New ERC Project at the Maison Française d’Oxford: The Common Notion. Science and Consensus in the Seventeenth Century (NOTCOM)

Mogens Laerke (Directeur de recherche / Senior Researcher CNRS, IHRIM, Lyon / MFO, Oxford)

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I am delighted to announce that, as of January 2023, the Maison Française d’Oxford (MFO) co-hosts a five-year project on seventeenth-century natural philosophy entitled The Common Notion. Science and Consensus in the Seventeenth Century (NOTCOM), funded by an ERC Advanced Grant (no. 101052433). As the PI of the project, I have over the last year and a half during my tenure as a statutory senior researcher at the MFO in 2019-2022 worked with colleagues in Oxford and France on creating the right framework for this project, which includes collaboration with the Centre for Intellectual History, the Centre for the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology, and other research centres in Oxford. I hope this project will help create and consolidate strong bilateral relations between British and French intellectual historians and historians of science, and in particular expand the already strong institutional relations that exist between the CNRS and Oxford University. The project will include a team of post-graduate and post-doctoral researchers, recruited in France or in the United Kingdom. The project will allow us to organise a number of lectures, workshops, and conferences in Oxford, Lyon, and elsewhere, in collaboration with colleagues on both sides of the English Channel.

NOTCOM is a study of common notions, collective inquiry, and public dissemination strategies in seventeenth-century natural science, with special focus on the role of so-called “common notions.” Early modern collective science has, over the last half century, provided a rich field of study for the sociology and history of philosophy of science. Little attention has, however, been paid to the role that epistemological consensus models governing it. Yet the period produced a wealth of such models, often in the context of doctrines of common notions that informed natural philosophical methods of collective inquiry in myriad ways. In view of a comprehensive reconstruction of the doctrines and methods of collective science in the early modern period, NOTCOM undertakes to study (1) epistemological models of consensus as they emerged from early modern controversies in logic, rhetoric, moral philosophy, theology and law, and how they were re-deployed within natural philosophy; (2) methods of collective inquiry in early modern natural philosophy; (3) the role of consensus models and methods of collective inquiry in the public dissemination of early modern natural philosophy; (4) the contemporary relevance of early modern consensus models and methods of collective inquiry in relation to current philosophy of science and science communication studies.

The project is conducted within the general framework of INSHS, the humanities and social sciences wing of the CNRS, but shared between two CNRS research units: (1) The Institut d’histoire des représentations et des idées dans les modernités (IHRIM) at ENS de Lyon, a mixed research unit dedicated to modern history of ideas; (2) The Maison Française d’Oxford (MFO) is a French research unit abroad associated with Oxford University that will function as un administrative hub and facilitate collaboration with the Oxford Centre for the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology (OCHSMT) and the Oxford Centre for Intellectual History (OCIH). This institutional framework across national borders forms a pioneering research environment tailor-made for the project. Two two-year postdoctoral fellows will be associated with the project from September 2023, one based at the ENS de Lyon, the other – locally recruited in the UK – based at the MFO. Another two two-year postdoctoral fellows will take over from September 2025. Post-doctoral fellows will circulate between the two project sites according to an established team calendar to ensure that the whole team regularly works together in person. The project will moreover include two three-year doctoral students, beginning in September 2024, employed at the ENS de Lyon, but circulating between the two sites, same as the rest of the team.

NOTCOM is, in a nutshell, a historical and historical study of what is today referred to as “scientific consensus.” In its most crude formulation, a general consensus argument infers the truth of a proposition from the universality of its acceptance, i.e. it holds that since everyone deems something to be true, it must be true. The inference is, from a logical standpoint, transparently invalid. Nonetheless, consensus arguments are constantly used in public debates about science and scientific truth. Indeed, “scientific consensus” is one of the scientific community’s most widely used arguments to influence policymakers and oppose science scepticism. But on what peculiar forces do such arguments rely? Many disciplines have addressed the question: social epistemologists have explored the conditions of scientific group knowledge; rhetoricians have pondered how to efficiently communicate consensus; sociologists of science have quantified both consensus itself and public adherence to it; social psychologists have elucidated the impact of consensus among scientists through cultural and group identification factors. None of these approaches, however, engage with the history of scientific consensus. The fundamental intuition of NOTCOM is that this is a mistake because consensus formation is by nature historically structured. It represents those shared assumptions that in any given scientific debate are put aside as non-controversial. Such consensus comes about through complex temporal and historical patterns. It evolves differently from one discipline to the other. It develops and changes, sometimes quite radically. But it is not only the object of scientific consensus—i.e. what scientists agree upon—that evolves. Scientific consensus itself—what such agreement amounts to; how it is grounded; who is eligible to partake; what value it has—has a complex history. Understanding scientific consensus therefore requires historical study. Based on that intuition, NOTCOM undertakes to write a part of that history and explore its contemporary potentials, namely the history of scientific consensus in the seventeenth century.

The project is organised around four research themes (RT1–4): RT1 reconstructs how consensus models in early modern natural philosophy were conceived in exchange with other disciplines, most importantly rhetoric, logic, moral philosophy, political theory, theology, and law. RT2 investigates if and how these models informed natural philosophical methods of collective inquiry. RT3 considers the role of consensus models for the public dissemination of natural philosophy. RT4 places RT1–3 in a contemporary perspective, studying what they can contribute to current debates about scientific consensus.

The first research theme (RT1) is concerned with the epistemology of consensus and collective science. The beginnings of modern philosophy are routinely depicted as a break with tradition and authority, as a moment when the individual mind took charge of its own powers, shedding itself of idols and scholastic prejudices, adopting new criteria of certain truth either proper to the mind or based on direct observation and experience. One corollary of that well-rehearsed narrative is the rejection of universal consent as a criterion of truth. When restricted to the canonical thinkers, a history of early modern philosophy is thus a narrative about how epistemologies based on authority, consensus, and common notions were replaced by epistemologies based on criteria of self-evidence or empirical observation. And yet, when looking beyond the traditional rationalist-empiricist alternative into which that narrative feeds, arguments from general agreement or universal consent begin to resurface everywhere. RT1 explores these early modern epistemological models of consensus and universal consent from the viewpoint of a concept whose broader signification has been largely ignored, namely so-called “common notions” (koinai ennoiai), also described as “prolepses,” “preconceptions,” “anticipations,” or “presumptions.” Common notions are both etymologically and conceptually at the root of two other notions whose foundational role in early modern natural science is widely acknowledged, namely axioms and hypotheses.  Five basic conceptions of common notions were in play. First, in the theory of knowledge, common notions were at the core of a neo-stoic doctrine according to which they are innate dispositions or dictates of reason which, when prompted by experience, will become present to all sound minds. Second, in moral philosophy and theology, they were associated with the Paulinian conception of the divine law written “on the tablets of human hearts” (2 Cor 3:3), closely associated with the Christian conception of synderesis, or innate moral conscience. Third, in mathematical logic, common notions were inseparable from the Euclidian model of reasoning—indeed, what geometers call axioms after Aristotle just are, in Euclid’s own terminology, koinai ennoiai. Moreover, according to one important reception of Euclid, reaching back to Cicero and Proclus, mathematical common notions were termed hypotheses after Plato’s middle dialogues. They were not necessarily considered self-evident or indemonstrable. Fourth, common notions were adopted by reformers of Aristotelian dialectic such as Valla and Ramus, who interpreted them rhetorically as expressions of common language use. Fifth, in early modern jurisprudence, best exemplified by Grotius and Leibniz, common notions of justice were perceived as presumptions, i.e. defeasible legal principles grounded in. These five basic conceptions of common notions constantly crossed paths, converged, and diverged in early modern theology, jurisprudence, moral philosophy, rhetoric, logic, and natural philosophy. And within these debates, early modern thinkers developed a wealth of conceptual tools to explore the value and conditions of consensus formation, including within natural philosophy. For example, whether idiots, enthusiasts, children, women, atheists, and heathens should be excluded from consensus formation was intensely debated, revealing a natural philosophical culture confronting issues analogous to those debated within their intellectual culture more broadly, including mental fitness, gender, and race.

The second research  (RT2) focuses on methods of collective science as they were conceived and applied within seventeenth-century natural philosophical communities. The settings of early modern natural philosophical practice spanned from university auditoriums and anatomical theatres to informal gatherings in private homes. Learned societies and scientific communities have, however, proven a particularly rich topic for studying such practices and their underlying methods. They have been the object of a steady stream of learned commentary for the last century. These societies, real and projected, large and small, embraced different norms and principles of collective scientific investigation. The intellectual space of the Royal Society, for example, with its practices of collective experiment and gentlemanly values of integrity and reliability, has been extensively studied. Leibniz’s collaborative scientific ethos of moderation was present in the background of his plans for various academies, and so on. No matter which norms or principles such communities embraced, they did so making basic gestures of collective agreement. Scientific societies, as all societies, have a corporate structure based on common commitment to shared principles of decision-making. This given, surprisingly little attention has been paid to what natural philosophers themselves had to say about the collective nature of their knowledge. And yet there is an abundance of writings to explore. For example, Kenelm Digby declared in his Two Treatises that “in delivering any science, the cleerest and smoothest methode, and most agreeable to nature is to begin with the consideration of those thinges, that are most common and obvious” and to progress “according to the naturall conceptions that all people agree in making of them.” The Royal Society, as presented by Thomas Sprat, emphasised the role of community for the reliability of results because “those, to whom the conduct of the experiment is committed … carry the eyes, and the imaginations of the whole company into the laboratory with them.” Or Nicolas Steno, the most famous associate of the Florentine Accademia del Cimento stressed that “those statements of the fundamental facts of nature which are common cannot fail to be the best.” By focusing on such texts, NOTCOM gives the historical agents a voice in justifying the methods of collective inquiry they adopted. They are also texts that entertain an intrinsic relation to the epistemological models reconstructed in RT1. Indeed, the assumption is that some correlation can be established between the epistemologies of common notions reconstructed under RT1 and the methodological reflections gathered under RT2. 

The third research theme (RT3) is concerned with issues regarding public dissemination and public participation in collective science. The original Baconian program argued not only that useful science was experimental but also that experimental science was useful. Both convictions carried over into most such programs. For example, a 1663 manifesto for the Compagnie des Sciences et des Art emphasised that all members should “strive mutually with all [their] strength to contribute to matters pertaining to happiness in this life.” And yet the utility of modern natural philosophy was not a given. Patrons and the broader public had to be persuaded. So natural philosophy became increasingly present within society; scientific spectacles proliferated; anatomical theatres were built all over Europe; public experiments were conducted at courts, in colleges, coffee shops, and private homes. The strategies adopted by natural philosophers to navigate this new public interface took different forms. If the secretive “Solomon’s House” in Bacon’s New Atlantis was a frequently adopted model, audiences were nonetheless included as participant observers and public demonstrations of science correlated with an epistemology of common experience. Absent physical audiences, rhetorical strategies to create the impression of “virtual witnessing” were devised. NOTCOM argues that the models of common notions studied in RT1 were central to public dissemination strategies in ways previously overlooked. They had to strike a balance between the wondrous and the ordinary. Displays of virtuosity and skill, combined with elements of surprise, ascertained the success of public displays. Still, as Robert Boyle cautioned, “wonderful” phenomena only acquired value “by their use, not their strangeness, or prettiness.” Separating scientific experimentation from ordinary experience and popular know-how rendered the former potentially suspect. In order not to give an impression of frivolity, public demonstrations of science could not rely on wonder alone, but also, paradoxically, had to appeal to common knowledge. Sensitivity to common knowledge, common language, and common notions were therefore crucial components in public science dissemination.

The fourth research theme (RT4) focuses on topicality and contemporary relevance. A survey conducted in 2013 examining 11.944 peer-reviewed climate papers written by some 29.000 climate scientists over 20 years, concluded that more than 97% agreed on the reality of anthropogenic climate change. Just prior to the Bonn Climate Summit in 2017, 15.364 scientists signed a document warning about the dire ecological state of the planet which was simultaneously published in a scientific journal (Bioscience) and an international newspaper (Le Monde). Surveys quantifying scientific consensus is one of the scientific community’s principal weapons in combating science scepticism. Some research argues that publicising such surveys has the desired impact; other suggests the contrary. However, on either side of the debate, scientific consensus is mostly considered a “proxy for scientific knowledge,” designed to induce “gateway beliefs” in a public unequipped to evaluate the underlying science. This conflicts with a substantial body of research into the “closure mechanisms” of scientific controversies. Constructivist orientations in the sociology of science have offered a rich theoretical context for exploring the essential role played by consensus formation in science. These studies have, however, also left consensus with a tainted reputation, as shaped by ideology, culture, funding, or politics. Today, science sceptics routinely seize upon constructivist arguments to rebrand fringe hypotheses as bold scientific innovation and manufacture counter-consensus formations. The academic response has spanned from theoretical back-pedalling to “new materialist” attempts to establish scientific authority on new ontological foundations. And yet the problem remains rhetorical at its core. The challenge, as Leibniz already noted, is to find ways to make the public a “a kind of partner in discovery.” Interaction between scientists and citizens is today strongly encouraged, e.g. in the form of “consensus conferences.” “Citizen science” features prominently on the ERC’s Open Science policy platform. To successfully communicate science to the public, however, citizens must be offered both reliable and accessible insight into the actual processes of scientific consensus formation. For this, NOTCOM suggests drawing on narrative resources specific for the historiography of philosophy and science. In a reflexive mode, RT4 thus explores the rhetorical potentials of NOTCOM itself.

NOTCOM implements a methodology that combines the methods of rational reconstruction used by historians of philosophy, the methods for studying scientific networks developed by sociologists of scientific knowledge, and the methods for studying controversies elaborated by intellectual historians. It is strongly interdisciplinary. In the seventeenth century, disciplinary boundaries were fluid. Early modern debates on common notions and consensus incorporated formal elements that can be traced back to a variety of disciplines, giving rise to hybrid argumentative frameworks that are very hard to assign to a particular topical context. Moreover, accounts of collective experimentation and public science is found in an abundance of sources, including printed books, journals, correspondences, proceedings, etc. One research task of NOTCOM will therefore be to examine a corpus of texts and create a thematically structured database of passages directly addressing RT1–3. The scope of the database is likely to evolve but initially focuses on the proceedings or accounts of the activities of four scientific communities, including the “journal books” of the Royal Society published by Thomas Birch in 1756–1757; the accounts of the Accademia del Cimento’s activities by Magalotti (1667) and Tozzetti (1790); the proceedings  of the Collegium Experimentale sive Curiosum founded in Altdorf by Johann Sturm of 1676 and 1685; and the 11 tomes of the Histoire de l’Académie des Sciences (1729–34). Five learned correspondences, including those of Samuel Hartlib; Marin Mersenne, Christiaan Huygens; Henry Oldenburg, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Five early modern scientific journals, including Philosophical Transactions (founded 1665); Journal des sçavans (founded 1665); Giornale de'letterati, Rome 1668–83); Nouvelles de la République des Lettres (1682–1718); Acta Eruditorum (1682–1707). The database is conceived as a vast set of collective research notes. Internally, it represents a shared pool of searchable research data for the NOTCOM team. Externally, it responds to a concern for scientific accountability by providing open access to an important part of the project’s raw data. It allows future researchers to verify interpretations and use the data for their own purposes. It will be built in collaboration with the “Pôle Humanités Numériques” à the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon.

I am looking immensely forward to conducting this five-year research project with associated colleagues in Oxford, Lyon, and elsewhere.


Mogens Lærke
Directeur de recherche / Senior Researcher
CNRS, IHRIM, Lyon / MFO, Oxford

Funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Research Commission (ERC). Neither the European Union nor the ERC can be held responsible for them.

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