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Robert Boyle and Mathematics: Reality, Representation, and Experimental Practice

  • Steven Shapin (a1)
Abstract
The Argument

This paper is a study of the role of language in scientific activity. It recommends that language be viewed as a community's means of patterning its affairs. Language represents where the boundaries of the community are and who is entitled to speak within it, and it displays the structures of authority in the community. Moreover, language precipitates the community's view of what the world is like, such that linguistic usages can be taken as referring to that world. Thus, language connects on the one side to a community's practical life, and, on the other, to the reality on which it “reports.”

The example treated is Robert Boyle's view of the language proper for experimental practice, and his arguments against the value and legitimacy of mathematical representations within the experimental community. Boyle argued that the use of mathematics was inappropriate because (i) it would restrict the number of potential participants; (ii) it would give rise to unwarranted expectations of the certainty and accuracy to be expected of real physical inquiries; (iii) it would suggest views of natural law and God's relations with the natural world which were incorrect and possibly dangerous; and because (iv) the world upon which the experimentalist operated was not such as was represented by mathematical idealizations. I try to establish that decision about the appropriate language for the experimental community was a moral choice.

The Argument

This paper is a study of the role of language in scientific activity. It recommends that language be viewed as a community's means of patterning its affairs. Language represents where the boundaries of the community are and who is entitled to speak within it, and it displays the structures of authority in the community. Moreover, language precipitates the community's view of what the world is like, such that linguistic usages can be taken as referring to that world. Thus, language connects on the one side to a community's practical life, and, on the other, to the reality on which it “reports.”

The example treated is Robert Boyle's view of the language proper for experimental practice, and his arguments against the value and legitimacy of mathematical representations within the experimental community. Boyle argued that the use of mathematics was inappropriate because (i) it would restrict the number of potential participants; (ii) it would give rise to unwarranted expectations of the certainty and accuracy to be expected of real physical inquiries; (iii) it would suggest views of natural law and God's relations with the natural world which were incorrect and possibly dangerous; and because (iv) the world upon which the experimentalist operated was not such as was represented by mathematical idealizations. I try to establish that decision about the appropriate language for the experimental community was a moral choice.

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Science in Context
  • ISSN: 0269-8897
  • EISSN: 1474-0664
  • URL: /core/journals/science-in-context
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