- Making/Consolidating Science*
Stephen Gaukroger has proposed one of the most ambitious projects that we have seen in the history and philosophy of science in many years. In essence, he wants to understand, in detail, how the Western scientific world emerged, and even more audaciously, why it emerged in Europe, but not in other parts of the world, particularly in East and South Asia.
At the heart of Gaukroger’s project is a “crucial distinction . . . that between the emergence of theoretical and experimental developments that initiate scientific programs and the cultural consolidation of these programs.” His claim, quite plausible, is that in other cultures at other times there have been periods of rapid and impressive progress in the sciences. But, he notes, in the typical case “science was just one of a number of activities in the culture,” one that had no special place. As a result, interest in the sciences waxed and waned, as science competed with other aspects of the culture for attention and resources. But, he claims, what happened in the West in the 17th century was unique: “the traditional balance of interests was replaced by a dominance of scientific concerns.” This is what Gaukroger seeks to explain, how the Scientific Revolution came permanently to change Western society, transforming it into a scientific society.
Gaukroger’s key concept is consolidation: “what distinguishes these earlier cultures is their apparent failure to consolidate scientific gains.” What exactly does consolidation mean? Gaukroger characterizes it as the aim “to promote the cognitive claims of science and build a legitimate scientific culture around them” or, to put it another way, “to establish science as a model of cognitive activity.” Consolidation is distinct from both the scientific enterprise and scientific cognitive values. Gaukroger argues that “the idea of large-scale consolidation is not something inherent in the scientific enterprise as such.” Yet “it is inherent in Western scientific enterprise after the Scientific Revolution.” Gaukroger’s project with respect to consolidation is to understand why it became attached to the scientific enterprise, how it became attached to the scientific enterprise, and, in the end, how it succeeded in its goal of establishing science as a model of cognitive activity over a wide domain of Western culture.
I have my doubts about whether Gaukroger’s analysis of consolidation can reveal what is distinctive about Western scientific culture. I have a nagging feeling that what Gaukroger calls consolidation may be more the result (or even the sign) of the success of the scientific project in the West than its explanation, properly speaking. But I want to set aside that worry for the moment and concentrate on another complication I find in Gaukroger’s project.
Let me begin with the idea of science itself. It is not easy to pin down just what “science” is. It is certainly a charged word, often used as a term of praise; to say that a claim is “scientific” is usually (though not always) considered high praise. But it is hard to give it any real content. My Random House Webster’s offers one definition of it as “systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experiment.” This, though, would seem to limit science to the physical and possibly biological sciences, insofar as they deal with the “material” world. Wikipedia is somewhat more helpful: it characterizes science as “a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.” Science, as popularly understood, generally involves the systematic collection of evidence, the use of some kind of rigorous and objective method, perhaps mathematical, to evaluate that evidence, and the commitment to a kind of rationality that holds practitioners to the standard of not believing anything that isn’t well supported by evidence. These seem like the kind of cognitive values that are at issue in science as we understand it, and the aim of consolidation would seem to be to make these kinds of values apply more widely to other domains of life. I think it is fair to say that the generally held assumption is that these cognitive values unite the different domains of inquiry in...