A Culture of Fact: England, 1550-1720.
Cornell: Cornell University Press, 2000. 284 pp. n.p. ISBN: 0-8014-3686-9.
In this fascinating work, designed to integrate legal concepts and traditions into more general intellectual and cultural history, Barbara J. Shapiro argues that "the concept of 'fact' took shape in the legal arena and was then carried into other intellectual endeavors until it became part and parcel of the generally held habits of thought of late-seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century English culture" (8). In work that complements her Probability and Certainty in Seventeenth-Century England, Shapiro here engages with arguments by Steven Shapin, Simon Schaffer, Lorraine Daston, and Peter Dear on the roles of "fact" in natural phenomena. "Fact," she shows, "does not begin with natural philosophy, having become a well-established concept elsewhere before it was adopted by the community of naturalists" (2).
Shapiro's richly detailed introduction situates her work in the broad category of early modern legal practice. Her first chapters are especially noteworthy for the ways they lay out key concepts, terms, and procedures of sixteenth-century common law. Like other authors, she rightly recognizes the debt of early English common law to Romano-canon tradition, but she emphasizes the ways English common law separated "matters of fact" from "matters of law" institutionally. As used in English law, "fact" had two related meanings: the more general referred to any human act or deed of legal significance that had or would take place; the other referred to the act constituting the crime of which a defendant stood accused. Far from being itself perceived as an established truth, a "matter of fact" was an issue placed before a jury; not to be considered true or believable until evidence had been presented: "The act, the fact, thus required proof" (10).
As Shapiro lays out the evolution of the "fact" in early English culture, she develops a picture of the epistemological challenges that characterize early modern courts. Expectations of prior knowledge for jurors; increasing roles for witnesses; tensions between crediting written records over witness testimony -- behind all these were recurring questions about how facts were to be evaluated and truth discerned. One prominent aspect of Shapiro's argument is that jurors, though often assumed to be members of the gentry, were in fact drawn from a wide range of social strata. In his work on eighteenth-century scientific investigation, Steven Shapin has argued that aristocratic norms derived from Italian courtesy manuals were transferred to the ideal scientific investigator in England (139). Refuting Shapin's "gentlemanly thesis," Shapiro demonstrates that nothing in the earlier sixteenth-century legal literature supports Shapin's claim that the common people were seen as "perceptually unreliable" (26) and that s ocial status was only one criterion among many affecting the protocols of scientific investigation.
Having established the early modern courtroom as a site of knowledge making, "that is, a setting where a variety of participants engage in creating or determining the 'truth' of something by a set of site-specific rules" (30), in subsequent chapters Shapiro follows the concept of "fact" in the discourses of historiography, travel writing and periodical presses, natural science, and religion. She finds that the "discourses of fact" represented by travel writing, chorography, and the periodical presses were crucial to the transmission of legal concepts to the larger society. All these literatures assumed that ordinary persons were capable of reporting the facts accurately and ordinary readers could understand and evaluate their reports. In two substantial chapters devoted to "facts of nature," she refutes in considerable detail the historical commonplace that "fact" and its epistemic structures are products of an eighteenth-century scientific revolution. Nonetheless, in his capacities as legal practitioner and historian of nature, Francis Bacon was a crucial figure in the transformation of "fact" from human to natural phenomena (107), as were the contributions of the Royal Society in general and such figures as Robert Hooke and Robert Boyle in particular.
Shapiro admirably achieves her aim, which is to shed light on questions relating to disciplinary development and permeability. She emphasizes the legal origins of "fact" without overestimating legal influences in the development of other disciplines. She shows how this critical element of our language of empiricism was shaped out of legal practices and how a concept of "fact" grounded in human acts and testimony became a commonplace of Anglo-American cultural practice.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2000|
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