Are You Kuhnian?


For the last year or so I’ve done a lot of reading about and by Thomas Kuhn. Kuhn’s Structures of Scientific Revolution had its 50th anniversary last year. Though you may not recognize his name, you hear his doctrine – or more likely someone’s interpretation of it – every day. Wittgenstein is widely held to be the 20th century’s most influential thinker. I think not. Wittgenstein may be somewhere in the background, but Kuhn is everywhere. He is cited, quoted and misquoted daily in nearly every discipline. Kuhn pops up in a sermon from former Baptist minister Robert M. Price entitled What Is Truth? He is cited by political and legal theorists, authors of software methodology, and innovation cheer leaders. He’s in Corley’s Biblical Hermeneutics. Stephen Covey repackaged his terminology and built an empire on it. New Age mystics and feminist epistemologists love him. Robin Mansell, professor of New Media at the London School of Economics and Political Science says she read Structures “as a call to arms for a sociological account of science and innovation.” Environmental activists love Kuhn as much as do management strategists and psychologists. Or, at least, they love what they think is Kuhn. Kuhn was misinterpreted so badly that, at one point, he angrily shouted at a conference, “I am not a Kuhnian,” attempting to distance himself from the nonsense that claimed him as its high priest.

In a post last year I called Kuhn an accidental guru. But my more thorough reading of and about Kuhn has really blurred the line between Kuhn and Kuhnians for me. Kuhn claimed, in later writings, that Structures was meant as a descriptive, not prescriptive of science, and prescriptive (or normative) only for other historians of science. I.e., it describes science as he sees it, defends the practice of science as being rational if not optimal, and defines standards for how science should be written about. So Kuhn seems then to frame himself as more historian of science and less philosopher of science. On the other hand, in Kuhn’s view (and that of his defenders) the “Kuhnians” (followers Kuhn never expected or wanted to have) drew all sorts of political, sociological and postmodern philosophical content from Structures that it simply did not contain.

Not so fast, Dr. Kuhn. I’ve come to believe that Kuhn was either backpedaling when he attempted to distance himself from the Kuhnians or was simply incoherent in his Structures doctrine. Kuhn can’t use the principles of the postmodern philosophers – which predated him by at least a decade – the perspective of social constructionists, concepts from Gestalt-psychology, and politically charged vocabulary – and then disown the Kuhnians. Maybe he can disown the new-age fuzzies and charlatan management consultants, but not a lot of the others.

So let’s take a look at the minimal Kuhn and then some of the main flavors of Kuhnians. Among Kuhn essentials, I see:

  1. There is normal science and then revolutionary science, which causes a paradigm shift to the next normal science.
  2. Revolutions, originating in crisis, are required for paradigm shifts.
  3. Inter-paradigmatic communication is impossible (Kuhn’s “incommensurability”).
  4. Theories fully pervade observation; observation language that is free of theoretical influence is impossible (Kuhn vs. Popper)
  5. Paradigms dictate – not reflect – the world. Reality is constructed, not observed.
  6. The ultimate desideratum of truth is solidarity.

The first three claims are what Kuhn and his defenders see as his core material. But he explicitly and repeatedly states points 4 and 5 in unambiguous terms – and point 5 in terms nearly identical to the postmodern constructivists who preceded him. Point 6 (desideratum of truth) is something Kuhn doesn’t state explicitly but is an unavoidable conclusion from his discussion of points one through three.

In my view, Kuhn’s first three points are often, but not always, true. Yes, Einsteinian mechanics overturned – not added onto – Newtonian mechanics. A Newtonian cannot make sense of measuring distance in years and mass in Joules. But many major changes in science were simply additive. And some radical changes in reality models, while not additive (to the previous paradigm), did not involve revolutionary crisis at all. When DNA was discovered, I’m pretty sure just about every biologist said, “ah, so that’s how it works,” and nary a shot was fired; no crisis started the DNA revolution. Against incommensurability (point 3), opponents of plate tectonics conversed effectively with its proponents. I’ve read quite a bit of dialog between quantum mechanics friends and foes where it was clear that both sides, while disagreeing, even violently (“God does not play dice”), fully understood each other. Thus, against Kuhn, paradigm-neutral communication not only exists but is commonplace. One could rightly say that Galileo’s excommunication fully proceeded from normal science’s (i.e. the church) rather full grasp – across paradigms – of the revolutionary science’s content.

Kuhn’s last three points (as I have identified them) are the ones that fueled the Kuhnians. Kuhn’s constructionist (point 4 and 5) views completely escape me. Point 4 is too complex to discuss here, but for argument’s sake can be lumped with point 5, which is easier to digest but has more radical consequences. These two point are not merely a rejection of epistemic presumptuousness (that we can truly “know” the world as it is) – a position that has certain philosophical merit – but assert that there is no accessible world but that which is a mental construction. It’s there in black and white; and has spawned, or at least nursed, volumes of moral-relativist social-theory drivel – as I see it anyway. I’ll spare you the argument for this.

Point 6 should ruffle the feathers of conservatives of all flavors, including political and scientific.  Repulsive as this claim first appears, I can get no distance from it; though I’ve winded myself trying to do so. “You are only as old as the last time you changed your mind” (Leary).

One wants to say that science is objective, or at worst, that it strives vigorously for objectivity. And of course it does. It’s the most honest thing the human race has ever done. But how does science know when it has been objective? Or, viewed slightly differently, deciding what constitutes objectivity is outside the realm of science. How do we decide between two irreconcilable claims that both profess to have been objectively reached? The only conceivable means of deciding is consensus.

Consider two competing scientific theories. Neither is perfect; both fit the limited evidence reasonably well (“underdetermination of theory by evidence,” for the epistemologists among us). This brings up the issue of deciding what attributes of theory are most important in a  given situation. Some will support the one that appears simplest mathematically (e.g. Poincare), some will chose the most intuitive, some will go for one with the greatest empirical content (e.g. Popper). How do we create a value matrix with weightings  of the theories’ various attributes. And how do you objectivize the subjective judgments of “grades” and how well each theory scores for each attribute. Such decisions are subjective, and involve values and beliefs. Quantifying their components simply pushes subjectivity back one level, since someone needs to decide on the criteria, the weights, and the scores. And since disagreements on these are inevitable, consensus within a community of peers or competent judges seems the only option. Finally, those excluded from the group of deciders may disagree with its findings. Kuhn documents many cases of this, introducing corporate and political biases that fueled the fires of science’s critics. Defenders of science (critics of anti- and pseudo-science) like Alan Sokol famously refuted the claims of only the most facile of the social constructionists fueled by this facet of Kuhn. But Sokol and his ilk sidestepped the more logically-troublesome aspects of communities of scientists – namely, that the ultimate desideratum of truth (in the practical, non-metaphysical sense of that term) is solidarity.

So I, like some of the Kuhnians, find one of Kuhn’s main points inescapable and strangely compelling. And on the grounds stated above I simply can’t accept Kuhn’s claim that he is not a Kuhnian. This, by the way, is also the basis on which Richard Rorty proclaimed himself a Kuhnian, despite claims by Kuhn’s defenders that Rorty misused Kuhn. Rorty then based his bold, modified-pragmatist theory of truth heavily on Kuhn’s implications around truth.

Further, on point 5, I can’t avoid concluding that either Kuhn misstated his own position, using the language of social constructionists, or actually is a constructionist of the most extreme kind, in which case, again, Kuhn is in fact a Kuhnian. He certainly didn’t believe that all claims of truth (and all interpretations of evidence) are equally valid, that your reality can be different than mine, or that science is the first tool of oppression. Nor did he hold any anarchic or nihilistic perspectives. But you can still be a Kuhnian without holding all such beliefs. No Kuhnian holds simultaneously all the ideas derived from Kuhn; so you can’t falsify Kuhnianism based on absence of one or two Kuhnian characteristics.

I never expected it to come out this way, but I’m part Kuhnian. Are you?

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  1. #1 by Simon on September 28, 2013 - 12:57 pm

    I think very few people are real Kuhnians. Most people who use the word “paradigm” are using it in either a very basic sense, meaning new idea, or in the sense of Fritjof Capra’s “social paradigm”. Not many people really have the desire to change their thinking at such a fundamental level.

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