Archives For Thomas Kuhn

Author Information: Amanda Bryant, Trent University, amandabryant@trentu.ca

Bryant, Amanda. “Each Kuhn Mutually Incommensurable.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 6 (2018): 1-7.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3XM

Image by Denis Defreyne via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

This volume is divided into four parts, in which its contributors variously Question, Defend, Revise, or Abandon the Kuhnian image of science. One immediately wonders: what is this thing, the Kuhnian Image of Science? It isn’t a question that can be decisively or quickly settled, of course. Perhaps one of the reasons why so much has been written on Kuhn’s philosophy of science is that it gives rise to such rich interpretive challenges.

Informed general philosophy of science readers will of course know the tagline version of Kuhn’s view — namely, that the development of science unfolds in wholesale revolutions of scientific paradigms that are in some sense incommensurable with one another. However, one might think that whatever the image of science at issue in this volume is, it should be a sharper image than that.

Many Thomases Kuhn

But of course there isn’t really a single, substantive, cohesive, uncontroversial image at issue. Alexandra Argamakova rightly points out in her contribution, “there exist various images of science belonging to different Thomas Kuhns at different stages of his work life and from different perspectives of interpretation, so the target for current analysis turns out to be less detectable” (46). Rather, the contributors touch on various aspects of Kuhn’s philosophy, variously interpreted — and as such, multiple Kuhnian images emerge as the volume unfolds. That’s just as it should be. In fact, if the volume had propped up some caricature of Kuhn’s views as the Kuhnian image of science, it would have done a disservice both to Kuhn and to his many interpreters.

One wonders, too, whether the so-called Kuhnian image of science is really so broadly endorsed as to be the potential subject of (echoing Kuhn’s own phrase) a ‘decisive transformation’. In his introduction, Moti Mizrahi emphasizes Kuhn’s undeniable influence. Kuhn has, Mizrahi points out, literally tens of thousands of citations; numerous books, articles, and journal issues devoted to his work; and a lasting legacy in the language of academic and public discourse. While all of this signals influence, it’s clearly no indication of agreement.

To be fair, Mizrahi acknowledges the “fair share” of Kuhn critics (2). Nevertheless, if the prospect of decisively transforming the Kuhnian image of science were to be a serious prospect, then the image would have to be widely accepted and enjoy a lasting relevance. However, Argamakova again rightly emphasizes that Kuhn’s philosophy of science “never fully captured the intellectual market” (45) and “could not be less attractive for so many minds!” (47). Moreover, in a remarkable passage in his contribution, Howard Sankey describes a central component of the so-called Kuhnian image of science as as an old battlefield and a dead issue:

Returning to the topic from the perspective of the contemporary scene in the philosophy of science is like visiting a battlefield from a forgotten war. The positions of the warring sides may still be made out. But the battlefield is grown over with grass. One may find evidence of the fighting that once took place, perhaps bullet marks or shell holes. But the fighting ceased long ago. The battle is a thing of the past.

The problem of incommensurability is no longer a live issue. The present chapter has taken the form of a post-mortem examination of a once hotly debated but now largely forgotten problem from an earlier period in the philosophy of science. (87)

If the same holds true for the rest of the Kuhnian image (or images), then the volume isn’t exactly timely.

But dead philosophical issues don’t always stay dead. Or rather, we’re not always right to pronounce them dead. In 1984, Arthur Fine famously proclaimed scientific realism “well and truly dead” (in The Natural Ontological Attitude), and clearly he was quite wrong. At any rate, we may find interest in an issue, dead or not, and there is certainly much of it to be found in this volume. I have been asked to focus my comments on the second half of the book. As such, I will discuss the Introduction, as well as Parts I and II in brief, then I will discuss parts III and IV at greater length.

On the Incommensurable

In his Introduction, Mizrahi argues that, far from initiating a historical turn in the philosophy of science, Kuhn was ‘patient zero’ for anecdotiasis — “the tendency to use cherry-picked anecdotes or case studies… to support general claims (about the nature of science as a whole)” (3). Mizrahi argues that anecdotiasis is pervasive, since significant proportions of articles in the PhilSci-Archive and in leading philosophy of science journals contain the phrase ‘case study’.

But neither using the phrase ‘case study’ nor doing case studies is inherently or self-evidently problematic. Case studies can be interesting, informative, and evidential. Of course the challenges are not to ignore relevant problem cases, not to generalize hastily, and not to assign undue evidential weight to them. But if we are to suppose that all or most philosophers of science who use case studies fail to meet those challenges, we will need a substantial body of evidence.

Part I begins with Mizrahi’s contribution, which the successive contributions all engage. In it, he defines taxonomic incommensurability as conceptual incompatibility between new and old theories. Against those who claim that Kuhn ‘discovered’ incommensurability, Mizrahi argues that there are no good deductive or inductive arguments for taxonomic incommensurability. He cites just two authors, Eric Oberheim and Paul Hoyningen-Huene, who use the language of discovery to characterize incommensurability. As such, it isn’t clear that the assumption Mizrahi takes pains to reject is particularly widespread.

Nevertheless, even if everyone universally agreed that there are no legitimate cases of incommensurability, it would still be useful to know why they’d be justified in so thinking. So the work that Mizrahi does to establish his conclusion is valuable. He shows the dubious sorts of assumptions that arguments for the taxonomic incommensurability thesis would hang on.

Argamakova’s helpful and clear contribution lays out three general types of critique with respect to Kuhn’s view of scientific development — ambiguity, inaccuracy, and limitation — and raises, if tentatively, concerns about Kuhn’s universalist ambitions. She might have been more explicit with respect to the force and scope of her comments on universalism — in particular, whether she sees the flaws in Kuhn’s theory as ultimately stemming from his attempts at universal generalizations, and to what extent her concerns extend beyond Kuhn to general philosophy of science.

Seungbae Park advances several arguments in response to Kuhn’s incommensurability thesis. One such argument takes up Kuhn’s analogy in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (henceforth Structure) between the development of science and the evolution of organisms. Park suggests that in drawing the analogy, Kuhn illicitly assumes the truth of evolutionary theory. He doesn’t consider that Kuhn could adopt the language of a paradigm (for the purposes of drawing an analogy, no less!) without committing to the literal truth of that paradigm.

Park also claims that “it is self-defeating for Kuhn to invoke a scientific theory to give an account of science that discredits scientific claims” (66), when it’s not clear that the analogy is at all integral to Kuhn’s account. Kuhn could, for instance, have ascribed the same characteristics to theory change without referring to evolutionary theory at all.

Sankey’s illuminating contribution fills in the interpretive background on incommensurability — the semantic version of Kuhn’s incommensurability thesis, in particular. He objects, with Mizrahi, to the language of discovery used by Oberheim and Hoyningen-Huene with respect to incommensurability. He argues, convincingly, that the purported paradigm shift that allowed Kuhn to finally comprehend Aristotle’s physics isn’t a case of incommensurability, but rather of comprehension after an initial failure to understand. While this doesn’t establish his conclusion that no cases of incommensurability have been established (76), it does show that a historically significant purported case is not genuine.

Vasso Kindi fills in some historical detail regarding the positivist image of science that Kuhn sought to replace and the “stereotypical” image attributed to him (96). She argues that Kuhn’s critics (including by implication several of her co-contributors) frequently attack a strawman — that, notwithstanding Kuhn’s avowed deference to history, the Kuhnian image of science is not meant to be a historical representation, and so doesn’t need to be supported by historical evidence. It is, rather, a “a philosophical model that was used to challenge an ideal image of science” (95).

Finally, Lydia Patton emphasizes the practical dimension of Kuhn’s conception of paradigms in Structure. It ought to be uncontroversial that on Kuhn’s early characterization a paradigm is not merely a theory, but a series of epistemic, evaluative, and methodological practices, too. But Patton argues that there has been too strong a semantic tendency in the treatment of Kuhnian paradigms (including by the later Kuhn himself). She argues for the greater interest and value of a practical lens on Kuhn’s project for the purposes of understanding and explaining science.

Vectors of Glory

Andrew Aberdein’s contribution deals with the longstanding and intriguing question of whether there are revolutions in mathematics. He imports to that discussion distinctions he drew in previous work among so-called glorious, inglorious, and paraglorious revolutions, in which, respectively, key components of the theory are preserved, lost, or preserved with new additions. Key components are, he says, “at least all components without which the theory could not be articulated” (136).

He discusses several examples of key shifts in mathematical theory and practice that putatively exemplify certain of these classes of revolution. The strength of the paper is its fascinating examples, particularly the example of Inter-Universal Teichmüller theory, which, Aberdein explains, introduces such novel techniques and concepts that some leading mathematicians say its proofs read as if they were “from the future, or from outer space” (145).

Aberdein doesn’t falsely advertise his thesis. He acknowledges that “it is not easy to determine whether a given episode is revolutionary” (140), and claims only that certain shifts “may be understood” as revolutionary (149) — that the cases he offers are putative mathematical revolutions. As to how we should go about identifying putative mathematical revolutions, Aberdein suggests we look directly for conceptual shifts (or ‘sorites-like’ sequences of shifts) in which key components have been lost or gained.

A fuller discussion of these diagnostics is needed, since the judgment of whether there are revolutions (genuine or putative) in mathematics will hang largely on diagnostics such as these. Is any key conceptual shift sufficient? If so, have we really captured the spirit of Kuhn’s view, given that Kuhn seems to ascribe a certain momentousness to revolutions? If the conceptual shift has to be substantial, how substantial, and how should we gauge its substantiality? Without some principled, non-arbitrary, and non-question-begging standards for what counts as a revolution, we cannot hope to give a serious answer to the question of whether there are, even putatively, revolutions in mathematics.

The paper would also have benefited from a more explicit discussion of what a mathematical paradigm is in the first place, especially as compared to a scientific one. We can infer from Aberdein’s examples that conceptions of number, ratio, proportion, as well as systems of conjecture and mathematical techniques belong to mathematical paradigms — but explicit comment on this would have been beneficial.

Moreover, Aberdein sees an affinity between mathematics and science, commenting toward the end of the paper that the methodology of mathematics is not so different from that of science, and that “the story we tell about revolutions [should] hold for both science and mathematics” (149). These are loaded comments needing further elaboration.

The Evolution of Thomas Kuhn

In his contribution, James Marcum argues that Kuhn’s later evolutionary view is more relevant to current philosophy of science (being ‘pluralistic and perspectival’) than his earlier revolutionary one. On Kuhn’s later evolutionary view, Marcum explains, scientific change proceeds via “smaller evolutionary specialization or speciation” (155), with a “gradual emergence of a specialty’s practice and knowledge” (159). On this view, scientific development consists in “small incremental changes of belief” rather than “the upheaval of world-shattering revolutions” (159).

Marcum uses the emergence of bacteriology, virology, and retrovirology to illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of Kuhn’s evolutionary view. Its main strength, he says, is that it illuminates the development of and relationships among these sorts of scientific specialties; its weakness is that it ascribes a single tempo — Darwinian gradualism — and a single mode — speciation — to the evolution of science. Marcum adopts George Gaylord Simpson’s “richer and more textured approach” (165), which distinguishes several tempos and modes. Since these refinements better enable Kuhn’s view to handle a range of cases, they are certainly valuable.

According to Marcum, current philosophy of science is ‘pluralistic and perspectival’ in its recognition that different sciences face different philosophical issues and in its inclusion of perspectives from outside the logico-analytic tradition, such as continental, pragmatist, and feminist perspectives (166). Marcum seems right to characterize current philosophy of science as pluralistic, given the move away from general philosophy of science to more specialized branches.

If this pluralism is to be embraced, one might wonder what role (if any) remains for general philosophy of science. Marcum makes the interesting suggestion that a general image of science, like Kuhn’s evolutionary image, while respecting our contemporary pluralistic stance, can at the same time offer “a type of unity among the sciences, not in terms of reducing them to one science, but rather with respect to mapping the conceptual relationships among them” (169).

One of Marcum’s central aims is to show that incommensurability plays a key explanatory role in a refined version of Kuhn’s evolutionary image of science. The role of incommensurability on this view is to account for scientific speciation. However, Marcum shows only that we can characterize scientific speciation in terms of incommensurability, without clearly establishing the explanatory payoff of so doing. He does not succeed in showing that incommensurability has a particularly enriching explanatory role, much less that incommensurability is “critical for conceptual evolution within the sciences” or “an essential component of… the growth of science” (168).

All a Metaphor?

Barbara Gabriella Renzi and Giulio Napolitano frame their contribution with a discussion of competing accounts of the nature and role of metaphor. They avow the commonly accepted view that metaphors are not merely linguistic, but cognitive, and that they are ubiquitous. They claim, I would think uncontroversially, that metaphors shape how individuals approach and reason about complex issues. They also discuss historical empiricist attitudes toward metaphor, competing views on the role of models and metaphor in science, and later, the potential role of metaphor in social domination.

Renzi and Napolitano also address Kuhn’s use of the metaphor of Darwinian evolution to characterize scientific change. They suggest that an apter metaphor for scientific change can be made of the obsolete orthogenetic hypothesis, according to which “variations are not random but directed by forces regulated and ultimately directed by the internal constitution of the organism, which responds to environmental stimuli” (184).

The orthogenetic metaphor is a better fit for scientific change, they argue, because the emergence of new ideas in science is not random, but driven by “arguments and debates… specific needs of a scientist or group of scientists who have been seeking a solution to a problem” (184).

The orthogenetic metaphor effectively highlights a drawback of the Darwinian metaphor that might otherwise be overlooked, and deserves further attention. The space devoted to discussing metaphor in the abstract contributes little to the paper, beyond prescriptions to take metaphor seriously and approach it with caution. Much of that space would have been better devoted to using historical examples to compare Kuhn’s Darwinian metaphor to the proposed orthogenetic alternative, to make concrete the fruitfulness of the latter, and to flesh out the specific kinds of internal and external pressures that Renzi and Napolitano see as important drivers of scientific change.

Methodological Contextualism

Darrell Rowbottom offers a summary and several criticisms of what he sees as Kuhn’s early-middle period image of science. By way of criticism, he points out that it isn’t clear how to individuate disciplinary matrices in a way that preserves a clear distinction between normal and extraordinary science, or ensures that what Kuhn calls ‘normal science’ is really the norm. Moreover, in linking the descriptive and normative components of his view, Kuhn implausibly assumes that mature science is optimal.

Rowbottom suggests a replacement image of science he calls methodological contextualism (developed more fully in previous work). Methodological contextualism identifies several roles — puzzle-solving, critical, and imaginative — which scientific practitioners fulfill to varying degrees and in varying combinations. The ideal balance of these roles depends on contextual factors, including the scientists available and the state of science (200).

The novel question Rowbottom considers in this paper is: how could piecemeal change in science be rational from the perspective of methodological contextualism? I have difficulty seeing why this is even a prima facie problem for Rowbottom’s view, since puzzle-solving, critical and imaginative activities are clearly consonant with piecemeal change. I suppose it is because the view retains some of Kuhn’s machinery, including his notion of a disciplinary matrix.

At any rate, Rowbottom suggests that scientists may work within a partial disciplinary matrix, or a set of partially overlapping ones. He also makes the intriguing claim that “scientists might allow inconsistency at the global level, and even welcome it as a better alternative than a consistent system with less puzzle-solving power” (202). One might object that Kuhn’s incommensurability thesis seems to block the overlapping matrix move, but Rowbottom proclaims that the falsity of Kuhn’s incommensurability thesis follows “as a consequence of the way that piecemeal change can occur” (201). One person’s modus ponens is another’s modus tollens, as they say.

A Digestible Kuhn

The brevity of the contributions makes them eminently digestible and good potential additions to course syllabi at a range of levels; on the other hand, it means that some of the most provocative and topical themes of the book — such as the epistemic and methodological status of generalizations about science and the role of general philosophy of science in contemporary philosophy — don’t get the full development they deserve. The volume raises more questions than it satisfactorily addresses, but several of them bring renewed relevance and freshness to Kuhnian philosophy of science and ought to direct its future course.

Contact details: amandabryant@trentu.ca

References

Mizrahi, Moti (Ed.) The Kuhnian Image of Science: Time for a Decisive Transformation? Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.

Author Information: Markus Arnold, University of Klagenfurt, markus.arnold@aau.at

Arnold, Markus. “Is There Anything Wrong with Thomas Kuhn?.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 42-47.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references: Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Xs

Image by Rob Thomas via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Twenty-two years after his death, Thomas Kuhn’s work is still able to provoke lively debates, where arguments are exchanged and competing interpretations of his theories are advanced. The Kuhnian Image of Science is a good example, as the book brings together ten scholars in a debate for and against Thomas Kuhn’s legacy. The question, the edited volume raises, is straightforward:

“Does the Kuhnian image of science provide an adequate model of scientific change? If we abandon the Kuhnian picture of revolutionary change and incommensurability […], what consequences would follow from that vis-à-vis our understanding of science as a social, epistemic endeavor?” (7)

In this review I will concentrate on the first two parts of the book, i.e. and in particular on the debate between those who are questioning (Mizrahi, Argamakova, Park, Sankey), and those who are defending Kuhn (Kindi, Patton), since their arguments are closely related. Therefore, I will discuss some of their major arguments in topological order.

Debating Kuhn’s Evidence

The editor Moti Mizrahi opens the debate in his introduction with a confrontational thesis: Kuhn, in his opinion, is responsible for an “infectious disease” (3), for “the pathological state of the field of philosophy of science in general, and general philosophy of science in particular” (3). Kuhn’s vice is his use of case studies (from the history of science) as arguments, although – according to Moti Mizrahi – they are nothing more than “anecdotal evidence” leading to “hasty generalizations” and “fallacious inductive reasoning” (6).

Hearing the trumpets of the troops ready to battle one is eager to learn how to do it right: How the standards of inductive reasoning within philosophy of science are re-erected. Yet, anticipating one of the results of this review, the “inductive reasoning” intended to refute Kuhn’s incommensurability thesis (found in the first part of the book) is actually its weakest part.

However, to understand the intricacy of this difficult task, we have to recognize, that it is not easy to support or falsify inductively a complex theory of science. Broadly speaking, in Kuhn’s account we should empirically observe sciences displaying at least four different manifestations: (1.) “proto-science” in the pre-paradigm phase, when there is no general consensus about theories, methods and standards, (2.) “normal science”, when scientists are most of the time focused on preserving, but also adapting existing paradigms to new problems and new scientific fields, (3.) sciences in a state of crisis, when more and more “anomalies” occur, which defy explanations in conformity with established procedures, and finally (4.) on rare occasions a “revolutionary” state, when different paradigms compete with each other and scientific theories based on one paradigm are to some extent “incommensurable” with those based on another paradigm.

There are good reasons to suppose that Kuhn’s somehow schematic and ideal-typical description of scientific change is too simple compared with the complexities shown by many historical case studies. Nevertheless, the counter-arguments under consideration brought forward against his model seem, paradoxically, to underestimate the complexity of Kuhn’s claims. For example, in Kuhn’s Incommensurability Thesis Mizrahi decides to discuss scientific change only in general.  He claims that Kuhn argues:

“Scientific change (specifically, revolutionary change) is characterized by taxonomic incommensurability.” (33)

The compounded phrase “[s]cientific change (specifically, revolutionary change)” indicates that, in Mizrahi’s interpretation, for Kuhn not all scientific change is per definition revolutionary. But then arguments against Kuhn’s theory should consider at least two kinds of scientific change separately: revolutionary change and those (commensurable) non-revolutionary scientific changes within “normal science.”

Keeping in mind that for Kuhn theory change is possible to a certain degree within normal science (only changing paradigms must be averted)[1], it is not clear, why Kuhn’s “image of science” should be dismissed because “as far as theory change is concerned” taxonomic incommensurability “is the exception rather than the rule” (38).[2]

Or another example, in Can Kuhn’s Taxonomic Incommensurability Be an Image of Science? where Seungbae Park comes to the conclusion that historical evidence shows that “scientific revolution is rare, taxonomic incommensurability is rare, and taxonomic commensurability is common” (61). It is, for similar reasons, unclear why this conclusion should not be commensurable with Kuhn’s description of normal science, since Kuhn claimed that normal science is common and scientific revolutions are rare.

However, this is not Park’s last argument about scientific change: He asks furthermore if we should not distinguish between the distant scientific past, when scientific revolutions were more common, and the recent past, “since most recent past theories have been stable, most present theories will also be stable” (70). Kuhn’s theory of revolutionary paradigm change is, in his opinion, first of all not appropriate for understanding the development of contemporary and future science.

Incommensurable Paradigms of Language?

After a discussion of the critical reception of Thomas Kuhn’s and Paul Feyerabend’s work and the objections raised against their claim that scientific theories or paradigms are incommensurable, Howard Sankey admits in The Demise of the Incommensurability Thesis that:

“the idea that there is conceptual change in science now seems commonplace. But the much-feared consequences, such as incomparability, communication breakdown, and irrationality now all seem to have been greatly overblown.” (88)

Prima facie it seems like a self-critical admission of an inappropriate former reception of Kuhn’s theory of incommensurability, especially by those philosophers of science who tried to fight “irrationality” with the means of referential semantics. However, Sankey seems to think that the dissolution of the exaggerated accusations of Kuhn’s critics somehow makes now Kuhn’s theory of incommensurability obsolete. Hence, Sankey can summarize:

“with the demise of the incommensurability thesis, the debate about scientific realism is free to proceed in a manner that is unencumbered by the semantic concerns about wholesale referential discontinuity that were prompted by the incommensurability thesis.” (88)

For Sankey, Kuhn’s concept of incommensurability is dead (87). He seems to blame Kuhn for the misguided interpretations of his opponents. It comes down to the argument: if it’s not possible to criticize Kuhn’s concept of incommensurability as “irrational” anymore, then Kuhn’s concept cannot claim any relevance for future discussions.

However, more importantly: These arguments against Kuhn are based on referential semantics, i.e. semantic concerns about referential continuity. Hence, what their objections against Kuhn’s incommensurability theory inadvertently show is, paradoxically, the incommensurability of competing paradigms of language. This becomes apparent, for example, when Mizrahi criticizes Kuhn’s sometimes-vague formulations, especially in his early Structure. Mizrahi refers to statements where Kuhn argues with caution:

“The normal-scientific tradition that emerges from a scientific revolution is not only incompatible but often [sic] actually incommensurable with that which has gone before.” (Kuhn 1996, 103)

Formulations such as this prompt Mizrahi to ask: If taxonomic incommensurability (TI):

“is not a general thesis about the nature of scientific change, then what is its explanatory value? How does (TI) help us in terms of understanding the nature of scientific change? On most accounts of explanation, an explanans must have some degree of generality […] But if (TI) has no degree of generality, then it is difficult to see what the explanatory value of (TI) is.” (37)

Kuhn could have responded that his arguments in Structure are explicitly based on Wittgenstein’s theory of “language games” with its central concept of “family resemblance”, which by definition does not allow the assumption that there are unambiguous conceptual boundaries and a distinguishing characteristic, which all or even most of the phenomena aligned by a concept have in common.[3]

Indeed, understanding Wittgenstein’s concept of “family resemblance” is central to understand Kuhn’s theory of “paradigms”, “paradigm shifts”, and the meaning of “incommensurability”.[4] Yet, it is possible to come to similar conclusions without referring to the late Wittgenstein: For example, Alexandra Argamakova despite of her negative evaluation of many of Kuhn’s arguments, unlike Mizrahi, is closer on this issue to Kuhn where she claims in Modeling Scientific Development: “distinct breakthroughs in science can be marked as revolutions, but no universal system of criteria for such appraisal can be formulated in a normative philosophical manner” (54).

Defending Kuhn’s Epistemology

In two of the book’s most interesting discussions of Kuhn’s epistemology, Vasso Kandi’s The Kuhnian Straw Man and Lydia Patton’s Kuhn, Pedagogy, and Practice, the allegation that Kuhn developed his theory on the basis of selected historical cases is refuted. Furthermore, Kindi, defending the innovative character of Kuhn’s work asks “for a more faithful reading”:

“Kuhn’s new image of science, which is actually a mosaic of different traditions, was not put together by generalizing from instances; it emerged once attention was drawn to what makes scientific practice possible, namely paradigms and what follows from them (normal science, anomalies, revolutions). In accordance with Kuhn’s own understanding of scientific revolutions, his revolution in the perception of science did not have to summon new facts or make new discoveries; it only needed a new perspective.” (104)

While Lydia Patton forcefully argues that:

“Kuhn’s original work did not restrict ‘paradigm’ to ‘theoretical framework’, nor did he restrict the perspective of scientific practice to the content of propositions with a truth-value. And it is mainly because Kuhn’s arguments in Structure are outside the semantic view, and focus instead on the practice of science, that they are interesting and fresh.” (124)

Both, Patton and Kindi, offer a close reading of Kuhn’s work, trying to give new perspectives on some of the more contested concepts in Kuhn’s epistemology.

The Social in Social Epistemology

One explicit aim of this edited volume is, as the editor asserts, to outline what consequences would follow from this debate for “our understanding of science as a social, epistemic endeavor” (7). But for this reviewer it is not obvious how the strong emphasis on discounting Kuhn’s incommensurability thesis in the first part of the book should lead to a better understanding of science as a social practice.

Kuhn’s theory of incommensurability of competing paradigms is precisely the point within his epistemology where value judgments and social decisions come into play. While traditionally those who defended the “progress of science” (cf. Sankey: 87) against what they saw as Kuhn’s “anti-realist” position were often those who wanted to defend the objectivity of science by excluding “external” influences, like the “social” and the political, from the scientific core.[5]

It is therefore important when talking about incommensurability of paradigms, and the possibility of a “communication breakdown”, to distinguish between two distinct meanings: (a) the impossibility to communicate at all because people do not understand each other’s language or paradigms and (b) the decision after a long and futile debate to end any further communication as a waste of time since no agreement can be reached. It is this second meaning, describing a social phenomenon, which is very common in science. Sankey argues against the first meaning when he declares:

“Given that scientists are able to understand what is said by theories whose terms are untranslatable into their own, no insuperable obstacle stands in the way of full communication between the ‘proponents of competing paradigms.’” (87)

While Sankey “wonders what all the fuss was about” (87), he has only shown (in accordance with Kuhn: cf. Kuhn 2000) that in theory full communication may be possible, but not that communication breakdowns are not common between scientists working with different paradigms. While on a theoretical level these workday problems to communicate may seem, for some philosophers of science, trivial. However, on the social level for working scientists, such communication breakdowns are often not only the reason for fraught relations between colleagues, but also for disciplinary segmentation and sometimes for re-drawing boundaries of scientific disciplines.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that in this volume those who discuss social as well as epistemological practices of scientists are not those who criticize incommensurability from a semantic point of view. Social and epistemological practices are considered in one way or the other by those defending Kuhn, like Kindi and Patton, and those whose main concern is to revise certain aspects of Kuhn’s image of science, like James A. Marcum, Barbara Gabriella Renzi & Giulio Napolitano, and David P. Rowbottom.

However, as I confined this review to the discussion of the first six articles I can only point out that the four remaining articles go beyond the topics discussed thus far and would deserve not only attentive readers but also a thorough discussion. They analyze, for example, scientific revolutions in mathematics (Andrew Aberdein), the role of evolutionary metaphors (Gabriella Renzi/Napolitano, Marcum) and of methodological contextualism in the philosophy of science (Rowbottom). Hence, although this edited volume has some weaknesses, there are several contributions, which open new avenues of thought about Kuhn, and are worth reading for those interested in Kuhn and in philosophy of science.

Contact details: markus.arnold@aau.at

References

Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Kuhn, Thomas S. „Commensurability, Comparability, Communicability,“ In Thomas S. Kuhn, Thomas S. The Road Since Structure. Philosophical Essays, 1970-1993, 33-57. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Mizrahi, Moti (Ed.) The Kuhnian Image of Science. Time for a Decisive Transformation? Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophische Untersuchungen / Philosophical Investigations. Transl. by G. E. M. Anscombe, P. M. S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

[1] Kuhn discusses this type of theory change, for example, as divergent „articulation(s) of the paradigm“ (Kuhn 1996, 83; cf. Kuhn 1996, 23, 29-34, 122).

[2] Always on condition that, like Moti Mizrahi in this argument, we accept the concept of „incommensurability“ as defined by referential semantics. On some problems with „referential continuity“ as main argument against incommensurability see further below.

[3] “Instead of pointing out something common to all […], I’m saying that these phenomena have no one thing in common in virtue of which we use the same word for all – but there are many different kinds of affinity between them“ (Wittgenstein 2009, § 65) “I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances”; for the various resemblances between members of a family – build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, and so on and so forth – overlap and criss-cross in the same way.” (§ 67)

[4] Cf. Kuhn 1996, Ch. 5. Later, Kuhn argued explicitly against referential semantics but then on the basis of a hermeneutic (holistic) theory of language (Kuhn 2000; but cf. Kuhn 1996, 128f.).

[5] This, despite the fact that Kuhn himself tried to restrict the relevant „social“ factors in his epistemology to social dynamics within scientific communities.

Author Information: Stephen Turner, University of South Florida, turner@usf.edu

Turner, Stephen. “Fuller’s roter Faden.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 25-29.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3WX

Art by William Blake, depicting the creation of reality.
Image via AJC1 via Flickr / Creative Commons

The Germans have a notion of “research intention,” by which they mean the underlying aim of an author’s work as revealed over its whole trajectory. Francis Remedios and Val Dusek have provided, if not an account itself, the material for an account of Steve Fuller’s research intention, or as they put it the “thread” that runs through his work.

These “intentions” are not something that is apparent to the authors themselves, which is part of the point: at the start of their intellectual journey they are working out a path which leads they know not where, but which can be seen as a path with an identifiable beginning and end retrospectively. We are now at a point where we can say something about this path in the case of Fuller. We can also see the ways in which various Leitmotifs, corollaries, and persistent themes fit with the basic research intention, and see why Fuller pursued different topics at different times.

A Continuity of Many Changes

The ur-source for Fuller’s thought is his first book, Social Epistemology. On the surface, this book seems alien to the later work, so much so that one can think of Fuller as having a turn. But seen in terms of an underlying research intention, and indeed in Fuller’s own self-explications included in this text, this is not the case: the later work is a natural development, almost an entailment, of the earlier work, properly understood.

The core of the earlier work was the idea of constructing a genuine epistemology, in the sense of a kind of normative account of scientific knowledge, out of “social” considerations and especially social constructivism, which at the time was considered to be either descriptive or anti-epistemological, or both. For Fuller, this goal meant that the normative content would at least include, or be dominated by, the “social” part of epistemology, considerations of the norms of a community, norms which could be changed, which is to say made into a matter of “policy.”

This leap to community policies leads directly to a set of considerations that are corollaries to Fuller’s long-term project. We need an account of what the “policy” options are, and a way to choose between them. Fuller was trained at a time when there was a lingering controversy over this topic: the conflict between Kuhn and the Popperians. Kuhn represented a kind of consensus driven authoritarianism. For him it was right and necessary for science to be organized around ungroundable premises that enabled science to be turned into puzzle-solving, rather than insoluble disputes over fundamentals. These occurred, and produced new ungroundable consensual premises, at the rare moments of scientific revolutions.

Progress was possible through these revolutions, but our normal notions of progress were suspended during the revolutions and applied only to the normal puzzle-solving phase of science. Popperianism, on the contrary, ascribed progress to a process of conjecture and refutation in which ever broader theories developed to account for the failures of previous conjectures, in an unending process.

Kuhnianism, in the lens of Fuller’s project in Social Epistemology, was itself a kind of normative epistemology, which said “don’t dispute fundamentals until the sad day comes when one must.” Fuller’s instincts were always with Popper on this point: authoritarian consensus has no place in science for either of them. But Fuller provided a tertium quid, which had the effect of upending the whole conflict. He took over the idea of the social construction of reality and gave it a normative and collective or policy interpretation. We make knowledge. There is no knowledge that we do not create.

The creation is a “social” activity, as the social constructivists claimed. But this social itself needed to be governed by a sense of responsibility for these acts of creation, and because they were social, this meant by a “policy.” What this policy should be was not clear: no one had connected the notion of construction to the notion of responsibility in this way. But it was a clear implication of the idea of knowledge as a product of making. Making implies a responsibility for the consequences of making.

Dangers of Acknowledging Our Making

This was a step that few people were willing to take. Traditional epistemology was passive. Theory choice was choice between the theories that were presented to the passive chooser. The choices could be made on purely epistemic grounds. There was no consideration of responsibility, because the choices were an end point, a matter of scientific aesthetics, with no further consequences. Fuller, as Remedios and Dusek point out, rejects this passivity, a rejection that grows directly out of his appropriation of constructivism.

From a “making” or active epistemic perspective, Kuhnianism is an abdication of responsibility, and a policy of passivity. But Fuller also sees that overcoming the passivity Kuhn describes as the normal state of science, requires an alternative policy, which enables the knowledge that is in fact “made” but which is presented as given, to be challenged. This is a condition of acknowledging responsibility for what is made.

There is, however, an oddity in talking about responsibility in relation to collective knowledge producing, which arises because we don’t know in advance where the project of knowledge production will lead. I think of this on analogy to the debate between Malthus and Marx. If one accepts the static assumptions of Malthus, his predictions are valid: Marx made the productivist argument that with every newborn mouth came two hands. He would have been better to argue that with every mouth came a knowledge making brain, because improvements in food production technology enabled the support of much larger populations, more technology, and so forth—something Malthus did not consider and indeed could not have. That knowledge was in the future.

Fuller’s alternative grasps this point: utilitarian considerations from present static assumptions can’t provide a basis for thinking about responsibility or policy. We need to let knowledge production proceed regardless of what we think are the consequences, which is necessarily thinking based on static assumptions about knowledge itself. Put differently, we need to value knowledge in itself, because our future is itself made through the making of knowledge.

“Making” or “constructing” is more than a cute metaphor. Fuller shows that there is a tradition in science itself of thinking about design, both in the sense of making new things as a form of discovery, and in the sense of reverse engineering that which exists in order to see how it works. This leads him to the controversial waters of intelligent design, in which the world itself is understood as, at least potentially, the product of design. It also takes us to some metaphysics about humans, human agency, and the social character of human agency.

One can separate some of these considerations from Fuller’s larger project, but they are natural concomitants, and they resolve some basic issues with the original project. The project of constructivism requires a philosophical anthropology. Fuller provides this with an account of the special character of human agency: as knowledge maker humans are God-like or participating in the mind of God. If there is a God, a super-agent, it will also be a maker and knowledge maker, not in the passive but in the active sense. In participating in the mind of God, we participate in this making.

“Shall We Not Ourselves Have to Become Gods?”

This picture has further implications: if we are already God-like in this respect, we can remake ourselves in God-like ways. To renounce these powers is as much of a choice as using them. But it is difficult for the renouncers to draw a line on what to renounce. Just transhumanism? Or race-related research? Or what else? Fuller rejects renunciation of the pursuit of knowledge and the pursuit of making the world. The issue is the same as the issue between Marx and Malthus. The renouncers base their renunciation on static models. They estimate risks on the basis of what is and what is known now. But these are both things that we can change. This is why Fuller proposes a “pro-actionary” rather than a precautionary stance and supports underwriting risk-taking in the pursuit of scientific advance.

There is, however, a problem with the “social” and policy aspect of scientific advance. On the one hand, science benefits humankind. On the other, it is an elite, even a form of Gnosticism. Fuller’s democratic impulse resists this. But his desire for the full use of human power implies a special role for scientists in remaking humanity and making the decisions that go into this project. This takes us right back to the original impulse for social epistemology: the creation of policy for the creation of knowledge.

This project is inevitably confronted with the Malthus problem: we have to make decisions about the future now, on the basis of static assumptions we have no real alternative to. At best we can hint at future possibilities which will be revealed by future science, and hope that they will work out. As Remedios and Dusek note, Fuller is consistently on the side of expanding human knowledge and power, for risk-taking, and is optimistic about the world that would be created through these powers. He is also highly sensitive to the problem of static assumptions: our utilities will not be the utilities of the creatures of the future we create through science.

What Fuller has done is to create a full-fledged alternative to the conventional wisdom about the science society relation and the present way of handling risk. The standard view is represented by Philip Kitcher: it wishes to guide knowledge in ways that reflect the values we should have, which includes the suppression of certain kinds of knowledge by scientists acting paternalistically on behalf of society.

This is a rigidly Malthusian way of thinking: the values (in this case a particular kind of egalitarianism that doesn’t include epistemic equality with scientists) are fixed, the scientists ideas of the negative consequences of something like research on “racial” differences are taken to be valid, and policy should be made in accordance with the same suppression of knowledge. Risk aversion, especially in response to certain values, becomes the guiding “policy” of science.

Fuller’s alternative preserves some basic intuitions: that science advances by risk taking, and by sometimes failing, in the manner of Popper’s conjectures and refutations. This requires the management of science, but management that ensures openness in science, supports innovation, and now and then supports concerted efforts to challenge consensuses. It also requires us to bracket our static assumptions about values, limits, risks, and so forth, not so much to ignore these things but to relativize them to the present, so that we can leave open the future. The conventional view trades heavily on the problem of values, and the potential conflicts between epistemic values and other kinds of values. Fuller sees this as a problem of thinking in terms of the present: in the long run these conflicts vanish.

This end point explains some of the apparent oddities of Fuller’s enthusiasms and dislikes. He prefers the Logical Positivists to the model-oriented philosophy of science of the present: laws are genuinely universal; models are built by assuming present knowledge and share the problems with Malthus. He is skeptical about science done to support policy, for the same reason. And he is skeptical about ecologism as well, which is deeply committed to acting on static assumptions.

The Rewards of the Test

Fuller’s work stands the test of reflexivity: he is as committed to challenging consensuses and taking risks as he exhorts others to be. And for the most part, it works: it is an old Popperian point that only through comparison with strong alternatives that a theory can be tested; otherwise it will simply pile up inductive support, blind to what it is failing to account for. But as Fuller would note, there is another issue of reflexivity here, and it comes at the level of the organization of knowledge. To have conjectures and refutations one must have partners who respond. In the consensus driven world of professional philosophy today, this does not happen. And that is a tragedy. It also makes Fuller’s point: that the community of inquirers needs to be managed.

It is also a tragedy that there are not more Fullers. Constructing a comprehensive response to major issues and carrying it through many topics and many related issues, as people like John Dewey once did, is an arduous task, but a rewarding one. It is a mark of how much the “professionalization” of philosophy has done to alter the way philosophers think and write. This is a topic that is too large for a book review, but it is one that deserves serious reflection. Fuller raises the question by looking at science as a public good and asking how a university should be organized to maximize its value. Perhaps this makes sense for science, given that science is a money loser for universities, but at the same time its main claim on the public purse. For philosophy, we need to ask different questions. Perhaps the much talked about crisis of the humanities will bring about such a conversation. If it does, it is thinking like Fuller’s that will spark the discussion.

Contact details: turner@usf.edu

References

Remedios, Francis X., and Val Dusek. Knowing Humanity in the Social World. The Path of Steve Fuller’s Social Epistemology. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2018.

post-truth

Image credit: Mike Licht, via flickr

Editor’s Note: The following is a slightly abridged version of Steve Fuller’s article “Science has always been a bit ‘post-truth’” that appeared in The Guardian on 15 December 2016.

Even today, more than fifty years after its first edition, Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions remains the first port of call to learn about the history, philosophy or sociology of science. This is the book famous for talking about science as governed by ‘paradigms’ until overtaken by ‘revolutions’.

Kuhn argued that the way that both scientists and the general public need to understand the history of science is ‘Orwellian’. He is alluding to 1984, in which the protagonist’s job is to rewrite newspapers from the past to make it seem as though the government’s current policy is where it had been heading all along. In this perpetually airbrushed version of history, the public never sees the U-turns, switches of allegiance and errors of judgement that might cause them to question the state’s progressive narrative. Confidence in the status quo is maintained and new recruits are inspired to follow in its lead. Kuhn claimed that what applies to totalitarian 1984 also applies to science united under the spell of a paradigm.

What makes Kuhn’s account of science ‘post-truth’ is that truth is no longer the arbiter of legitimate power but rather the mask of legitimacy that is worn by everyone in pursuit of power. Truth is just one more – albeit perhaps the most important – resource in a power game without end. In this respect, science differs from politics only in that the masks of its players rarely drop.

The explanation for what happens behind the masks lies in the work of the Italian political economist Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923), devotee of Machiavelli, admired by Mussolini and one of sociology’s forgotten founders. Kuhn spent his formative years at Harvard in the late 1930s when the local kingmaker, biochemist Lawrence Henderson, not only taught the first history of science courses but also convened an interdisciplinary ‘Pareto Circle’ to get the university’s rising stars acquainted with the person he regarded as Marx’s only true rival.

For Pareto, what passes for social order is the result of the interplay of two sorts of elites, which he called, following Machiavelli, ‘lions’ and ‘foxes’. The lions acquire legitimacy from tradition, which in science is based on expertise rather than lineage or custom. Yet, like these earlier forms of legitimacy, expertise derives its authority from the cumulative weight of intergenerational experience. This is exactly what Kuhn meant by a ‘paradigm’ in science – a set of conventions by which knowledge builds in an orderly fashion to complete a certain world-view established by a founding figure – say, Newton or Darwin. Each new piece of knowledge is anointed by a process of ‘peer review’.

As in 1984, the lions normally dictate the historical narrative. But on the cutting room floor lies the activities of the other set of elites, the foxes. In today’s politics of science, they are known by a variety of names, ranging from ‘mavericks’ to ‘social constructivists’ to ‘pseudoscientists’. Foxes are characterised by dissent and unrest, thriving in a world of openness and opportunity. (Read more …)

Author Information: Vasso Kindi, University of Athens, Greece vkindi@phs.uoa.gr

Kindi, Vasso. “The Role of Evidence in Judging Kuhn’s Model: On the Mizrahi, Patton, Marcum Exchange .” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4, no. 11 (2015): 25-33.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-2sQ

Please refer to:

petroglyphs

Image credit: 2008+, via flickr

I would like to thank James H. Collier, executive editor of Social Epistemology, for the invitation to contribute to the most interesting dialogue which has been occasioned by Moti Mizrahi’s paper “Kuhn’s Incommensurability Thesis: What’s the Argument?” My view is very different from the dominant one in the dialogue regarding Kuhn’s account of science as developed in his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and in his later work.  Continue Reading…

Author Information: Moti Mizrahi, Florida Institute of Technology, mmizrahi@fit.edu

Mizrahi, Moti. “A Reply to James Marcum’s ‘What’s the Support for Kuhn’s Incommensurability Thesis?’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4, no. 11 (2015): 21-24.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-2sx

Please refer to:

harvey

Image credit: University of Liverpool Faculty of Health & Life Sciences
Follow,
via flickr

Both Patton (2015) and Marcum (2015) think that there is compelling evidence for Kuhn’s incommensurability thesis, specifically, taxonomic incommensurability (TI). They disagree, however, about how the argument for TI is supposed to run. Patton (2015) claims that there is an Inference to the Best Explanation (IBE) to be made for TI. In my response to Patton (2015), I argue that this is easier said than done (Mizrahi 2015b). Marcum (2015, 51), on the other hand, claims that the historian’s personal or psychological experience of accessing a revolutionary change in science—as illustrated in Kuhn’s own experience of laboring to understand the Aristotelian idea of motion while assuming a Newtonian idea of motion—represents a compelling type of support for TI.  Continue Reading…

Author Information: Moti Mizrahi, Florida Institute of Technology, mmizrahi@fit.edu

Mizrahi, Moti. “A Reply to Patton’s ‘Incommensurability and the Bonfire of the Meta-Theories’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4, no. 10 (2015): 51-53.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-2pY

Please refer to:

bonfire

Image credit: ARendle, via flickr

Lydia Patton (2015) and I agree that philosophers of science need to exercise more argumentative caution when it comes to the stories they tell about science. One such story, namely, Kuhn’s account of theory change (more specifically, his incommensurability thesis), lacks this kind of argumentative caution, or so I have argued (Mizrahi 2015). Patton (2015) disagrees. She claims that Kuhn does offer a good argument in support of taxonomic incommensurability (TI). Kuhn’s argument, however, is neither deductive nor inductive. According to Patton (2015, 57), Kuhn “was pursuing an explanatory, not an inductive project.” In other words, Patton argues that Kuhn’s argument for TI should be construed as an Inference to the Best Explanation (IBE). In a follow-up comment, Patton clarifies her claim by writing:  Continue Reading…

Author Information:Lydia Patton, Virginia Tech, critique@vt.edu

Patton, Lydia. “Incommensurability and the Bonfire of the Meta-Theories: Response to Mizrahi.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4, no. 7 (2015): 51-58.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-2c6

Please refer to:

epicycles

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

What is Taxonomic Incommensurability?

Moti Mizrahi states Kuhn’s thesis of taxonomic incommensurability (TI) as follows:

Periods of scientific change (in particular, revolutionary change) that exhibit TI are scientific developments in which existing concepts are replaced with new concepts that are incompatible with the older concepts. The new concepts are incompatible with the old concepts in the following sense: two competing scientific theories are conceptually incompatible (or incommensurable) just in case they do not share the same “lexical taxonomy.” A lexical taxonomy contains the structures and vocabulary that are used to state a theory (2015, 2).

Mizrahi cites Kuhn (2000) as a basis for this definition. There, and elsewhere, Kuhn repeatedly employs the metaphor of incommensurability from Greek geometry:  Continue Reading…

Author Information: Adam Riggio, McMaster University, adamriggio@gmail.com; Steve Fuller, University of Warwick, S.W.Fuller@warwick.ac.uk

Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-22f

Editor’s Note:

Adam Riggio

I‘d like to talk with you about two things. One is to ask you a practical political question, and the second is to have a wider discussion about how philosophy of science and scientific practice influence each other. I’ll start with the practical political question first, because one of the first lessons in writing for the web is to headline your most sensationalistic point.  Continue Reading…