Review of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Essay

Review of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

            Although originally published in 1962, Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions remains a vital inquiry into how science functions as an enduring social construct.  Kuhn takes science seriously as an activity for producing knowledge but also takes the step, “revolutionary” in its own right, of bracketing this activity and making it an object of thought.  In doing so, Kuhn moves the history of science from simply reporting events in a teleological progression of increasing knowledge to being able to notes structural similarities throughout the process (beginning in the West with Aristotle and perhaps earlier in China) that ultimately dislodges the hubris of the present.

            Kuhn’s work could be said to have two theses, one schematic and historical, and the other rather more polemical.  The first of these is what Kuhn predominantly aims to establish through many examples drawn from every period of scientific inquiry, and allows the reader to extend his historical investigation into the more far-reaching and polemical implication that science is not a privileged and ahistorical form of truth.

            The principal historico-schematic thesis is that the science of an age works by making certain assumptions that it cannot prove and, more surprisingly, does not feel the need to prove or even investigate.  Thus there are occult elements of science in general, and the condition of practicing science is accepting that these issues will not be questioned—not so much because of a communal stigma arbitrarily protecting scientific idols, but because such questions are simply not scientific.  Because science is not an absolutely open system for investigating the natural world it is also open to revolutions, drastic upheavals in conceptions of what the world is made of, what questions and technologies produce knowledge of it, and what questions need not be pursued.

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            The organized system of knowledge that exists at a given time is what Kuhn calls a paradigm. A paradigm provides scientific practitioners with a set of beliefs and definitions that dictate what questions they should pursue and what kinds of solutions signify a successful scientific experiment.  As noted above, an integral part of a paradigm is that is closes off certain areas from inquiry.  These closures take the forms of what is established knowledge—what science has already verified—and what is established non-knowledge, what cannot be verified by the paradigm.

            An interesting side case of the paradigm is “science” in a pre-paradigmatic environment.  Without a paradigm, the individual scientist or questioning individual must invent the rules of his program from his own experiences or from that of the investigative community within which he practices.  Such an investigative community is the beginning of a paradigm, but unless it can extend its reach into other communities all the practitioners are stuck in a pre-paradigmatic mode of science.  Each group’s theory of what science should be can assert its particular version of how to learn about the natural world but without progress to a dominant paradigm these varying assertions are just that.  There can be no practice of “normal science,” the systematic verification and expansion of a shared vision of the world, since the theoretic debates between groups operate purely at the level of rhetorical persuasion, not methodical experimentation.

            Kuhn uses paradigm in a fairly specific sense that he develops in his explication of the scientific epoch.  The use of paradigm in the workplace is similar to Kuhn’s definition but usually less rigorous; the common use of paradigm means something like a perspective or way of looking.  Kuhn’s paradigm certainly entails a way of looking but is much more phenomenologically penetrating.  Only one paradigm can be held at a time and cannot be put on and cast off at will.  Whereas the lay man’s paradigm might be like a set of different colored glasses interchangeable with glasses of other colors, Kuhn’s paradigm is more like the eye itself; this paradigm is sight as we know it and from within this paradigm we cannot imagine another.  This does not make it impossible to move out of one paradigm and into another, but it is a very slow process and one often encountering more resistance than seems reasonable in hindsight.  Kuhn’s example of gestalt shifts, in which one image can be seen as either a rabbit or a duck, is perhaps an adequate illustration of the lay man’s “paradigm,” though Kuhn makes abundantly apparent that this is not a precise equivalent to a paradigm shift.  Perhaps a better illustration would be a person losing their arms and learning to use their feet for tactile operations.

            Technological innovation can help produce a crisis in a paradigm, which might eventually lead to a full-blown paradigm shift, but need not do so.  In any given era many practitioners are using similar technology without noticing whatever discrepancies could or will precipitate a crisis for the paradigm.  Often the empirical data that will later receive a radical new interpretation is known for a long time without leading to any serious revisions in the paradigm because such discrepancies are believed to be problems that normal science (continued within the paradigm) will eventually solve or they are treated as the mysteries of the trade, discrepancies that cannot be answered.  Copernicus’s telescope is retrospectively seen as the key to his revolution but he was not alone in observing the heavenly motions he deciphered; the decisive difference was in his application of new interpretive schemas to what everyone saw.  Technological innovation can help widen a crack in a dying paradigm by sharpening the ways in which it fails to explain empirical phenomena, but technology will not in itself produce the crisis.  A crisis might, conversely, prompt greater technological innovation by pointing to questions that have not been researched.  Once new horizons of research have come into accepted practice then the degree of precision or the types of operations of a paradigm’s technology might no longer answer the scientist’s questions.  While technology cannot be expected to prompt a paradigm change, a paradigm in crisis might reasonably be expected to generate new technologies.  In short, technology is a physical extension of the mental map of a paradigm and will reflect the state of the paradigm at large.

            Kuhn’s book will probably not help scientific practitioners much in their research fields; the topic of his work is when paradigms are in crisis or revolution and so does not address itself extensively to normal science.  At the same time, Kuhn positions his work in the contemporary debate on the emergence of Einstein’s quantum physics over and against Newtonian physics.  While there have certainly been periods in which paradigm shift was not problematic for practitioners—and, as Kuhn also notes, revolutions can be localized so as affect some practitioners but not others—the time of Kuhn’s writing is part of a paradigm shift.  Hence his argument does speak directly to contemporary practitioners, urging them to be willing to let go of a Newtonian universe.  Release of an older paradigm is neither cataclysmic nor unprecedented; as he argues, letting go of old paradigms is part of the cycle of scientific regeneration.  At the same time Kuhn supports the practice of normal science as it is only through the full elaboration of an extant paradigm that it can reach its explanatory limit. In the end, the lesson of Kuhn’s scientific historicism might be to temper the self-assurance that science usually grants itself with historical humility; to value the work one has today but be open to new possibilities as well.  The irony of trying to practice this openness is that it is, as far is possible, what the paradigm proscribes.  Being open to the unthinkable is structurally impossible, but the history of science assures us that stranger things have happened.

            So Kuhn’s thesis is probably more valuable for a social historian than for a scientist.  In this context his argument is truly revolutionary and of immense utility for extending the applicability of the social sciences into the domain of the physical sciences.  Science usually stands aloof as a system of accumulated knowledge; while science is not believed to be immune to error it is regarded as entirely capable of correcting its errors through continued application of its essential methodology.  Kuhn argues that this is an ahistorical perspective on a cultural practice that is, while undoubtedly possessing unique characteristics, still accessible to the tools of analysis for other cultural practices.

            Viewed in this light, Kuhn’s thesis is also valuable as an index of the erosion of any privileged domain of “truth” by the dual forces of historicism and relativism.  Kuhn’s attitude toward science is more congenial and professional than certain politically motivated assaults, but his bracketing of science as one form of knowledge is an operation in line with Nietzschean analysis.  The principles of cultural historicism have been applicable to science at least theoretically for some time prior to Kuhn’s study but the rigor of his demonstrations probably would not have been authored by someone outside of formal scientific training.  Even today science is generally regarded as a privileged form of truth—religious objections not withstanding—in that its mode of truth-discovery is recognizable within Western epistemology as the standard for evidentiary claims.

            At the same time that Kuhn allows us to momentarily step outside of the scientific paradigm and treat it as an object of knowledge his analysis should also forewarn us that to be outside of a paradigm is not really possible—or, that we might step outside of a paradigm, but we cannot practice knowledge of a scientific sort in that zone.  There are two options, then, and possibly a third:  we can practice normal science (and now this includes history as science, cultural anthropology as science), we can view all knowledge-productions as ultimately free-floating practices grounded only in their unique occultisms, or, and this is the possibility that Kuhn gestures toward, we might be able to synthesize these into a new practice of knowledge.

            Such a synthesis seems to be what Kuhn is trying to practice in his book, what Nietzsche calls genealogy.  Kuhn’s history is part of the normal scientific practice of history of science.  At the same time, it acknowledges that from within a paradigm alternative paradigms can only make persuasive, not evidentiary-scientific appeals, and so its normal-scientific procedure cannot establish itself as a supra-paradigm.  What it might be able to do is establish a different distribution of knowledge and non-knowledge that would make it something similar to a paradigm (it would make use of and connect the same concepts of the paradigm) while not being a paradigm proper.  The non-knowledge of the paradigm is the occult; here, non-knowledge is the suspension of surety that the occult grounding can provide.  The different forms of knowledge are similarly organized in terms of surety versus openness.  Kuhn’s pseudo-paradigm derives its greatest strength from demonstrating exactly how brittle the paradigmatic form of knowledge must be.

            I find myself convinced of Kuhn’s account of scientific discovery, especially in light of how theories in other fields tend to support his schema of the paradigm.  While we might like to view science as an ever-correcting mechanism for knowledge, Kuhn does not let us forget two important facts that are irreconcilable with such a view of science.  First, scientists have always held false beliefs.  This is the privilege of the present:  to know more about science than anyone in the past.  However, to take this with a grain of salt means that we also “know” many things that are not correct, or more accurately, that will later be seen to be incorrect.  In our defense, we have no reason to not hold these beliefs to be true, and to do otherwise would cripple our practical ability to interact with the natural world—and this is precisely the same defense that every age would make.

            Second, scientific discoveries have often been postponed until the other elements of their cultural matrix made such discoveries thinkable and relevant.  This does not mean that science is entirely a product of non-scientific activities but that the course it historically takes will be one of many possible courses, and this actual course will be differentiated from its alternatives by non-scientific determinants.  Perhaps most telling is that the historical data that would convince us of this is generally expunged from the record as received in the present.  The phlogiston theory, now archaic, is entirely overwritten from the perspective of the present and the importance of the narrative of the discovery of oxygen.

            My final evaluation of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is that I am persuaded by Kuhn’s argument and intrigued by the possibilities of its ramifications and applications to other fields.  The comparison of scientific to political revolutions invites a re-reading of political upheavals in light of the structure of scientific change.  Thus, we might also no accept liberalism’s claim to be an inevitable and supreme form of governance, but rather one that is able to coordinate its claims about humans and the world with those of other fields such as science, economics, geography, and technology.  This also raises, for both the scientific and political fields, the question of the inevitability of revolution and whether revolution might itself be “revolutionized” to take on a different structure than that it has historically displayed.  Such a transformation might have already occurred, though will only be visible at a suitable retrospective distance.  For example, science has reached a level of institutional development today that in public political discourse both sides of a debate can usually substantiate their position with recourse to scientific facts.  This should mean that the application of normal scientific procedures can adjudicate which of these is true; however, what usually happens is that both sides continue to assert their position against the other in a pre-paradigmatic fashion.  Since we don’t seem to be in the midst of a paradigm shift what we are actually witnessing are competing political paradigms—which truly cannot speak to each other, which operate in conceptually distinct worlds—displacing their conflicts into the domain of science.  The present political-scientific climate supports Kuhn’s thesis and perhaps indicates that we are entering a new form of the paradigm.