Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Review of Structure of Scientific Revolutions in the British Journal for Philosophy of Science

Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions is one of the most important works of 20th century philosophy, tranformative in the disciplines of history and philosophy of science. It had a huge impact, in fact, throughout the humanities and social sciences, especially in its use of the idea of scientific "paradigms" -- and probably the current use of "paradigm" in popular culture is at least in part traceable back to Kuhn. The book is also a delightful read. What more could one want as a reader or aspire to as an author?

With that in mind, I enjoyed this nearsighted review of the book in the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, pointed out to me yesterday by a student. Some quotes:

On reading this book, one's first impression is of enthusiasm and vitality. The author clearly feels himself to be opening up a new world of appreciation and understanding. In the face of such force and charm, it seems mean to question the lasting value of the work; but it must be said that many of its features are already well established (Stopes-Roe, 1964, p. 158).

I would suggest, in fact, that if a reader wishes to bring out the real content of what Kuhn is saying, he may find it advantageous to try substituting ' basic theory' for every occurrence of 'paradigm' in the book. He will come across very few places where the sense suffers (many statements are made about legitimacy and rules, where the content is carried explicitly by an appropriate word); and a careful study of these will be more illuminating than the ubiquitous use of the odd word 'paradigm' (p. 159).
If your wonderful book isn't met at first with universal enthusiasm, take heart!


Interstellar Bill said...

My big beef with Kuhn is that he seems to lose sight of the objective truth-value of scientific discoveries. Water being H2O, our bodies being made of cells, and the stars being distant suns were all just as true before anybody knew them as they is now. Unlike paradigms, facts such as the laws of thermodynamics don't get revised. They're discovered, not invented, as are mere paradigms. Like it or not, the Earth is round and annually orbits the Sun, in spite of those ideas starting out as 'paradigms'.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I favor a moderate reading of Kuhn myself, on which he can more or less agree with all that.