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The Kuhnian Diversion 

Rafe Champion

Originally a Catallaxy post 17 Jan 2007

What is the contribution of TS Kuhn and the lasting significance of his ideas about scientific revolutions, normal science, paradigms and incommensurability?

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions appeared in 1961 and rapidly became an international academic bestseller. First it assumed dominance in the world of history and philosophy of science and then it just kept going into the social sciences and beyond until talk of paradigms and related jargon penetrated everyday speech in practically every walk of life.

However, the question has to be asked: what did he have to offer that was both new and true? And even if it was as good as some people made out, how did it achieve such phenomenal success? Quality is no guarantee of popularity, even in academic circles.

A discussion has started on the HOPOS (history and philosophy of science) email list regarding the testability of Kuhn’s theories - is there any evidence that could refute his theories or has already done so? It is apparent from the opening exchanges in the discussion that there is no consensus about the nature of his theories and the kind of evidence that would be required to test them. What counts as a revolution rather than accumulated changes in a theory? Is normal science really the uncritical, small-scale “puzzle-solving” venture that Kuhn described? Do we really have incommensurability between Newtonian and Einsteinian physics, or anywhere else?

This debate has reactivated a suspicion that I experienced a long time ago when someone told me that Popper was out of date because he had been overtaken by Kuhn. I can now see that there should have been a “check on the problem” (one of the five steps to evaluate ideas). Were Popper and Kuhn working on the same problems? The questions that concerned me then (and now) – related to social reform and the liberation by enlightenment (the growth of knowledge). I could see what Popper had to offer to those ventures but it was not immediately apparent what value Kuhn was adding.

So what did Kuhn have to offer on the problems that concern working scientists?

It may be that the answer is “very little”. Possibly his contribution falls more directly in history and sociology, especially on the topic of the diffusion of innovations. There is a whole literature on this, starting in the 1940s with a seminal work on the adoption of hybrid seed corn by farmers in Iowa. The guru of the field is Everett Rogers whose 1962 book, aptly titled Diffusion of Innovations has surveyed the field and provided theories and insights that are much used in marketing and advertising (and in extension services to farmers).

If this perception of Kuhn is correct then it means that much if not all of the time spent debating the pros and cons of Kuhn’s contribution in the philosophy and methodology of science has not been well spent. No doubt much was learned as people went about research under the influence of Kuhn’s ideas but the question remains, what value was added by Kuhn’s contribution? In the same spirit that some speak of the “Keynesian diversion” as a period of misplaced effort in economic theorising, it may be that have experienced a “Kuhnian diversion”.

It is interesting to note, as an aside, that some academic “investors” (like Steve Fuller) have been astute enough to make money (in the form of publications) out of Kuhn both in the early days while his stocks were rising and now, while they threaten to fall. His book on the historical and social roots of Kuhn’s success demonstrates pretty much what I suspected without inside information, that Kuhn rode a wave of ignorance and uncritical thinking among the vast numbers of semi-educated students in the humanities and social sciences in the wake of the explosion of numbers post WW2.

Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos, Feyerabend

My take on Kuhn and the challenge to Popper from Lakatos and Feyerabend is contained in this piece.

The secret of the success of Kuhn’s ideas lies in their symbiotic relationship with inductivism which is the theory that scientific knowledge grows as a result of the accumulation of data. A symbiotic relationship is a partnership between two species where both derive benefit. The inductivist approach produces ‘normal scientists’ who uncritically accept the ‘paradigms’ that they inherit. Kuhn made his reputation by describing this situation and this is his debt to inductivism. In return his theory legitimates whatever scientists are doing, and so he repays his debt by providing support for inductivism. At the surface level his ideas can be seen as a challenge to some ideas about logical positivism and the traditional “inductive” theory of scientific investigation which Popper demolished in 1934. However at bottom Kuhn’s ideas are thoroughly conservative and unhelpful for working scientists.

This begs the question - what should people have done instead? How could the history and philosophy of science have evolved since 1960 if Kuhn’s book on scientific revolutions had not become one of the most influential books of the century and generated a major academic industry?

How Critical Rationalism and Evolutionary Epistemology Could Have Developed

The Logic of Scientific Discovery appeared in 1959. [As a strange aside, news of this event travelled rapidly to Launceston, Tasmania. In 1960 a school friend informed me that “god is the most scientific hypothesis”. The reason, he explained briefly, is that a scientific hypothesis is one that can be refuted, and the existence of god has been refuted by so many arguments that the god hypothesis is therefore the most scientific of all. That just seemed like a very odd thing to say and I don’t recall having any interest in pursuing the matter. Obviously he had picked up something out of a review or discussion of LSD in one of the British magazines or newspapers that his parents took].

The essays in Conjectures and Refutations were all in print and the collection appeared in 1963. In this collection Popper’s critical approach to metaphysics was apparent and the theory of metaphysical research programs was in draft form in the ms of The Postscript to the Logic of Scientific Discovery.

Bartley’s work on non-justificationism was well advanced, stimulated by Popper’s criticism of the authoritarian structure of western thought in a lecture of 1960 reproduced as the Introdudction to Conjectures. Bartley’s work on the limits of criticism appeared in Retreat to Committment (1962) and a chapter in The Critical Method in Science and Philosophy (ed Bunge, 1964).

During the 1960s Popper delivered the papers on objective knowledge (the third world of ideas) that helped to revive evolultionary epistemology. They also lent support to realism and the theory of conjectural objective knowledge, and pointed the way to an improved version of situational analysis and the the explanation of human action. [Unfortunately that particular issue was confused by the paper on SA and the Rationality Principle that he delivered as a talk in 1963 but it did not appear in English for some time].

So apart from the lamentable delay in the publication of The Postscript with the rejoinder to Kuhn in volume 1 and the theory of metaphysical research programs in volume 3, practically all the ideas were in play that are required to sketch a revised research program for philosophy and cognate sciences.

The Enhanced Popper Program

Here is a preliminary sketch of the program as described in a 1985 paper in the long-defunct monthly review supplement to the Melbourne Age. It was written with the benefit of the final volume of the Postscript and the point is that this program could have been put together in the 1960s if anyone had bothered to assemble the pieces of the jigsaw that Popper and others had scattered about.

The following paras are extracted from the paper. The third volume of this long-awaited opus contains a Metaphysical Epilogue that provides the key to understanding the cluster of themes that unify Popper’s work and account simultaneously for the power and depth of his thought, and for the difficulty that he has had in obtaining recognition for his ideas in the community of philosophers. These themes contradict a cluster of metaphysical ideas that have dominated Western philosophy, some of them since the time of Plato. Their influence is often unrecognised because they are generally assumed by schools of thought which disagree about other matters, and so they are rarely challenged or subjected to critical appraisal.

Among these ideas is the theory that rational knowledge and action should be based on positively justified beliefs. This theory has created endless and insoluble problems for people who hope to influence events (including the growth of knowledge) by means of reasonable arguments, backed up by evidence. Many people have been driven to irrationalism because opponents could always win arguments by demanding a positive justification of the principle of rationality itself. The deconstructionists of recent times have made great play on this situation but they proceed from the true premise (there are no certain foundations of belief) to the false conclusion that there is no way to form critical preferences in the light of evidence and arguments offered to the present time.

Bartley was inspired by a 1960 lecture by Popper on the dogmatic structure of western thought and he proceeded to trace the thread of dogmatism or ‘justificationism’ running through almost all areas of knowledge and rationality. Bartley described how the assumption of justificationism generated the problem of ‘infinite regress versus dogmatism’ so that the attempt to justify the premises of an argument could never succeed; the defender would have to take a dogmatic stand at some point and demand an end to criticism at that point. The theory of rationality that emerges from the work of Popper and Bartley is not a theory of justification; it is a theory of critical preference between alternatives. The importance of this is immense. Rationality has been battered in modern times by ideas lifted from Darwin, Marx, Freud and quantum physics but the real problem was internal and logical.

The new stance on justification and the limits of criticism can be combined with some other ideas developed by Popper to provide a new agenda or research program for Western philosophy, replacing the following cluster of ideas in the ‘old program’.

Justificationism: A valid principle of knowledge or value must be derived from some authoritative source, which provides conclusive justification for it.

Subjectivism: Knowledge consists of subjective beliefs or concepts. There is no such thing as a structure or fabric of objective knowledge outside the minds of individual people.

Essentialism: Knowledge either results from penetration into the hidden essence of a phenomenon, or is improved by analysis of the concepts used to describe the phenomenon.

Determinism: Every event is pre-determined, so the future is laid down like the sequence of frames in a reel of film passing through a projector.

Reductionism: Complex things are to be explained by reducing them to their simplest constituents. For example, events in society should he examined in terms of biology and eventually reduced to the laws of physics.

In place of justified beliefs, Popper and Bartley opt for conjectural objective knowledge. In place of conceptual analysis and debate about the meaning of terms we should argue about the truth or falsity of theories, or, in the realm of action, the desirability of alternative policies. In place of determinism we need to realise that the future to some extent depends on decisions that we make, and these decisions can be influenced by arguments and ideas which cannot be reduced to the laws of physics, nor to biological instincts nor to immutable social or historical forces.

For Popper, this program was animated by a profound moral purpose, by the aim of promoting the methods of reasonable argument and scientific trial and error to improve the human condition, ‘to better the lot of our fellows’. This purpose may appear to have a strange old-fashioned ring to it in this proud ‘post-critical’ age. A respect for reason is redolent of the optimism of the enlightenment, of the Kantian hope that we may be able to liberate ourselves from self-imposed slavery to authority and traditional prejudices by means of critical and independent thought. This vision may be derided as naïve and simple-minded but it has inspired some of the grandest achievements of civilisation and if it can be kept alive, however dimly, it may resurge to deliver triumphs as yet undreamed of.

Addendum 1999 - Turning the Tide

The ideas of the ‘old program’ noted above are notoriously resistant to criticism. In fact they are often not subjected to criticism at all, they are simply assumed as a part of the invisible framework of debate. Metaphysical ideas been declared ‘out of bounds’ in the positivist or empiricist tradition from the time of Hume but this has not released the bonds of metaphysics, it has simply rendered positivists the slaves of whatever metaphysics they unconsciously picked up (such as justificationism, subjectivism, determinism and reductionism). Anti-positivists need not feel complacent about this situation because the same assumptions can often be found in programs which appear to be hostile to positivism (such as Marxism and the various schools of hermeneutics). Shared assumptions are seldom in dispute, and they operate invisibly to shape the formulation and selection of problems and the kind of solutions that are acceptable.

Shared assumptions render certain theories and methods either wrong, or stupid, or ideologically unsound, and, to some extent, literally unthinkable. This applies at present to Popper’s philosophy at large and especially to his theory of objective knowledge. It also applies to the Austrian tradition of social and economic thought, exemplified in the work of Hayek. A revival of these unfashionable but potentially fruitful programs depends on recruiting people from the dominant orthodoxies where they tend to be locked by three influences. First, by the guild mentality (professional brand loyalty); second, by ideological commitments (another form of brand loyalty); and finally, by unexamined metaphysical or philosophical theories. The third is probably the most insidious influence because it traps people who might otherwise be prepared to resist brand loyalties. The ideas of Popper and Bartley (and also Hayek) hold out hope for real progress in throwing off the fetters of counter-productive metaphysics because they provide methods for exposing the roots of deep structural assumptions and they show how to subject them to non-dogmatic criticism.

That hints as the kind of program that could have been developed. The next step is to describe the difference that his makes, especially in the kind of questions that people would have been asking and the kind of answers that would have been sought in a wide range of disciplines.

Some suggestions for economics and the human sciences can be found in the discussion section of this draft paper on Talcott Parsons and the way he re-invented the wheel of the Austrian approach to sociology but then lost the plot.

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