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By David N. Livingstone


A Social History of Truth

"A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England." By Steven Shapin, University of Chicago Press 483 pp.; $16.95, paper

Time was when the ideals of natural science reigned imperiously over every other form of knowledge. Bona fide statements about history, society, religion, human nature, and much else besides, were supposed to follow the strictures of the physical sciences. Natural knowledge, to put it another way, dominated the study of the social world. From this naturalistic impulse there developed all kinds of seemingly mutant intellectual and disciplinary species: social physics, scientific history, behaviorist psychology, positivist sociology, functionalist anthropology, scientific management, naturalized theology.

That science itself might be considered a social practice or a cultural construct was never entertained as a serious possibility. Even anthropologists like Emile Durkheim, with a penchant for socializing religious categories, norms of rationality, and most everything else, drew back from applying anthropological method to science--and indeed to social science itself.

It seems, however, that we have come full circle, as sociologists of scientific knowledge are plying the tools of their new trade. Now, the sociological is eating up the science. The basic idea is that scientific theory, both present and past, constitutes a belief system, much like any other, and should be investigated in the same way that anthropologists study tribes and trances, rituals and riots, funerals and fiestas, social structures and spatial arrangements. Science, in this scenario, becomes just another of the symbolic belief systems characteristic of cultures in general and open to the methods of sociologist and social anthropologist.

One major implication of this sociological turn, of course, is that questions about the truth or falsity of any scientific claim can simply be shelved because accounts of why certain theories survive are to be sought in ...

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