianism at least as much as of modern democracy.  French revolutionaries “neglected the fundamental lesson of science and liberalism – that the key to success is to experiment and abide by the results – assuming instead that the point of a revolution was to implement a particular philosophy” (p.113).   The French philosophes  were inclined to regard science as subordinate to philosophy, “bounded by the rules laid down by philosophers past,” thereby downplaying science’s “creativity and its political implications” (p.114).

At the forefront of this anti-scientific philosophy was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who all but dominated French thought from 1760 on and, more than anyone else, invented Romanticism – a “Manichean world view that champions sentiment over logic, caprice over common sense, instinct over civilization, and mysticism over clarity” (p. 115-116).  Ferris’ indictment of Rousseau is scathing.  Rousseau’s “fact-free thought” created a “new and pernicious style of philosophizing – one that consists of basing real world arguments on bald fictions, then retreating into a wounded obscurantism should anyone question the legitimacy of the enterprise” (p.125). The fascist ideal of an “all-powerful ruler who embodies the spirit of the people came straight from Rousseau,” Ferris argues (p.126).  This is a controversial view which many experts reject, but one with which I agree.

So how does the scientific sprit animate democratic governance in, to choose one example randomly, the 21st century United States?  What can that spirit tell us about whether we should surtax billionaires, discontinue tax breaks for oil companies, turn Medicare into a voucher program, or cut the Defense Department budget?  Ferris’ scientific spirit provides a means to answer these and broader questions about the proper role of government regulation in a democratic economy.  Ferris quotes approvingly John Stuart Mill, whose mixed feelings about government intervention in economic matters plainly parallel his own.  “There are some things with which government ought not to meddle, and other things with which they ought,” all the while conceding that the question of which is which “does not . . . admit of any universal solution.” (p.181).  Ferris suggests that democratic societies must find the right balance between Hayek and Keynes, through a utilitarian trial-and-error process.

Portions of Ferris’ argument seem libertarian in nature, compatible with the current Republican vision of a smaller state, with less government regulation and a relatively weak social safety system.  He extols Adam Smith, whose Wealth of Nations was one of the very rare works which “actually, substantially, and almost immediately started improving the quality of human life and thought,” (174) to the point that its precepts now strike us as “largely self-evident.” (p.175).  Smith advocated regulations and other legal restrictions on economic activity “only insofar as they are required to keep the market fair and free” (p.177).  The beauty of the Smith’s free market, Ferris argues, is that it “benefits society as a whole without requiring its participants to act out of any loftier motive than self interest.” (p.177).  Free markets, “provided that they are kept aboveboard, are more efficient, and grow economies faster, than do markets that are excessively regulated, controlled, or shielded from competition” (p.187).   He emphasizes that in many developing nations, “needless government regulation has driven the majority of economic activity off the radar screens and tax rolls” (p.165).

Although tempted by libertarianism, the scientific spirit leads Ferris away from a dogmatic adherence to unfettered markets as the key to democratic success.  He cites polls that indicate that “those living in nations that distribute their income the most equitably report themselves happiest: The inhabitants of relatively socialistic nations like Iceland, Holland, Finland and Sweden show up happier than Americans, although Americans make more money” (p.155).  Further, “over the past half century the American economy has performed better under Democratic than Republican administrations” (p.185).  Ferris concludes, as Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill anticipated, that there is “no one right solution for all peoples when it comes to the proper economic role of government.”  Liberal democracies may and should vacillate between Hayek and Keynes as they seek to reach the most effective degree of government involvement in the economy and extent of their social safety nets.

There are good discussions here of why real science cannot thrive in totalitarian environments, Nazi or Soviet.  (p.199-203).  There is “no socialist science, no Western or Eastern science, no capitalist or communist or feminist or ethnic science.  There’s just science and while one scientist may do it better or worse than the next, nobody can simply invent a different science and expect it to complete successfully with the real thing” (p.209).

Ferris launches an effective assault on anti-science attitudes which one finds in some academic circles, “deconstructionism, multiculturalism, cultural studies,” which Ferris lumps together as “postmodernism.”  These approaches “became so popular that generations of educators came to believe, and continue to teach their students today, that science is culturally conditioned and politically suspect – the oppressive tool of white Western males, in one formulation.”  (p.237).  This is strong stuff, but I found myself in agreement.  However, I left this discussion thinking that Ferris was also going to hammer the anti-science attitudes that pervade wide swaths of today’s Republican party, those who believe that evolution is just another theory of the origins of life, to be considered on equal grounds with Biblical and semi-religious accounts; or that global warming and climate change are matters stirred up by Al Gore and a band of conspiring, self-aggrandizing environmental extremists.  Although he discusses the climate change controversy, he barely touches on the widespread denial of evolution within much of today’s Republican base.  I would have preferred a little more punching here.


Stephen Shapin’s book starts in the mid-19th century, when the scientist was a lonely outsider, working individually on “pure” science, with little expectation of pecuniary reward for his labor (almost all scientists were male in the mid-19th century, a situation which has changed some but not all that much since that time).  Charles Darwin, the century’s most famous scientist, embodied the notion of the “gentleman-amateur.”  Darwin was “never employed to produce scientific knowledge, nor was the knowledge he produced designed to be of use to the contemporary structures of power and profit” (p.42).  The scientist’s role was likened to that of a philosopher whose calling was to discover the Laws of Nature — a higher calling than simply applying those laws.

This exalted role and perception of the scientist changed in the late 19th and early  20th centuries, as industrialization transformed western societies and scientists began to work first for major corporations like Bell Telephone, General Electric, and Eastman Kodak, and then government.  In the corporate world, scientists usually worked in teams rather than individually, applying their expertise to advance the corporation’s interest in greater profits.  Gradually, scientists lost their affinity to philosophers and became more like engineers and technicians, “morally no different from anyone else”  (p.23).  Knowing about nature was, Shapin writes, “no longer like knowing a divinely written book, but like knowing how a car engine worked” (p.25).  This “moral ordinariness” of the scientist is a projection of modern “democratic sensibilities,” suited to “both the quantitative expansions of the scientific role and to changing institutional circumstances in which scientists increasingly found themselves – handmaids to the creation of wealth and enhancement of power” (p.127).

The mobilization of science during World War II –especially the Manhattan project — proved to be a definitive turning point in altering the role and perception of the scientist, bringing about “massive changes in the social and cultural realities of American science, in understandings of what science was and who the scientist was” (p.64).  The war:

propelled a generation of academic scientists into a world that was generally unfamiliar to them: the experience of large-scale organization; of teamwork; of interdisciplinary research; of unlimited resources and severely limited time; of close contact with the sorts of people – especially the military and the commercial worlds – they had not known much about; and, after the end of the war and the beginning of the Cold War, the experience – for some of them – of political power (p.64-65).

Yet, as scientists began to fit ever more easily into corporate and government molds, an “emotionally charged” debate took place throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s over the role of the scientist, with many looking nostalgically at the lost role of the pure, 19th century gentleman-amateur scientist.  According to one “classical trope,” the capacity to produce “genuine scientific knowledge” was only compatible with the “virtues of the free-acting individual” (p.173).  Organized research was said to be a “prostitution of the very idea of science and a visible index of how modernity was going disastrously wrong” (p.96).

The best expression of this mid-century angst was William White’s The Organization Man, published in 1956Whyte saw the “individualism of the Protestant Ethic” being “systematically subverted” by the “deadening hand of corporate collectivism” (p.175).  Whyte’s book came out in the midst of the Cold War, and was one of several works that contended that attempts to transform the making of scientific knowledge into a formally organized endeavor “could succeed only by sacrificing Truth, Progress and ultimately Power” (p.173).  Were Galileo and Einstein alive in the mid-1950s, biochemist Erwin Chargaff wrote wistfully, they “might never get themselves funded by a Federal grant: too individualistic” (p.173).

In the Cold War and McCarthyite context, the scientist was seen as being at the heart of a struggle between “authentic American individualism and the dark forces of conformity and collectivism” (p.120).  The “defense of scientific individualism became a powerful way of reminding American society how much its security and welfare depended upon some of its least sociable and least conforming members” (p.177).  In 1953, Fortune Magazine wrote that the scientist, “particularly the most gifted is, by almost any definition, a maverick. His endowments, drives, interests, political opinions, and even religious beliefs are not, in most cases, those of the majority of society” (p.182).

While Big Science, as it was called, was “celebrated, condemned, and recurrently treated either as a major achievement or a major problem” (p.95), it continued to flourish unabated in major corporations, government, and academic research laboratories.  In 1965, one commentator wrote that the scientist of the day was “typically an ‘organization man’” (p.197).  A corporate science research section touted its virtues:  “No geniuses here; just a bunch of average Americans working together” (p.177). A GE research manager wrote that, as a general rule, “no laboratory can afford to hire men who lack the generous spirit of cooperation” (p.184).   By the mid-1970s, the debate was over: Big Science had won and America had come to terms with the scientific profession as a “route to a comfortably bourgeois style of living” (p.209).

In the last section, Shapin treats the more recent alignment between venture capitalists and scientists, particularly those involved in information and biotechnology.  In what might be termed a new paradigm, the scientist is no longer part of a gigantic corporation.  He or she seeks to help launch a small to medium size business and, often, to run or have a major role in running the enterprise.  This section reads in part like a manual on how to convince the venture capitalist to underwrite and market scientists’ innovative ideas.   The key is to sell oneself as much as one’s ideas.  “Bet on the jockey, not the horse,” is a famous proverb of the venture capitalist world.  “Jockeys live longer than horses, and they’re the ones that have got to steer the horse, to correct the errors of its ways, and to make adaptations to course conditions and the behavior of rival horses” (p.291).  And, especially, avoid the term “new paradigm.”  As one venture capitalist put it, “[I]f I had a dime for every company that has told me it was the new paradigm, I would be rich enough to pay Bill Gates’s legal bill” (p. 290).


If there is a link between these otherwise very different books, it probably lies in Shapin’s notion of the moral ordinariness of the scientist and the compatibility of this notion with modern democratic sensibilities.  There is a rough parallel between the demise of the 19th century gentleman-amateur scientist and the expansion of the right to vote beyond its 18th and early 19th century restriction to white male property holders.  As scientists became less like philosopher kings and more like insurance salesmen, so too the expanding franchise brought the property-less, blacks and women to the ballot box.  Today, no one would question the factory worker having the same access to the ballot as the factory owner.  There is a moral ordinariness to all of us in the voting booth.

Nonetheless, Shapin would likely agree with Gary Rosen, who argued in his perceptive review of Ferris’ book that science remains a sort of an aristocracy. “Experiment, equality and freedom of expression are essential to this work, but it is the work of an elite community from which most people are necessarily excluded,” Rosen wrote (New York Times Book Review, February 10, 2010).  Thankfully, he concluded, “participation in the everyday life of democracy does not require a PhD, nor are theories and ideas its basic medium.”

Ideally, rationality and an empirical weighing of choices, roughly analogous to the scientific method, should drive the functioning of our democracy.  But it is difficult to see this degree of rationality at work in today’s cantankerous democratic processes, whether at the ballot boxes or in the halls of Congress.  It is easy to agree with Ferris that science and democratic evolution have historically been mutually re-enforcing.  But science’s influence on contemporary democratic practice seems more suspect.  Further, there is universality to science — as Ferris says, no Eastern or Western science, “just science.”  Democracy, however, is shaped by profoundly idiosyncratic factors, such as history, culture, and tradition.  India, Sweden and the United States are all democracies, yet are far from carbon copies of one another.

Ferris’ interpretation nonetheless provides us with plenty to think about, and I hope his book will prove to be a major contribution to our understanding of how democracy evolved.  Shapin candidly states that his book is primarily for academic historians and social scientists, unlikely to be of interest to the general reader.  But this general reader was pleased to have taken the plunge, finding his work surprisingly engrossing.  Both works enhance a reverence not only for science but also for creative thinking.

Thomas H. Peebles

Rockville, Maryland

May 20, 2012


Filed under Politics, Science