April 24, 2012


Shift Happens (David Weinberger, The Chronicle Review)

Kuhn's idea was slow to gestate. It began in 1947, when, as a graduate student in physics at Harvard, he was recruited by James B. Conant, the university's president, to teach a history-of-science course to humanities majors. In preparation, Kuhn was trying to understand how Aristotle could be such a brilliant natural scientist except when it came to understanding motion. Aristotle's idea that stones fall and fire rises because they're trying to get to their natural places seems like a simpleton's animism.

Then it became clear to Kuhn all at once. Ever since Newton, we in the West have thought movement changes an object's position in neutral space but does not change the object itself. For Aristotle, a change in position was a change in a quality of the object, and qualitative change tended toward an asymmetric actualization of potential: an acorn becomes an oak, but an oak never becomes an acorn. Motion likewise expressed a tendency for things to actualize their essence by moving to their proper place. With that, "another initially strange part of Aristotelian doctrine begins to fall into place," Kuhn wrote in The Road Since Structure.

From this, Kuhn learned several important lessons that surfaced in SSR 15 years later. First, scientific ideas occur within a context that enables them to make sense. Second, context is accepted for different sorts of reasons than are the hypotheses that emerge within it. Third, the idea of a new scientific context occurs roughly the way his own illumination of Aristotle's ideas did: all at once, an entire whole snapping into view the way a duck-rabbit illustration switches instantly from one view to another. [...]

Scientific revolutions, according to SSR, don't occur when an apple happens to find the head of a genius, or when enough facts have slowly painted a new picture. Rather, in yet another of Kuhn's inversions, new paradigms emerge to explain the accumulation of anomalies: findings that do not make sense within the current paradigm. For example, if your paradigm tells you that fire consists of the release of phlogiston embedded in flammable materials, then the fact that some metals gain weight when burned is an anomaly. When a new paradigm is conceived that makes sense of the anomalies, science is in for a revolutionary shift.

In short, SSR did a gestalt flip on just about every assumption about the who, how, and what of scientific progress.

SSR immediately kicked up a stir. In a review that appeared in 1964 in Philosophical Review, Dudley Shapere recognized that it "is bound to exert a very wide influence among philosophers and historians of science alike," although he thought the concept of paradigms was overly broadly described, and he homed in on one of the issues that was to dog Kuhn: Is progress possible? Mary Hesse began her 1963 review in the journal Isis with "This is an important book," and continued by saying that it transforms "our whole image of science" and will be "shocking to the orthodox philosophy of science." Charles Gillispie's 1962 review in Science began, "This is a very bold venture, this essay ... " and concluded with generous praise for the work as an initial provocation, for Kuhn positioned SSR as a sketch to be followed by a weightier tome, which he never delivered.

In the five decades that have followed, the importance of SSR has rarely been disputed. We seem to have accepted that Kuhn's work wreaked severe damage on the foundations of traditional philosophy of science. But there has been nothing like similar unanimity about the positive ideas the book attempted to establish.

By far the most consistently attacked idea was what Kuhn referred to as incommensurability, a term taken from geometry, where it refers to the lack of a shared measurement. In SSR it means something like the inability to understand one paradigm from within another. In the book, Kuhn borders on putting incommensurability in its strongest imaginable form: A new paradigm causes scientists to "see the world of their researcher-engagement differently. In so far as their only recourse to that world is through what they see and do, we may want to say that after a revolution scientists are responding to a different world." Since that line does not advance his argument, Kuhn may just have been sticking his thumb further into the eye of the logical-empiricist book series that SSR was published as part of (at the behest of the best-known positivist, Rudolf Carnap, no less).

To overstate it: The scientists hated incommensurability because it seemed to imply that science makes no real progress, the philosophers hated it because it seemed to imply that there is no truth, and the positivists hated it because it seemed to imply that science is based on nonrational decisions.

...are the ones left hysterically battling to prop up a dying paradigm in its final days, like the Darwinists these days.
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Posted by at April 24, 2012 5:44 AM

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