Over at “The Best Blog in the Universe” the Aussie Anthropoid recently asked his readers to name examples of philosophers who ‘use history properly’. This led to an interesting exchange with Roberta Millstein on the merits of various people working in the history and philosophy of science. In the course of this exchange J.S.W. made the following observations,
“And that is the point: how much of the philosophy relies upon actual, as opposed to reconstructed, history? Popper’s or Kuhn’s accounts of science bear little resemblance to actual science (and indeed if taken seriously I think both accounts would stop science dead in its tracks).“
Ms Millstein responded as follows,
“Funny, a lot of scientists think otherwise… they see in Popper or Kuhn many echoes of the work they do. And Kuhn, in particular, developed his views on the philosophy of science from studying the history of science. Of course, he could have gotten it wrong. Any of us can get things wrong. But to say that he doesn’t get his philosophy of science out of the history of science is simply false.”
J.S.W. came back with,
“I also think, but this is very much my own view, that Kuhn imposed his notion of incommensurable revolutions on the history, and did not derive it from it. I think he came to the history with Wittgenstein and various other philosophical notions, and found what he was looking for. His historical work is excellent, but I do not think he derived his theoretical philosophy of science from it. For a start, none of the supposed revolutions look anything like what he claimed they would. Even the Copernican “Revolution” takes over 200 years by his own admission.”
Now I don’t intend to make a full-scale analysis of this exchange but I will make what I consider to be a couple of pertinent comments on the subject of Kuhn, the popularity of his philosophy and his use or rather his abuse of history.
I think the working scientists love affair with Kuhnian philosophy should really become the subject of a sociological or even psychological investigation. For some inexplicable reason scientist of all colours are enamoured with the Kuhnian paradigm concept. They really appear to love the idea that the field in which they work is defined by a paradigm. Now for the so-called soft sciences this made sense in the early days of Kuhn fever because they could finally claim the status of real science, having a paradigm, that had been denied to them by the positivists and falsificationists. However for the hard sciences this excuse doesn’t exist as they already had the coveted status. Why should this love of the paradigm be a problem? Elementary, dear Watson, nobody actually knows what a paradigm is! To quote Margaret Masterman’s legendary paper from 1965*, “On my counting he [Kuhn] uses ‘paradigm’ in not less than twenty-one different senses in his , possibly more, not less.” ‘His 1962’ is of course Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In his reply to Masterman Kuhn acknowledges that the definition of paradigm is anything but clear, however here and over the years his attempts at achieving clarity actually make the matter worse and not better. In my opinion working scientists claim adherence to Kuhn concept without having any real idea what it is that they are claiming adherence to.
My second comment concerns Mr Wilkins’ claim that Kuhn’s “historical work is excellent”. Now there are papers of Kuhn’s that certainly deserve this praise but the work that was responsible for him first formulating his philosophical theories, his The Copernican Revolution, is anything but excellent. In this work, which is unfortunately still regarded as a standard text, Kuhn does not so much write history as fabricate it; a strong and provocative claim on my part that I will, at least in outline, now justify.
Central to Kuhn Copernicus book, and also to his more general thesis of scientific revolutions, is his claim that the dominant Ptolemaic theory of mathematical astronomy was in crisis and that this crisis led to the emergence of the new heliocentric paradigm. Unfortunate for Kuhn this is simply not true and his claims of crisis are based on his own fantasy and not on any form of historical evidence. His second major problem is his implicit claim that the new heliocentric paradigm of Copernicus quickly toppled and replaced the old geocentric paradigm in a revolutionary manner. This is historically simply not true and can, as a historical falsification, be traced back to at least Galileo’s Dialogo. In fact there were at least seven major systems and numerous minor variation thereon competing for dominance in the field of mathematical astronomy in the period between 1500 and 1700 when the dust finally settled. This was not one paradigm being replaced by another in a quick revolutionary coup d’état but a slow evolution in a soup of many mutations. I shan’t go into details of the actual transition from Ptolemaic geocentricity to Keplerian (and not Copernican!) heliocentricity here, as it is something, which I intend to deal with in detail in a series of post in the future, however I will repeat that Kuhn’s version of the story is more fiction than fact and the level of historical knowledge at the time he was writing was sufficient for him to know that he wasn’t telling the truth.
* Margaret Masterman, The Nature of a Paradigm, in Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, ed. Imre Lakatos & Alan Musgrove, CUP 1970, pp 59 – 89.