Introduction

NOTCOM explores the historical and philosophical background to the current notion of “scientific consensus.” In its most crude formulation, a consensus argument infers the truth of a proposition from the universality of its acceptance. It argues that because everyone takes something to be true, it must be true. The inference is, from a logical standpoint, transparently invalid. Moreover, it includes as one of its premises an empirical claim—universality of belief—which is unverifiable unless the universal “everyone” in question is drastically restricted to a manageable number of individuals. 

Yet, arguments appealing to consensus are constantly used in debates about science and scientific truth. Numerous disciplines have tried to explain the peculiar force of such arguments and the conditions of their success. Rhetoricians have asked how to most efficiently communicate established consensus; sociologists of science have conducted surveys to quantify consensus or public adherence to consensus; philosophers of mathematics have attempted to create formal models of consensus; social psychologists have elucidated the nature and impact of consensus among scientists through cultural and group identification factors; social epistemologists with an interest in group knowledge have explored the truth conditions of consensus.

None of these approaches, however, engage with the history of scientific consensus. It is a fundamental intuition of NOTCOM that this is a mistake because consensus formation is by nature historically structured. In science, G. W. Leibniz said, consensus represents “establishments” where one “completes at least certain points and puts certain theses beyond dispute in order to gain ground and to have foundations upon which to build.” They are like “bottled ships” (Collins) or “black boxes” (Latour). Such establishments among scientists come about through complex temporal patterns. They evolve differently from one discipline to the other. They change, sometimes radically.

Based on that premise, NOTCOM undertakes to write a crucial part of that history and explore its contemporary potentials, namely the history of scientific consensus in the seventeenth century. With particular emphasis on so-called common notions—both terminologically and conceptually at the root of the axioms and hypotheses at the heart of early modern controversies about scientific methodology—, the project thus undertakes to reconstruct how models of common notions and consensus in early modern science were developed in constant exchange with other disciplines, including logic, rhetoric, mathematics, moral philosophy, political theory, jurisprudence, and theology. As a whole, NOTCOM is structured according to four research themes (RT1-4). For further information about each theme, please click below:

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