Thomas Kuhn's irrationalism
by James Franklin

 


 

For an insight into trends and fads in the humanities world, it is hard to improve on the Arts and Humanities Citation Index. It lists all citations in the major humanities journals—that is, an army of trained slaves keys in every footnote of every article and the computer rearranges them according to the work cited. The compilers of the index examined the records for the years 1976–1983, and issued a report on the most cited works of the twentieth century. The most cited author was Lenin, which speaks volumes on the state of the humanities in the West towards the end of the Cold War. But the most cited single works were, in reverse order: in third place, Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism; second, Joyce’s Ulysses; and, well in the lead, Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Interest in Kuhn’s book has not waned. The Index is now online, and records one-hundred citations to the book for 1999—plus another four-hundred in the Social Sciences Citation Index. To call the tone of most of these citations reverential would be something of an understatement. It is reported that Structure is Al Gore’s favorite book, and William Safire’s New Political Dictionary has an article on “paradigm shift,” a phrase popularized by Kuhn, which reports both Bush (senior) and Clinton being much impressed with its usefulness.

The basic content of Kuhn’s book can be inferred simply by asking: what would the humanities crowd want said about science? Once the question is asked, the answer is obvious. Kuhn’s thesis is that scientific theories are no better than ones in the humanities. The idea that science is all theoretical talk and negotiation, which never really establishes anything, is one that caused trouble long ago for Galileo, who wrote:

If what we are discussing were a point of law or of the humanities, in which neither true nor false exists, one might trust in subtlety of mind and readiness of tongue and in the greater experience of the writers, and expect him who excelled in those things to make his reasoning more plausible, and one might judge it to be the best. But in natural sciences whose conclusions are true and necessary and have nothing to do with human will, one must take care not to place oneself in the defense of error; for here a thousand Demostheneses and a thousand Aristotles would be left in the lurch by every mediocre wit who happened to hit upon the truth for himself.

Kuhn’s “achievement” was to put the view of Galileo’s scholastic opponents back on the agenda. Up to his time, philosophy of science had concentrated on such questions as how evidence confirms theories and what the difference is between science and pseudo-science, that is, questions about the logic of science. Kuhn declared logic outmoded and replaced it with history.

A caricature of his opinions is this: a science, say astronomy, is dominated for a long period by a “paradigm,” such as Ptolemy’s theory that the sun and planets revolve around a stationary earth. Most work is on “normal science,” the solving of standard problems in terms of the reigning paradigm. But anomalies—results the paradigm cannot explain—accumulate and eventually make the paradigm unsustainable. The science enters a revolutionary phase as a new paradigm such as Copernicus’s heliocentrism comes to seem more plausible. Defenders of the old order, who cannot accommodate the change and usually cannot even understand the concepts in which it is expressed, gradually die out and the new paradigm is left in control of the field. Then the process repeats. According to the summary in Francis Fukuyama’s End of History,

The cumulative and progressive nature of modern science has been challenged by Thomas Kuhn, who has pointed to the discontinuous and revolutionary nature of change in the sciences. In his most radical assertions, he has denied the possibility of “scientific” knowledge of nature at all, since all “paradigms” by which scientists understand nature ultimately fail.
As with many caricatures, one finds that the original consists of the caricature with the addition of a number of qualifications; the qualifications render the original inconsistent, and the author’s subsequent denials that he had said anything so radical increase further the number of inconsistencies. One observes also that the caricature has a historical career considerably more vigorous than the original, whose qualifications would have lessened its appeal. Besides its simplicity, the caricature makes the story of science into one of the simple emotive plotlines that literary folk find so engaging. It is the story of the Morte d’Arthur, of the peaceable order and its aging king, their virtue undermined by internal corruption, falling to the challenge of the vigorous and bloodthirsty young challenger. The plot made Frazer’s Golden Bough a literary hit decades before, with its stories of tribal chiefs displacing one another with extreme prejudice, and even persuaded the humanities world to take an interest in the doings of Red Deer, among whom the transfer of harems between dominant males is conducted on similar principles. Kuhn’s success is also an instance of the enduring appeal of theomachy, a mode of explanation which worked so brilliantly for Marx and Freud, and, long before, for Homer. What was previously thought to be a continuous and uninteresting succession of random events is discovered to be a conflict of a finite number of hidden gods (classes, complexes, paradigms, as the case may be), who manipulate the flux of appearances to their own advantage, but whose machinations may be uncovered by the elect to whom the key has been revealed.

Further reasons for Kuhn’s success are not hard to find. He gave permission to anyone who wished to comment on science to ignore completely the large number of sciences which undeniably are progressive accumulations of established results—sciences like ophthalmology, oceanography, operations research, and ornithology, to keep to just one letter of the alphabet. That certainly saved a lot of effort. Kuhn’s theory also had a special appeal to social scientists. Political scientists, sociologists, and anthropologists recognized Kuhn’s picture of disciplines putting the accumulation of evidence to the background while bringing to the fore fights about theory; they were delighted to hear that what had previously been thought an embarrassment was the way it was done in the most respectable sciences. Kuhn even offered something to massage the egos of natural scientists themselves. It might seem at first glance that his claim that most scientists are drones was insulting, but there was a good reason why it was met with the same equanimity one notices in fundamentalist religious circles at the news that only 144,000 are saved. The damned may be a majority, but of course they are other people; every scientist had the opportunity to cast himself as a revolutionary hero of a new paradigm, shamefully ill-used by the establishment. Kuhn’s rhetoric incorporated a few further successful ploys, in that “paradigm” was undoubtedly a cute technical term, as technical terms go, and the phrase “normal science” had just the right hint of superciliousness towards the worker bees who are credulously doing the hard work of science. Kuhn’s work was the perfect Sixties product, and, since he managed to publish it in 1962, his success was inevitable—indeed, as the philosophers say, overdetermined.

At a more logical level, Kuhn’s success depended on certain ambiguities. Even in the caricature above, it is clear how some were essential to Kuhn’s plan. What does “unsustainable” mean when said of a scientific theory? In particular, is it a matter of logic or of psychology? If it means that there are a number of observed results that would be unlikely if the theory were true, then one is back in the realm of logic, of the bad old philosophy of science that studied the relation of evidence to hypothesis. Naturally, Kuhn is not keen to emphasize that direction. But if “unsustainable” is a purely psychological matter, a kind of collective disgust by a salon des refusés of younger scientists who simply think their elders are too smug, then it is impossible to see why it should have any standing as science. If the old theory is not broke—if its predictions are true, for example, and its explanations coherent—why fix it? Whatever there is to be said for a pure appetite for novelties in the art world, there is no scope for it in science. There, the difficulty of attaining the truth means no one is inclined to pointless exercises in throwing away pearls attained at great expense.

In his new book Thomas Kuhn: A Philosophical History for Our Times,[1] Steve Fuller agrees with the above analysis in only one respect. He too thinks the effect of Kuhn’s book was a bad one. But Fuller is a professor of sociology at the University of Warwick, and he has the attitudes that a sociologist would predict for a Midlands professor of sociology. His complaint is that Kuhn was not nearly revolutionary enough, especially in politics. In saying Kuhn’s book was the perfect Sixties product, one qualification is possibly needed. Was it sufficiently leftist? Certainly, the suggestion of the blood of old paradigms staining the water had a reddish tinge. But Kuhn gave no attention to the complaints the left wished made about the complicity of science in the military-industrial complex. It was disappointing that after all Kuhn’s work in replacing the logic and philosophy of science with its history and sociology he failed to so much as mention the social effects the left wished targeted.

The villain of the piece, according to Fuller, was James Bryant Conant, president of Harvard from 1933 to 1953. His “General Education in Science” program at Harvard, in which Kuhn taught, explicitly aimed to give future policy makers a broad understanding of science. In the era of the atomic bomb, Sputnik and the moon race, of penicillin, DNA, and the pill, it was clear that science had much greater social implications than had been thought only a decade or two before. Conant was one of the “action-intellectuals” who defined America’s early Cold War vision, especially in the areas of science and educational policy. Central to it was the National Science Foundation, which provided large sums for basic research, of the kind that had turned out unexpectedly to be at the basis of the making of the atomic bomb (and in contrast to the kind of science directly aimed at ideologically specified technological ends, like Lysenko’s biology and Nazi eugenics).

Conant’s preface to Kuhn’s first book, The Copernican Revolution (1957), linked the decline of Western Europe to its outdated humanities curricula. Yet, he thought, simply teaching humanists a little straight science had not proved effective either. Science tends to lack a storyline or anything that engages the emotions or encourages the taking of sides. “No one admires or condemns the metals or the behavior of their salts,” as he justly said. His solution was history. Carefully chosen episodes in the history of science, in early modern times before it had become too complicated, would allow the student to engage with the excitement of discovery, the “interplay of hypothesis and experiment,” and the conflict of personalities and ideas. This was the plan Kuhn implemented in his own teaching, and refined in his books. As it happened, it was not an institutionally successful plan at the time. It was not exported to universities other than Harvard, and when Conant became U.S. Ambassador to West Germany, Kuhn was left undefended and in 1955 refused tenure, on the grounds that he was not an expert on anything in particular. General education for humanists at Harvard retreated to the plan of introducing them to a little real science. But the simplified-history-as-moral-lesson scheme certainly had its revenge with the success of Kuhn’s book.

In one way, then, Fuller’s book bears comparison with Frances Stonor Saunders’s The Cultural Cold War, [2] which described the CIA spending large sums of money to promote such all-American cultural products as Abstract Expressionism. Certainly, Kuhn’s vision of science was as disconnected from reality as Pollock and as free from bothersome detail as Rothko, and as likely as either to contribute to civilized values. But Fuller’s spin on the story makes it resemble more closely the thesis of Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain’s Acid Dreams (1985) and Jay Stevens’s Storming Heaven (1987), according to which the drug culture of the Sixties was a CIA plan that went wrong, and the drugs that at first encouraged the rebellions of those times, in the end undermined them by replacing politics with pleasure. Fuller’s accusation is that Kuhn was a patio fauvist, a purveyor of gift-wrapped frissons to the intellectual bourgeoisie, chocolate revolutions that exist in the children’s-fiction world of theories and paradigms, without import in the real world. Prescinding for the moment from the question of whether the defusing of revolutionary zeal is a good thing, the thesis itself is interesting, as is the more general thesis that postmodern and other “high theory” forms of leftism act mainly to keep revolutionaries off the streets by channeling their mental energies into endless efforts to understand the incomprehensible. Fuller does not present evidence that any particular theorist was diverted by Kuhn from the path of true socialism which he would have pursued otherwise, but he is right to point to the apolitical, or perhaps better the faux political, nature of Kuhn’s message, both in the original and its caricature. The research community that pursues a paradigm is a political entity, in the sense that it acts to preserve itself and outmaneuver its rivals, but its talk of “revolution” is very harmless; the revolution is in the past, against the previous paradigm, and no present entities have anything to fear from it. Like the violence in a horror film, it’s all virtual and it’s over when you come out into the light. At least, that is the correct perspective from the outside society, though denizens of the academy who have to compete for grants and students with the powerful lobbies of rampant paradigms may take a less sanguine view.

In pursuing such issues, Fuller writes well about many matters. He is hugely well-informed about cultural theorists of the fifty years before Kuhn’s book, and has many illuminating remarks on the influence of such unlikely figures as Piaget and Pirandello, the connection of paradigms with iconographic approaches to art history, the bifurcation of nineteenth-century relativism into anthropological and Nazi wings, and the like. What Fuller does not know anything about is science. Nowhere in his huge output or its bibliographies is there evidence of reading in science, much less hands-on work. Hence he can write things like “lab work in today’s world would seem to be little more than a showcase activity—perhaps, like so many tribal rituals, done primarily for the benefit of the spectators.” Fuller would be well advised to take a break from his frenetic production of big books and spend a year as bottle washer and data analyst in a lab. Perhaps he would find that the logical techniques he uses himself to evaluate the impact of one cultural theorist on another also work in the lab to allow the scientist to know the reaction of one chemical with another. It is unlikely he will take this advice. In fact, he revealingly explains how he has inoculated himself against any such suggestions. Commenting on some other philosophers of science who did spend time in a laboratory, he writes, “Interestingly, no one ever seems to have left his apprenticeship less committed to the science in question than when he entered.” Many would take this to be indeed an interesting fact, perhaps suggesting that normal human beings find what goes on in labs quite convincing, when they take a close look. Fuller’s unthinking use of “interestingly” to express a presumption that what is generally believed ipso facto deserves suspicion places him dead center of the post-Sixties generation of “tenured radicals.”

It is Fuller’s typicality that makes him a valuable witness to the one aspect of Kuhn’s legacy that he does agree with, one that has been the most lasting from the point of view of science studies. To the bewilderment of scientists, that field has almost universally followed Kuhn in his substitution of history and sociology of science for logic and philosophy. In particular, the explanation of why some change occurs in science, such as the belief in Copernicus’s system replacing belief in Ptolemy’s, is required to be in terms of social causes, such as the interests of patrons. This mode of explanation is contrasted with that which refers principally to the better support by the evidence that a later theory has. The contrast in styles of explanation was the crux of the recent “science wars,” where books such as Paul Gross and Norman Levitt’s Higher Superstition (1994) [3] and Noretta Koertge’s collection, A House Built on Sand, vigorously attacked the “social contructivists,” Kuhn’s successors, for “relativism.” If science was “constructed” at the whim of powerful interests, could it not be just as easily constructed some other way, and thus be “relative” (to one’s tribe, education, or community committed to a paradigm)? And would that not be to deny scientific truth entirely? As Richard Dawkins, the biologist noted for his “selfish gene” theomachy, wrote, “Show me a relativist at 30,000 feet and I’ll show you a hypocrite.” Fuller reveals why this line of reasoning is not making much impact. He, like other constructivist respondents, merely says that constructivists did not deny scientific truths, or assert relativism. Fuller calls his position a “non-relativist constructivism.” By this he means that usually different scientists will come to agree on what they say about reality, but that the reason for this is not in reality but in the scientists, in particular in their social relations. Human groups have many things in common, so they will naturally agree on many things.

Taking this line, which is an explicit version of what many humanists are doing when they think briefly about science, requires two remarkable argumentative leaps. The first is simply ignoring the critics’ argument that constructivism left its adherents no reason to believe any of the deliverances of science, such as those concerning the effects of actions at 30,000 feet. This problem is not resolved by making one’s constructivism “non-relativist.” If beliefs are fixed by the political requirements of communities on the ground, that gives no reason to trust them at 30,000 feet. The second leap is more insidious and important, and here Fuller makes explicit, for once, the actual reasoning that lies at the bottom of the turn to historical and sociological explanation. Since the move to such causal explanations and away from logic is at once so crucial, so baffling, and so rarely argued for, it is worth attending to his presentation. It occurs in his earlier book, Philosophy of Science and its Discontents (1989). His argument—actually, he calls it “a few homely observations,” which will put fallacy watchers on high alert—is that “knowledge exists only through its embodiment in linguistic and other social practices”; these in turn are transmitted by communities, and it is hardly likely that a world-view or even a proposition could persist through this transmission. Indeed, Fuller argues that, even if scientific theories were true, they could not cause reliable transmission of themselves.

This argument is the central plank of the social constructivist position. It is also at the center of the shift from logic to history that Kuhn argues for. Although extraordinarily popular, it is a very bad argument—so bad that the philosopher David Stove named it the winner of his “Competition to Find the Worst Argument in the World.” It will be familiar to anyone who has studied philosophy: “We can know things only insofar as they fall under our conceptual or linguistic schemes; therefore, we cannot know things as they are in themselves.” In other words, our knowledge is fatally flawed just because it is our knowledge. This is an argument that has underpinned many irrationalist programs in the history of thought, from classical idealism to the cultural relativism supported by some anthropologists. It is clear why Fuller’s argument is a version: he says “We can know things only via causal (social) processes acting on the brains of real scientists, therefore the content of our theories is fully explained by the social factors causing them; that is, we cannot know things as they are in themselves.” It says, in the philosopher Alan Olding’s telling caricature, “We have eyes, therefore we cannot see.” This is why no amount of raging about relativism, skepticism and truth is going to make any impact on constructivists. They will always say, “Those entities in Platonic worlds, like truths and theories, cannot cause belief in themselves. Scientists are people, after all, and as such are responsive only to social or similar causes.”

Is it clear what is wrong with this argument? If not, an analogy may help. An electronic calculator implements the laws of arithmetic. If we ask why the number 4 is displayed when we punch in 2 + 2, then there is a causal explanation in terms of the circuitry. At a molecule’s eye view of the matter it is a complete explanation. But a full explanation must mention the abstract arithmetical fact that 2 + 2 is 4, and that the circuitry has been designed exactly to track such facts. It is not as if numbers magically cause electrical effects, but that physical causes and abstract reasons cooperate. It is the same with scientists and the truths they discover. The truth of the inverse square law of gravity is an essential part of the explanation of why that law is believed. For one thing, its truth is what makes true the measurements that provide the evidence for the theory. Of course, there needs to be some philosophical story about why causes cooperate with reasons, as there does in the case of the calculator. But the point of Kuhn and his followers was not to request such a story, but to argue that it must be irrelevant to explaining scientific beliefs. The worst effect of Kuhn, and the one taken up both most unthinkingly and most forcefully across the whole range of disciplines he influenced, has been the frivolous discarding of the way things are as a constraint on theory about the way things are.

It would be good to conclude by recommending a short book, What Is Science?, that does things the right way. It takes a robustly objective view of the relation of evidence to conclusion, explains what laws of nature are, briefly shows how measurement, data, statistics, and mathematical models work in science, states which parts of science are well-established and which not, illustrates with engaging episodes in the history of science, and ends with some colorful rudenesses on postmodernist solecisms concerning science. Unfortunately, it does not exist.

 

Notes
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  1. Thomas Kuhn: A Philosophical History for Our Times, by Steve Fuller; University of Chicago Press, 361 pages, $35.
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  2. See “Supporting the indispensible,” by Peter Coleman, in The New Criterion (September 1999).
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  3. See “When reason sleeps,” by Roger Kimball, in The New Criterion (May 1994).
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From The New Criterion Vol. 18, No. 10, June 2000
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