Drawing upon Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer's book on Robert Boyle and modern conceptions of scientific objectity, Donna Haraway explains the central importance of a particular kind witness with specifically non-female modesty as

one of the founding virtues of what we call modernity. This is the virtue that guarantees that the modest witness is the legitimate and authorized ventriloquist for the object world, adding nothing from his mere opinions, from his biasing embodiment. And so he is endowed with the remarkable power to establish the facts. He bears witness: he is objective; he guarantees the clarity and purity of objects. His subjectivity is his objectivity. His narratives have a magical power — they lose all trace of their history as stories, as products of partisan projects, as contestable representations, or as constructed documents in their potent capacity to define the facts. The narratives become clear mirrors, fully magical mirrors, without once appealing to the transcendental or the magical. [Haraway, 24]

Following Shapin and Schaffer, Haraway points to Robert Boyle (1627-1691) as "the father of chemistry and, even more important, father of the experimental way of life" because in the 1650s and 1660s he helped create three "technologies":

According to Haraway, "the social and literary technologies of proper witnessing . . . were constructed to have the earth-shaking capacity to ground social order objectively, literally. This separation of expert knowledge from mere opinion as the legitimating knowledge for ways of life, without appeal to transcendent authority or to abstract certainty of any kind, is a founding gesture of what we call modernity" (24). The literary technology — "the rhetoric of the modest witness" — relied on an "unadorned, factual" style. "Only through such naked writing could the facts shine through, unclouded by the flourishes of any human author. Both the facts and the witnesses inhabit the privileged zones of "objective" reality through a powerful writing technology" (26).

Related Materials

Readers interested in Haraway's work might wish to consult the materials in the Cyberspace and Critical Theory web concerning gender and the relations of humanity and technology.


Haraway, Donna J. Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium. FemaleMan’_Meets_OncoMouse’: Feminism and Technoscience. New York and London: Routledge, 1997.

Shapin, Steven and Simon Schaffer. Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and The Experimental Life. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1985.

Created 2000

Last modified 24 March 2023