If I had happened to glance at Thomas Kuhn’s new book Structure of Scientific Revolutions while browsing in a bookstore in 1962 as a college freshman, I likely would have seen nothing surprising in the title. I probably would have thought that the book had to do with scientific methodology and the way in which proper scientific method ensures the scientist’s rejection of wrong ideas and the discovery of revolutionary new phenomena. Of course, I would have been wrong.
In fact Kuhn’s title registered two bold assertions on the basis of case histories in the physical sciences. First, scientific history is a history of distinct ruptures, as in political history, and new ways of seeing the physical world are incommensurable with the systems they have destroyed. Secondly, there is a repetitive and predictable structure in scientific change which, in Kuhn’s pithy terminology, is one of “normal science” under a dominant “paradigm,” followed by accumulation of “anomaly,” then “crisis” and “revolution.” The outcome of the process is the result not just of empirical logic, but also of the psychology of conversion and the sociology of community. The Copernican Revolution, the Chemical Revolution and the Quantum Revolution are among his exemplars (Kuhn 1962).
A few years before the publication of Structure, Kuhn outlined
some of his main themes at a conference devoted to the identification of
scientific talent (Kuhn 1959,
1977). The Soviet launching of Sputnik had just
triggered a panicked infusion of federal money into science education in
the United States, and the 1959 conference at the University of Utah was
one of many efforts to define and promote scientific creativity and
achievement. Kuhn presented a paper titled “The Essential Tension:
Tradition and Innovation in Scientific Research.” He likely startled
participants who were expressing the usual view that the creative
scientist eliminates all prejudice from the mind and cultivates
“divergent thinking” from accepted opinion. This point of view coincided
with the already popular critical empiricist philosophy of science of
Kuhn’s different view denied the heroic stereotype of objective scientific method in search of new and revolutionary discoveries. In contrast, said Kuhn, “almost none of the research undertaken by even the greatest scientist is designed to be revolutionary” but, on the contrary, “normal research” is a “highly convergent activity based firmly upon a settled consensus acquired from scientific education and reinforced by subsequent life in the profession.” Revolutionary shifts occur, but they are rare, in part because of scientific pedagogy in mature science that teaches conformity to the textbook, with exemplary problem solutions that show the student what problems matter and how to solve them. Science rests, Kuhn said, on a “dogmatic initiation in a pre-established tradition of apprenticeship.” Science produces innovations because of the ways in which the scientist’s puzzle-solving activities reliably expand the matrix of scientific beliefs and occasionally call those beliefs into question following an accumulation of anomalies that can no longer be ignored. The successful scientist lives in a community of essential tension between the double roles of “traditionalist” and “iconoclast.” Simply by offering this interpretation, Kuhn positioned himself as an iconoclast (Kuhn 1977, 227, 229, 230).
Of special significance at the time was Kuhn’s argument that the nature
of scientific knowledge lies in what he variously called dogma, belief
or tradition—all of which sounds disturbingly like ideology, faith and
religion. Kuhn’s insistence on scientific “belief” was not entirely new,
but the one million copies sold of his book in his lifetime brought the
notion to a new audience. Kuhn drew brief attention in
Structure to the earlier description by the bacteriologist
In Kuhn’s view, however, Polanyi
At this time, the sociology of science in
the United States was just emerging from its recent association with
Left and Marxist alliances. Anti-Marxist views affected the reception in
the US in the 1930s of Boris Hessen’s
It was this latter kind of sociology that Kuhn had in mind for better
understanding the workings of normal science and its traditions of
belief and practice. In a 1968 essay on
“The History of Science” for the International Encyclopedia for
the Social Sciences, Kuhn noted past Marxist influences in the
“external” study of non-intellectual aspects of scientific culture. With
mention of Merton
This is exactly what happened after the dust settled from early debates about Structure. More recently, in 2012, various conferences marked the anniversary of Structure. Some scholars said that Kuhn’s book generated no Kuhnian research school, despite the fact that Kuhn taught and collaborated with some later quite distinguished historians of science. Some insisted that Kuhn’s main personal interest lay in the history of ideas (and in the philosophy of language and incommensurability), rather than in the study of scientific institutions and scientific communities, much less sociology of knowledge. Fair enough. Nonetheless, Kuhn’s call for a history of science that would combine the so-called internal and external approaches was important, and Kuhn’s evolving notion of the nature of the paradigm and normal science as what he began calling a “disciplinary matrix” provided historians of science with a powerful tool. With that tool, they have studied and expanded the scope of the history of science by studying in great detail in different times and places the many ways in which scientific traditions in the natural sciences have been codified, transmitted and transformed.
Some of this work has seemed to undermine confidence in the integrity
and reliability of science in ways that Kuhn—as well as Polanyi
By the mid-1970s the new field of social studies of science joined the
When he was writing Structure in the heyday of post-World War II and post-Sputnik public support for science, Kuhn did not foresee such outcomes. Nor did he likely realize just how catchy his book title and his scheme of paradigms and revolutions might become during the 1960s political turmoil of civil-rights, women’s-rights, anti-Vietnam-war movements and the Paris and Czech uprisings of May ’68. These political developments brought unexpected attention to Kuhn’s book on revolutions, along with new commercial possibilities for Berkeley street vendors who began selling bumper stickers that read “Subvert the Dominant Paradigm.” Among historians of science, however, a surprising thing happened. Kuhn’s notions of the dominant paradigm, sudden rupture and discontinuity were undermined by decades of historical studies combining the so-called internal and external history that he had highlighted as the challenge for the future.
Post-Kuhn historians have built upon Kuhn’s notion of tradition, but
especially his definition of disciplinary matrices, to study in detail
research groups and schools, laboratories and instruments, periodicals
and textbooks, techniques of pedagogy, development of scientific
lexicons, scientists’ responses to anomalies and scientific
controversies. The results, for example in the field of the history of
chemistry, have largely undermined Kuhn’s claims of sudden and
incommensurable change except perhaps for the notion of incommensurable
methodology (Chang 2012). Historians have found the
long century of Lavoisier’s
These kinds of results in the history of the natural sciences tend to support the gradualist and evolutionary explanation of scientific change that Kuhn briefly broached at the very conclusion of Structure, at odds with the book’s main argument. In his Rothschild Lecture at Harvard in 1991, Kuhn may have surprised some people in his audience by saying that: the “episodes that I once described as scientific revolutions are intimately associated with . . . speciation” that produces a “variety of niches within which the practitioners of these various specialties practice their trade” (Kuhn 1992). Detailed historical studies of developments in physical chemistry, solid state physics, molecular biology and other “hybrid” fields that have emerged alongside older disciplinary matrices seem to confirm this gradualist interpretation, as do many philosophical studies.
Our histories of science now differ greatly from those familiar to Thomas Kuhn at the time that he published Structure. For one thing, they are less heroic. For another, they rarely take the form of simply tracing materially and culturally independent or disembodied ideas. Our histories mostly are finely grained in their timelines and locales, as we analyze the investigative pathways and social settings within which science has been practiced and as we study its cultural meanings. Our histories also reflect recent changes in science. Big Science has become even bigger. The numbers of women in the sciences have greatly increased, as have the numbers of non-European scientists working in the traditional Western bloc and outside that bloc. The assistants and technicians aiding scientists have become more numerous and more visible. The distinction between fundamental and applied scientists has become harder to make. Correspondingly, we have made these people visible in our histories of past science and have explained the social mechanisms that long made them absent or invisible, finding continuities between past and present that sometimes surprise us.
In the end, I think that Kuhn’s legacy is stronger than sometimes now claimed, although not entirely as he might have wished it to be. It is ironic that the history of tradition rather than revolution became the legacy. The first excitement and the first dissent over Structure centered on Kuhn’s statement of the dogmatic character of scientific belief (which he incorporated into the notion of paradigm) and scientific revolution as a dramatic process of historical discontinuity between two incommensurable paradigms. Revolution was a catchword in the 1960s. The next generations of historians of science mostly disconfirmed the thesis of rupture and discontinuity in favor of gradualism and continuity, as they restudied the so-called scientific revolutions and focused on the everyday practices and everyday scientists of what Kuhn called the traditions of normal science. The idea of the influence in science of tradition and belief is no longer heretical. For this we owe Kuhn and others a considerable debt for giving us conceptual tools that have expanded the history of science away from the heroic and into the ordinary practices of science, however fallible but also committed its practitioners may be.
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