2 July, 2012Issue 19.6PhilosophyScience

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Revolutionary Theory

Joshua Rosaler

Fifty years ago this year, a theoretical physicist turned historian and philosopher named Thomas Kuhn published a book called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in which he defended a novel view of how science progresses. By most standards, the book’s influence was enormous, and its place in the non-fiction canon has been well-secured. Within the two decades following its publication, Kuhn’s work came to be cited more than any of the classic works by Freud, Wittgenstein, Chomsky, Foucault, and Derrida. Kuhn’s famous phrase “paradigm shift” would start to be bandied about by everyone from scientists who admired its characterization of their discipline to business executives who saw in its conceptual framework a model of progress in their own work to impressionable humanities majors who encountered the book as support for general skepticism about science’s claim to objective truth. On the face of it, it is more than a little surprising that an academic work of history and philosophy of science could have had so seismic an effect not only within its own field but on discourse throughout and beyond academia. The reasons for its profound resonance, and for its lasting imprint not only on how scientists and non-scientists alike understand scientific methodology but on the way we understand intellectual inquiry as a whole, merit some analysis.

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions does expose a widely disseminated, and patently simplistic, myth about the progress of science. Namely, that doing science is like following a recipe—something akin to the “scientific method” one learns about in school. The picture of scientific history presented to science students in their classes was (and to a large extent still is) as a linear accumulation; blind allies and dead ends, as well as the details of the process whereby the prevailing consensus has ultimately been reached, are obscured and overshadowed to make this consensus appear as a natural, straightforward, and inevitable culmination of the historical progression of scientific ideas. Kuhn suggested that this revisionist “whig history” functions to provide scientists with a necessary sense of context for their own work, although it paints an oversimplified picture of scientific methodology that is inconsistent with the actually messy and complex array of factors that serve to create scientific consensus.

Kuhn likened the large scale shift of scientific consensus that occurs during a scientific revolution, also known as a paradigm shift, to the change that occurs in the perception of various gestalt diagrams—for example, a blot of ink may, when observed initially, appear to take the shape of a duck, although it may equally appear to be a rabbit depending on which aspects of the blot are emphasized in the mind of the viewer; while it is possible to shift whether one sees the blot as a duck or as a rabbit, it is very difficult to see it as both simultaneously. When a new theory, such as Einstein’s theory of general relativity, supplants an older one—in this example, Newton’s theory of gravitation—as the consensus of the scientific community, the process amounts to a collective shift of perspective in the community of scientists that is qualitatively similar to the shift that occurs when one changes from seeing the blot as a duck to seeing it as a rabbit. What we see in the scientific data, Kuhn says, is to a large extent the product of our theoretical prejudices, just as whether one initially sees the blot as a duck or as a rabbit also is a product of certain psychological predispositions. In this respect, science does not consist of the straightforward comparison of theories against the neutral body of empirical data that nature presents to us, for how we see the data is itself essentially affected by the theory that we espouse. This absence of clear neutral arbitration means that the scientific community’s collective decision to adopt a new paradigm is, broadly, rooted in considerations which go beyond the purely rational and, crucially, is in a number of fundamental respects a social phenomenon.

Yet Kuhn’s attempt at a sober, honest analysis of scientific method also carried profound resonance within precincts of academia—particularly certain departments of sociology, anthropology, and literary criticism—that were overtly hostile to the notion that science has a more justified claim to truth than do other narratives, such as any number of religions and particular tribal cosmologies. Kuhn’s skepticism about science’s image of itself was employed by many in these circles to bolster a view of science known as “social constructivism”, whose central tenet is that scientific theories do not offer successively better approximations to the “truth” about nature, but rather emerge primarily as a result of sociological forces that operate within the scientific community. Many of these scholars tended to emphasise that science, like religion or cultural mythologies, is just another narrative or mode of perceiving—specifically, one founded in Western Enlightenment ideals. Kuhn’s work, which did advocate a certain measure of skepticism about scientific methodology, was thereby appropriated in support of a mode of scholarship which generally sought to undermine the monolithic, supposedly Euro-centric way of thinking embodied by the notion that science possesses unique authority in its claims about the structure of the natural world.

The more ideologically motivated interpretations of Kuhn can be explained, to a large extent, by the historical context in which they emerged. Kuhn wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in the early part of the Cold War, when science, and particularly physics, had acquired new status in American society, particularly following efforts to build a hydrogen bomb, send a man into space, and generally compete with whatever the Soviets were doing. Yet these developments brought about an association in the popular mindset between science and the so-called military industrial complex; the image of the scientist had been transformed to some extent from the romantic, absent-minded figure of Einstein to something more along the lines of Dr Strangelove. Suspicion of government, particularly in the 60s, naturally rubbed off on science itself, which was identified by many left-wing intellectuals primarily as an oppressive narrative with roots in European colonialism and American imperialism.

Kuhn himself, although he always emphatically disavowed these “postmodern” interpretations of his work, occasionally wrote in such ambiguous terms that he left himself open to these more radical readings. And perhaps on these occasions he is guilty of the expository legerdemain that so many of the scholars he wished to dissociate himself from arguably have engaged in—to speak in terms so vague that on some readings the claim appears as radical and novel, and therefore worthy of attention, and on other readings eminently defensible (when in fact any sensible attempt to resolve its ambiguities either leaves one either with a claim so radical it is patently false, or a claim so deflated that it amounts to little more than a truism). In what is perhaps the most hotly debated passage of Kuhn’s book, he claims, “In a sense which I am unable to explicate further, the proponents of competing paradigms practice their trades in different worlds.” Kuhn himself wasn’t quite sure what he meant by this; yet it was clear he felt he was onto an important and fundamental insight about the nature of scientific practice. While some scholars have taken Kuhn’s suggestion as prophetic, others have suggested that his refusal to specify whether he simply means that scientists perceive the world differently or whether the world itself actually changes independently of their perception (and if so, in what respect?) make this most provocative of Structure’s claims close to meaningless.

To be sure, Kuhn intended to be provocative when he wrote Structure. But Kuhn was deeply suspicious of the tendency to infect the discourse on questions of a broadly epistemological and metaphysical nature with particular political agendas. It is doubtful, given his apparent distaste for radical-chic thought, that he himself ever aspired to be, like the progression of knowledge he sought to describe, revolutionary.

Joshua Rosaler is reading for a DPhil in Philosophy at Pembroke College, Oxford. He is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.