Former Laureates

Simon Schaffer


‘History of Science’ was the theme of the 2005 Erasmus Prize. The prize was awarded to two scolars: both Simon Schaffer and Steven Shapin. Their names immediately bring to mind their joint publication Leviathan and the Air-pump, a ground-breaking work in the field of the history of science. With this book, but also through their own individual work, Simon Schaffer and Steven Shapin have changed the way people think about the history of science and its complex relationship with culture and society. They have shown how science and society are not separate entities that exist independently, and either influence each other or not. Instead, the practice of science, both conceptually and instrumentally, is seen to be full of social assumptions. Crucial to their work is the idea that science is based on the public's faith in it. This is why it is important to keep explaining how sound knowledge is generated, how the process works, who takes part in the process and how.

In his book The Social History of Truth, Steven Shapin explains the social history of scientific truth. Recently he has been studying the past and present science of nutrition, and the relationship between science and industry.

Simon Schaffer's special interest in the social history of science is the historic use and acceptance of instruments. In 2006 he presented the BBC scientific series called Light Phantastic.



You can't understand what Newton is doing in the 1660s, experimenting with prisms and sunlight, unless you realise he is obsessed by the problems of religion and God. Light interests him because it's the principle of divinity, or how creation happens. Realising the meaning of those experiments to Newton, in theological terms, demonstrates just how different the intellectual environment was to our current one. (1)

The field in which the 2005 Erasmus Prize is awarded is described as the History of science in relationship to culture and society. More than any other field, science embodies the European Enlightenment ideals of progress and rationality. Science is an important bearer of the social and cultural identity of Europe that, in the classical analyses of the sociologist Max Weber, distinguishes itself from other societies and earlier cultures by its rationality. In documenting the development of knowledge and thereby emphasizing the rational and cumulative character of scientific knowledge, the history of science has reinforced the important place of science in European culture and society.

In the past decades, however, the exercise of the history of science has changed. What was a pastime for retired scientists has become an independent discipline, with its own professional standards, own journals and a new, unique vision of the phenomenon that is science.

The professionalization of the history of science has had far-reaching consequences in terms of content. When scientific developments are studied historically as a specific cultural and social domain, the enormous complexity of science becomes clear. In contrast to the long cherished philosophical ideal of the unity of sciences, the work of newer generations of historians of science has come to emphasize the diversity of styles of scientific argumentation and paradigms in science.

Historical research has made clear the difference between what these scientists do and what they say they do. Although the latter is frequently expressed in traditional, often quite simple images of rationality, in actual scientific practice it has become clear that other principles provide the guidelines. The history of science has revealed the important role of instruments, the organization of scientific disciplines and the specific forms of communication, such as scientific journals and professional conferences.

The emphasis on science as a practical, socio-cultural and historically anchored activity has led to many new research questions. That can be illustrated on the basis of how researchers talk about experiments. Whereas formerly the question of what can count as knowledge focused on the extent to which results of an experiment supported or refuted a given theory, practical questions have now been placed at the fore: how do researchers in varying disciplines organize their experimental work, how do they know that they have obtained results that they can publish convincingly, how long must they continue their experiments, and in what way must they present their results? What in the past used to be presented as the simple testing of a theory, now is seen as a complex practical activity in which diverse social, material and literary techniques play a role. If one wants to engage in experimental science, one must have not only instruments, but also the techniques to report experimental findings as facts, and must move in the social circles in which such reports are discussed in specific ways.

This interest in scientific practice has led for instance to reinterpretations of one of the most important episodes in the history of science, what is called the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. Also in studying other episodes, in the more recent history of science, attention to the question of how science gradually crystallized from a broader cultural context into a separate praxis, turned out to be fruitful. Science can no longer be considered an autonomous activity, cut off from culture and society, but should be seen as a totality of activities that is interrelated with other social activities, with the arts, religion and literature.

The Erasmus Prize for 2005 is awarded to the two historians of science Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer. Both authors have fundamentally changed our vision on the relationship between science and society, in particular with their jointly-written book Leviathan and the air-pump (1985).

The most compelling reason for awarding the Erasmus Prize to these two eminent historians of science lies in the fact that they have demonstrated in their aforementioned book, as well as in their successive, individual work, how science and society are not two separate entities which influence one another (or not), but that many social presuppositions are enmeshed in actual scientific practice, both in conceptual and instrumental practice. Society is already built into, as it were, scientific concepts which are used by scientists and even in the instruments that they employ. This point of view has become broadly accepted by now, even though its concrete applications and development still encounter as much resistance as ever. The notion that such a thing as scientific truth has a social history (and consequently is not above history) still engenders vehement reactions, as was apparent from the discussion upon the publication of Shapin's last substantive book, The Social History of Truth. But at the same time, the thought that science is based on trust and that trust has had different meanings for different levels of society, is a broadly accepted opinion.
Ladies and gentlemen, awarding the prize to Shapin and Schaffer is not a safe choice in the sense that they are people whose work is undisputed; however, their work has found its way into the main stream of modern history of science, and we can say without question that modern history of science would be unthinkable without their innovative and pioneering work.

Dear mr Schaffer, dear mr Shapin. The Erasmus Prize is a distinction that is awarded for life-time achievements, its purpose is not to encourage young and promising talent. This should, please, not be misunderstood, I hasten to say. It is obvious that both of you are not at the end, but in the middle of very productive careers in academia. But already you have made decisive innovations in the historic study of science. Your work is widely perceived as having changed our ideas on the history of science by pointing out the intricate relationship of science to culture and society. You have also shown us how science has come to play a central role in modern society, demonstrating what an impressive achievement modern science is and how crucial public understanding and trust is to the task of realizing its promises for the future. For and I conclude here with a quote from a book by Shapin:

Science is a system of knowledge by virtue of its being a system of trusting persons. (...) The potency of trust extends to every aspect of the day-to-day processes by which scientific knowledge is held and extended (2).

Gentlemen, I truly trust that the Erasmus Prize award will be perceived as underscoring your message. I congratulate you with the Prize and would like to ask both of you to please come forward now to receive the ornaments.



Photography: John Thuring

Acceptance Speech

Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, members of the Board of the Erasmus Prize Foundation, friends, colleagues and fellow-students:

It is with enormous gratitude that I acknowledge the award of this year's Erasmus Prize, on behalf of the field of history of science in relation to culture and society.

We have just listened with pleasure to a performance of J.S.Bach's Well-tempered clavier, with its display of an instrument which could play in tune in all keys. Temperance has been indeed the key to the working of many instruments, and Desiderius Erasmus was perhaps one of the most eminent exponents of the measured judgements of temperance in public life. Previous laureates have therefore often elegantly referred to the works and significance of Erasmus himself. Five centuries ago, somewhere between Rome and Chelsea, he composed his astonishing set of orations in the person of Folly herself. This seems an apt precedent for our own orations here. But sometimes Erasmian temperance seemed to fail. In his Praise of Folly, he ironised with some force on the condition of the sciences. The sciences were a plague of mankind. It was better to live in a state of naturally ignorant innocence than impiously to probe nature's secrets. Consider the poverty of scholars, gnawing on radishes, fighting off the lice and fleas. And the only sciences, so he joked, which were taken remotely seriously were those which most resembled foolish commonsense: medicine and law.

All this might seem to stand somewhat apart from the admirable terms of the citation of this year?s Erasmus award: the sciences most embody the enlightened ideals of progress and rationality, thus making them the carrier of European socio-cultural identity. The place of the instruments of temperance may seem less clear to us now. So we need now to make sense of how the sciences work and what they mean.

There is perhaps something characteristically Erasmian about the attitude of our field. We agree that there is much to be learnt from the way a society treats its scholars and experts as well as its poor and ill. We agree that what is taken as sacred is too often hedged round with bans on profane and sacrilegious curiosity. And we certainly agree that there are profound relations between our most reliable forms of knowledge and the practices of everyday commonsense. We have sought to show that scientific knowledge is made in local and mundane ways. It depends on no especially inspired nor excessively rational methods. It relies on the tough struggles of persuasion and credibility. The aim has been to get at the cleverly artful work which makes what people know and to understand how that work is organised and challenged.

One of the many pleasures of this year's Erasmus prize award is the strong sign it offers that the field of social history of science has major importance for public knowledge and contemporary debate. There is an immense public appetite for more reliable knowledge, especially an understanding of the very processes by which this knowledge is produced. Too often this appetite is countered merely with second-rate simplifications in hock to vested interests or to the dictates of the information markets.

Our field offers indispensable resources which can learn from and contribute to the provocative enterprises of museums, exhibitions, electronic media and mature public debate. Our interest in ingenious hardware, in training and recruitment, in publicity and performance, in application and controversy flows from the salient roles of all these features of the life of the sciences. The field depends entirely on the work of many colleagues and students, allies and informants. The principle that knowledge is made through co-operation ought to be illustrated by the way we try to pursue our own work.

To understand, for example, how trust in knowledge is and has been distributed in our society is precisely to engage in some of the most profound contemporary questions of politics and ethics. Reflect on the appalling inequalities in access to knowledge and social resources which dominate the global economy; consider the bellicose assertion of allegedly self-evident principles as the sole basis on which any good society can be organised. Because they help stipulate what is human and what is natural, the sciences are entirely implicated in these conflicts. This is why it matters so much to sustain the conversation about how reliable knowledge works and who can take part in its making.

In his eloquent acknowledgement of the 1990 Erasmus prize he won for his work as archaeologist, my pre-eminent Cambridge predecessor the late Sir Grahame Clark observed that his own work showed how cultural values, rather than what he called mere biological imperatives, governed human development. He insisted that what it was to be human was to engage in cultural choices. This seems to me one of the principal, optimistic, consequences of our own work too. Against a range of fundamentalisms which would stipulate in advance our own natures, we must insist on the freedom to choose the way we live and how we know our world.

I cannot close this acknowledgement of the award of this year's Erasmus prize without reference to my co-winner. Steven Shapin has for a quarter-century been my guide and colleague, a constant source of wit, acuity, scholarship and sheer commonsense. His ability to communicate in clear, jocular and profound terms has been an inspiration for me, and for many of the colleagues gathered here. He taught me how to work collaboratively and how to think better about what we might otherwise take for granted. Indeed, these principles of straightforward language, collective action and critical scrutiny seem to me to be some of the most important values of the entire field which is rewarded here today.


Article 2 of the Constitution of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation reads as follows:

Within the context of the cultural traditions of Europe in general and the ideas of Erasmus in particular, the aim of the Foundation is to enhance the position of the humanities, the social sciences and the arts, and to promote appreciation of these fields in society. The emphasis is on tolerance, cultural pluralism, and un-dogmatic, critical thinking. The Foundation endeavours to achieve this aim through the award of prizes and by other means; a money prize is awarded to a person or institution under the name of Erasmus Prize.

In accordance with this article, the Board of the Foundation has decided to award the Erasmus Prize for the year 2005 to Simon Schaffer and Steven Shapin.
The prize is awarded to professor Schaffer and professor Shapin on the following grounds:

  • They have, singly and together, transformed our understanding of the history of European science since the seventeenth century.
  • In their analysis they have linked fundamental innovations in science - such as the emergence of experiment as a method of inquiry - to political and social processes.
  • As a consequence of their work, the history of science was thrust into the centre of discussions about what can count as knowledge for who and why and in which historical context.
  • Research questions raised by Schaffer and Shapin, have contributed to the development of a new domain of study, in which the historical, sociological and philosophical study of science and technique became interwoven.
  • Schaffer and Shapin have demonstrated that a historical approach is crucial for our understanding of the connection between science and society. They have shown us how science has come to play a central role in modern society, and how crucial public understanding is to the task of realizing its promises for the future.
  • With insights derived from the historical study of science, Simon Schaffer and Steven Shapin have broadened and enriched the academic and societal debate about the role of fundamental science in our present society.