- The Historical and Epistemological Centrality of Copernicus for Kuhn
- Koyréan Commitment
- The Other Side of the Ideological Divide: Marxist HPS
- Reception of Marxist Historical Epistemology and Reaction to It
- The Harvard Entwurf of a HPS for a “Free Society”
- The Copernican Question: a Material or a Celestial Question?
- Copernican versus Ptolemaic Faith
- Experimentum Crucis?
- Plurality and Unity in Science
- Controversy versus Linguistic / Conceptual Misunderstanding
- Concluding Remarks
I shall not try to explain here the reasons and causes that produced the spiritual revolution of the sixteenth century. It is for our purpose sufficient to describe it, to describe the mental or intellectual attitude of modern science.
Alexandre Koyré (1943)
It was a revolution beside which the French Revolution was a child’s play, a world struggle beside which the struggles of the Diadochi appear insignificant. Principles ousted one another, intellectual heroes overthrew each other with unheard-of rapidity [...] All this is supposed to have taken place in the realm of pure thought.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1846)
The Historical and Epistemological Centrality of Copernicus for Kuhn
The Renaissance astronomer Nicholas Copernicus
[T]he major turning points in scientific development [are] associated with the names of Copernicus
, Newton, Lavoisier , and Einstein .
In his classic of historical epistemology, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn constantly referred to Copernican astronomy as an insightful case apt to illustrate his basic notions of ‘paradigm’ and ‘scientific revolution.’
As a matter of fact, Structure was preceded by a monograph on this crucial historical case, The Copernican Revolution (1957). Kuhn probably composed the two works in parallel.2 At least he had conceived them together. In fact, as early as 1952 he had successfully applied for a Guggenheim fellowship, which he wanted to use to complete a monograph on the Copernican issue along with another one on scientific revolutions in general for the International Encyclopedia of Scientific Revolutions (Marcum 2005, 13). Evidently, Copernican Revolution and Structure are the two sides of one and the same endeavor. The historical side was a preparation and a support for philosophical speculations while the theoretical one guided the historical inquiry and was implemented on the latter’s basis. On this purpose, Noel M. Swerdlow remarked that
The Copernican Revolution, Kuhn’s first published attempt at an answer [to the problems of methodology of scientific research], may be understood as a great case history of one of the monumental changes in the history of science in order to provide an explanation of how so great a revolution happens. In this sense, it is his first scientific revolution. (Swerdlow 2004, 75)
The Copernican turn in planetary astronomy served for Kuhn as a lense through which later intellectual breaks in the history of science could be understood. In this sense Copernicus
Kuhn stated that history of science and epistemology are two entangled genres, albeit separated. They are closely inter-related although historians and philosophers belong to two different disciplinary fields and have different goals. Indeed, the former construct plausible narratives while the latter seek something that is “true at all times and places.”3 In Kuhn’s curriculum vitae the two professions coexisted, as he himself observed in a biographical note, in the talk “The Relations Between the History and the Philosophy of Science,” delivered in 1968:
To say that history of science and philosophy of science have different goals is to suggest that no one can practice them both at the same time. But it does not suggest that there are also great difficulties about practicing them, alternately, working from time to time on historical problems and attacking philosophical issues in between. Since I obviously aim at a pattern of that sort myself, I am committed to the belief that it can be achieved. (Kuhn 1977, 5)
Surprisingly, in this passage Kuhn downplayed the dependency of the historical moment on the epistemological or vice versa. He presented the relation between the two fields of investigation as a thematic overlapping, as an “inter-disciplinary” instead of “intra-disciplinary” relation. Copernicus
Kuhn was not the first who allotted to Copernicus
It should be immediately remarked that the reception of Koyré’s
By employing historical notions such as ‘Scientific Revolution’ and ‘Copernican Revolution,’ Kuhn revealed himself as a ‘son of his age,’ a reader and follower of Koyré, whom he acknowledged in Structure alongside others like Anneliese Maier and Arthur O. Lovejoy (SR, Preface, viii). The choice of these authors is by no means casual. All of them were historians of ideas investigating the abstract entities of theory as independently as possible from material aspects. In an entry on “The History of Science” for the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (1968), Kuhn pitted the Duhemian school, in which he included Koyré
On the one hand, he extolled the French conservative historian of science Pierre Duhem
On the other hand, as the 1968 encyclopedia entry goes on,
Still more recently, one other set of influences has begun to shape contemporary work in the history of science. Its result is an increased concern, deriving partly from general history and partly from German sociology and Marxist historiography, with the role of nonintellectual, particularly institutional and socioeconomic factors in scientific development. Unlike the ones discussed above, however, these influences and the works responsive to them have to date scarcely been assimilated by the emerging profession [of the historian of science]. For all its novelties, the new historiography is still directed predominantly to the evolution of scientific ideas and of the tools (mathematical, observational, and experimental) through which these interact with each other and with nature. Its best practitioners have, like Koyré, usually minimized the importance of nonintellectual aspects of culture to the historical developments they consider. [...] As a result, there seems at times to be two distinct sorts of history of science, occasionally appearing between the same covers but rarely making firm or fruitful contacts. (Kuhn 1977, 109–110)
Not only does Kuhn side with Koyré’s
It seems appropriate to quote here Roy Porter’s
As part of the rejection of everything Marxist in the years of the Cold War, Anglo-American history of science was to distance itself from all such concerns with the social roots and even the social fruits of science. Instead, from the 1950s it became profoundly fascinated with the internal intellectual challenges posed by science. (Porter 1990, 35)
Kuhn makes no exception. In this regard his work, especially “Structure does not so much transcend the Cold War mentality as expresses it in a more abstract, and hence more portable, form” (Fuller 2000, 6).
The Other Side of the Ideological Divide: Marxist HPS
In the history of science, Cold War ideological confrontations famously began at the International Congress of the History of Science and Technology, held in London, in 1931.7 On that occasion, the Russian leader Nikolai Bukharin
The Russians came in a phalanx uniformly armed with Marxian dialectic, but they met no ordered opposition, but instead an undisciplined host, unprepared and armed with ill-assorted individual philosophies. There was no defense but the victory was unreal. [...] Their appeal to dialectic, to the writings of Marx and Engels, instead of impressing their audience, disposed them not to listen to the arguments which followed. (Bernal 1949, 338)
In order to grasp the leading ideas shared by the Soviet delegates, it is useful to isolate a few crucial theses expressed by their leader. In London, Bukharin
Already in his very successful elementary introduction to Marxist philosophy, Historical Materialism: A System of Sociology (first issued in Russian in 1921, and soon translated into French in 1921, German in 1922 and English in 1925), Bukharin
An eclipse of the Sun does not depend either directly or indirectly on human desires [...] The case with social phenomena is entirely different, for they are accomplished through the will of men. [...] Socialism will come inevitably because it is inevitable that men, definite classes of men, will stand for its realization, and they will make so under circumstances that will make their victory certain. Marxism does not deny the will but explains it. (Bukharin 1921, 51)
Note that, although human will counts as a factor of social transformation, still it is not free because it is determined just as natural phenomena. The developmental law regulating both nature as well as society is one and the same. In Marxist jargon it is called dialectics.
This naturalization of society and historical processes fostered Bukharin’s
The content of science is determined in the last analysis by the technical and economic phase of society; these are the ‘practical roots,’ which explain why an identical scientific discovery, invention or study, may be achieved simultaneously in different places, perhaps quite ‘independently.’ (Bukharin 1921, 164)
Note that, according to Bukharin
A famous case study resulting from the application of the general principles so far outlined was the presentation of the Soviet delegate Boris Hessen
1Theoretical mechanics developed in the study of machine technology;
2Conversely, in those areas where seventeenth-century scientists could not draw on existing technology the corresponding disciplines of physics did not develop;
3Ideological (theological) constraints descending from the political constellation affected crucial philosophical concepts of Newton’s physics (such as matter).
(Freudenthal and McLaughlin 2009, 2–3)
The fact that the unity of theory and practice is obscure to most scientists and philosophers of science is a social-historical byproduct of labor division. In capitalist society, specialization and abstraction go hand in hand. The connection between theory and praxis, between science and its social roots and aims are only mediated in a world in which intellectual labor and physical labor are kept apart, and the latter is subordinated to the former. One aim of socialist society, so Bukharin
Reception of Marxist Historical Epistemology and Reaction to It
After World War II, a small but visible group of historians, especially in the West, continued the line traced by the Soviet delegates and produced significant social and material accounts on the history of science (Young 1990). As to the Wirkungsgeschichte of the Soviet challenge, Joseph Needham
In a sense, the sociology of science launched by Robert Merton
In the discussion of the technical and scientific problems raised by certain economic developments, I follow closely the technical analysis of Professor B. Hessen
in his provocative essay, “The Social and Economic Roots of Newton’s Principia,” in Science at the Cross Roads [...] Professor Hessen’s procedure, if carefully checked, provides a very useful basis for determining empirically the relations between economic and scientific development. These relations are probably different in an other than capitalistic economy since the rationalization which permeates capitalism stimulates the development of scientific technology. (Merton 1938, 501–502, n. 24)
Furthermore, a long critical assessment of Hessen’s
As indicated by Wolfgang Lefèvre, Koyré’s
This revolution [the Scientific Revolution] is sometimes characterized, and at the same time explained, as a kind of spiritual upheaval, an utter transformation of the whole fundamental attitude of the human mind; the active life, the vita activa [i.e., the πράξιϛ] taking the place of the θεωρία, the vita contemplativa, which until then had been considered its highest form. [...] [According to this perspective,] the science of Descartes
—and a fortiori that of Galileo—is nothing else than (as has been said) the science of the craftsman or of the engineer. (Koyré 1943, 400)
Kuhn was well aware of the polemical meaning of Koyré’s
Note also the way in which distinguishing between [a pluralistic approach to science or a unitarian] [...] deepens and obscures the now far better known distinction between internalist and externalist approaches to the history of science. Virtually all the authors now regarded as internalists address themselves to the evolution of a single science or of a closely related set of scientific ideas; the externalists fall almost invariably into the group that has treated the sciences as one. But the labels ‘internalist’ and ‘externalist’ then no longer quite fit. Those who have concentrated primarily on individual sciences, e.g. Alexandre Koyré
, have not hesitated to attribute a significant role in scientific development to extrascientific ideas. What they have resisted primarily is attention to socioeconomic and institutional factors as treated by such writers as B. Hessen , G.N. Clark and R.K. Merton . But these nonintellectual factors have not always been much valued by those who took the sciences to be one. The ‘internalist-externalist debate’ is thus frequently about issues different from the ones its name suggests, and the resulting confusion is sometimes damaging. (Kuhn 1977, 32, n. 1)
Kuhn does not contribute to illuminate the reader about the implicit issues at stake he hints at. Koyré
[E]nfin—last but not least—l’émergence de la Russie soviétique comme puissance mondiale et les victoires des armées et de l’idéologie communiste [...] Hegel genuit Marx; Marx genuit Lenine; Lenine genuit Staline.10
To sum up Koyré’s
Within a decade of their appearance, they [the Études galiléennes] and his subsequent work provided the model which historians of science increasingly aimed to emulate. More than any other scholar, Koyré
was responsible for [...] the historiographical revolution. (Kuhn 1970, 67)
Does not this claim for a historiographical revolution in a historical discipline sound bizarre? Probably, as Kuhn observed relative to the ‘internalist-externalist debate,’ also this Koyréan Historiographical Revolution was “about issues different from the ones its name suggests, and the resulting confusion is sometimes damaging.” The immateriality, or “Platonism,” of Koyré’s
The Harvard Entwurf of a HPS for a “Free Society”
Kuhn’s academic formation was affected by the militant and anti-communist cultural climate of Harvard in the 1940s and 1950s. His mentor, Harvard president Conant
Concerning Kuhn’s student years, they were marked by the World War. “After Pearl Harbor—so Conant
Kuhn greatly benefited from the power and visibility of his mentor. It has been remarked that “Kuhn’s intellectual gestation at Harvard (1940–1956) enabled him to acquire, with little effort of his own, [...] ‘the strength of the weak ties.’ [...] Kuhn had a singularly strong tie to Conant
Part of Conant’s
Many friends and colleagues, by their advice and criticism, have helped to shape this book, but none has left so large or significant a mark as Ambassador James B. Conant
. (CR, xi)11
In return, Conant
In Europe west of the Iron Curtain, the literary tradition in education still prevails. An educated man or woman is a person who has acquired a mastery of several tongues and retained a working knowledge of the art and literature of Europe. By a working knowledge I do not refer to a scholarly command of the ancient and modern classics or a sensitive critical judgment of style or form; rather, I have in mind a knowledge, which can be readily worked into a conversation at a suitable social gathering. An education based on a carefully circumscribed literary tradition has several obvious advantages: the distinction between the 5 to 10 percent of the population who are thus educated and the others makes itself evident almost automatically when ladies and gentlemen converse.
The resulting epistemology, that of the Structure, was irreconcilable with the most important theses of the Marxist program outlined by the Soviet scholars. To notice this opposition, it is sufficient to consider the following crucial epistemological assumptions of Kuhnian epistemology:
1Irrelevance of the economic structure—In the Structure no technical or practical aspects significantly account for the historical development of science. The economical basis is completely absent. Thus, the structure underlying science has nothing to do with the socio-economical basis. It is rather a conceptual framework. Science is a cumulative but discontinuous intellectual process, framed in conceptual structures and punctuated by revolutions of thought.
2Individualism of discovery—Second, Kuhn’s scientists are not creative as a collectivity but only, rarely, as individuals. The community of those practicing “normal science” is rather a conservative majority. Accordingly, Kuhn assumes that scientific discovery is individual.
3Mysticism of discovery—Kuhn does not dismiss or explain the mystery of discovery, in one word, geniality, which is the inexplicable element in intellectual history: “The new paradigm [...] emerges all at once, sometimes in the middle of the night, in the mind of a man deeply immersed in crisis” (SR, 89–90).
4Contingency of historical development—Fourth, the development of science is contingent. Kuhn, even more than Koyré, was convinced of this. A historiography centered on technology and economy menaced to foster deterministic views. This, at least, was Bukharin’s
The Copernican Question: a Material or a Celestial Question?
In the cultural climate of the Cold War, Kuhn’s anti-determinist, anti-economicist and intellectualistic historical epistemology represented a politically correct alternative to approaches suspected of being too close to the ideology of the Soviet camp. Regarding the Copernican Revolution played from the point of view of the historical and epistemological debates of the time. For this assessment, I would like to briefly recount the meaning ascribed to the heliocentric astronomer in earlier accounts on early modern science.
According to a reputed history of physics, Ernst Mach’s
A critical point in Mach’s
Neoplatonism is explicit in Copernicus’s
attitude toward both the Sun and mathematical simplicity. It is an essential element of the intellectual climate that gave birth to his vision of the universe. (CR, 131)
As far as the epistemological premises are concerned, Mach
Zum Schluß noch ein Argument, das vielleicht auf diejenigen, welche trotz alledem den menschlich-ökonomischen Gesichtspunkt als den eigentlich ausschlaggebenden hinzustellen geneigt sind, mehr Eindruck macht als alle bisherigen sachlichen Überlegungen. Als die großen Meister der exakten Naturforschung ihre Ideen in die Wissenschaft warfen: als Nikolaus Kopernikus die Erde aus dem Zentrum der Welt entfernte, als Johannes Kepler
die nach ihm benannten Gesetzte formulierte, als Isaac Newton die allgemeine Gravitation entdeckte, als Ihr großer Landsmann Christian Huygens seine Undulationstheorie des Lichtes aufstellte, als Michael Faraday die Grundlagen der Elektrodynamik schuf [...], da waren ökonomische Gesichtspunkte sicherlich die allerletzten, welche diese Männer in ihrem Kampfe gegen überlieferte Anschauungen und gegen überragende Autoritäten stählten. Nein – es war ihr felsenfester, sei es auf künstlerischer, sei es auf religiöser Basis ruhender Glaube an die Realität ihres Weltbildes. (Planck 1958, 28)
Worauf es hier einzig und allein ankommt, ist die Anerkennung eines solchen festen, wenn auch niemals ganz zu erreichenden Zieles, und dieses Ziel ist [...] die vollständige Loslösung des physikalischen Weltbildes von der Individualität des bildenden Geistes. Es ist dies eine etwas genauere Umschreibung dessen, was ich oben die Emanzipierung von anthropomorphen Elementen genannt habe, um das Mißverständnis auszuschließen, als ob das Weltbild von dem bildenden Geist überhaupt losgelöst werden sollte; denn das wäre ein widersinniges Beginnen. (Planck 1958, 27–28)
By contrast, Koyré’s
However concerned about the spiritual dimension of science, Koyré
The state of Ptolemaic astronomy was a scandal before Copernicus’
announcement. (SR, 67)
made few converts for almost a century after Copernicus’ death [...] This difficulties of conversion have often been noted by scientists themselves. (SR, 150–151)
Those who Copernicus converted to the concept of a moving earth [...] (CR, 183)
[H]e could embrace a cosmological heresy, the earth’s motion. (CR, 184)
Maestlin [...] gained a few converts, including Kepler
, for the new astronomy. (CR, 187)
The group of avowed Copernicans [...] (CR, 187)
[W]hatever their beliefs about the position and motion of the Earth. (CR, 187)
innovation seemed absurd and impious. (CR, 188)
The image here suggested is that of a faith dealer and his apostles preaching a new gospel. This idea of the affirmation of the Copernican theory is indeed very far from Galileo’s
In the following, I shall consider the historical and epistemological implications of the religious metaphor.
Copernican versus Ptolemaic Faith
Much has been written about Kuhn’s best seller on the history of early modern astronomy. The most exhaustive study on internal and external factors in the conception and reception of Kuhn’s Copernican Revolution but also remarked that “the notion of conversion is an important corollary of the incommensurability thesis in The Stucture the Scientific Revolutions” (Westman 1994, 93–94). It is from the religious metaphor, although it is perhaps “not well developed in Copernican Revolution”The Copernican Revolution (Westman 1994, 94), that I would like to start a historical-epistemological assessment and argue that Kuhn’s recourse to it is revealing of theoretical difficulties entailed in his approach.
The first difficulty in Kuhn’s narrative concerns the relationship between Copernican and Ptolemaic astronomies regarded as the opposition between two incommensurable paradigms. Kuhn maintained that, since the heliocentric planetary system was the essential aspect of Copernicus’s
This premises led Kuhn to dubious conclusions, for instance that the Copernican background was essential for every advance in Renaissance astronomy, for instance, for those determining the supra-lunar nature of comets and novae during the sixteenth century.
Late sixteenth-century astronomers repeatedly discovered that comets wandered at will thorough the space previously reserved for immutable planets and stars. The very ease and rapidity with which astronomers saw new things when looking at old objects with old instruments may make us wish to say that, after Copernicus
, astronomers lived in a different world. (SR, 116)
That the observation of comets and supernovas in the second half of the sixteenth century undermined certain Aristotelian assumptions about the nature of the heavens is historically true (Tessicini and Boner 2013, “Introduction”). That this fact directly or indirectly stemmed from Copernicus
Besides, Kuhn’s viewpoint neglects the variety of early interpretations of Copernicus’s work depending on the different interests and motivations of its readers.21 Renaissance scholars confronting De revolutionibus did not mainly focus on the so-called hypotheses, that is, terrestrial motion and solar centrality and immobility. Many of them regarded De revolutionibus as the basis for new astronomical tables, such as Erasmus Reinhold’s Prutenicae tabulae (1551);22 others, from Kaspar Peucer to Brahe, appreciated Copernicus’s geometrical models renouncing Ptolemy’s
Contrary to the incommensurability thesis, Kuhn himself had to notice that Copernicus
A further evidence against incommensurability showing the permeability of geocentric and heliocentric systems is documented by the exchange of arguments in favor of and contrary to terrestrial motion and the heliocentric system between famous scholars such as Brahe and Rothmann in their correspondence and, later, Galileo’s
A second historical-theoretical difficulty in Kuhn’s account lays in the fact that the incommensurability thesis and the reduction of the historical meaning of Ptolemy
Paradigms gain their status because they are more successful than their competitors in solving a few problems that the group of practitioners has come to recognize as acute. [For instance...] Ptolemy’s
computations of planetary positions. (SR, 23)
This is Kuhn’s starting point. Yet he has difficulties to apply it to Copernicus’s
“Crucial experiments”—those able to discriminate particularly sharply between two paradigms—have been recognized and attested before the new paradigm was even invented. Copernicus
thus claimed that he had solved the long-vexing problem of the length of the calendar year. (SR, 153)
It should be remarked en passant that Copernicus
Kuhn hints at “special telescopes to demonstrate the Copernican prediction of annual parallax” as an example of “predictions from the paradigm theory” (SR, 26). Indeed, the absence of any observable stars’ parallax and the fact that the starry heaven appeared to be a sphere always bisected by any horizon for any observer on Earth, even after Galileo’s
more elaborate proposal was neither simpler nor more accurate than Ptolemy’s system. Available observational tests [...] provided no basis for a choice. [...] Ptolemaic astronomy had failed to solve its problems; the time had come to give a competitor a chance. (SR, 75–76)
Kuhn was thus forced by historical evidence to acknowledge that the assumption that any criteria could univocally determine the choice between two competing paradigms does not fit the Copernican-Ptolemaic divide.
These difficulties can also be remarked by the contradiction between Kuhn’s idea of a ‘switch,’ introduced in order to account for scientific revolutions, and the timing of the Copernican reception as it occurred in fact. On the one hand, in fact, he admitted that Copernicanism might count as an exception to the all-at-once-emergence thesis:
In other cases, however—those of Copernicus
, Einstein , and contemporary nuclear theory, for example—considerable time elapses between the first consciousness of breakdown and the emergence of a new paradigm. (SR, 86)
On the other hand, he deemed paradigms’ transition to happen like a sudden gestaltic switch (SR, 111 and ff.).
The new paradigm [...] emerges all at once, sometimes in the middle of the night, in the mind of a man deeply immersed in crisis. (SR, 89–90)
The religious metaphor about the Copernican conversion maintains the pathos of a sudden revelation.
Plurality and Unity in Science
I have so far argued that the hypotheses-centered interpretation of Copernican and Ptolemaic astronomies as paradigms entails several difficulties linked to the Kuhnian theory of scientific revolutions. In fact, it can be demonstrably objected that,
1Ptolemaic and Copernican planetary approaches were permeable and commensurable;
2There was no experimentum crucis that could be used to establish the superiority of the heliocentric alternative in all respects;
3The transition from geocentrism to heliocentrism did not happen as a sudden conversion-like event.
Kuhn was not willing to take into account the theoretical consequences of these historical statements. In particular he neglected evidence of commensurability through controversy and hybridization because he assumed that plurality is a clear symptom of crisis. He contrasted in fact the incertitude of theories’ proliferation as a crisis state to scientific advancement within a well-established theoretical framework (what he referred to as “normal science”), for instance the Copernican planetary theory.
[...] famous preface still provides one of the classic descriptions of a crisis state. (SR, 69)
Proliferation of versions of a theory is a very usual symptom of crisis. In his preface, Copernicus
complained of it as well. (SR, 71)
There was no longer one Ptolemaic system but a dozen or more, and the number was multiplying rapidly with the multiplication of technically proficient astronomers. All these systems were modeled on the system of the Almagest, and all were therefore ‘Ptolemaic.’ But because there were so many variant systems, the adjective ‘Ptolemaic’ had lost much of its meaning. The astronomical tradition had become diffuse. (CR, 139–40)
Contrary to historical evidence, Kuhn assumed that Copernican astronomy was different from Ptolemaic and was able of substituting plurality for unity. Apart from the fact that this interpretation is at odds with the proliferation of cosmological and planetary models after Copernicus
This remark can be extended to other periods and intellectual shifts. For instance, in an article on Kuhn’s employment of his epistemological categories to the emergence of quantum theory (“a scientific revolution par excellence”), Jochen Büttner, Jürgen Renn and Matthias Schemmel argued, against the gestaltic-switch thesis, that “crisis” was the outcome rather than the source of theory discontinuity and that crisis might even count as a feature of “normal science” (Büttner et.al. 2003, 56).
Controversy versus Linguistic / Conceptual Misunderstanding
Kuhn’s conversion-like treatment of the Copernican paradigm shift downplays the argumentative strategies employed in the controversy over the heliocentric and geokinetic theories. Scholars’ choice between terrestrial mobility and immobility was indeed complex and depended on the weight they attached to special aspects at the expenses of others, as well as on their philosophical and cultural choices, and their political and religious bias: e.g. the lack of observable stellar parallax and the physical and scriptural difficulties were enough for Brahe
By contrast, Kuhn tended to treat controversies as mere misunderstandings. For instance, he linked Copernicus’s
But an excessive concern with the heavens and a distorted sense of values may be essential characteristics of the man who inaugurated the revolution in astronomy and cosmology. The blinders that restricted Copernicus’
gaze to the heavens may have been functional. They made him so perturbed by discrepancies of a few degrees in astronomical prediction that in an attempt to resolve them he could embrace a cosmological heresy. (CR, 184)
Kuhn’s statement has no historical evidence since Copernicus’s
Since paradigms are born from old ones, they ordinarily incorporate much of the vocabulary and the apparatus, both conceptual and manipulative, that the traditional paradigm had previously employed. [...] Consider, for an example, the man who called Copernicus
mad because he proclaimed that the earth moved. [...] Part of what they meant by ‘earth’ was fixed position. [...] Correspondingly, Copernicus’ innovation was not simply to move the earth. Rather, it was a whole new way of regarding the problems of physics and astronomy, one that necessarily changed the meaning both of ‘earth’ and of ‘motion.’ (SR, 149–50)
It might be true that the meaning of many traditional concepts changed alongside the geokinetic perspective. Yet, the fact that concepts had to be defined anew does not imply that “Copernicans” and “anti-Copernicans” did not understand each other, as Kuhn’s incommensurability thesis suggests. Bruno
The issue of paradigms and paradigms’ shifts has been crucial in the reception and discussion of Kuhn’s epistemology from the very beginning. In particular, incommensurability, connected with the thesis of the gestaltic switch, seemed to many commentators to downplay or even neglect the centrality of rational argumentation in the development and discussion of scientific theories. Kuhn faced the criticism of irrationality on several occasions, beginning with his “Reflections on my Critics” that was included in the proceedings of the 1965 International Colloquium in the Philosophy of Science (Lakatos and Musgrave 1970, 231–278). In a postscript to the 1969 edition of the Structure, Kuhn answered to his critics’ objections to the non-argumentative character of the choice between two paradigms—brief, of a “scientific revolution.”28 In the section entitled “Exemplars, Incommensurability, and Revolutions,” he just reaffirmed his point of view stressing the difference between a scientific controversy that takes place within a given framework of accepted rules and premises (i.e., “normal science”) and discussion over the premises of the scientific discourse themselves. Controversies over foundational aspects ultimately rest on persuading colleagues and new generations within the scientific community. To corroborate his thesis, Kuhn thus introduced a sociological element into epistemology. Still, this shall not obscure the profound difference between such minimalist sociologization of science and Marxist historical materialism. Kuhn’s perspective did not abandon the intellectualistic understanding of scientific advance and never embraced in his treatment socio-economical and political factors. “Sociology” for him never meant anything more general than academic interactions and exchanges at the level of the scientific community. Nor did Kuhn ever try to overcome the individualist characterization of discovery. By contrast, in his theory the moment of discovery remained the inexplicable moment of paradigm shift—notwithstanding the fact that “awareness” could precede the full unfolding of a “paradigm.”29 In this sense, the epiphany-and-conversion metaphor is revealing of Kuhn’s radicalization of contemporary claims for the intrinsic intellectualism of science. On this account, he went much further than his maître à penser, Koyré.
Steven Fuller argued for the structural correspondence between the Kuhnian paradigms and incommensurable Cold-War worldviews (Fuller 2000, 175). As we have seen, there are passages in Kuhn’s writings documenting that his epistemology echoes political constellations. This is for instance evident in the manner he contrasted the ‘French school’ of Duhem and Koyré against the historiography affected by social preoccupations. Apart from this, I deem the attempt at intellectualization / spiritualization of science to be not less dependent on Cold-War and post-World-War cultural ‘paradigms.’ The crucial problem was the propagandistic necessity, within American democracy, to foster the wide support on the part of public opinion for scientific investments aimed to warranty the military superiority of the United States, even after the horrors of technological war had cast irredeemable doubts on the linearity and irreversibility of scientific progress. Kuhn offered an understanding of science restoring the ‘innocence’ of its public image. As Westman put it,
What Kuhn neglected to say in Copernican Revolution, however, was that postwar science no longer gained its legitimacy in a sociopolitical order dominated by ecclesiastical universities but from an alliance amongst secular disciplines and secret agreements between the military, science, and bureaucratized universities. Science no longer earned its authority by showing its harmony with the Book of Genesis but by using radar technology to control the invisible realm across which airplanes were guided to their targets. (Westman 1994, 114)
The religious vocabulary employed by Kuhn to describe the emergence of heliocentric astronomy is not just a matter of words (elsewhere Kuhn also employs military metaphors like “battle” and “victory”).32 Rather, it is symptomatic of certain difficulties entailed in his notions of paradigm and paradigms’ shift which, in turn, were rooted in Cold-War mentality. In the postscript to the 1969 edition of the Structure, Kuhn explained the persuasive character of paradigm choice through religious imagery:
The conversion experience that I have likened to a gestalt switch remains [...] at the heart of the revolutionary process. Good reasons for choice provide motives for conversion and a climate in which it is more likely to occur. Translation may, in addition, provide points of entry for the neural reprogramming that, however inscrutable at this time, must underlie conversion. But neither good reason nor translation constitute conversion, and it is that process we must explicate in order to understand an essential sort of scientific change. (SR, 204)
As I argued on the basis of the Copernican case, there are some major difficulties concealed under the announcement-and-conversion metaphor. To the first class of difficulties belong the incommensurability thesis and its gestaltic-switch corollary accounting for the (alleged) lack of decisive experiments or arguments in favor of one of the two irreconcilable paradigms. A further issue is the one-idea-centered concept of paradigm, according to which intellectual history deals with the production and effects of single ideal entities (say, the heliocentric system, inertia, or the great chain of being, to mention some of Kuhn’s sources of inspiration)33 instead of the constant combination and reorganization of clusters of ideas. In order to account for the historical development of science, the Copernican case suggests to recognize the dialogical-argumentative character of the natural discourse, the permeability of different worldviews and approaches to nature, as well as the composite character of natural and scientific conceptions. The latter are ideas’ clusters marked by plurality and variety, rather than total systems hinged on one idea or a small set of ideas.
Still, as I have argued at length, the Kuhnian problematic cannot be reduced to the modeling of science and scientific processes. My main point has been to show that Cold-War mentality (if one prefers, “Cold-War ideology”) significantly pervaded Kuhn’s epistemological premises and conclusions. The historical axioms looming behind the thoughts and conceptions of Kuhn and of his contemporaries or immediate forerunners shall be investigated, questioned and reassessed, taking into consideration the material context out of which they emerged. After the end of the Cold-War Era and of its the ideological divides, we can better detect the political-cultural concerns and limitations lying behind the epistemological discourse of those years. Economic determinism and disembodied narratives seem to be the two opposite pitfalls that the exponents of the opposite camps were not always able to avoid in their role as intellectuals belonging to one of the Two Chief World Systems of the Cold-War Era. As for Kuhn, his understanding and practicing of historiography and philosophy was inscribed within these geo-cultural coordinates. As I said, the influence of Harvard president Conant
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Cf. Kuhn, “Preface” to the 1962 edition of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. SR (vii): “The essay that follows is the first full published report on a project originally conceived almost fifteen years ago.”
Elkana (1987, 115). Yet, according to Elkana, the contextual awareness of Koyré’s historiography was the indirect source of post-Kuhnian historical sociology of science. Elkana (1987, 144): “Koyré genuit Kuhn; Kuhn (and Merton and a few others) genuerunt the Historical Sociology of Scientific Knowledge.” I will discuss Kuhn’s sociology without society later.
This and the following two sections are a partial reworking of the talk “Reflections on History of Science and Cultural Hegemony at the Threshold of the Cold War,” delivered at the 2013 Moscow conference Social and Human Sciences on Both Sides of the ‘Iron Curtain’ (Poletayev Institute for Theoretical and Historical Studies in the Humanities – National Research University “Higher School of Economics,” October 17–19).
At that time Conant was US Ambassador in Western Germany.
Kokowski (2001). I would like to stress the relevance of Part 1, section I.4, also dealing with the Conant-Kuhn connection; of Part 2, section I,2, providing an overview of the first reactions to Kuhn’s Copernican Revolution; and Part 2, chap. 4, where Kokowski critically discusses its limits (see also Kokowski (1993)). I shall like to thank Prof. Kokowski for sharing with me several of his views on Kuhn, his philosophy and work.
Since then it has become a sort of challenge for Copernicus’s scholars to count the early “Copernicans.” See, for instance, Tredwell and Barker (2004).
Cf. CR (174–177). For a brief overview of the advantages of Copernicus’s heliocentric theory in relation to the geocentric, see Swerdlow (2004, 88–90).
For an assessment of the epistemological differences among “realist Copernicans,” see Omodeo (2011).
On the geo-heliocentric debates, see Granada (1996); on Galileo’s reactions to Brahe, see Bucciantini (2003, 23–48, chap. 2, “Padova: Pinelli, Tycho, Galileo”).
SR (86), where Kuhn pits the “consciousness of breakdown” to the “emergence of a new paradigm.”
I am quoting from the conference pre-circulating paper.
Cf. Nieto-Galan (2011, 453): “As chairman of the Anti-Communist Committee in the 1950s, and designer of science education policies, James B. Conant, Kuhn’s mentor, strongly supported an uncontroversial, neutral science, which was to be transmitted to the younger generations as a taken-for-granted worldview far from any critical reflection on the material conditions of thought. The Structure reinforced the idea that the scientific process remains essentially the same whenever and however it occurs.” As standard references on popularization and cultural hegemony, see Shapin and Barnes (1977) and Cooter and Pumfrey (1994).
For a treatment of Kuhn’s rhetoric strategies in support of his narratives, see Kokowski (2001, 160–199).