Gimcrack’s Legacy: Sex, Wealth, and the Theater of Experimental Philosophy


Tita Chico


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

Experimental philosophy in the late seventeenth century depended upon what Stephen Shapin and Simon Schaffer have famously characterized as the “modest witness,” that is, a gendered figure of authority, gentility, and privilege measured for “[his] moral constitution as well as [his] knowledgeability.”1 The modest witness was a subject position that emerged in “the laboratory,” itself “a disciplined space, where experimental, discursive, and social practices were collectively controlled by competent members.”2 The authenticity of the “modest witness” was borne out of performance, policing, and collective agreement, but it also depended upon the idea that these practices produced a modest witness who merely reflected the results from scientific experimentation.3 While the benefits of Shapin and Schaffer’s work are multiple, their insights have invited a range of reconsiderations, most notably by Donna Haraway.4 The role of the modest witness and the rise of experimentalism more generally, contends Haraway, generated a model of gender difference that Shapin and Schaffer assume existed a priori. The scientific gentleman was distinguished from laboring (professional) men and women more generally by means of his intellectual modesty, that key practice of experimentalism, and this configuration exposes experimentalism as dependent upon this gender-in-the-making. The theory of the modest witness, as understood by Shapin and Schaffer, and as modified by Haraway, significantly expands our understanding of the culture of seventeenth-century experimentalism and its development into modern scientific practice. But the “modest witness” concerns what ends up being a winner of history—it is the source of modern scientific objectivity—and fails to account for variant identities and engagements with experimental philosophy outside of the confines of the Royal Society. In particular, the alternative discourse of the virtuoso emerged alongside, historically, the modest witness, and was its cultural and ideological antithesis, though some seventeenth-century skeptics suspected that the modest witness might actually devolve into a virtuoso. If the modest witness “factored out human agency” and acted as “objects’ transparent spokesmen,”5 then the virtuoso was defined by his or her inability to overcome prejudice and desires, speaking for himself or herself rather than for the object, thus illuminating the cultural implications and potential of popular scientific practice.


1Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 59.

Shapin and Schaffer elaborate: “The space where these machines worked—the nascent laboratory—was to be a public space, but a restricted public space, as critics like Hobbes were soon to point out.” Additionally, “In these respects, the experimental laboratory was a better space in which to generate authentic knowledge than the space outside it in which simple observations of nature could be made” (Leviathan, 39).

3That is, “the literary display of a certain sort of morality was a technique in the making of matters of fact. A man whose narratives could be credited as mirrors of reality was a modest man; his reports ought to make that modesty visible” (Shapin and Schaffer, Leviathan, 65).

Donna J. Haraway, Modest Witness@Second Millennium_FemaleMan©Meets_OncoMouse™: Feminism and Technoscience (New York and London: Routledge, 1997), 23–30.

Haraway, Modest Witness, 25.

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