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‘Nullius in verba’ and ‘nihil in verbis’: public understanding of the role of language in science

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 January 2009

Clive Sutton
University of Leicester School of Education, Leicester LE1 7RF.


This paper is about how the motto of the Royal Society has sometimes been misread, but it is also about how such a misreading could arise at all, and why it persists. I argue that the error is intimately associated with a traditional view of scientific language as a medium for descriptive reporting, a view which has been very influential in schools, and is consequently perpetuated in the public understanding of science. Much new scholarship confirms that this ‘straightforward’ view of what scientists do can no longer be accepted at face value, and that the role of language in science is more intimate and subtle in its interpretive and persuasive qualities. A renewed study of the motto is interesting in itself, but it will also serve to introduce these wider matters. Perhaps it may help some more teachers to escape from those received ideas about language which have restricted the range of learning activities in school science, and discouraged a full attention to the words in which scientists choose to express their ideas.

Research Article
Copyright © British Society for the History of Science 1994

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I am grateful to Duncan and Jean Cloud for discussion of the original Latin allusion, and of how one might express in Latin the idea that words are often the starting-point for generating things. I have also been greatly helped in the preparation of this paper by discussion with Bill Brock, Adrian Stokes and Carole Sutton.

1 See, for example, Jonathan Swift's satirical version of a ‘philosophical account’ of the island of Laputa in Gulliver's Travels, 1726 (p. 209Google Scholar of the Penguin edition 1969, with further relevant passages on pp. 223 and 230). This was not the first attempt to poke fun at the virtuosi, but it drew attention specifically to features of their language and to their beliefs about it, which are still the objects of discussion today.

2 Sprat, Thomas, History of the Royal Society of London, London, 1667.Google Scholar This and subsequent quotations taken from the 1959 reprint by Routledge and Kegan Paul.

3 See Sutton, Clive, ‘Writing and reading in science – the hidden messages’, in Doing Science – Images of Science in Science Education (ed. Millar, Robin), London, The Falmer Press, 1989.Google Scholar

4 Hanson, N. R., Patterns of Discovery, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1958, 25.Google Scholar

5 See (i) Bazerman, Charles, Shaping Written Knowledge – the Genre and Activity of the Experimental Article in Science, Madison, Wisconsin, University of Wisconsin Press, 1988Google Scholar; (ii) Dear, Peter (ed.), The Literary Structure of Scientific Argument, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991CrossRefGoogle Scholar; (iii) Vickers, Brian, English Science, Bacon to Newton, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1987, 122Google Scholar; (iv) Vickers, Brian, ‘The Royal Society and English Prose Style: A Reassessment’, in Rhetoric and the Pursuit of Truth: Language Change in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth CenturiesGoogle Scholar, Seminars at the Clark Library Los Angeles, March 1980; (v) Shapin, Steven and Shaffer, Simon, Leviathan and the Air Pump: Hobbes, Boyle and the Experimental Life, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1985.Google Scholar In this last, note, for example, pp. 18–19, 61–9 and 76–8.

6 See Hunter, Michael, Establishing the New Science, Woodbridge, Suffolk, The Boydell Press, 1989.Google Scholar

7 Stimson, Dorothy, Scientists and Amateurs, London, Sigma Books, 1949, 64.Google Scholar

8 Goldman, Lawrence, ‘Statistics and the science of society in early Victorian Britain’, Social History of Medicine (1991), 4, 415–34, see 433.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed

9 Hirst, Derek, Authority and Conflict – England 1603–1658, Sevenoaks, Edward Arnold, 1986, 360.Google Scholar

10 Popper, Karl R. and Wächtershäuser, Günter, letter, Science (1990), 250, 1070.Google Scholar

11 Gould, Stephen Jay, letter, Science (1991), 251, 142.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

12 Dear, Peter, ‘Totius in verba’, Isis (1985), 76, 145–61.Google Scholar His title is a play on the motto, picking up the two ways of construing its meaning, in a seeming inversion of it (Dear, Peter, 1990, personal communication).Google Scholar

13 Bazerman, , op. cit. (5), 14.Google Scholar

14 See many examples from Hooke, and Boyle, in Vickers' 1987 collection: Vickers, op. cit. (5).Google Scholar

15 Cantor, Geoffrey N., ‘Weighing light: the role of metaphor in eighteenth century optical discourse’, in The Figural and the Literal – Problems of Language in the History of Science and Philosophy (ed. Benjamin, A. E., Cantor, G. N. and Christie, J. R. R.), Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1987.Google Scholar

16 The connection of metaphorical language with scientific insight has been surveyed by many writers. See, example, Cantor, , op. cit. (15).Google Scholar Putting it in the wider context of figuration generally, see Sutton, Clive, Words, Science and Learning, Buckingham, Open University Press, 1992Google Scholar, chs. 3–5.

17 One aspect of the relationship between the figural and the literal is that words used figuratively gradually become literalized; active metaphors gradually become dormant. One role of a teacher is to reactivate some of them, so that learners come to appreciate the thought processes of the people who established the concepts we now take for granted. See Sutton, , op. cit. (16), ch. 7.Google Scholar

18 Dear, , op. cit. (12).Google Scholar

19 Bazerman, , op. cit. (5).Google Scholar

20 Vickers, , 1987, op. cit. (5), 198–9Google Scholar and Bazerman, , op. cit. (5), ch. 4.Google Scholar

21 Mulkay, Michael, The Word and the World, London, George Allen and Unwin, 1985, 70.Google Scholar

22 Myers, G., Writing Biology, Madison, Wisconsin, University of Wisconsin Press, 1990, 63100.Google Scholar

23 Sutton, , op. cit. (16), chs. 710.Google Scholar

24 Millar, Robin (ed.), Doing Science – Images of Science in Science Education, London, The Falmer Press, 1989.Google Scholar

25 For a suitable extract see Sutton, , op. cit. (16), 75.Google Scholar

26 Barnes, Douglas, From Communication to Curriculum, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1976.Google Scholar

27 Lemke, J. L., Talking Science: Language, Learning and Values, Norwood, New Jersey, Ablex Publishin Corporation, 1990, 130.Google Scholar