The Incommensurable Thomas Kuhn


William Storage           4 Aug 2012
Visiting Scholar, UC Berkeley Center for Science, Technology & Society

Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, appears in Wikipedia’s list of the 100 most influential books in history. In Structure, Kuhn introduced the now ubiquitous term and concept of paradigm shift. As Kuhn saw it, the scope of a paradigm was universal. A paradigm is not merely a theory, but the framework and worldview in which a theory dwells. Kuhn explained that, “successive transition from one paradigm to another via revolution is the usual developmental pattern of mature science.” His view was that paradigms guide research through periods of “normal science,” during which, any experimental results not consistent with the paradigm are deemed erratic and are discarded. This persists until overwhelming evidence against the paradigm results in its collapse, and a paradigm shift occurs.

Kuhn stressed the idea of incommensurability between associated paradigms, meaning that it is impossible to understand the new paradigm from within the conceptual framework of its predecessor. Examples include the Copernican Revolution, plate tectonics,  and quantum mechanics.

Countless discussions and critiques of Kuhn and his work have been published. I’ll focus mainly on aspects of his work – and popular conceptions of it – related to its appropriation in technology and business process management; but a bit of background on popular misunderstandings of his work from a philosophy perspective will come in handy later.

Kuhn’s claim of incommensurability led many  to conclude that the selection of a governing theory is fundamentally irrational, a product of consensus or politics rather than of objective criteria. This fueled flames already raging in criticism of science in postmodernist, subjectivist, and post-structuralist circles. Kuhn was an overnight sensation and placed on a pedestal by all sorts of relativism, sociology, and arts and humanities movements, despite his vigorous rejection of them, their methods, their theories, and their paradigms. Decades later (The Road Since Structure), Kuhn added that, “if it was relativism, it was an interesting sort of relativism that needed to be thought out before the tag was applied.”

Communities outside of hard science – 20th century social theory in particular – couldn’t get enough of Kuhn and his paradigm shifts. Much of the Philosophy of Science community scoffed at his book. Within hard science there was considerable debate, particularly by Karl Popper, Stephen Toulmin and Paul Feyerabend. And even in the hard science community, Kuhn found himself in constant defense not against the scientific reading of his model, but against the ideas appropriated by schools of philosophers, cultural theorists, and literary critics calling themselves Kuhnians. Freeman Dyson recall s having confronted Kuhn about these schools of thought:

“A few years ago I happened to meet Kuhn at a scientific meeting and complained to him about the nonsense that had been attached to his name. He reacted angrily. In a voice loud enough to be heard by everyone in the hall, he shouted, ‘One thing you have to understand. I am not a Kuhnian.'” – Freeman Dyson, The Sun, The Genome, and The Internet: Tools of Scientific Revolutions

Postmodern deconstructionists are certainly right about one thing; there are many ways to read Kuhn. Kuhn’s Structure – if interpreted outside the narrow realm in which he intended it to operate – becomes strangely self-referential and self-exemplifying. Different communities consumed it as constrained by their existing paradigms. In The Road Since Structure Kuhn reflected that, regarding Structure‘s uptake, he had disappointments but not regrets. He suggested that if he had it do over, he would have sought to prevent readings such as the view that paradigms are sources of oppression to be destroyed.

Kuhn would have to have been extremely naive to fail to consider the consequences – in the socially precarious 1960s – of describing scientific change in terms of a sociological, political, and Gestalt-psychology models in a book having “revolution” in its title. Or perhaps it was a scientist’s humility (he was educated as a physicist) that allowed him to not anticipate that a book on history of science would ever be read outside the communities of science. Despite the incredulity of such claims – and independent of accuracy of his position on science – my reading of Kuhn’s interviews and commentary on the impact of Structure leads me to conclude that Kuhn is truly an accidental guru – misread, misunderstood, and misused by adoring postmodernist theorists and business strategists alike. Without Thomas Kuhn, paradigm shift would not rank in CNET’s top 10 dot-com buzzwords, futurist Joel Barker and  motivator Stephen Covey would have had very different careers, and postmodern relativists might still be desperately craving some shred of external validation.

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“You talk about misuses of Kuhn’s work. I think it is wildly misused outside of natural sciences. The number of scientific revolutions is extremely small… To find one outside the natural sciences is very hard. There are just not enough interesting and signficant ideas around, but it is curious if you read the sociological or linguistic literate, that people are finding revolutions everywhere.” – Noam Chomsky, The Generative Enterprise Revisited

“Let us now turn our atention towards some historical analyses that have apparently provided grist for the mill of contemporary relativism. The most famous of these is undoubtedly Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” – Alan Sokol, Beyond the Hoax

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The above use of a low-resolution image of Thomas Kuhn is contended to be a fair use because it is solely for the educational purpose of illustrating this article and because the value of any existing copyright is not lessened by its use here. The subject is deceased and no free equivalent can therefore be obtained. The image is of greatly lower quality than the original, reducing the risk of damage to the value of the original version.

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  1. Paul Feyerabend – The Worst Enemy of Science « The Multidisciplinarian
  2. Deconstructing Postmodern Business Management Strategy « The Multidisciplinarian
  3. Kaczinski, Gore, and Cool Headed Logicians « The Multidisciplinarian
  4. Thomas Kuhn’s Disruptive Paradigm Shift Innovation « The Multidisciplinarian
  5. Richard Rorty: A Matter for the Engineers « The Multidisciplinarian

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