Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions at Fifty: Reflections on a Science Classic

Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions at Fifty: Reflections on a Science Classic


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Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions at Fifty: Reflections on a Science Classic by Robert J. Richards

Thomas S. Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions (SSR) is one of the most important books published in the last hundred years. His language and concepts have permeated contemporary thought, and his arguments and positions are still alive and of real importance. Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions at Fifty is a collection of essays by leading social scientists and philosophers that explores the origins of Kuhn’s masterwork and its legacy a half-century on. The authors exhume important historical context for Kuhn’s work, critically analyzing its foundations in twentieth-century science, politics, and more. They situate SSR within Kuhn’s own intellectual biography, too: his experiences as a physics graduate student doing quintessential “normal science,” his close relationships with psychologists both before and after the publication of SSR , and the Cold War framework of concepts such as “world view” and “paradigm.” The book’s citation history is even used to reveal SSR’s shifting audiences - and changes in scholarly reading habits. And, of course, the contributors explore the central features of SSR by addressing the import of key Kuhnian concepts, both then and now, including “revolution,” “scientific community,” and - inevitably - the elusive yet still enticing “paradigm.” Anyone interested in Kuhn’s ideas will profit from reading this book.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226317205
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/28/2016
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 1,248,714
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Robert J. Richards is the Morris Fishbein Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Science and Medicine; professor in the Departments of History, Philosophy, and Psychology and in the Committee on Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science; and director of the Fishbein Center for the History of Science and Medicine, all at the University of Chicago. Lorraine Daston is director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin and is visiting professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago.

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Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions at Fifty

Reflections on a Science Classic

By Robert J. Richards, Lorraine Daston

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-31720-5


Aristotle in the Cold War: On the Origins of Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

George A. Reisch

The famous opening of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions announces the inspiration behind Thomas Kuhn's revolutionary account of science:

History, if viewed as a repository for more than anecdote or chronology, could produce a decisive transformation in the image of science by which we are now possessed.

For myself, and I suspect many others, this has long been a crucial feature of Kuhn's pioneering work. While he may have gotten some things wrong and gone a little overboard in his talk about "changing worlds," he was right that looking at historical realities, at what he called "research activity itself," is essential for understanding science.

Lately, I've come to reject this picture of Structure's achievement. Speaking about his historiographic style, Kuhn said he always tried to "get inside the heads" of earlier scientists. But Structure's claims about what occurs in scientists' heads during scientific revolutions appear to be less informed by primary historical sources and more by something inside Kuhn's head, namely, a conception of scientific revolutions that dates to a particular moment in his life.

It occurred in 1947, fifteen years before Structure was published. Kuhn called it his "Aristotle experience" and regarded it as crucial for his intellectual development. His publications and papers, including his drafts and outlines for Structure as well as his correspondence with his mentor, Harvard president and Manhattan Project administrator James Bryant Conant, confirm that the Aristotle experience was the seed from which Structure grew. My claim here is that the more we understand the Aristotle experience and how Kuhn responded to and utilized it, the more we can see how firmly Structure and its conception of science was rooted in the distinctive culture of the early Cold War.

One of these roots is an image of what I call "the scientific mind" and, in particular, the mind's relationships to experience and the ideas within it. Some of this mind's properties have been long familiar to readers of Structure — it experiences Gestalt shifts in perception and understanding, its observations are "theory laden" and shaped by background beliefs, it accepts new paradigms not on the grounds of strict logical proof, but rather, persuasion.

In the context of the early Cold War, however, a similar image of the mind circulated, albeit in a form highly politicized and, in some cases, militarized. Kuhn's image of the scientific mind whose theoretical commitments and perceptions were transformed when history replaced one paradigm with another was not unlike the mind of American GIs in Korea who were thought to have been "brainwashed" by captors who replaced their liberal ideas and values with those of communism. This was also the mind of the American public that anticommunists such as Senator McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover sought to protect from communist ideology. And it was the young, impressionable mind of college students, the future leaders of America, whom Conant and other university administrators struggled to shield from communist faculty and the powerful ideology that rendered those professors, as the conventional wisdom then held, unfit to teach.

The Aristotle Experience

Kuhn's most detailed description of his Aristotle experience appears in a lecture from 1981. The experience occurred in the summer of 1947, he recalled, shortly after he began working alongside Conant to develop and teach Natural Science 4, Conant's pioneering attempt to teach science using historical case studies. Being a chemist, Conant asked Kuhn, then finishing his Ph.D. in physics, to develop case studies in the history of physics. That's when it happened.

I was sitting at my desk with the text of Aristotle's Physics open in front of me. ... Looking up, I gazed abstractedly out the window of my room — the visual image is one I still retain. Suddenly the fragments in my head sorted themselves out in a new way, and fell into place together. My jaw dropped, for all at once Aristotle seemed a very good physicist indeed, but of a sort I'd never dreamed possible.

Kuhn was suddenly convinced that Conant's account of science evolving freely from one conceptual scheme to another, accumulating knowledge and perspective along the way, had to be at least partly wrong. This was the account Kuhn knew from On Understanding Science, a book Conant published that year and which Kuhn proofread as its pages came off the Yale University Press. That summer afternoon, however, Kuhn glimpsed something that Conant's image of science could not explain, namely, that Aristotle's physics was not simply mistaken. Instead, it could be understood in a way that made much sense — but only when apprehended along with an array of basic theoretical concepts that were excluded by, and inconsistent with, those presupposed by Newtonian physics. As he would later say of the famous duck-rabbit illusion, Kuhn could see either the Aristotelian duck or the Newtonian rabbit, but not both at the same time.

Structure was conceived at that moment. "Oh, look," Kuhn later told interviewers as he contrasted Structure to his first book, The Copernican Revolution, which largely follows Conant's picture of science:

I had wanted to write The Structure of Scientific Revolutions ever since the Aristotle experience. That's why I had gotten into history of science — I didn't know quite what it was going to look like, but I knew the noncumulativeness; and I knew about what I took revolutions to be ... but that was what I really wanted to be doing.

Even as early as 1953, when The Copernican Revolution and Structure were unfinished, Kuhn contrasted them in a grant application and nodded to Structure as "closest to my ultimate purpose as a scholar."

The Aristotle Experience: 1957–1979

An early reference to the Aristotle experience appears in Kuhn's notes for a talk, "A Historian Views the Philosophy of Science," which Kuhn gave at Berkeley in 1957. Eight years earlier, the notes indicate, Kuhn had been a physicist, but "then got invited to assist in a course that involved much H of S. Read it for first time, and particularly read sources."

This, Kuhn exclaimed, was a "shocking experience." His notes read, "Nothing in my physics education or my philosophy reading had prepared me for the way science looks when viewed through writings of dead scientists." The word "shock" appears twice again as he elaborated the differences between science described in textbooks and science revealed in "letters, diaries, laboratory notebooks and, above all, in the articles in scientific periodicals published ten, twenty, thirty years before theory was ready to be embodied in a text."

The shocking experience appears again in a letter Kuhn wrote to Conant in June of 1961. Months before, he had sent Conant a draft of Structure with the hope that his mentor would like the book and allow a dedication. But Conant was not much impressed. After some opening pleasantries and encouragement, he firmly criticized Kuhn's overuse of the word "paradigm," his neglect of the "practical arts" and their role in science's history, and his claim that all scientific revolutions involve a change of worldview — a claim that Conant found "too grandiose" and responsible for creating in the manuscript "needless trouble about progress," that is, scientific progress.

At the end of this critique, Conant offered a suggestion, one that Gary Hardcastle has aptly compared to criticism Tennessee Williams might have received about a dress rehearsal for A Streetcar Named Desire — along the lines of, "Look, this play has promise. But that character Blanche has just got to go." Indeed, Conant gently encouraged Kuhn to drop paradigms from the book's cast of characters and make do with the familiar language of "conceptual schemes," "climate of opinion," and other such formulations.

The Aristotle experience appears in Kuhn's defensive reply to Conant's charge of "needless trouble about progress." Kuhn wrote:

You opened On Understanding Science by discussing cumulativeness as the distinguishing feature of science. You then sent me off to look at pre-Newtonian dynamics. I returned from that assignment convinced that science was not cumulative in the most important sense. Newton was not trying to do Aristotle's job better; rather Aristotle had been trying to do a different job and one that Newton did not do so well. Would you say that home industry was merely a less effective way of doing what the factory system later did?

Now Steve Fuller has claimed that Kuhn wrote Structure effectively at the behest of Conant, but this exchange shows Kuhn rebelling against his mentor and defending his new theory of paradigms. Kuhn's defense continued into the manuscript itself, to which he added another chapter, "The Priority of Paradigms," which elaborates what Kuhn told Conant in this exchange: paradigms are indispensable for understanding science because they are prior to and more fundamental than the theories, conceptual schemes, or climates of opinion recognized in extant accounts of how science works.

When Structure was published, Kuhn alluded to the Aristotle experience in its introduction. He thanked Conant for exposing him to the history of science and wrote: "to my complete surprise, that exposure to out-of-date scientific theory and practice radically undermined some of my basic conceptions about the nature of science and the reasons for its special success." In a lecture at Michigan State in 1968, "shock" and "surprise" were joined by Kuhn's "astonishment" to discover "that science, when encountered in historical source materials, seemed a very different enterprise from the one implicit in science pedagogy and explicit in standard philosophical accounts of scientific method."

By the time he wrote his preface to The Essential Tension, his collection of essays in 1977, Kuhn had begun to describe the Aristotle experience not as the result of extended historical studies in primary sources but rather as a sudden epiphany or "revelation" — a singular moment when the "perplexities" he had always encountered in Aristotle's Physics "suddenly vanished." The chronicle within his account now flowed in reverse. What had been a shocking discovery that flowed out of historical study became an epiphany that now preceded his study of history. "Since that decisive episode in 1947," he explained, the "lessons learned while reading Aristotle have also informed my readings of men like Boyle and Newton, Lavoisier and Dalton, or Boltzmann and Planck." The decisive episode, in other words, had itself become a guiding paradigm for Kuhn's future historiography. It revealed "a global sort of change in the way men viewed nature and applied language to it"; it was a revelation, he explained, that informed his "subsequent search for best readings" of historical source material.

The Scientific Mind and Experience

So was Kuhn's Aristotle experience a result of his historical research or was it a guiding intuition about knowledge, about "the way men viewed nature," that preceded it? My view is that the Aristotle experience came first. This shocking experience of 1947 rather quickly led Kuhn to formulate the essential core of the philosophy of science he would debut in Structure fifteen years later. Before the Aristotle experience, his conception of science was fairly conventional and, indeed, conventionalist with regard to theories.

When it came to the status of "sense experience" or "data," Kuhn was a proud positivist. In an undergraduate essay from the early 1940s titled "The Metaphysical Possibilities of Physics," a young Kuhn was comfortable with the idea that the deep metaphysics of the world, whatever it may be, supported many different and possible theories, all of which he described as "fictions." Yet this young Kuhn was not yet Kuhnian, for these "fictions," he said, were constrained by a stable, independent realm of scientific "data" and "sense impression":

But while the concepts of physics expand and the narrow fictions are replaced by broader ones, the structure of physics remains unshaken, for the basis of this structure is data, not concepts, and no change in concepts can invalidate the data.

The Aristotle experience, however, revealed that this was not true. Concepts could, in a way, "invalidate" scientific data. In 1949, shortly after it occurred, Kuhn's papers show him toying with various philosophical and psychological mechanisms that might explain how this 'invalidation' might work. In a sprawling, highly edited, and late-night document that he filed under "Incomplete Memos and Ideas, 1949," he outlined a theory of language, specifically of connotation and denotation that might explain his shocking experience. His guiding idea was that our normal experience of the world was overwhelmingly dense, complex, and filled with epistemic possibilities. We can manage this overflow only because our natural language "cuts" or simplify experience for us:

What I'm getting at is that natural language provides a finite means of mediating an infinitely complex universe. ... Put more accurately — we in fact live in a world much more complex than our language admits. If we are to act in it, we must simplify it, and our choice of a particular manner of simplification (a cut) is pragmatically determined and is embodied in our language.

Two systems of physics, in other words, can be consistent and sensible within themselves but utterly different and incompatible side by side if each cuts and reduces the original fullness of experience in mutually inconsistent ways.

The scientific mind as Kuhn was beginning to understand it was unaware of these cuts and simplifications of experience. They were presupposed and embedded in ordinary language. Two years later, Kuhn slightly modified this picture when describing his current research interests to an administrator in the General Education program. He began again with the overwhelming complexity of a world that "permits an infinity of independent observations" and required "a choice of those aspects of experience which are to be deemed relevant." But this choice was not made deliberately and consciously by scientists. It was rather made for them by what Kuhn now called an unconscious "predisposition" toward one and only one of the many theories available. "The judgment of relevancy," he explained, "is made on a largely unconscious basis in which commonsense experience and pre-existing scientific theories are intimately intermingled." As a result,

objective observation is, in an important sense, a contradiction in terms. Any particular set of observations in science (or everyday life) presupposes a predisposition toward a conceptual scheme of a corresponding sort ... [that] leads the scientist to ignore or discard certain portions of experience in formulating or verifying his theories. But the same 'predisposition' exerts a far more fundamental influence in directing the scientist's attention to particular abstract aspects of experience and blocking his perception of alternate abstractions.

By 1951, then, Structure's philosophy of science was largely in place: experience underdetermines theory, theory and observation were dependent and "intermingled," theories were understood as holistic sets of ideas or conceptual schemes, and the scientific mind was unaware that it operates within only one possible system of ideas and that its "perception of alternate abstractions" was "block[ed]" — a lack of awareness that in Structure would lead Kuhn to characterize scientific revolutions as "invisible" to most scientists.


Excerpted from Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions at Fifty by Robert J. Richards, Lorraine Daston. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

1 Aristotle in the Cold War: On the Origins of Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions George A. Reisch 12

2 A Smoker's Paradigm M. Norton Wise 31

3 Practice All the Way Down Peter Galison 42

4 Thomas Kuhn and the Psychology of Scientific Revolutions David Kaiser 71

5 Paradigms Ian Hacking 96

6 History of Science without Structure Lorraine Daston 115

7 Why the Scientific Revolution Wasn't a Scientific Revolution, and Why It Matters Daniel Garber 133

8 Paradigms and Exemplars Meet Biomedicine Angela N. Creager 151

9 Structure as Cited, Structure as Read Andrew Abbott 167

Bibliography 183

Index 195

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