is science republican (with a little r)?

First, a puzzle about Sir Francis Bacon, one of the founders of science as we know it. He begins his Advancement of Learning (1605):

To the King. … Wherefore, representing your Majesty many times unto my mind, and beholding you … with the observant eye of duty and admiration, leaving aside the other parts of your virtue and fortune, I have been touched – yea, and possessed – with an extreme wonder at those your virtues and faculties, which the philosophers call intellectual; the largeness of your capacity, the faithfulness of your memory, the swiftness of your apprehension, the penetration of your judgment, and the facility and order of your elocution. …

Yet, just a few pages later, Bacon writes:

Neither is the modern dedication of books and writings, as to patrons, to be commended, for that books (such as are worthy the name of books) ought to have no patrons but truth and reason.  And the ancient custom was to dedicate them only to private and equal friends, or to entitle the books with their names; or if to kings and great persons, it was to some such as the argument of the book was fit and proper for; but these and the like courses may deserve rather reprehension than defence.

Dedicating to the King a book in which you denounce dedications would appear to be a contradiction. Perhaps Bacon thought that the argument of his book was “fit and proper” for James I because it was the monarch’s job to support science; perhaps Bacon thought James uniquely deserving of praise (he certainly said so at great length); perhaps the future Lord Chancellor was just being an oily politician; or–most interestingly–perhaps he was deliberately subverting his monarch’s authority.

In any case, the second quotation raises an important issue. Bacon sees that the institution of science must not acknowledge or incorporate arbitrary power. A scientist must not be told: “Believe this because I tell you to.” A scientist must be asked to believe in a purported truth for reasons that she or he can freely accept.

Freedom from arbitrary power is not democracy. Although I see the appeal of writers like John Dewey who would expand “democracy” far beyond voting and majority rule, I prefer to reserve the word for institutions in which people make binding decisions on the basis of equality. Political equality is different from freedom, and it is not applicable in science. Bacon famously opposes democracy (“The Idols of the Marketplace”) as a guide to truth. In The New Organon, XCI, he writes that scientific progress “has not even the advantage of popular applause.  For it is a greater matter than the generality of men can take in, and is apt to be overwhelmed and extinguished by the gales of popular opinions.”

Yet freedom from arbitrary power is essential to republicanism, as Phillip Pettit and others understand that tradition. A republic is a political order in which no one can simply say, “This is how it will be,” without giving reasons. Even a democratic and liberal society like Canada or Australia is not perfectly republican because the Queen, although almost completely stripped of power, holds her office and takes ceremonial actions without giving reasons–because of who she is. In a republic, no one may do that.

Bacon is republican about science in that way. It should have “no patrons but truth and reason”; relationships among scientists should be like those of “equal friends.” He is also republican in a second sense. A republic is a res publica, a “public thing,” better translated as the common good or the commonwealth. Republican virtue means devotion to the res publica. Knowledge is a public good if we give it away. This, of course, is a deeply Baconian theme, for scientists must “give a true account of their gift of reason to the benefit and use of men.”

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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  • Tom Flanagan

    Is there a
    distinction to be made here on the issue of WHERE science is to be funded versus
    HOW science is to be conducted? I struggle with this because even in the
    most innocently conceived “focus” raised for the purpose of any
    public consideration, an individual or an advocacy of individuals exerts a voice
    that is powerful … more so at least than voices that would pull the audience away from
    the issue even if not toward alternative issues. The question of whether
    science is or is not democratic, is itself a question that steps outside of the
    democratic arena, no? What are we to do,
    I modestly yet undemocratically ask?

    • PeterLevine

      Tom, I think your question is critical. But even if we assume science is automatically funded, there is still an additional question of how scientists should interact with each other. I say: as citizens in a republic of letters.