Robert King Merton as Prodigy

By Alan Sica

This article is part of our Past and Present series, in which current scholars look back at earlier works published in the journal.

Robert K. Merton once remarked on the difference between scholastic interpretation and heuristic value in assessing sociology’s classical thinkers. His influential essay ‘Puritanism, Pietism and Science’ (PPS), showed just what he meant when it came to Max Weber. Merton knew his Weber. But he was, as Alan Sica argues here, moving things on, carving out a whole new field of investigation and inventing the sociology of science. PPS showed that there was a homology between seventeenth-century Puritanism and science. The news, for those who thought in terms of war between religion and science, was that the Puritan ethic had stimulated modern science. PPS had several outings during Merton’s career but it was here, in The Sociological Review (1936), that his paper first saw light of day. In pursuing a Weberian line of investigation Merton was, of course not alone. Translating, interpreting and testing Weber were major preoccupations of mid-twentieth century sociology. But, as Sica explains, Merton was not only an early adopter and a new researcher, but a precocious one who stood up to those of his elders who thought they ‘knew better’. Sica recalls how this son of immigrants and ex-magician became a graduate student and produced himself ‘out of a hat’ as a major American sociologist. He reconstructs the intellectual field in which Merton discovered his métier as a historical sociologist. Sica’s thumbnail sketches of the heavyweights who mentored the young Merton (George Sarton, Pitirim Sorokin among others) are fascinating for what they reveal about the gestation of PPS. Merton is recalled here as a founding thinker in the sociology of science. But in remembering Merton for our time Sica also recommends Merton’s eloquence as a writer and his ability to speak to people outside the academy.

Nickie Charles and Gordon Fyfe

The SR Archive: Classics

Robert K. Merton ‘Puritanism, Pietism, and Science’ (1936)

Alan Sica, Pennsylvania State University

Slum Child Becomes Protean Force

Re-evaluating or commemorating or criticizing an article written in 1935 by a 24 year-old graduate student demands response to the obvious question: Why? A reasonable answer is not so obvious as it may appear to be. In an era, very unlike today, when scholarly publication was a privilege granted mostly to post-dissertation authors, ‘Puritanism, Pietism, and Science’ (Merton, 1936) became the young author’s seventh pre-doctoral published scholarly article—in addition to his five book reviews (13 more appeared in 1936), a translation from Italian, and a magazine article (Coser, 1975: 499, 513). The term ‘prodigy’ seems suitable. As Merton recalled in 1984: ‘So it was during the half dozen or so years of my novitiate [1930-1936] that I found myself writing, at a rather more restrained pace [than that of his mentor, George Sarton] some twenty articles and sixty-five reviews in various journals, along with those twenty entries for the critical bibliographies of Isis’ (Sarton, 1988: xxix). The article in question became Chapter Six (of 11) in a famous dissertation called Science, Technology and Society in Seventeeth Century England published soon after its defense (Merton, 1938). These early works have inspired far too many responses, long and short, smart and dull, from all over the literate world, for any single scholar nowadays to process adequately. Yet Merton’s early writing surely substantiates one of his favourite expressions, from Wordsworth (and also, contrarily, Gerard Manley Hopkins): ‘The Child is father of the Man’ (Merton, 1996: 340).

In this, ‘Puritanism, Pietism, and Science’ (hereafter PPS) is not unlike its inspiration, Max Weber’s ‘Protestant Ethic Thesis’, seldom well enough studied, even while cited without mercy or respite. (For a sense of what it takes to comprehend it well, see the expert work of Peter Ghosh, 2014.) Like Weber’s analogous idea, ‘The Merton Thesis’ has even earned an entry in Wikipedia, there displaying the expected virtue of brevity, but also necessarily misconstruing what Merton tried to accomplish when still somewhat green. It repeats the sort of weak hermeneutics which irritated its author well after he realized that nothing he could write would persuade his less competent critics to study his original statements in an effort to ‘get it right’. Again, a parallel with Weber surfaces, for after about 1910 Weber refused any longer to be drawn into debates about the ‘Protestant ethic’, frustrated as he was by the inept critiques to which he had been subjected for the preceding half decade (Weber, 2002: 282-339). Merton waited much longer to withdraw from disputes over his early work (e.g., Merton, 1984), but with similar impatience over what he regarded as misrepresentations of his ideas and empirical analyses.

What exactly is the young Merton’s claim that so inflamed and inspired later scholars? Simply this:

It is the thesis of this study that the Puritan ethic, as an ideal-typical expression of the value-attitudes basic to ascetic Protestantism generally, so canalized the interest of seventeenth-century Englishmen as to constitute one important element in the enhanced cultivation of science. The deep-rooted religious interests of the day demanded in their forceful implications the systematic, rational, and empirical study of Nature for the glorification of God in His works and the control of the corrupt world (Merton, 1936: 1-2; emphases in original).

Appended is a note quoting Weber, in German, from his Religionssoziologie (for a transliteration of this famous introduction to Weber’s comparative sociology of religions, see Weber, 1946: 267). In a telling addition to this note, Merton observes: ‘As Weber justly indicates, one freely recognizes the fact that religion is but one element in the determination of the religious ethic, but none the less it is at present an insuperable, and for our purposes, unnecessary task to determine all the component elements of this ethic. This problem awaits further analysis and falls without the scope of this study’ (ibid., p. 2; emphases in original).

As Steven Shapin and others have repeatedly pointed out, Merton wisely positioned his arguments so that he would not be tossed unwillingly either into the Marxist camp of quasi-materialists, at that time riding high due to the Great Depression, or among the so-called idealists, for whom a connection between the pedestrian endeavours in the lab (or marketplace) bore no meaningful relation to theological dogma, or even to everyday religious practices (cf. Zuckerman, 1989: 240). As Shapin put it: ‘There has never been a celebrated historical theory so cautiously framed, so methodologically eclectic, so hedged about with qualifications as to its form, content, and consequences, and so temperately expressed . . . On the evidence of some of those historians who have endeavoured to refute what they represent to be his thesis, Merton’s 1938 monograph and related texts can scarcely have been read at all. Merton is quite right to complain at the cavalier treatment he has received’ (Shapin, 1988: 594).

It is important here to bear in mind that graduate student Merton was paddling his canoe between the battleships Pitirim Sorokin and George Sarton, trying to stay afloat amidst their stormy wakes, propelling himself determinedly toward the doctorate while working for both of them as a research assistant and then co-author. Such a scholarly apprenticeship would either destroy any novice or harden him for whatever later tasks might present themselves—a true trial by scholarly fire. As Merton approached his 80th birthday, he reflected on that period of his scholarly life, and the typical student experience: ‘At times, he was plagued by acute doubts that it was an intellectual work worth the effort. And, after the fashion that we know as a standard ailment of graduate students at work on a dissertation, that student was persuaded that it would probably be rejected out of hand. . . . there was reason for those forebodings’ (Merton, 1989: 292). More about this later.

Were one truly interested in pursuing ‘the Merton thesis’ seriously, the many available resources could well begin with I. Bernard Cohen’s collection of sympathetic treatments, Puritanism and the Rise of Modern Science: The Merton Thesis (Cohen, 1990; the manuscript copy of which I was happy to recommend for publication when it was sent to me for evaluation nearly 30 years ago). Another fruitful avenue toward enlightenment is provided by the aforementioned Shapin, who proposed that a shadowy, yet potent influence behind Merton’s early work was Vilfredo Pareto, as transmitted to him as when a member of Lawrence J. Henderson’s famous Harvard seminar (Shapin, 1988). If this is not immediately plausible, particularly when analyzing Merton’s use of the concept ‘sentiment’ (or ‘derivations’, for that matter; PPS, p. 2), it is surely more acutely aware of his larger and smaller arguments concerning the growth of science and its religious context than are so many other commentaries. Too often ‘the Merton Thesis’ (a phrase coined by Thomas Kuhn) has been twisted into the ‘Merton’ thesis, with disputators drifting ever further from the original statements, and tending with enthusiasm more to one another’s skewed viewpoints than to Merton’s own research. So: what to do? Sometimes when writers ‘fight’ and lose sight of origins for the sake of playing the ‘naïve and nasty game of simply scoring points off the other (absent) fellow, thus seeking to exhibit [their] seeming intellectual powers’ (Merton in Sarton, 1988: xxvii), it is better to step aside and search for another route toward clarity.

Publicly Available Cultural Capital

Among the most illuminating, often quoted documents pertaining to Robert King Merton’s life as a scholar was a crisp essay he wrote when he was nearly 84. Merton was the first sociologist asked to deliver the Charles Homer Haskins Lecture at the annual meeting of the American Council of Learned Societies in Philadelphia—an organization expressly originated to further the humanities. Speaking in the then new Benjamin Franklin Hall of the American Philosophical Society, he offered ‘A Life of Learning’, pointing out that at that moment he was standing eight blocks due north of where he had been born on July 4, 1910, into a family of unmonied Russian immigrants. They could no more have imagined their son’s ‘life course’ than Merton, as a boy, could have foreseen the Nobel Prize in economics his own son, Robert C. Merton, would win in 1997. The lives of his peasant ancestors under the Czar centuries before served as absurdly weak predictors of Meyer R. Schkolnick’s self-transformation, at 14 and thereafter, into the trained magician, Robert King Merlin, and soon thereafter, Merton.

Walking four blocks due south of his home, Meyer became a virtual resident of a Carnegie Library at 1108 South Fifth Street, one of 1689 donated by that titan of industry to American cities (Nasaw, 2006:607). There the kindly female librarians helped the prodigy judiciously sample its ten thousand volumes, especially biographies and autobiographies (Merton, 1996: 342-43). Carnegie in 1903 had given Philadelphia $1.5M—more than the authorities had requested—with which it then built 25 libraries, including the lovely two-story structure with high ceilings and airy windows at the corner of Ellsworth and Fifth Street that became Merton’s second home. (It survives, used now by the Greater Philadelphia Overseas Chinese Association, Dr. Sun Yat Sen Bilingual School, Senior Citizen Group, a ‘repurposing’ which the mature Merton would surely have approved.)

Though Merton in letters to me and others often claimed to lack a reliable sense of autobiographical events, his memory for the written word was miraculously complete. Among the most memorable books that young Meyer took in was David Brewster’s The Life of Sir Isaac Newton (1840), the author a part-time historian who invented the kaleidoscope, and became famous for major discoveries in optics. Such scholarly pursuits at a tender age, especially his ‘addiction to biographies’ (Merton, 1996: 344), surely influenced Merton’s eventual heroics under George Sarton’s tutorship at Harvard (Merton in Sarton, 1988: vii-xlvi) where he unknowingly practised prosopography, analyzing ‘some six thousand entries in the Dictionary of National Biography’ as part of his dissertation labours (ibid., 345).

Merton also began at the Carnegie library his lifelong dedication to Laurence Sterne’s brilliantly peculiar novel, Tristram Shandy (1759-1767), which ‘read and reread over the years, often to cope with bouts of melancholy, eventually found expression in my Shandean Postcript, On the Shoulders of Giants’ (ibid., 343). (Interestingly, Thomas Jefferson prized Sterne over all other novelists, secured his wife in part through their mutual admiration for his writing, carried a small copy of Tristram with him whenever he travelled, using it similarly as an antidote to sadness—along with a tiny fiddle—and shared memorized lines from it with his beloved spouse on her deathbed [Mapp, 1987: 185, 415; Randall, 1993, 348].) Imagine how pleased Sterne would have been had he been able to use Merton’s ‘private’ Carnegie library: ‘That reading occupied many of Sterne’s leisure hours is not surprising. . . though he could have had little spare money to buy books—and [Cambridge] undergraduates were excluded even from using the university library, let alone borrowing volumes’ (Ross, 2001: 107)!

But just as important for Merton’s eventual fame as a sociological prose stylist (Sica, 1998; 2008) were the essays of Philadelphia native James Gibbons Huneker, ‘who introduced my teen-age self to new aspects of European culture: to the French symbolists, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Mallarmé, and Rimbaud, for example, and to Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw, who, more than any other critic of his time, Huneker brought into the American consciousness’ (Merton 1996: 343-44). Huneker (1856-1921) was the most celebrated cultural critic in the country, in addition to being a concert pianist, musicologist, art critic, volunteer copyeditor for Theodore Dreiser, and the first American to review James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. His capacity for social life was legendary, a champion bon vivant, as was his ability to review a very large range of books for national edification, and in a prose style that almost mocked itself in its richness and metaphorical reach. Today a ‘huneker’ is a measurement contrived by Douglas Hofstadter, used to ‘calculate’ the size of a person’s soul (Hofstadter, 2007)! Merton’s high praise for Huneker’s critical appraisals and edifying labours, remembered 70 years after he consumed them, hints at the mighty importance this writer had for Meyer Schkolnick’s development as a practised writer and critic. He was the perfect audience for what Huneker was ‘selling’.

For an example of Huneker’s influence, consider Merton’s first visit to Norway in September, 1991. Connections with an important government official via a former student gave him and Harriet Zuckerman rare access to Henrik Ibsen’s study, an event which he described to me as ‘literally overwhelming. I evidently regressed to my early teen-age, when I had been introduced to the still controversial Ibsen dramas by the wide-ranging Philadelphia and New York art, music, and drama critic, James Gibbons Huneker. At any rate, while examining some of Ibsen’s writings and artefacts of his Ghosts, I found myself slowly sinking to the floor in yet another Ménière’s episode’ (letter of September 14, 1991 from Merton to Sica). It is not too much to argue that Merton’s sensitivity to literary art, graphically portrayed here in his visceral response to visiting Ibsen’s study—‘Something to do with the occasion-induced flow of epinephrine, no doubt, or its spiritual equivalent’—carried over into his sociological reasoning and expression. One could indeed become a fine sociologist while employing wooden or convoluted writing, a victim of an uninspired mode of presentation made most famous by Merton’s longtime friend at Harvard, Talcott Parsons. But Merton’s approach to the discipline, shaped initially by the uniquely demanding mentorships of George Sarton and Pitirim Sorokin, became an artistic endeavour, combining very sharp thinking with an expressive apparatus that went down like the superb Scotch he sometimes offered his guests (‘the best single malt in Scotland—not Glenfiddich, not Glenlivet, but the peerless Glendronach’ [Schultz, 1995: 10], the finest bottle of which now costs $4500).

Unable to improve on my earlier analysis of Merton’s mature artistry, from over twenty years ago, I reproduce it here:

A key identifying characteristic, something uniquely his own, that has granted Merton’s work its singular durability and appeal over the last 60 years, for social scientists of all types, concerns the quality not only of his analysis and sheer knowledge, but of his extraordinary attention to questions of language. Because so many sociologists of his generation and after chose to emphasize the ‘scientific’ nature of their enterprise, they slighted prose in order to accentuate their skill with enumeration. Merton, as much an historian and linguist as sociologist, never took that route, which gave him the opportunity to speak far beyond the perimeters of sociology, and directly to the concerns of scholars who normally regarded his discipline with hostility or dismissal. Merton’s induction into honorary scholarly societies worldwide has as much to do with his cultivated gracefulness, in thought and word, as with what might in a simpler writer be termed ‘his ideas per se.’ Somehow this hackneyed phrase jangles even louder than usual when applied to him (Sica, [1998] 2008: 156).

When I first showed this text to Merton, he politely objected, believing perhaps that I had mistakenly demeaned his conceptual contributions to social and scientific theory. Yet after more dialogue, he came to agree with me, occasioning a taped phone message in which he said ‘I have concluded that you are correct’ (an historical artefact still in my possession).

Taking Harvard By Storm

Let us return momentarily to Merton’s all-important apprenticeship at Harvard, where he arrived as a ‘dedicated socialist’ (Merton, 1996: 349), and left a sophisticated scientist. Contrary to common lore, it was not Parsons (then a very young instructor), nor the titanic Sorokin, founder of sociology at Harvard, nor even the creator of science history, Sarton, who first inspired Merton to search creatively for an appealing dissertation topic: ‘The economic historian E. F. Gay, who, with no such intent, triggered my enduring sociological interest in science and technology’ (ibid., 351). Gay had studied in Berlin with Max Weber’s older colleague and sometime disputant, Gustav Schmoller, the father of German historical economics and socio-economic policy studies. This new human source of empirical materials and theoretical perspective responded positively to an analytic paper for his course that the novice Merton had written. Gay accordingly and wisely suggested that Merton might benefit from auditing Sarton’s singular history of science seminar. Eventually, in his third year at Harvard, Merton worked up the courage to approach the ‘remote and awesome presence, so dedicated to his scholarship as to be wholly inaccessible’, so the local wisdom held. This image was partly substantiated by Sarton’s daughter in her memoir: ‘It was then and later one of George Sarton’s charms that he projected his own wide interests onto friends and companions, and naïvely imagined that what delighted him must delight them’ (May Sarton, 1959: 48). Yet Merton never felt unwelcome in Sarton’s Widener Library office, which he shared with several other young scholars who worked under The Master.

Sarton worked zealously, as if he were founding a religion, not an academic speciality. Merton explained in some detail the nature of their relationship in 1984 based, as was his wont, on letters and other comments they exchanged over many years (Merton, 1988). The Philadelphia tyro must surely have stood in awe of this superhuman productivist who, for example, calculated that during forty-one years of scholarship, he had ‘contributed about 100,000 notes to the critical bibliographies in Isis. . . “I [that is, Sarton] have written an average of six notes a day (holidays included). It is like the walking of 1000 miles in 1000 consecutive hours. To write six notes each day for a few days is nothing, but to do so without stop or weakness for 14,975 days is an achievement. It implies at least some constancy”’ (Merton, 1988: xxviii-xxix; from May Sarton, 1962: 108). Sarton would have taken understandable pleasure in A. C. Crombie’s observation which opens the 600-page bibliography to his own magnum opus: ‘The indispensable guide to the historigraphy of science, medicine, and technology and its sources is the current Bibliography published annually in Isis’ (Crombie, 1994: 1831). Crombie’s stunning list includes thirteen items by Sarton and eight by Merton.

The level of scholarship Sarton thus achieved is no longer practised, as for instance when he spent an entire summer creating indices for his monumental Introduction to the History of Science, the indices manuscript alone totalling one thousand pages: ‘My secretary is typing it now’. In addition to a general index, he also provided others for Greek, Chinese, Japanese, and Arabic entries: ‘altogether an assemblage of indexes comprising 235 [printed] pages’ (Merton, 1988: xxxi). Sarton was 26 years Merton’s senior, and held a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Ghent (where Merton eventually became the first Sarton Professor), yet he was 56 before Harvard gave him a genuine professorship (ibid., ix). He was known to the administrators as being ‘difficult’ and persistent in requesting funds to inaugurate a center for the history of science. One could fairly say that he lived for his work, and in this at least he and Sorokin shared a worldview. But more importantly, Sarton was an historian’s historian, ‘mantled in learning and temperamentally averse to the explicit use of analytical paradigms, Sarton continued to prefer the descriptive history of science’ (ibid., xxxv).

Needless to say, wide-eyed young Merton took all this in, so when Sarton ‘invited’ him in short order to write 65 book reviews and 20 bibliographic entries for Isis, his teacher’s own journal, in addition to the other writing expected of a graduate student, Merton did not dare refuse. And given the impact of this discipline on his later creativity, his refusal to be put off by Sarton’s preposterous demands on his time and mental space, was good for him and his many later readers. Yet Merton’s self-description as ‘an unruly apprentice’ is no mere post facto bravado. In 1935 Sarton wrote a note to ‘Dear Merton’: ‘I was sorry to detect in your character a streak of cannibalism.’ In responding to Merton’s negative review of F. S. Martin’s book on ‘Comtean positivism’. Sarton sagely observed: ‘He repeats himself. Of course, he does; every one who has an important message must repeat himself time after time, for he knows that most people will only begin to understand at the 1000th time’ (Merton, 1987: xxvii). As attested by documents Merton made public, he disagreed with Sarton about the direction his dissertation should take, and they were never ‘chums’. At the dissertation defense, Sarton asked the first question, which on its face seemed absurd to Merton in its apparent simplicity, yet gave Sarton a chance to praise the dissertator by means of his own research into Arabic science (Merton, 1987: xxi-xxii).

If Sarton, the maniacally inclined historian of descriptive facts, looked mildly askance at Merton’s desire to sociologize the historical record through ideal-typifications and other large-scale generalizations, the preceding problems for Merton working under and then with Pitirim Sorokin were entirely different. With careful judiciousness, the student wrote about and quoted his teacher so that little mystery remains as to their mutual influence (Merton, 1989). Sorokin was a taskmaster equal to Sarton, though because he invited Merton to Harvard personally, he had the young scholar to himself for the first several years of graduate school. He demanded, for instance, that Merton learn Italian pronto to help do research for Sorokin’s immense project, Social and Cultural Dynamics (1937; four volumes), to which Merton contributed two substantial sections. He was not terribly pleased by Merton’s participation in the ‘Pareto Circle’ organized and taught by Lawrence J. Henderson, the physiologist, since Sorokin did not view Pareto (nor Marx, nor Weber, nor anyone else) as equal to his own status as a social theorist and researcher, and thought Merton was therefore wasting his time in reading the Trattato (in French, no less).

Soon after Merton arrived in Cambridge, Sorokin explained that he did not have time to fulfil a promise made to Social Forces regarding ‘recent French sociology’, so he simply turned this project over to his fresh apprentice. The result of this ‘off-loading’ was Merton’s first article, which he had read at the Eastern Sociological Conference in his hometown in April, 1933 (Merton, 1934). One wonders what his parents thought of this. For a 22-year old youngster from South Philly, this bibliographic analysis of post-Durkheimian theory is almost unbelievable, and would nowadays be suspected to be the work of a senior scholar—my appraisal as recent editor of Contemporary Sociology. Merton remembers working night and day on the piece, and it showed. Had he not been offered and accepted ‘four years of Latin and two of French’ in South Philadelphia High School (Merton, 1996: 345), he would not have been able to carry it off. His analysis took in writings of Lévy-Bruhl, Bouglé, Fauconnet, Hubert, Mauss, Halbwachs, Davy, Worms, Tarde, Gaston Richard, G. L. Duprat, Allier, Déat, Paul Bureau, Deploige, Belliot, Legrand, Maritain, and many others. Concision is its hallmark, along with a few youthful, humorous jabs at authority figures: ‘Nor has M. Lévy-Bruhl troubled himself to investigate the degree of currency of the “prelogical” in “civilized” cultures,—certainly superstition has not softly and suddenly vanished away even before the enlightened Boojum of Positivism’ (Merton, 1934: 543). There is little bluster and no filler. Once again, ‘the child is father to the man’.

Sorokin’s pained and painful response composed in mid-June, 1934, in four hand-written pages, to Merton’s draft of what became ‘Puritanism, Pietism, and Science’, was made public 55 years later by the target of the Russian’s chastisement (Merton, 1989). Nowadays a response like Sorokin’s to a student’s paper would probably occasion a court case or, at least, an emotional breakdown on the part of the paper’s earnest author. ‘As a term paper—it is O.K’; this ends Sorokin’s most positive remarks. ‘But from a deeper and the only important standpoint I have to make several—and sharp—criticisms’ (ibid., 293). He urges Merton to ‘drop this childish procedure. . . I am afraid Weber-Troeltsch influenced you too much. . . [you] ascribe purely speculatively and quite onesidedly certain effects. . . Why so violently twist the real situation and make such a blunder? Read most of the medieval texts of Trivium et Quadrivium, Isidore of Seville, Vincent de Bovais’ [Beauvais] Mirror, Theophilus’ treatises on Art, St. Thomas’s Summa, Albertus Magnus’s works, take the very essence of Scholasticism, etc.—you will find all your “Protestant Principles” there’. The tone and substance of this critique of his predoctoral graduate student is unrelentingly negative, mainly because Merton had the temerity to diverge from Sorokin’s own favourite notions about economic development and religious beliefs, and substitute those of Weber, Troeltsch, and Tawney. His teacher also wrote ‘I may note that you have an inclination to use too many “cumbersome” words and to construct phrases—heavy and depressing—where much simpler words and phrase[s] may be much more helpful and elegant’. And so on. Midway through the four pages he writes ‘All the above is not intended to disparage or to “crush” your construction’! He concludes by offering a short course in social causation, claiming that capitalist development is not much influenced by Protestant beliefs, but originates in some deeper cause: ‘Keep in mind, that fashionable one time Weber’s theory—and Tawney and others—at the present time is “punctured” entirely and hardly any serious historian or scholar, as even in Germany subscribes for it. It is definitely “over”’. Weak syntax aside, the message remains quite clear.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, given his precocious publication record and obvious mental capacity, Merton shoves his anxieties aside and responds almost immediately in the most measured way, very elegantly laying out his argument, gently pointing out Sorokin’s misinterpretation of it, and concluding with an apt poem by Christopher Morley called ‘Scene Shifting’. Within a year or so, Sorokin gave up trying to ‘reform’ his ‘unruly apprentice’, and eventually wrote him ‘hearty congratulations’ when the dissertation appeared in Sarton’s other journal, Osiris, filling most of an annual issue. Yet Sorokin’s memory for theoretical slights was long, for twenty years later (as Merton mentioned in print more than once), Sorokin sent his former student a copy of the one-volume condensation of Social and Cultural Dynamics with the inscription ‘To my darned ennemy [sic] and dearest friend Robert—from Pitirim’ (Merton 1989: 297). Merton listened carefully to Sarton’s and to Sorokin’s complaints about his thesis, but was able to turn aside their objections with enough polite force to finish the degree in short order, write a great many other items plus the dissertation, and begin teaching at Harvard in 1936 as an untenured instructor. One of his later Columbia students recalled that Merton could hold 60 to 80 students in thrall each time he taught, some of the students taking his courses repeatedly, others returning to campus to hear him speak long after graduating ‘because the lectures were never the same. In fact, it appeared that he was thinking aloud and developing his ideas as he spoke. . . He taught a generation of sociologists the sociology of paradox and irony’ (Schultz, 1995: 12-13). Given his relationship to Sarton, Sorokin, and other ‘authority figures’ during his apprenticeship, this sense of ‘paradox and irony’ developed apace, and he clearly put it to excellent use as a teacher, theorist, and prose stylist.

Constructing an Enduring Argument

Within ten-thousand words filling 30 pages of this journal, Merton deftly put his stamp on an area of thought and research that refuses to die. But as with most complex statements of theoretical and substantive intention, many later commentaries, supportive or objecting, draw their inspiration from a small part of the whole (see Harriet Zuckerman’s ‘The Other Merton Thesis’ for a correlated corrective regarding the scholarly reception of Merton’s first book; Zuckerman, 1989). As he himself noted about one notable attack: ‘In 1984, its three pages devoted to Pietism have been the focus of George Becker’s’ critique (Becker, 1984), to which Merton responded with sharply uncharacteristic vigour (Merton, 1984). Choosing a small segment of the article for reanalysis simplifies the critic’s labour, but also risks losing the forest for one or two trees. What this tactic gains in clarity and ease of transmission, it loses in close interpretation of the argument at its most subtle. Yet, of course, working through a text with genuine hermeneutic discipline (inspired perhaps by Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Gadamer, Betti, et al.) could well require more space than the original occupied. One thinks of the commentaries on Marx’s Capital or Weber’s Economy and Society, not to mention James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake or any of Shakespeare’s major plays.

As a weak substitute for that ideal situation, a few of Merton’s key observations might be rehearsed, plus an enumerated glance at his sources. For a young scholar he showed astonishing perspicacity as he tried to demonstrate how ideas shaped early scientific enterprise:

To a modern, comparatively untouched by religious forces, and noting the almost complete separation, if not opposition, between science and religion to-day, the recurrence of these pious phrases is apt to signify merely customary usage, and nothing of deep-rooted motivating convictions. To him these excerpta would seem to be a case of qui nimium probat nihil probat [one who proves too much, proves nothing]. But such an interpretation is possible only if one neglects to translate oneself within the framework of seventeenth-century values. Surely such a man as Boyle, who spent considerable sums to have the Bible translated into foreign tongues, was not simply rendering lip service (PPS, 5).

The idea that a scholar should make the gargantuan effort to ‘translate onself’ into another period or zone of socio-cultural history anticipates by several decades Gadamer’s famous ‘merging of horizons’—‘to see the past in its own terms’. This he recommended for successful hermeneutic labour, a notion that arose as Gadamer struggled to understand Plato ‘correctly’ (Gadamer, 1989 [1960]: 302ff). As with so many other notions that later became central to sociology’s programme, Merton’s anticipatory moves and accompanying terminology made him a virtual soothsayer for the student generation returning from WWII.

Merton continues by quoting an expert on seventeenth-century intellectual history: ‘There is . . . always a difficulty in estimating the degree to which what we call religion enters into anything which was said in the seventeenth century in religious language. It is not solved by discounting all theological terms and treating them merely as common form. On the contrary, it is more often necessary to remind ourselves that these words were then seldom used without their accompaniment of meaning, and that their use did generally imply a heightened intensity of feeling’ (PPS, 5; from Clark, 1929, 323). The following sentence of Clark’s, which Merton did not quote, might embarrass ‘the modern’: ‘The sense of the closeness of God and the Devil to every act and fact of daily life is an integral part of the character of the century’ (Clark, 1929/1947: 324). If Sir George is right, ‘understanding’ the divines of that period who also pursued scientific experimentation becomes perplexingly difficult, as Merton surely knew.

Merton’s larger goal was to convert modern skepticism into sympathetic comprehension, not an easy task for a young scholar facing elderly stares of disbelief. The way to do this, so he reasoned, was to reconstitute as much as feasible the Weltanschauungen of the religiously informed and devout, to make them plausibly real for his audience, and then gingerly to connect their beliefs and behaviour with the demands of early scientific inquiry. As with his dissertation, however, this goal was but one part of his attack on the problem at hand. He also tried to prove that educational theory of innovators like Peter (Petrus) Ramus (1515-1572) and John Comenius (1592-1670) lent itself perfectly to the pursuit of empirically based knowledge, in the lab and elsewhere. Thus there existed both an ideational, value-laden component to scientific procedures and theorizing, as well as institutionalized mechanisms which tutored novices in the art of empirically-based inquiry in some more or less uniform fashion.

How did he manage all this in a brief article about a very broad topic? He explained in part his modus operandi in 1994: ‘My preferred style of exposition also emerged from the start. As in the 1936 paper on the “Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action”, the 1938 paper on “Social Structure and Anomie”, and the 1948 paper on “The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy” [his three citation champions], I have generally set out my sociological ideas in the form of highly condensed paradigmatic essays, typically running to few more than a dozen-or-so pages. By adopting the relatively discursive form of the essay, I have no doubt irked some sociologist-peers by departing from the tidy format long since prescribed for the scientific paper’ (Merton, 1996: 357). Irksome or not, Merton set a standard for essayistic labours, apparently endorsing Gracián’s aphorism ‘lo bueno, si breve, does vezes bueno’—translated by one of Merton’s inspirations, Schopenhauer, as ‘good work is doubly good if it is short’. A pity, of course, that he failed to transfer this stylistic wisdom intact to his colleagues, Sorokin and Talcott Parsons, both of whose prose he edited as a young scholar, hoping to improve their clumsy means of expression (ibid.). In the end, by his estimate, he edited ‘some 250 books and 2000 articles’, in so doing violating Schopenhauer’s oft-repeated caution: ‘to take up the work of another is a sin against the Holy Ghost of scholarship’. Only a scholar naturally gifted as a prose stylist would offer to carry out work of this kind, and would become famous and beloved among his fortunate colleagues for having done so.

PPS, as should by now be very clear, is a young scholar’s tour de force for too many reasons to be recited here—such recitation being in any case redundant of what others have written before. A few summary statements might offer documentation of its enduring value: ‘Even a cursory examination of these writings [e.g., Thomas Sprat’s History of the Royal-Society of London] suffices to disclose one outstanding fact: certain elements of the Protestant ethic had pervaded the realm of scientific endeavour and had left their indelible stamp upon the attitudes of scientists toward their work, (p. 3). More insistently, ‘through the principles of Puritanism there was the same point-to-point correlation between them and the attributes, goals, and results of science. . . In short, science embodies two highly prized values: utilitarianism and empiricism’ (pp. 6-7). Merton was also careful to line up important theologians and lay Protestants with their scientific work: ‘The justificatory efforts of Sprat, Wilkins, Boyle, or Ray do not simply represent opportunist obsequiousness, but rather an earnest attempt to justify the ways of science to God’ (p. 7). After offering the Sartonian specifics of the case, Merton generalizes in sociological style: ‘Puritanism and the scientific temper are in most salient agreement, for the combination of rationalism and empiricism which is so pronounced in the Puritan ethic forms the essence of the spirit of modern science’ (p. 8). He was also careful to keep his sources close to hand: ‘For a Barrow, Boyle, or Wilkins, a Ray or Grew, science found its rationale in the end and all of existence: glorification of God’ (p. 10).

Part II of the article (pp. 14-30) offers a condensed history of formal scientific education in Britain and Germany. It concludes with simple tables designed to demonstrate numerically that Protestants were more likely than Catholics to contribute disproportionately to scientific development even as late as between 1875 and 1895. By comparing percentages of Protestants and Catholics in the general population in Prussia and Baden with the percentage of students at different types of schools (‘Gymnasia’ versus ‘Realschule’), Merton offered simple evidence for his argument, since the followers of Luther, Calvin, and their tradition very substantially outnumbered the ‘Papists’ in ‘practical’ education that led most readily to science. That these figures are not conclusive proof goes without saying, but they were a bold start when originally compiled.

More impressive for today’s reader, and surely the most time-consuming for the author, were the 120 names that appear in the text and notes to PPS. Beginning interestingly with Alfred Weber, not Max (and also using Hermann Weber’s 1930 study of Calvin’s theology), Merton moved rapidly through R. M. MacIver, Morris Ginsberg, Kenneth Burke, and Max Weber for theoretical and rhetorical insight. He then brings into play the historical figures Robert Boyle, John Ray, Francis Willughby, John Wilkins, William Oughtred, John Wallis, Thomas Sprag, and Gilbert, Lord Bishop of Sarum. When Meyer Schkolnick at a tender age became passionately attached to biographies and autobiographies at the Carnegie library near his home, he was unwittingly sowing the seeds of his precocious work as a Harvard scholar. By my count, Merton quoted or referred to at least 55 different historical figures when making his case that Protestants were enthused about scientific innovation, in addition to 58 scholars who wrote monographs or articles about these early scientists and educators. And unlike so many of today’s hastily composed journal articles, there is not even a whiff of gratuitous citation of undigested material. Merton did not offer his readers ‘dump bibliographies’, the vacuous window-dressing of fraudulent scholarship. Each source is carefully and wisely assessed, and often in French, German, even Italian. When one considers all the other tasks put upon Merton at the time by his professors and peers in Cambridge, not to mention surviving the Great Depression at its height, swallowing them all, his achievement in this article becomes most improbable.

A story circulated in Columbia University that stock brokers and other businessmen would take the train from Wall Street to Morningside Heights to hear Merton lecture long after they had graduated. (Harriet Zuckerman remembers seeing Jonathan Miller and Dudley Cook in Merton’s lecture hall when they were in New York performing in ‘Beyond the Fringe’, plus other younger non-sociologists who routinely showed up and went on to significant careers, e.g., Eric Kandel and Eric McKitrick.) Whether legendary or utterly true, the fact that busy and successful professionals would pause in their work to hear him lecture yet again seems plausible, fitting the Mertonian Tale. His lifelong attachment to Laurence Sterne’s writing—as brilliantly absurd as any work composed in the last 250 years—sitting cheek by jowl with a childlike adoration of ‘real’ science, illustrates Merton’s uniqueness as a writer, thinker, and sociologist. There was nobody like him.

The author thanks Harriet Zuckerman for her wise counsel regarding this paper.


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