From an interview with Steven Shapin, author of The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation:
Question: Most of us think of science as a virtuous or noble profession and view scientists as people motivated purely by the pursuit of knowledge—in and of itself. From where does this idea originate and how did it come to dominate our ideas of the sciences?Read the complete interview.
Steven Shapin: If, indeed, we do think this—and the extent to which we do is becoming an interesting question—the origin of the sentiment is classical. The Greeks believed that human beings innately desired knowledge and that the pursuit of knowledge was virtuous in itself. In Christian conceptions of Nature as God’s Book—on a par with Scripture—the study of Nature had the power of moral uplift, ennobling those who pursued natural knowledge. Moreover, we have to appreciate that it was only in fairly recent times that scientific research became a job, ultimately paid for by the State or by industry. For the great majority of scientists before the twentieth century, scientific inquiry was more a calling than an occupation: the normal historical state of affairs was for the scientific practitioner to be an amateur—however competent—doing it for love and not money. So if we do regard science as a virtuous profession, that may be, in part, an index of cultural lag: our attitudes may be strongly marked by the past and have yet to come to terms completely with present realities. That said, much of The Scientific Life identifies the virtues that continue to reside in the modern vocation of science, even though “nobility” is not a notion we’re comfortable with any longer and even though modern scientists, of course, view themselves as laborers well worthy of their hire.
Learn more about The Scientific Life.