Leviathan and the Air-Pump

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Leviathan and the Air-Pump
Leviathan and the air pump.gif
Cover of the book's first edition
AuthorSteven Shapin and Simon Schaffer
CountryUnited States
PublisherPrinceton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey
Publication date
Media typePrint
533/.5 19
LC ClassQC166 .S47 1985
Identifiers refer to the 1989 First Princeton Paperback Edition unless otherwise noted

Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (published 1985) is a book by Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer. It examines the debate between Robert Boyle and Thomas Hobbes over Boyle's air-pump experiments in the 1660s. In 2005, Shapin and Schaffer were awarded the Erasmus Prize for this work.

On a theoretical level, the book explores the acceptable methods of knowledge production, and societal factors related to the different knowledge systems promoted by Boyle and Hobbes. The "Leviathan" in the title is Hobbes's book on the structure of society, Leviathan, or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil and the "Air-Pump" is Robert Boyle's mechanical instrument. The book also contains a translation by Schaffer of Hobbes's Dialogus physicus de natura aeris. It attacked Boyle and others who founded the society for experimental research, soon known as the Royal Society.

Intention of the work[edit]

Shapin and Schaffer state in their first chapter, "Understanding Experiment", that they wish to answer the question, "Why does one do experiments in order to arrive at scientific truth?"[1] Their aim is to use a historical account of the debate over the validity of Boyle's air pump experiments, and by extension his experimental method, to discover the origins of the credibility that we give experimentally produced facts today. The authors wish to avoid "'The self-evident'"[2] method, which (they explain) is when historians project the values of their current culture onto the time period that they are studying (in this case valuing the benefits of empiricism). They wish to take a "stranger's"[2] viewpoint when examining the debate between Hobbes and Boyle because, in the 1660s, both methods of knowledge production were well respected in the academic community[3] and the reasons that Boyle's experimentalism prevailed over Hobbes's natural philosophy would not have been obvious to contemporaries.

They explain that, traditionally, Hobbes's position on natural philosophy has been dismissed by historians because historians perceived Hobbes as "misunderstanding"[4] Boyle's work. Thus, in Leviathan and the Air-Pump, Shapin and Schaffer aim to avoid bias and consider both sides' arguments with equal weight. In addition, they comment on the social instability of Restoration society post-1660. They aim to show that the debate between these two contemporaries had political fallout beyond the intellectual sphere, and that accepting Hobbes or Boyle's method of knowledge production was also to accept a social philosophy.[5]


The work has been described as a classic example in the history of science of the posing of a basic question on scientific rationality. Can the rationality of two sides in a debate be described, from outside, when hindsight operates and the "road not taken" by science is known?[6] Margaret C. Jacob wrote that, for a time, it was the most influential book in the field of history of science, following the trend to relativism with its equation of "scientific discourses" with "strategies of power".[7]

John L. Heilbron credits Shapin and Schaffer with picking important aspects of the development of experimental culture that are still relevant, citing specifically the problems with replication. However, he casts doubt upon the strength of the relationship between politics of the greater society and the politics within the Royal Society. In addition, Heilbron laments the absence of comparisons to the development of empiricism in the rest of Europe because it blinds the reader to what may have been peculiar to England's case.[8]

Anna Marie Roos, on the other hand, writes that Shapin and Schaffer do indeed draw a connection between the history of science and the history of political thought, and that their resolution to remain impartial when examining the argument between Hobbes and Boyle forces historians of science and politics alike to recognize the relationship between the two branches of knowledge.[9]

Lawrence M. Principe, in The Aspiring Adept: Robert Boyle and His Alchemical Quest, argues extensively that many of the conclusions reached by Shapin and Schaffer rest on inaccurate and at times presentist conceptions of Boyle's work.[10]

Noel Malcolm and Cees Leijenhorst deny the political background of the Hobbes-Boyle controversy. They argue that Hobbes’ rejection of the void has no political agenda and has nothing to do with his attack on incorporeal substances, as Shapin and Schaffer claim. Both Malcolm and Leijenhorst call attention to the remarkable fact that Hobbes was already attacking incorporeal substances when he was a vacuist, and long before he became a plenist.[11][12]

Frank Horstmann, in Leviathan und die Erpumper. Erinnerungen an Thomas Hobbes in der Luftpumpe, has criticized Shapin and Schaffer's use of the historical evidence. He argues that Shapin and Schaffer have a lot of important facts wrong. Before May 1648, for example, Hobbes preferred vacuist interpretations of experimental pneumatics and strictly rejected plenist interpretations as not imaginable;[13] but Shapin and Schaffer turn the vacuist into a plenist by ignoring all the vacuist interpretations and by producing a very faulty translation as a putative proof for a plenist interpretation.[14] Horstmann argues that there are many similar errors and wrong quotations in Leviathan and the Air-Pump and suggests that the chapters dealing with Hobbes are constructed on heavy and sometimes systematic misrepresentations of the historical record.[15]

In the Introduction of the 2011 (second) edition of their book, the authors reflect on the book (mild, according to them) initial reception of the first edition before becoming considered a classic later on. They also point to the diverse and mixed reviews at the time.[16]

Publication history[edit]

English editions[edit]

  • (Hardcover) Shapin, Steven; Schaffer, Simon (1985). Leviathan and the air-pump : Hobbes, Boyle, and the experimental life : including a translation of Thomas Hobbes, Dialogus physicus de natura aeris by Simon Schaffer (1st ed.). Princeton, New Jersey. ISBN 0-691-08393-2. OCLC 12078908.
  • (Paperback) Shapin, Steven; Schaffer, Simon (1989) [1985]. Leviathan and the air-pump : Hobbes, Boyle, and the experimental life : including a translation of Thomas Hobbes, Dialogus physicus de natura aeris by Simon Schaffer (1st Princeton paperback printing, with corrections ed.). Princeton, New Jersey. ISBN 0-691-02432-4. OCLC 21974013.
  • (eBook) Shapin, Steven; Schaffer, Simon (2011). Leviathan and the air-pump : Hobbes, Boyle, and the experimental life : with a new introduction by the authors (2nd ed.). Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-1-4008-3849-3. OCLC 759907750.
  • (Paperback) Shapin, Steven; Schaffer, Simon (2017). Leviathan and the air-pump : Hobbes, Boyle, and the experimental life (First Princeton Classics paperback ed.). Princeton, N.J. ISBN 978-0-691-17816-5. OCLC 984327399.


  • Shapin, Steven; Schaffer, Simon (1993). Leviathan et la pompe à air: Hobbes et Boyle entre science et politique (in French). Translated by Piélat, Thierry; Barjansky, Sylvie. Paris: Ed. La Découverte. ISBN 978-2-7071-2273-5. OCLC 29400446.
  • Shapin, Steven; Schaffer, Simon (1994). Il Leviatano e la pompa ad aria: Hobbes, Boyle e la cultura dell' esperimento (in Italian). Translated by Brigati, Roberto. Scandicci: La Nuova Italia. ISBN 978-88-221-1503-4. OCLC 849036629.
  • Shapin, Steven; Schaffer, Simon (2006). 利維坦與空氣泵浦: 霍布斯, 波以耳與實驗生活 / Liweitan yu kong qi beng pu : Huobusi, Boyier yu shi yan sheng huo (in Chinese). 台北市 / Taibei Shi: 行人出版社 / Xing ren chu ban she. ISBN 978-986-81860-2-6. OCLC 467102599.


  1. ^ Shapin & Schaffer 1985, p. 3
  2. ^ a b Shapin & Schaffer 1985, p. 4
  3. ^ Shapin & Schaffer 1985, p. 8
  4. ^ Shapin & Schaffer 1985, p. 12
  5. ^ Shapin & Schaffer 1985, p. 14
  6. ^ Hans-Peter Mèuller (2006). Harrington, Austin; Marshall Barbara L. (eds.). Encyclopedia of social theory. London: Routledge. pp. 534–5. ISBN 978-0-415-29046-3. OCLC 71789921.
  7. ^ Bonnell, Victoria E.; Hunt, Lynn Avery, eds. (1999). Beyond the Cultural Turn: New Directions in the Study of Society and Culture. Biernacki, Richard; Halttunen, Karen; Jacob, Margaret C.; Rose, Sonya O.; Seigel, Jerrold; Sewell, William H. Jr.; Somers, Margaret R. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. pp. 101–182. ISBN 978-0-520-21679-2. OCLC 40347305. Retrieved 11 May 2013. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  8. ^ Heilbron 1989
  9. ^ Roos, Anna Marie (April 2000), Review of Shapin, Steven; Schaffer, Simon, Leviathan and the Air Pump: Hobbes, Boyle and the Experimental Life, Including a Translation of Thomas Hobbes, Dialogus Physicus De Natura Aeris, H-Net Reviews, retrieved 4 December 2020
  10. ^ Principe, Lawrence (1998). The aspiring adept : Robert Boyle and his alchemical quest : including Boyle's "lost" Dialogue on the transmutation of metals. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-01678-X. OCLC 37837623.
  11. ^ Malcolm, Noel (2002). Aspects of Hobbes. Oxford: Clarendon Press. pp. 187–191. ISBN 0-19-924714-5. OCLC 63294003.
  12. ^ Leijenhorst, Cornelis Hendrik (2002). The mechanisation of Aristotelianism : the late Aristotelian setting of Thomas Hobbes' natural philosophy. Leiden: Brill. p. 127. ISBN 90-04-11729-6. OCLC 50385953.
  13. ^ Hobbes, Thomas; Jones, Harold Whitmore (1976). Thomas White's De mundo examined. London: Bradford University Press in association with Crosby Lockwood Staples. p. 47. ISBN 9780258970010. OCLC 707191908.
  14. ^ Shapin & Schaffer, p. 84
  15. ^ Horstmann, Frank (2012). Leviathan und die Erpumper: Erinnerungen an Thomas Hobbes in der Luftpumpe ; [Mitternachtswälder - erster Wald] [Leviathan and the Air Pump: Memories of Thomas Hobbes in the Air Pump] (in German). Berlin: Mackensen. ISBN 978-3-926535-52-8. OCLC 952161352.
  16. ^ Shapin, Steven; Schaffer, Simon (2011). Leviathan and the air-pump : Hobbes, Boyle, and the experimental life : with a new introduction by the authors. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-1-4008-3849-3. OCLC 759907750.

Further reading[edit]

Notable reviews[edit]

"A Second Look"[edit]


External links[edit]