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Thomas F. Gieryn

Distancing Science from Religion in Seventeenth-Century England


Volume 79, Issue 4

Dec. 1988, 582-593



The Postulate of Institutional Differentiation

Functionalism to Constructivism

An Ambivalent Border between Science and Religion


I FIRST READ Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth-Century England as a third-year graduate student at Columbia, just after Robert Merton asked me to become his research assistant.  I was struck immediately by the contrast between the book and then-current research (1975 or so) in the sociology of science by Merton and his close collaborators Harriet Zuckerman, Jonathan Cole, and Stephen Cole.  To resuscitate for the moment an archaic conceptual dichotomy, the old stuff was as steadfastly “externalist” as the new stuff was

Department of Sociology, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana 47405.


intemalist.”  To set Science, Technology and Society alongside, for example, the Coles’ Social Stratification in Science must have forced a perplexed neophyte to ask the real sociology of science to please stand up. [1]  Should I write my dissertation on the cultural and economic factors in society that, shape the growth and direction of science?  Or should I write it on social and cognitive processes within the institution of science, considered autonomously from the rest of society?

Now, more than a decade later and some seven hundred miles from Morningside Heights, I have read Science, Technology and Society for the third or possibly the seventh time.  What struck me then as a puzzling choice between two promising but almost irreconcilable research agendas for the sociology of science appears now to be the consequence of a postulate that runs straight through Merton’s studies of science from the 1930s to the 1980s: the “postulate of institutional differentiation. In this brief celebration of the Merton thesis (the eponym has been certified by Isis [2]), I shall identify the postulate of institutional differentiation and say two things about it: first, the postulate leads Merton to focus on a seventeenth-century rhetoric that links science and religious values but to neglect coexistent rhetorical efforts that distance science from certain elements of religion; second, the postulate serves as a measure for theoretical progress in sociology of science over the last half century, especially so for the most recent tumul­tuous decade.


The Postulate of Institutional Differentiation

The postulate of institutional differentiation is a theory of societal change that has become taken-for-granted sociology.  Simply put, the postulate assumes that society can be analyzed in terms of institutions - science or religion, politics or family - and that through history these institutions become differentiated as they approach a never-complete autonomy.  Sociologists have yet to reach consensus on just what is meant by “institution” (a signal that the postulate deserves reconsideration [3]), though a definition offered by that introductory sociology textbook now commanding the largest market share would satisfy some: “a stable cluster of values, norms, statuses, roles and groups that develops around a basic social need.” [4]  To adopt the structural and functional language that has served Merton well, institutionalization is the functional differentiation of society into more-or-less independent subsystems that satisfy (again, more or less) discrete societal needs: the family transmits social identities and cultural values to new generations, politics and the economy allocate scarce material and symbolic resources, religion prescribes morality and settles ultimate questions, science extends certified knowledge.

1. Robert K. Merton, Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth-Century England (orig. publ. in Osiris, 1938, 4:360-632) (New York: Howard Fertig, 1988); and Jonathan R. Cole and Stephen Cole, Social Stratification in Science (Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 1972).

2. Gary A. Abraham, “Misunderstanding the Merton Thesis: A Boundary Dispute between History and Sociology,” Isis, 1983, 74:368-387.  Use of the eponym was sufficiently widespread by 1968 that Thomas S. Kuhn could refer to “the so-called Merton thesis” in his entry “History of Science,” in International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, Vol. XIV (New York: Macmillan, 1968), p. 79.  See also “Merton Thesis,” in Dictionary of the History of Science, ed. W. F. Bynum, E. J. Browne, and Roy Porter (London: Macmillan, 1981).

3. Cf. Abraham, “Misunderstanding the Merton Thesis,” pp. 374-375.

4. Ian Robertson, Sociology, 3rd ed. (New York: Worth, 1987), p. 659.

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To assume that social institutions have become, with time, increasingly differentiated implies at least the following four historical developments.  First, behavior within designated institutions becomes increasingly specialized: activity appropriate or necessary in one institutional sphere may be neither in another.  “Disinterestedness” and “communism” are functional imperatives if scientists are to achieve the institutional goal of science, but they are folly as norms for traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.  Second, as institutions become increasingly autonomous, they assume greater (but never monopolistic) internal control over the evaluation, reward, and punishment of behavior within their sphere: physicians police physicians, parents guide children.  Third, institutions legitimate their activities in an increasingly self-referential way, justifying themselves by their own values and goals rather than appealing to values or goals of other institutions.  Fourth, institutions increasingly gather momentum and set their own agendas: social change is centrifugal, as institutions move away from each other and from a hypothesized center or origin when they were more of a jumble.

What could be more... sociological?  The postulate of institutional differentiation solves that once-puzzling contrast between Science, Technology and Society and Social Stratification in Science: the contrast results from choices to examine science at an early or later stage in its institutionalization.  The study of seventeenth-century science must be externalist, for the institution then had so little functional autonomy that its activities could not be disentangled from values and goals of other social institutions.  Internalist study of reward and evaluation systems within today’s scientific community is enabled by three centuries of institutionalization, during which the legitimation of science has become self-referential and many of its activities autonomous. [5]  Perhaps this modest insight will stave off future efforts (so tedious in exegesis of Marx) to distinguish young Merton from old: externalist or internalist tendencies in Mertonian sociology of science are due to historical stages in the institutionalization of science, not to competing theoretical or methodological principles.

I shall argue in a moment that the postulate of institutional differentiation is no longer taken for granted by many sociologists of science who have embraced an alternative postulate.  For now, let me document the centrality of the postulate for Merton’s 1930s thinking about science.  The following set of contentions forms - at this lofty level of theoretical abstraction - the core of the book: science in seventeenth-century England was preinstitutionalized; science then had little of the functional autonomy and institutional specialization that it has now; the seventeenth-century rise in the prestige or valuation of science - correlated with a rise in its practice - is explained by the interdependence of science with other important social institutions; specifically, scientific activity was legitimated by its affinities with other values, through linkages to religion via its expression of Puritan values of utility, rationality, empiricism, and individualism, and to the economy via its claims to technological solutions of practical problems.

5. This is not meant to imply that externalist studies of science in the modern period are impossible: as Merton notes repeatedly (see quotations below), institutional autonomy is never complete.  An enduring theme in Merton’s structural analysis is the attempt to gauge the extent and kind of interdependence among social institutions; see Merton, Science, Technology (cit. n. 1), pp. ix-x.


Textual illustrations from Science, Technology and Society for the postulate of institutional differentiation are several and consistent.  In a discussion of how Puritan values served as motive force for the new science, Merton describes the institutionalized science of today:

Once science has become firmly institutionalized, its attractions, quite apart from any economic benefits it may bestow, are those of all elaborated and established social activities.  These attractions are essentially twofold: generally prized opportunities of engaging in socially approved patterns of association with one’s fellows and the consequent creation of cultural products which are esteemed by the group.  Such group-sanctioned conduct usually continues unchallenged, with little questioning of its reason for being.  Institutionalized values are conceived as self-evident and require no vindication.

This was not the situation of science in seventeenth-century England:

New patterns of conduct must be justified if they are to take hold and become the foci of social sentiments.  A new social order presupposes a new scheme of values.  And so it was with the new science.  Unaided by forces which had already gripped man’s will, science could claim only a bare modicum of attention.  But in partnership with a powerful social movement [here, Puritanism] which induced an intense devotion to the active exercise of designated functions, science was launched in full career.

After noting that Puritanism served “to establish [science] more firmly as a socially estimable pursuit,” Merton again mentions the subsequent differentiation of science and religion: “The fact that science today is largely and probably completely divorced from religious sanctions is itself of interest as an example of the process of secularization.”  Later Merton considers the same process of institutionalization and increasing autonomy with respect to the relationship between science and its technological applications:

For as usefulness becomes the exclusive criterion of scientific achievements, the bulk of problems which are of intrinsic scientific importance can no longer be prosecuted.  The scientists’ exaltation of pure science is thus seen to be a defence against the invasion of norms which limit possible directions of potential growth... But with the rise of the modern era [in the seventeenth century], when science had not yet attained social autonomy, the emphasis on utility served as a support.  Science was socially countenanced, even esteemed, largely because of its potential use... In the seventeenth century, the most effective sponsor of science was the utilitarian standard; today, it occasionally acts as a curb on science.

A final extract illustrates a persistent theme that the subsequent differentiation of science from religion was largely unanticipated by seventeenth-century virtuosi and publicists for science:

At various times, the dominant ideals and sentiments of a society are chiefly expressed in one or another of these fields, and it is they which largely determine the social attitudes toward other spheres.  When, as was apparently the case during the seventeenth century, utilitarian norms are dominant, other activities are evaluated in respect of their apparent accordance with these ideals and, in this sense, may be said to be dependent upon them... The social values inherent in the Puritan ethos were such as to lead to an approbation of science because of a basically utilitarian orientation, couched in religious terms and furthered by religious authority... The


possibility that science, as a means toward a religious end, would later break away from such religious supports and in a measure tend to delimit the realm of theologic control, was seemingly unrealized. [6]

That the postulate of institutional differentiation is not an incidental part of Merton’s analysis of seventeenth-century English society is evidenced by his frequent mention of it in the preface to the 1970 edition of Science, Technology and Society.

A principal sociological idea governing this empirical inquiry holds that the socially patterned interests, motivations and behaviors established in one institutional sphere - say, that of religion or economy - are interdependent with the socially patterned interests, motivations and behavior obtained in other institutional spheres - say, that of science... Separate institutional spheres are only partially autonomous, not completely so.  It is only after a typically prolonged development that social institutions, including the institutions of science, acquire a significant degree of autonomy.

The postulate is later identified as a “principal assumption underlying the entire book”:

The substantial and persistent development of science occurs only in societies of a certain kind, which provide both cultural and material conditions for that development.  This becomes particularly evident in the early days of modern science before it was established as a major institution with its own, presumably manifest, value.  Before it became widely accepted as a value in its own right, science was required to justify itself to men in terms of values other than that of knowledge itself... Before science had acquired a substantial autonomy as an institution, it needed these extraneous sources of legitimation.  It was only later that this dependence of science upon other institutionalized values began slowly to change.  Science gradually acquired an increasing degree of autonomy, claiming legitimacy as something good in its own right... But in the seventeenth century, the sometimes excessive claims for the utilities of science were mainly prelude to its institutionalization.  Once science was established with a degree of functional autonomy, the doctrine of basic scientific knowledge as a value in its own right became an integral part of the creed of scientists. [7]

To the sociologist, all this talk of “functional autonomy” and “institutionalization” evokes Emile Durkheim, who (more than any of the discipline’s other founding fathers) made institutional differentiation a staple of social theory. [8]

6. Ibid., pp. 83, 83-84, 97, 231-232, 78-79.  Space does not allow further documentation of Merton’s assumption of the postulate of institutional differentiation, but other apposite discussions appear, in Science, Technology, on pp. 103 and 225.  The postulate is also at work in papers published by Merton at roughly the same time.  In, e.g., “Science and Democratic Social Structure,” the classic 1942 paper that spelled out the normative structure of science, Merton wrote: “Three centuries ago, when the institution of science could claim little independent warrant for social support, natural philosophers were likewise led to justify science as a means to the culturally validated ends of economic utility and the glorification of God.  The pursuit of science was then of no self-evident value.  With the unending flow of achievement, however, the instrumental was transformed into the terminal, the means into the end.  Thus fortified, the scientist came to regard himself as independent of society and to consider science as a self-validating enterprise which was in society but not of it”: Robert K. Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure, 2nd enlarged ed. (New York: Free Press, 1968), p. 605.

7. Merton, Science, Technology, pp. ix, x, xix, xxii-xxiii.

8. In several important ways, Durkheim’s description of the institutionalization of science anticipates Merton’s: “That [science] was born indicates that society needed it.  For such a complex and [differentiated organization could scarcely function under a rigid system of blind instinct... One sees a kind of crude and nascent science appear in religious myth, but still wrapped up in, and mixed up with, all kinds of incompatible elements.  Little by little, it separated from these alien elements to establish itself independently under its own name and with its own special methods.  This occurred because society, as it became more complex, made such a development imperative”: Emile Durkheim, Moral Education (1925; New York: Free Press, 1961), p. 70.  Cf. Durkheim, The Division of Labor in Society (1893; New York: Free Press, 1984), pp. 119-120.  That Merton had studied Durkheim by the time he wrote Science, Technology and Society is indicated by the titles of his first two published articles: “Recent French Sociology” (Social Forces, 1934, 12:537-545) and “Durkheim’s Division of Labor in Society” (American Journal of Sociology, 1934, 40:319-328).]

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Merton does not mention Durkheim in the text of Science, Technology and Society, but instead records a debt to Max Weber, who, at least for sociologists, pioneered the study of affinities between the Puritan ethos and nontheological activity in distinctive institutions - the spirit of capitalism for Weber, the spirit of natural philosophy for Merton. [9]  However, it is precisely the Durkheimian tone of the Merton thesis that makes Science, Technology and Society of a piece with the next five decades of his sociology of science: the preinstitutionalized state of science in the seventeenth century compels sociologists to seek its understanding in relationships to values and goals of extrascientific institutions, just as the relatively autonomous state of modern science allows sociologists to seek its understanding in (for example) the internal processes of reward and evaluation.  And it is precisely the Durkheimian tone of the Merton thesis that distinguishes Science, Technology and Society from much research in the sociology of science of the late 1980s.


Functionalism to Constructivism [10]

There is an alternative to the postulate of institutional differentiation; in this context, it might best be called the postulate of institutional construction.  The “social construction of scientific knowledge” has been widely used as an umbrella to cover disparate brands of post-Mertonian sociology of science. [11]  The common points of “constructivism” appear to be these: scientific knowledge is a social construction rather than a mirror of nature; scientific facts are fabricated in laboratories and in journals, as scientists persuade others that their account of

9. Only after Merton began his study of the religious commitments of seventeenth-century natural philosophers did he come upon Weber’ s mandate to investigate “the significance of ascetic rationalism” for “scientific empiricism”; see Merton, Science, Technology, p. xvii.  For a passing reference to Durkheim in the notes see ibid., p. 60 n. 10.  The Weberian mandate appears in Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904-1905; New York: Scribners, 1958), pp. 182-183.

10. Talcott Parsons reminds us that Merton has long objected to the “-ism” form of “functional analysis” on grounds that the suffix is more appropriate to social movements or hyperbolic ideology than to a theoretical orientation.  But I have never seen “constructive analysis,” and my only excuse for the two “-isms” is symmetry.  See Parsons, “The Present Status of ‘Structural-Functional’ Theory in Sociology,” in The Idea of Social Structure, ed. Lewis A. Coser (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975), p. 67.

11. Studies of science and technology from a “social constructivist” perspective would now make for an extraordinarily long footnote.  A sampler of constructivist studies of science by key players (e.g., Barry Barnes, Harry Collins, Karin Knorr-Cetina, Bruno Latour, Michael Lynch, Michael Mulkay, Steve Woolgar) is found in Knorr-Cetina and Mulkay, eds., Science Observed (London: Sage, 1983).  The equivalent book for studies of technology is Wiebe Bijker, Thomas P. Hughes, and Trevor Pinch, eds., The Social Construction of Technological Systems (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1987).  For the following account of constructivism I have often relied upon Trevor Pinch, Confronting Nature (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1986).

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nature is true; nature allows for many descriptions and explanations – “interpretative flexibility” is omnipresent - and sociologists of science remain agnostic about the truthfulness of one or another account (or, perhaps better, they see truth as a social accomplishment, as provisional “closure” of interpretative flexibility); the meaning of a knowledge claim (or of a “norm” or of a technical procedure) is “contextually contingent” in that its interpretation resides in localized negotiations at, for example, a designated laboratory; nature, as socially constructed, is available for sociological study only through the discursive practices of scientists (their “inscriptions” in talk or text or pictures).  Nuances that diffract constructivism into the “interest model” or the “strong program” or “discourse analysis” or the “empirical program of relativism” are trifling compared to the gulf that separates constructivism from the postulate of institutional differentiation.

Constructivism takes scientific knowledge as its explanandum - How are scientific facts manufactured? - and I believe that it is still safely said that most of its empirical studies have been what once upon a time were called “internalist.”  Back in 1983, Harry Collins could “look forward to a third stage which will relate the mechanisms of closure to the wider social and political structure.” [12]  While this “third stage” is fast upon us, there is a detectable reluctance to get constructivism out of the laboratory.  Even when Bruno Latour explains the success of Pasteur’s vaccine for anthrax in terms of “wider” political or economic or professional factors, “society” is brought into Pasteur’s laboratory for analysis. [13]

The postulate of institutional construction is, in effect, the application of constructivism to the study of science “as an institution.”  But that phrasing invites misinterpretation, because this postulate makes institutions into something distinct from institutions according to the postulate of institutional differentiation.  When constructivism is expanded from a theory of scientific knowledge to a theory of social knowledge - from a theory of what scientists know to a theory of what anybody knows – “institutions” become something other than the objective social facts that Durkheim and subsequent structural-functionalists presume.  Institutions are social constructions in that their definitions, relationships, values, and goals are negotiated by ordinary people in ordinary settings. [14]  The postulate

12. Constructivists eschew the distinction between “internalism” and “externalism” because there is no definitive or objective or universal boundary that separates science from the society around it or in it or of it.  For Collins, the first stage of his constructivism is “the empirical documentation of interpretative flexibility of experimental results,” while the second stage examines the “way that the limitless debates made possible by the unlimited interpretative flexibility of data are closed down”: Harry Collins, “An Empirical Relativist Programme in the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge,” in Science Observed, ed. Knorr-Cetina and Mulkay (cit. n. 11), pp. 95-96 (emphasis added).

13. Bruno Latour, “Give Me a Laboratory and I Will Raise the World,” in Science Observed, ed. Knorr-Cetina and Mulkay, pp. 141-170.  Evidence for progress toward Collins’s “third stage” comes from Michael Mulkay, Trevor Pinch, and Malcolm Ashmore, “Colonizing the Mind: Dilemmas in the Application of Social Science,” Social Studies of Science, 1987, 17:231—256; Bruno Latour, Science in Action (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1986); and Harry Collins, “Certainty and the Public Understanding of Science: Science on Television,” Soc. Stud. Sci., 1987, 17:689-714.

14. Once this expansion is made, it becomes obvious that sociologists of science have no monopoly on “constructivism.”  Its central message is found, in differing guise, throughout the social sciences.  In anthropology, Clifford Geertz writes, “Interpretive explanation... trains its attention on what institutions, actions, images, utterances, events, customs, all the usual objects of social-scientific interest, mean to those whose institutions, actions, customs and so on they are”: Geertz, Local Knowledge (New York: Basic, 1983), p. 22.  In psychology, Jerome Bruner writes, “If one is arguing [about social ‘realities’ like democracy or equity or even gross national product, the reality is not the thing, not in the head, but in the act of arguing and negotiating about the meaning of such concepts.  Social realities are not bricks that we trip over... ,but the meanings that we achieve by the sharing of human cognitions”: Bruner, Actual Minds, Possible Worlds (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1986), p. 122.  In cultural history, Robert Darnton “attempts to show not merely what people thought but how they thought it - how they construed the world, invested it with meaning, and infused it with emotion”: Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre (New York: Basic, 1984), p. 3.  And in generic sociology, Anthony Giddens writes, “For their part, lay actors are social theorists, whose theories help to constitute the activities and institutions that are the object of study of specialized social observers or social scientists”: Giddens, The Constitution of Society (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1984), p. xxxiii.]

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of institutional construction focuses sociological attention on actors’ construction of institutions like science, on what people mean when they use the words science, scientist, or scientific.  Interpretative flexibility still holds: whatever “objective” features of science one might assume, the institution is available for multiple and not always consistent descriptions and explanations.

With this new postulate, institutional differentiation becomes a rhetorical accomplishment (with consequences that go far beyond rhetoric) rather than a functional necessity or inevitable structural attendant to modernization.  Processes of differentiation are to be found in actors’ discursive efforts to draw “maps” of their society that show overlapping, contiguous, or distanced institutional territories - and in their efforts to persuade others that this or that map is reality.  In the next section I suggest that Merton’s commitment to the postulate of institutional differentiation led him to emphasize one such map drawn by seventeenth-century English scientists, a map depicting overlapped territories of science and religion, and a map that squares with Merton’s assumptions about the preinstitutionalized state of science at the time.  To substitute the postulate of institutional construction - with its principled concern for interpretative flexibility-creates the possibility that relationships between science and religion assume various cartographic forms and turns up a second map just as common in the rhetoric of seventeenth-century scientists: a map that puts distance between the institutions of science and religion.


An Ambivalent Border between Science and Religion

In their constructivist analysis of scientific discourse, G. Nigel Gilbert and Michael Mulkay identify two interpretative repertoires used by scientists to account for their action and belief.  The “empiricist repertoire” “portrays scientists’ actions and beliefs as following unproblematically and inescapably from the empirical characteristics of an impersonal natural world.”  The “contingent repertoire” “depicts professional actions and beliefs as being significantly influenced by variable factors [i.e., social circumstances] outside the realm of empirical [natural] phenomena.” [15]  No matter that the two repertoires construct inconsistent or even contradictory accounts of relations among nature, social circumstances, and the actions or beliefs of scientists.  The sociological game is not to determine which repertoire is “definitively” correct, but to watch when and where and how each repertoire is used by scientists and their allies or opponents.  Empiricist and

15. G. Nigel Gilbert and Michael Mulkay, Opening Pandora’s Box (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1984), pp. 56-57.

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contingent repertoires coexist as rhetorical resources available for accounts of scientific action and belief.

The coexistence of competing or inconsistent repertoires is also the state of affairs when scientists then or now provide accounts of “science” and its relationship to other institutions in society. [16]  In the seventeenth century, two logically incompatible repertoires are prevalent in scientists’ interpretations of science.  One is the repertoire of partial coincidence, a map that shows science and religion sharing an overlapped territory that holds common values and goals.  This is the map that Merton documents so thoroughly, with extracts such as this one from Robert Boyle’s last will and testament: “Wishing [the Royal Society] a happy success in their laudable Attempts, to discover the Nature of the Works of God, and praying that they and all other Searchers into Physical Truths, may Cordially refer their Attainments to the Glory of the Great Author of Nature, and to the Comfort of Mankind.” [17]  The many examples of the putative overlap of the institutions of science and religion are taken by Merton as evidence for the preinstitutionalized state of science stipulated by the postulate of institutional differentiation.

Evidence abounds as well, in the same seventeenth-century sources, for a second repertoire - this one mapping out science and religion as discrete institutional territories with space or distance between them.  Thomas Sprat’s History of the Royal Society is as much a defense of science as a chronicle, and the apology is obvious in a section that begins: “I will now proceed to the weightiest, and most solemn part of my whole undertaking; to make defense of the Royal Society, and this new Experimental Learning, in respect of the Christian Faith.  I am not ignorant in what a slippery place I now stand.”  Why “slippery”?  The Royal Society was perched precariously at the top of two slopes: to slide down one was to land in atheism and materialism, to slide down the other, in sectarianism and enthusiasm. [18]  Neither would be a salubrious ride for natural philosophers, and they prevented it by rhetorically distancing science from selected elements of religion, by creating an “intellectual space” for their work. [19]

If seventeenth-century science grew in harmony with Puritan values of utility, reason, empiricism, and the glory of God, it also grew by distancing its activities and goals from other values or sentiments displayed by Puritanism: intolerance, dogmatism, enthusiasm. [20]  One need go no further than Sprat for the oft-heard idea that sectarian squabbles forestall the advancement of knowledge:

16. Thomas F. Gieryn, “Boundary-Work and the Demarcation of Science from Non-Science: Strains and Interests in Professional Ideologies of Scientists,” American Sociological Review, 1983, 48:781-795; Gieryn, George M. Bevins, and Stephen C. Zehr, “Professionalization of American Scientists: Public Science and the Creation/Evolution Trials,” Amer. Sociol. Rev., 1985, 50:329-409; and Gieryn, “Scientific Communication and National Security,” in Science off the Pedestal: Social Perspectives on Science and Technology, ed. Daryl Chubin and Ellen Chu (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1989), forthcoming.

17. Quoted in Merton, Science, Technology (cit. n. 1), p. 88.

18. Thomas Sprat, History of the Royal Society (London, 1667), p. 345.  This double bind is discussed at length in Richard S. Westfall, Science and Religion in Seventeenth Century England (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 1958), esp. Ch. 7.

19. Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1985), p. 332.

20. Following a quotation from Richard Baxter (written in 1675), Merton notes, “This exaltation of reason and derogation of ‘enthusiasm’ - in the original etymological sense of the term - is characteristic of the rationalistic aspect of the Puritan teachings”: Merton, Science, Technology (cit. n. 1), p. [67.  Others have suggested that Puritanism was associated with enthusiasm: “In contemporary usage ‘Puritan’ was an expletive that either had no precise meaning or implied the very opposite of moderation”: Barbara Shapiro, John Wilkins, 1614-1672 (Berkeley: Univ. California Press, 1969), p. 6.]

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And now there comes into our view another remarkable occasion, of the hindrance of the growth of Experimental Philosophy... and that is the great a-do which has been made, in raising and confirming, and refuting to many different Sects, and opinions of the Christian Faith.  For whatever other hurt or good comes, by such holy speculative Warrs... yet certainly by this means, the knowledge of Nature has been very much retarded.

That sentiment compelled leaders of the Royal Society and its antecedents to exclude debates of theology and morality from their proceedings.  Sprat says that “the first purpose” of the circle of natural philosophers that formed around John Wilkins at Wadham College, Oxford, in 1645 “was no more, than only the satisfaction of breathing a freer air and of conversing in quiet one with another, without being ingag’d in the passions, and madness of that dismal Age … [They] were invincible arm’d against all enchantments of Enthusiasm.” [21]  Hooke’s 1663 “business and design of the Royal Society” includes the famous injunction: “To improve the knowledge of naturall things, and all useful Arts, Manufactures, Mechanick practises, Engynes and Inventions by Experiments - (not meddling with Divinity, Metaphysics, Moralls, Politics, Grammar, Rhetorick or Logick).”  Men of diverse beliefs were to be welcome in the Royal Society, a tolerance not often extended by Puritans during the Interregnum to those who challenged their faith: “It is to be noted that they have freely admitted Men of different Religions, countries and Professions of Life... For they openly profess not to lay the foundation of an English, Scotch, Irish, Popish or Protestant Philosophy; but a philosophy of Mankind.” [22]

The ethos associated with Puritanism during the seventeenth century contained a variety of values and sentiments, some helpful for bolstering the position of science (utilitarianism, empiricism, rationalism), but others harmful (sectarianism, enthusiasm, intolerance, dogmatism, authoritarianism).  The rhetorical insertion of cultural space between science and religion allowed natural philosophers and their advocates to distinguish their activities from those potentials of religion that could have been detrimental to their cause.  “Spiritual frensies” had no place, it was often said, in a science that was set apart from any of the warring sects.

Distancing of science from religion - but of a different sort - also occurs in discussions of the relationship between reason and faith (or revelation).  In the boundary-work described above, scientists sought to keep selected elements of religion out of natural philosophy; here, the rhetorical goal is to keep elements of science out of religion.  On the question of reason and revelation, there is more diversity of opinion among the virtuosi (and their publicists) when compared to their near-uniform denunciation of sectarian intolerance. [23]  Many would have agreed with Joseph Glanvill that “Faith befriends Reason; and Reason serves

21. Sprat, History (cit. n. 18), pp. 25, 53.

22. Quoting Hooke from Charles R. Weld, A History of the Royal Society (London, 1848), p. 146; and Sprat, History, pp. 62-63.

23. Westfall, Science and Religion (cit. n. 18), pp. 106-145.  Reason was also used to distance right religion from its enthusiastic perversions, as Westfall notes in a discussion of Joseph Glanvill: ibid., p. 176.

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Religion, and therefore they cannot clash.  They are both certain, both the truths of God; and one truth does not interfere with another.”  But it is a good fence that makes these two sources of knowledge good neighbors.  Sprat writes that “the Spiritual and Supernatural part of Christianity no Philosophy can reach” and warns “that the Reason of men not be over-reached.”  Glanvill lists the “Principles of Pure Faith” that “are known only by Divine Testimony,” “the Miraculous Conception, the Incarnation, and the Trinity,” and writes about them: “But for… those of pure Revelation, Reason cannot prove them immediately; nor is it to be expected that it should: For they are matters of Testimony; and we are no more to look for immediate proof from Reason of those things.”  Many of God’s mysteries are inaccessible to the fallible human reason, as Robert Boyle suggests: “If revelation makes us refuse the authority of philosophy ‘tis in such points where reason itself tells us that philosophy ought to have no authority, unless about such points revelation be silent.” [24]

The distanced and friendly coexistence of reason and faith is also justified by arguments for their functional differentiation: they work for different - albeit congruent - ends: “It cannot therefore be suspected that the Church of England should look with jealous eyes on this Attempt [efforts of the Royal Society], which makes no change in the principles of men’s consciences, but chiefly aims at the increase of Inventions about the works of their hands.”  For Glanvill, the functional differentiation of science and religion made it likely that science would discover many things not made available in holy testimony: “Philosophy teacheth many things which are not revealed in Scripture; for this was not intended to instruct men in the affairs of Nature, but its design is, to direct Mankind, and even those of the plainest understanding, in life and manners, and to propose to us the way of Happiness.” [25]  The rhetorical differentiation of reason from faith seems designed to protect both religion and science from their mutual interference, perhaps dissuading those who would see science sliding inexorably toward materialism or atheism.

These few selections from seventeenth-century rhetoric suggest that religion (at least, identified bits of it) was as much the foil for science as its legitimator.  Two questions remain.  Why did seventeenth-century English scientists (and publicists) rhetorically and cartographically distance or differentiate science from religion while at the same time legitimating one by the institutional values and goals of the other?  And why did Merton make little mention of the repertoire of distancing in Science, Technology and Society?  Despite the prima facie incompatibility of the two maps of science and religion, their rhetorical coexistence was functional for efforts by scientists to promote their activities (as Latour would put it) by enlisting allies and quelling enemies.  To overlap science and religion allowed scientists to enlist support from the many who placed God and faith at the core of the social order.  As Merton notes, “Science, no less than literature and politics, was still, to some extent, subject to approval by the clergy,” a conclusion that need not presume that the virtuosi and their apologists were disingenuous or insincere in their religious commitments.  On the other

24. Joseph Glanvill, Defense of Reason in the Affairs of Religion (1670), p. 207; Sprat, History, pp. 354, 359; Glanvill, Defense of Reason, pp. 171, 174; and Royal Society, Boyle Papers, Vol. I, fol. 37, as quoted in Westfall, Science and Religion, p. 173.

25. Sprat, History (cit. n. 18), p. 371; and Joseph Glanvill, Philosophia pia (1671), p. 119.


hand, to distance science from religion allowed natural philosophers to enlist support from those who feared or loathed potential correlates of religious faith: sectarianism, enthusiasm, dogmatism, intolerance. [26]  The coexisting maps may have alleviated the fear that science would usurp the cultural authority of religion, by suggesting that the two institutions pursued a common agenda but in complementary ways.  Perhaps the growing prestige and practice of science in seventeenth-century England was due as much to rhetorical efforts that distanced science from religion as to rhetorical efforts that linked the institutions through the values they shared.  The coexistence of these logically incompatible but ideologically effective interpretations may be the centerpiece of a constructivist account of the rise of modern science (a conclusion that I am far from the first to reach [27]).

Why, then, did Merton give so little attention to efforts at distancing science from religion?  My contention is neither that Merton ignored the “meaning” of science in the seventeenth century [28] nor that the meaning he discerns is inaccurate or unsubstantiated - rather, it is incomplete.  Merton emphasizes a repertoire of institutional coincidence that is consistent with a Durkheimian vision of preinstitutionalized science.  Perhaps it was the postulate of institutional differentiation that led Merton to set aside rhetorical differentiations of science from religion as anomalous or premature interpretations of two institutions that (for him) did not become detached until well after the seventeenth century.

Relationships between science and religion are open to interpretative flexibility, and this is as much the case for the twentieth century as for the seventeenth.  Whether science then or now is institutionalized, whether science is dependent upon religion or autonomous, is a matter for people to negotiate as sociologists watch.  Although logicians might be bothered by the apparent inconsistency in seventeenth-century interpretations of science - where an injunction “to the Glory of the Great Author of Nature” coexists with an injunction “not to intermeddle in Spiritual things” - sociologists can and should refrain from the conclusion that only one interpretation describes how things really were.

It is not always the case that one sees farther by standing on the shoulders of giants.  Sometimes one merely gets to look in a different direction, but the shoulders still help a lot.

26. Merton, Science, Technology (cit. n. 1), p. 91.  Those who feared the correlates came to be known as “latitudinarians”; see Shapiro, John Wilkins (cit. n. 20).

27. “For Boyle and the Royal Society there was to be a strict boundary between natural philosophy and political discussion... However, the relationship stipulated between natural philosophy and theology was more problematic.  On the one hand, theological discussions had a tendency to divide and corrode and should not, as Sprat and others said, be meddled with.  On the other hand, the practice of natural philosophy was to be subservient to the higher truths of proper Christian religion”: Shapin and Schaffer, Leviathan (cit. n. 19), p. 153.  Cf. Shapiro, John Wilkins, pp. 52-53.  Explicitly constructivist examinations of science in seventeenth-century England include Peter W. G. Wright, “On the Boundaries of Science in Seventeenth Century England,” in Sciences and Cultures, ed. Everett Mendelsohn and Yehuda Elkana (Sociology of the Sciences Yearbook, 1981) (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1981), pp. 77-100; and Mendelsohn, “The Social Construction of Scientific Knowledge,” in The Social Production of Scientific Knowledge, ed. Mendelsohn, Peter Weingart, and Richard Whitley (Sociology of the Sciences Yearbook, 1977) (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1977), pp. 3-26.

28. “It is possible to arrive at an understanding of the values and sentiments which lent meaning to certain of the activities, among them science and technology, of seventeenth century man”: Merton, Science, Technology, p. 60.



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