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Invisible Colleges and Owning Our Common Intellectual Heritage

The 17th century holds an important history in the development of thought.  It saw people like Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes formulate questioning ways of thinking in our world, encouraging and establishing cultures of exploring the world in which we live, and cultivating a personal relationship with the knowledge of the universe. They confronted the taboo of personal ownership of knowledge through the embracing of skepticism – the need to query the things we have been told and think we know are true – and the application of their efforts to question the ‘regimes of truth’ (a phrase which Professor Penny Jane Burke coins) which existed in their time, as now.

Rene Descartes is a critical figure in modern Western philosophy who lived from 1596 to 1650. His skeptic methodology deeply affected Western cultures and set the scene for more open intellectual enquiry. Through formulating his famous method of doubt he shifted the debate from “what is true” to “of what can I be certain?”.  To this he is best known for the philosophical statement is “Cogito ergo sum” – “I think, therefore I am”.  This provided a revolutionary basis for the questioning of traditions of thinking which had stretched across the medievel period.

Royal Society

During the same period, in 1645, a number of people living in and around London decided that they would question their belief in things that weren’t demonstrably true. This is a hard thing to do as humans have a powerful ability to convince themselves that what they believe is right, and it is not always easy to find a culture of self-questioning to compliment the scrutinizing of others.  It is a hard lesson to learn that our individual outlooks can be incorrect, as a great deal of comfort comes from the idea that we have beliefs based upon ‘truth’.

It is out of that desire for the truth that we can come to decieve ourselves and others, as well as strike a path which gives us liberty from error. Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov:  “Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.”

Our propensity for subjecting other people’s beliefs to scrutiny provided a basis for dealing with the bias we naturally have for believing our own perspectives. The community of people in 17th century London had realised these problems and committed themselves to acquiring knowledge through experimental means and to subjecting one another’s findings to the kind of scrutiny necessary to identify the errors in them.

Robert Boyle
Robert Boyle

The Formation of Invisible Colleges: A Learning Community

This group included the “natural philosophers” (scientists) Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke and the architect Christopher Wren, was referred to, in some of Boyle’s letters, as “our philosophical college” or “our invisible college”. The Invisible College was invisible relative to Oxford and Cambridge, because the members had no permanent location; they held themselves together as a group via letters and meetings in London and later in Oxford.

It was a college because their relations were collegial – they operated with a sense of mutual interest in, and respect for, one another’s work. In their conversations, they would outline their research according to agreed-upon norms of clarity and transparency. The motto of the group was Nullis in Verba – “Believe nothing from mere words”

When one of their number announced the result of an experiment, the others wanted to know not just what that result was but how the experiment had been conducted, so that the claims could be tested elsewhere. Philosophers of science later called this condition falsifiability, a term coined in the 20th century by Karl Popper who suggested that knowledge is not proven or disproven but becomes increasingly reliable knowledge through a process which subjects the claims to testing. Claims which lacked falsifiabillity were regarded with suspicion.

Within a few years, several members of the Invisible College had produced advances in chemistry, biology, astronomy, and optics, and they had developed or improved a number of seminal experimental tools, including pneumatic pumps, microscopes and telescopes. Their insistence on clarity of method made their work and community collaborative, and new methods and insights quickly became input for still further work.

Much of the members’ practical work involved chemistry. They were strongly critical of the alchemists, the intellectual tradition which provided the basis for their work who for centuries had arguably less methodical progress. By contrast, the Invisible College put chemistry on a sound footing in a matter of a couple of decades.  This Clay Shirky suggests as one of the most important intellectual transitions in the history of science.

Clay Shirky describes this history in his book ‘Cognitive Surplus’ and explores the idea that in our present time people are using their free time more constructively for creative acts particularly with the availability of online and digital information tools which enable new forms of collaboration and diffuse networks.


Shirky asks “What did the Invisible College have that the alchemists didn’t ? It wasn’t their tools – chemists and alchemists both started out with vials, braziers, and scales. Nor was it insight, no single figure suddenly advanced chemistry, as Newton did with physics. The Invisible College had one big advantage over the alchemists: they had one another.

The problem with alchemy wasn’t that the alchemists had failed to turn lead into gold – no one could do that. The problem, rather, was that the alchemists had failed informatively. As a group, the alchemists were notably reclusive; they typically worked alone, they were secretive about their methods and their results, and they rarely accompanied claims of insight or success with anything that we’d recognize today as documentation, let alone evidence.

Alchemical methods were hoarded rather than shared, passed down from master to apprentice, and when the alchemist did describe their experiments, the descriptions were both incomplete and vague. As Boyle himself complained of the alchemists’ publications, “Hermetic Books have such involved Obscuritys that they may justly be compared to Riddles written in Cyphers. For after a Man has surmounted the difficulty of deciphering the Words & Terms, he finds a new & greater difficulty to discover the meaning of the seemingly plain Expression.”

This was hardly a recipe for success; even worse no two people working with alchemical descriptions could reliably even fail in the same way. As a result, alchemical conclusions accumulated only slowly, with no steady improvement in utility. Absent transparent methods and a formal way of rooting out errors, erroneous beliefs were as likely as correct ones to be preserved over generations. In contrast, members of the Invisible College described their methods, assumptions, and results to one another, so that all might benefit from both success and failures.

The Invisible College became so important to British science that its members formed the core of the Royal Society, a much less invisible organisation charted in 1662 and still in operation to this day. Culture – not tools or insights – animated the Invisible College and transmuted alchemy into chemistry. The members accumulated facts more quickly, and were able to combine existing facts into new experiments and new insights.

By insisting on accuracy and transparency, and by sharing their assumptions and working methods with one another, the collegians had access to the group’s collective knowledge and constituted a collaborative cycle. Their cultural norms transformed the alchemists’ slow accumulation of personal and idiosyncratic beliefs into a set of methods and results that could be observed, understood, and recombined by any scientifically literate participant.

Knowledge and Claiming Our Heritage

Combinability makes knowing something different from having something. If you have a stick, and someone else has a stick, and you each give each other your stick; the result is that you both have one stick.  If on the other hand, you have a piece of knowledge, and someone else has a piece of knowledge, and you both give each other your piece of knowledge, then you the result is that you both have two pieces of knowledge.

Knowledge is accumulative and exponential; it becomes more powerful when it is shared. It also becomes transformative. This is what makes the ways a society shares knowledge so critical, and what helped advance the Invisible College (Royal Society) much more quickly than the alchemists. Even when working with the same tools, they were working in a far different, and better, culture of communication.

I would argue that the gross value of knowledge is found in its communcation and sharing.  Knowledge building is a communitive process – it comes about through communing, sharing, communicating and being a part of a community.  The phrase ‘knowledge is power but only when it is shared’ was picked as a motto for the Ragged University to express these ideas.

Like in the 17th century, we have the tools and resources to create powerful knowledge generating structures in our community by the act of working together.  In the 21st century, books, libraries, telecommunications, pens, paper, computers, and all sorts of information tools are more available (and competent) than ever before in history.  On a single laptop computer I can hold more books than are held in the Library of Congress, or were in the legendary library of Alexandria.

What meaning can we take away from Clay Shirky’s history of the Invisible College and the eventual formation of the Royal Society ?  I suggest that the most important one is that we must see the bigger picture and behave in a collaborative way to mutually improve each other’s thinking.  The capabilities are inherent in our landscape, and available to us all by avoiding being individualistic in a way which hoards knowing.

The origins of the Royal Society are part of a heritage which belongs to all of us.  It is not the institutionalising of the activity which creates the value but the action itself which is valuable.  Anyone who thinks that knowledge and the production of meaning is located in a building, club, organisation or institution might make the mistake of thinking that value is located in money.  It is dead stock in and of itself; it produces nothing. Just like a book is only complete when it is being read, or a good is only complete when it gets to market.

A degree (or any accreditation) is only a symbolic representation of learning and not the learning itself.  The traditions of thinking, the heritage of the human species is that of participating in a community and the conventions are not owned, just as knowledge and the production of meaning is not the exclusive property of a building, club, organisation or institution; it is part of a public domain – a history, a commons to all.

The wisdom of the world is held in its people, and collectively we share ownership of it. We must be free in society to associate with a community of peers and be valued for the ideas we produce. Owning our common intellectual heritage comes with us all setting up our own Invisible Colleges and continually keeping them open to more people, and other communities.

The Economics of Knowledge

Being reclusive is similar to being elitest or isolationist; this behaviour threatens to send our Gestalt capabilities backwards into the dark ages.  Gestalt refers to the idea that things in combination amount to more than a sum of their parts – that through the communitive process I mentioned we unlock and make available exponential possibilities. Rather than fighting over a slice of cake, we end up with a bakery. Positioning over who owns a slice of cake replaces a dynamic of learning and growth for one of concentrating a power base which limits learning and the production of ideas.

Our time is one in which we experience the increasing enclosure of knowledge via the rarified legal system of intellectual property, and the cultural elitism which comes of an increasingly unequal distribution of the wealth of the planet and existing.  When education and the valuation of individuals is tied up with what finance you have, it mocks the notion of merit.  Equally, when only multinational companies and the wealthy can afford to pay for the monopoly rights of intellectual property, it indicates that the communitive notion has been overtaken by the mercenary.

To illustrate these problems we need only look towards the fact that the intellectual property system has become known as “The Valley of Death” and is inhabited by patent trolls and opportunistic lawyers.  For an illustration we can look to the Houses of Commons document: Bridging the valley of death: improving the commercialisation of research or do a search in Google for “valley of death intellectual property” which yields 717,000 results.

This is problematic when we consider intellectual property law was set up to incentivise invention and innovation, stimulating the production of great new things to improve humanity, reduce our impact on the environment which sustains us, and forge a way of living that is sustainable over the next millenia – common sense.  Now it seems as though monopoly rights have been industrialised keeping new and vitally needed ideas from gracing the world.

According to the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD) (, an independent non-profit organisation based in Geneva, promoting greater access to, and transfer of environmentally sound technologies (in particular to developing countries) was a central concern at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. Technology transfer is mentioned in Principle 9 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. In addition, Chapter 34 of Agenda 21 was entirely devoted to the transfer of environmentally sound technologies.

The rise to prominence of innovation in the discourse and policies of governments, as well as the strategies and business practices of the private sector, is one of the most noticeable developments since the first Earth Summit. Innovation is now considered key to economic growth and finance seems to dominate the landscape of the ethics involved. Again, this seems contrary to the notion of a public domain, a life supporting eco-sphere and open economy to participate in.

Lastly, as an illustration of how knowledge is being enclosed and innovation prevented, along with participation in an open economy and culture, we can refer to the patent trolling of companies in the health sector.  A variety of scientists, medical associations, and patients have reacted to the patenting of two genes linked to breast and ovarian cancer saying that they should not be exploited for commercial gain. The company which patented the genes – Myriad Genetics has been accused of preventing research and the free exchange of ideas.

Joseph Stiglitz discusses this issue along with the issue of monopoly of knowledge in detail in the video below from about the 1 hour 5 minutes 54 seconds in context with industrial policies:


This article in part, draws from a digest of Clay Shirky’s book ‘Cognitive surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age’. Page 136 – Culture as a coordinating tool


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