The Competitiveness of Nations in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy

H.F. Kearney *

Merton Revisited

Science Studies, 3 (1) Review Issue

Jan. 1973, 72-78.

Robert K. Merton, Science Technology and Society in Seventeenth Century England (New York: Howard Fertig, 1970).

Barbara Shapiro, John Wilkins 1614-1672: An Intellectual Biography (Berkeley: University of Calif. Press, 197o).

Theo Hoppen, The Common Scientist in the Seventeenth Century (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970).

Joseph Glanvill, The Vanity of Dogmatising: The Three Versions with a

* Department of History, University of Edinburgh


critical introduction by Stephen Metcalf (Hove, Sussex: The Harvester Press, 1970).

Antonia McLean, Humanism and the Rise of Science (London: Heinemann, 1972).

Peter J. Finch, John Dee: the world of an Elizabethan Magus (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972).


Robert Merton, the young American graduate student who wrote a doctoral dissertation in 1933 on the topic, ‘Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth Century England’, could scarcely have expected that he would be asked to write the introduction to a new edition nearly forty years later.  Yet against all odds, the Merton thesis is still alive in the sense that historians of science spend some time in discussing the interraction of Puritanism and ‘the Scientific Revolution’.  Merton himself abandoned the bleak fields of the history of science for the lush pastures of sociology some little time ago and much of the credit, or blame, for the continuing vivacity of the Merton thesis must be laid at the door of that vigorous historian of Puritanism, Christopher Hill.  A reprint of the original work, long unobtainable, deserves consideration.

Merton’s book is not so much a classical study, to quote the blurb, as a ‘locus classicus’.  It lacks the literary quality of, say, Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, but it does provide the standard starting point for any discussion of the interrelationship between Puritanism and the rise of science.  The drawback lies less in the facts as in the innocence of the young author.  Scientists, he tells us, ‘seek not only technical efficiency but consider as well the economic advantages of a strictly rational adaptation of means to ends’.  There is a whole world contained in that term ‘rational’ which needs a closer analysis in 1973 than it presumably did in 1933.  Perhaps historians of science would be well advised to scrutinize Merton’s concept of ‘science’, which seems too all-embracing and almost tautologous, as if ‘science’ was ‘what scientists did’ on Merton’s definition of ‘scientist’.

Also open to criticism is Merton’s interpretation of seventeenth century England.  A great deal has changed since he wrote,

the changing class structure of the time reinforced the Puritan sentiments favouring science since a large proportion of Puritans came from the rising class of bourgeoisie, of merchants.  They manifested their increasing power in at least three ways.  First, in their positive regard for both science and technology which reflected and promised to enhance this power.  Equally notable was their increasingly fervent belief in progress, a profession of faith which stemmed from their growing social and political importance.  A third manifestation was their hostility towards the existing class structure which limited and hampered their participation in political control, an antagonism which found its climax in the Revolution.

The views expressed here no longer have the ring of self-evident truth.  The tendency of many historians now is to stress the aristocratic nature of English


society during this period.  It is true that the late fifteenth century and the first half of the sixteenth witnessed considerable commercial activity, but the late sixteenth and the first half of the seventeenth was a period in which the possession of a landed estate and crown office offered the best prospects of economic security and advancement.  In his book The Crisis of the Aristocracy (1965) Lawrence Stone points out that the hundred or so greater merchants of London went through the anxieties of acquiring a fortune in order to buy a landed estate and become landowners.  Land was the key to status and to political power.  The Civil War, far from being a clash between a rising bourgeoisie and a declining feudal aristocracy, is perhaps best seen as a spirit within the landed elite itself.  It might be helpful for us all if the term ‘the English Revolution’ was quietly dropped in favour of Edward Hyde’s description ‘the Great Rebellion’.  It is much more difficult to link up ‘the Scientific Revolution’ with ‘the Great Rebellion’ than with something called ‘the English Revolution’, but if no ‘English Revolution’ occurred (I write in Scotland) the truth would be much better served.

Historians are also less willing than they were in 1933 to make a simple identification between Puritanism and belief in progress.  The recent work of Dr William Lamont and of Christopher Hill himself has shown that Puritans were ‘forward looking’ according to the style of Daniel or the Book of Revelation rather than that of Comte or Marx.  Anti-Christ and Armageddon, as well as the conversion of the Jews, loomed large in Puritan considerations.  John Cotton, for example, regarded the Song of Solomon as a kind of prophetic history or historical prophecy in which the divine plan for the world was revealed.  All this leads us to be sceptical of Merton’s emphasis upon the rationality, in any unitary sense, of Puritanism, when he tells us,

The exaltation of the faculty of reason in the Puritan ethos - based partly on the concept of rationality as a crushing device for the passions - inevitably led to a sympathetic attitude towards those activities which demand the constant application of rigorous reasoning.

If our notion of English social structure and Puritanism is open to debate so also is our understanding of seventeenth century science itself.  The work of Maguire, Rattansi and Webster has raised the key question, ‘what did the seventeenth century scientists think they were doing?’  Is, in fact, the concept of scientist appropriate to this period, or should we think in terms of ‘virtuosi’, or ‘natural philosophers’?  Too narrow a view of what constitutes scientific activity and scientific truth leads to the exclusion of many activities which appeared worthwhile and scientific at the time.

To say all this is perhaps to say that the young Merton was not sufficiently critical of the assumptions upon which he was writing.  But the book survives to challenge the reader and force him to justify his contradictions where he is tempted to contradict.

A new biography of the Elizabethan ‘scientist’ John Dee by Peter J. French shows up some of the limitations involved in Merton’s approach.  Dee himself is not referred to in Merton’s book but the deficiency is remedied in post.

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Mertonian terms by Christopher Hill in his Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution.  On this interpretation, Dee is seen as a scientist connected with the ‘forward-looking’ movements of the age - trade, Puritanism, the city of London.  Dr French approaches Dee from an entirely different point of view.  For him, Dee is a Renaissance Magus linked with the Neo-Platonic world of Agrippa, Marsilio Ficino and the Hermetic tradition.  There is undoubtedly a great deal to be said for this approach.  Dr French analyzes Dee’s library list, and shows that it included many titles - Lull, Hermes, the Cabbala - which appeal to a mind formed in the Hermetic tradition.  So far as his religious views are concerned, Dee emerges not as a Puritan, but as a believer in toleration for opposing creeds, seeking the truth not in the Bible exclusively, but, like Pico, in a wide range of intellectual positions.

Dr French’s study also reminds us that the problem of patronage ought to figure as prominently in the history of science as it does in the history of art.  In showing Dee’s connection with Henry Percy, ‘the Wizard Earl’, and his circle of Syon House, Dr French exposes the rigidity of the Mertonian framework.  For men of Dee’s cast of mind, the attraction of science lay in the possibility of discovering further mysteries of Divine revelation locked up in nature.  This does not fit in easily with Merton’s emphasis on forward-looking, rational, no-nonsense science, which perhaps makes more sense for the twentieth century than it does for the sixteenth.

Antonia McLean’s book Humanism and the Rise of Science in Tudor England overlaps to some extent with John Dee.  She makes some of the same points about Neo-Platonism, for example, but she is aiming at a more general audience and does not claim to be providing more than an up-to-date general survey.  Her judgments have a conventional ring about them.  Of Dee she says ‘like all great men, he stood on the shoulders of the past’.  This is a useful if unexciting book, based on wide general reading, with an up-to-date bibliography.

Barbara Shapiro’s John Wilkins 1614-1672, also shows up the deficiences of Merton.  Wilkins himself is a key figure for both Merton and Christopher Hill.  He was son-in-law of Oliver Cromwell, master of Wadham College, Oxford, during the. 1650s when the Wadham circle of Christopher Wren, Robert Boyle and others was involved in scientific experiments, and after 166o he was involved with the Royal Society.  Merton uses Wilkins along with Sprat, Boyle and others to press home the relationship between Puritanism and science.

Puritan sentiments and beliefs prompting rational, tireless industry were such as to aid economic success. The same considerations apply equally to the close connections between Puritanism and science (p. 82).

the combination of rationalism with empiricism, which is so pronounced in .the Puritan ethic, forms the essence of the spirit of modern science (p. 92).

He quotes Wilkins’s Mathematical Magick to illustrate the practical temper of Puritanism,


our best and most Divine knowledge is intended for action; and those may justly be counted barren studies, which do not conduce to practice as their proper end (p. 94 footnote).

Dr Shapiro’s book, the first full-length study of Wilkins, strikes a different note.  She argues that he was not a Baconian and that his religious views were latitudinarian or Erasmian rather than Puritan.  When he was appointed Bishop of Chester in 1668, his patron was George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, ‘A man so various that he seemed to be not one but all mankind’s epitome’.

The latitudinarian bishop Tillotson was one of Wilkins’ protégés.  In some ways, however, the persuasiveness of Dr Shapiro’s approach lies in her reluctance to commit Wilkins to neat categories.  She sees him as Puritan in some ways, Anglican in others.  Wilkins did not renounce the puritan outlook which he inherited as the grandson of John Dod, but he had a wide range of friends and acquaintances in all camps.  His reaction to the cataclysmic events of the Civil War and its aftermath was to move towards a more latitudinarian position, which makes sense of the patronage of Buckingham.

So far as Wilkins’ ‘scientific’ activities are concerned, Dr Shapiro places him nearer to Galileo than to Bacon.  For example, he was the only Englishman during the 1630s to present Galileo’s viewpoint on the relationship of the scriptures and science.  On the other hand, Dr Shapiro notes an increased respect for Bacon in Wilkins during the 1650s, perhaps as a reaction against what he saw as excessively subtle theological disputation.  She sees Wilkins’ hand in parts of Sprat’s History of the Royal Society, in particular the sections dealing with the ‘plain style’ and with latitudinarianism.  Thus from these pages, Wilkins emerges as a complex personality, to describe whom as a ‘Puritan’ is to oversimplify to the point of caricature.

At first sight Dr Theo Hoppen’s The Common Scientist in the Seventeenth Century: a Study of the Dublin Philosophical Society 1683-1708 appears to have little relevance for a discussion of the Merton thesis.  In fact, however, the implications of this study are wide indeed.  The author has made this study of a group of ‘scientists’ who, though living in Dublin, were closely affiliated with the Royal Society and with the Oxford Philosophical Society.  Not much need be made of the Irish locale.  The Dublin Philosophical Society had a membership of just under fifty individuals, most of whom were ‘Englishmen’ living in a quasi-colonial situation.

One of Dr Hoppen’s targets is Merton, of whose work he writes,

Robert K. Merton has made a study of the minutes of the Royal Society for the year 1686 and has concluded that 57.3% of the activities of that society were devoted to work ‘related to socio-economic needs’.  Now my Royal Society figure for technological research for 1686 is 17.5%.  This, I feel, is more indicative of the real situation as regards ‘useful’ work.

The comparable figures so far as Dublin was concerned for 1684, 1685 and 1686 were 14.8%, 22.0% and 17.9%, respectively.

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Dr Hoppen’s analysis of the religious views of the members suggests that the position of the majority was latitudinarian.  William Petty, a founding member, thought

Religion’s natural, and good

For King and state, if understood;

If not, ‘tis but a meere illusion,

Begetting bloodshed and confusion.

Seven of the thirty-three members who joined before December 1684 were either present or prospective Anglican bishops, all but one of whom took a strong line against the Presbyterians.  Dr Hoppen has some interesting paragraphs here but the whole question deserves to be looked at in more depth, taking into account the contemporary situation in Scotland where a philosophical society was founded at Aberdeen and at St Andrews.  The religious situation c. 1680 was far more inflamed and violent than Dr Hoppen’s restrained pages might suggest.

As a postscript it is a pleasure to welcome a new facsimile reprint series ‘The Harvester Renaissance Library’; General Editor: Gamini Salgado of the University of Sussex.  The first volume contains three versions of The Vanity of Dogmatising by Joseph Glanvill, with a critical introduction by Stephen Medcalf, also of the University of Sussex.  Glanvill, of course, appears in Merton as one of ‘a few far-sighted exceptions, foremost among whom was Joseph Glanvill’, (p. 79).  He is linked with Bacon, Hobbes and Boyle as one of those ‘who turned from the conviction that the world was degenerate and designed for destruction to the belief in an imminent and unequalled brilliant future’ (p. 217).  Merton also refers to the ‘utilitarian and optimistic attitude’ of Glanvill (p. 232).  In Merton’s assessment of Glanvill it is difficult to make room for the author of Sadducismus Triumphatus in which the existence of witches was defended as an answer to atheism.  Mr Medcalf reminds us that Glanvill was a complex person, not always intellectually consistent, in ‘the tradition of Renaissance scepticism’ of Erasmus, Montaigne, Charron and Sir Thomas Browne alike.

Glanvill’s religious views do not fit in easily with the Merton thesis.  In Medcalf’s view, he turned away from the Puritanism of his early background towards a Platonist rationalism, in which Descartes loomed large.  Even his preaching had ‘a strong and probably conscious Cartesian flavour’.  In the third version of Vanity published under the title, Against Confidence in Philosophy (1676), Glanvill moves towards a clear and distinct style.  The imaginative loss involved here may be seen by comparing two passages in the Vanity. Glanvill wrote,

If after a decoction of hearbs in a Winter night, we expose the liquor to the frigid air; we may observe on the morning under a crust of ice, the perfect appearance both in figure and colour, of the Plants that were taken from it.

In the Essay the particularity of this description has taken on the appearance of a general law.


after a decoction of Herbs in a frosty night the shape of the Plants will appear under the ice in the morning.

Mr Medcalf rightly draws our attention to the loss in vividness and detail.  Alas, there is nothing of this kind of sensitivity in Merton’s own treatment of the Scientific Revolution.

The implication of most of these books seems to be that ‘Puritanism’ is too narrow a concept in the history of science.  It confines the historian to England when he should be dealing with a wider European frame of reference.  It also leads him to limit his attention to religious issues raised during the Reformation period.  Most dangerous of all it seems to be in danger of becoming an orthodoxy in the text books.  The time has come to re-adjust the balance towards the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, to re-examine the Restoration period in Britain and to allow Puritanism and the English Revolution to rest for a while.  The re-publication of Merton, welcome on some grounds, is to be regretted if it gives ancient controversies new life.