Methods of Scientific Consensus



The venues of seventeenth-century natural philosophy spanned from university auditoriums and anatomical theatres to coffee shops and private homes. Since the work of Martha Ornstein and Robert Merton, societies and academies have proven particularly rich contexts for studying their collective scientific practices and methods.

However, these scientific communities were perpetually conflicted about the status of the collective knowledge they were promoting. The practicality of collective experimentation was far from evident; questions of rivalry and intellectual priority got in the way. Still, their enduring ambitions of producing genuine group knowledge speak volumes of the scientific epistemologies that accompanied these enterprises. For example, in Claude Perrault’s Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire naturelle des animaux, first published in 1671, the full weight of scientific consensus is brought to bear when the preface claims that “our Memoires is that unblemishable evidence of a certain and acknowledged Verity” because they “are not the Work of one private Person” but “contain only Matters of Fact, that have been verified by a whole Society”.

Regardless of which methods the members of each community chose to adopt, they would always do so in some gesture of collective agreement. This given, surprisingly little attention has been paid to epistemological and methodological discussions of consensus formation and methods of collective inquiry by the historical agents themselves. Instead, the dominant sociological or cultural approaches have focused on cultural factors such as shared values, attitudes, and personality traits including reliability, trust, moderation, and humility to account for the collective scientific conditions of natural philosophical knowledge production.


NOTCOM argues that these analyses, insightful as they are, tend to deny the historical figures their theoretical agency, not allowing them enough of a voice in saying themselves “what they are up to” as the colloquial phrase goes among cultural anthropologists. To remedy that, NOTCOM proposes to reconstruct a series of epistemological and methodological perspectives that early modern natural philosophers themselves offered on their collective activities. NOTCOM argues in particular that the epistemologies of common notions and universal consent studied in Research theme 1 (RT1) can shed light on the methods of collective inquiry studied in Research Them 2 (RT2).

NOTCOM will focus particularly on three types of sources. First, proceedings of collective scientific endeavours such as the “journal books” of the early Royal Society later published by Thomas Birch, the Gesta and Praescriptiones of the Accademia dei Lincei, the “essays” of the Accademia del Cimento, or the 11 tomes of proceedings included in the Histoire de l’Académie des Sciences depuis son établissement en 1666 jusqu’à 1699. Attention will also be paid to how such proceedings circulated among societies (translations and correspondences) with a focus on Mersenne, Hartlib, Oldenburg, Huygens, or Leibniz. Finally, scientific journals such as the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions (1665–), the Giornale de’ letterati (1668–83) published in Rome; the Journal des Sçavants (1666) from Paris, Bayle’s Nouvelles de la République des Lettres (1682–1718) from Amsterdam, or Leibniz and Mencke’s Acta Eruditorum, published in Leipzig (1682–1707).




OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Mogens Lærke (June 8, 2023). Methods of Scientific Consensus. NOTCOM. Retrieved July 22, 2024 from

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