Crisis What Crisis? Kuhn and the fabrication of history.

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 [1962], 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.


Filed under History of Astronomy, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

31 responses to “Crisis What Crisis? Kuhn and the fabrication of history.

  1. “Why should this love of the paradigm be a problem? Elementary, dear Watson, nobody actually knows what a paradigm is!”

    This reminds me of a Dilbert cartoon from long ago! Though Scott Adams has more recently engaged in a fair amount of woo, this strip rings true on a number of levels…

  2. Well, I’m glad I never bought Kuhn’s book on Copernicus, although I did see a used version recently at the Harvard Book Store and was thinking about it. Thanks for saving me a few bucks, Thony!

    • Actually John despite my negative comments on Kuhn’s central thesis there is quite a lot in the book that is good! The problem is to recognise which bits are good and which bad! When I originally read it nearly thirty years ago I was really impressed and I had to read and study an awful lot of books and papers before I realised just how wrong Kuhn was.

  3. As I remember things, the commonsense view of science before Kuhn defined it pretty much in terms of one-size-fits-all methodology. Debates–and boy were they arid!–focused on what was then called the context of justification because the context of discovery was thought to be merely contingent– biographical back story useful to supply some local color to elementary textbooks or at most interesting as an account of the obstacles that stood in the way of the triumphant chariot of empiricism. That science is path dependent in important ways was a very foreign notion indeed, at least on this side of the Atlantic where the suspicion that some of the concepts and practices have a privileged role as the conditions of possibility of particular sciences was dismissed as mere metaphysics.

    I don’t think that Kuhn was the reason that this picture changed. I think he played a role similar to Locke, another philosopher who was easier to quote than to pin down. At most he popularized (and misrepresented) a movement with other sources. I wouldn’t single out Wittgenstein, though. If I were going to point to figures who had more to do with it, I’d look to guys like Lakatos, N.R. Hanson, Gaston Bachelard, and George Canguilhem. Kuhn was like their ad man, on the evidence, quite a good one.

    It’s no mystery why scientists seized on the paradigm bit. Much of the actual practice of scientists is deadly dull, after all; and breaking the mold is a lot more exciting than doing something that looks a lot like financial accounting from the outside. It may not be good philosophy of science but it’s swell PR.

    • Kuhn was like their ad man, on the evidence, quite a good one.

      I think you are probably right to some extent but none of the other philosophers of science who propagated a historical base for their work came anywhere near being as well known or popular as Kuhn. Paradigm has entered the language in a way that is seldom for a philosophical concept and it’s actually on my list of words that should be banned from the vocabulary of journalists.

      Interestingly my route of knowledge goes Popper, Toulmin, Lakatos, Hanson and then finally Kuhn but then I tend to do most things arse-backwards.

      • In charitable moments, I have some tolerance for Kuhn’s use of the word paradigm and think of its fantastic ambiguity as a feature, not a bug. Traditional philosophies of science, whether they tried to define the sciences by reference to their data and their methods or whatever, evinced a disciplinary bias (or mere taste) for perfectly distinct categories and explanations with a hierarchical structure. Kuhn still honors this tradition by explaining sciences in terms of their paradigms as if he were playing the same game. What seems to be true, however, is that there is no definable single kind of thing that functions as the critical, strategic factor in the history of science, not problematics, research traditions, institutional structures, guild regulations,data types, methodological rules, epistemes, Kantian-style categories, or whatever. It isn’t that there is no structure, however. There’s all too much. In the words of the irritated lady in an old comedy record, “Sure learning about modern science is like having a swarm of bees in your head, but there they are.” The polysemy of the word paradigm is an indirect way of recognizing this carnavalic situation.

        Anyhow, there’s nothing special about the abuse of the word in public parlance. I get more exercised when I hear the word “deconstruction” used to mean any kind of analysis since that word, unlike paradigm, did once have a very specific meaning with a sense and reference to call its own. No use kicking against the pricks, however. Just as radioactive elements all eventual decay to lead, every idea eventual turns into some sort of undifferentiated cultural relativism.

      • thonyc

        I prefer Lakatos’ ‘scientific research programme’ but somehow it doesn’t sound as sexy as ‘paradigm’.

  4. Pingback: Kuhn & Copernicus « a simple prop

  5. I would never defend Kuhn wholesale… as Thony C. says above, there is both good and bad in his work. But both you and John Wilkins seem to think that Kuhn claimed that revolutions happened quickly. I’d like to see some evidence for that interpretation of Kuhn. Seems to me he very explicitly allows that they can vary in how long they take. And in the case of Copernicus, it’s pretty clear he doesn’t think that this revolution is over until Newton (I’m not sure why John says “by his own admission,” instead of just acknowledging that Kuhn thought that revolutions could occur over time).

    • Ah, you are Thony C…. how embarrassing (I came here from a John Lynch link). But I’d still like to know the answer to my question — where does Kuhn say that revolutions always happen quickly?

    • I would start by saying that Kuhn and his theories had a massive influence on my own development as a historian (and philosopher!) of science so I did, in the past, read him extensively and I hope deeply, unfortunately I no longer own a copy of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and don’t really have time at the moment to go to the university library to borrow one so what I am now going to say is based on my memories of Kuhn and so might well be faulty.

      I think that Kuhn’s claim that his Copernican Revolution culminates in the work of Newton actually contradicts his own theory. I also think that he and many others are wrong who see Newton as the culmination of Copernicus in anyway; they are in my opinion two different building sites but that I will deal with in a separate post. I see the problem as being implicit in Kuhn’s own terminology, he describes the (historical) development of science, as consisting of long-periods of ‘normal science’ punctuated by ‘scientific revolutions’. It is clear, at least to me, that his use of the word revolution implies a short (violent) upheaval, a putsch or as I wrote above a coup d’état and not something drawn out over 150 years. This becomes even clearer when one considers what, according to Kuhn, constitutes one of his revolutions. A scientific discipline is defined through its paradigm, we shall for the purposes of this explanation pretend that we know what a paradigm is, and a revolution consists of a ‘paradigm shift’ A paradigm shift comes about when the existing paradigm comes into a state of crisis as an explanatory model, that is too many phenomena have accumulated in the normal science phase that the existing paradigm can’t explain. At this point the existing paradigm is replaced by a new paradigm that can explain both the old and the new phenomena within the discipline this constituting the paradigm shift. This shift is presented by Kuhn, as a sort of gestalt switch, if I may be permitted to mix my models rather than my metaphors. As I have always understood Kuhn this is a quasi-instant change and not something drawn out over a longer period of time. Kuhn also does not take into consideration a development or evolution of the new explanatory model before it become accepted, which is exactly what occurred with the acceptance of heliocentricity.

      Of course I could be totally wrong in my interpretation of ‘St. Thomas of the Holy Paradigm’ if so, show me where I err.

      • I think you are confusing what Kuhn says about a particular individual’s “conversion” to a new paradigm, which he suggests is like a gestalt shift (and he was no doubt wrong about that) and the community’s conversion to the new paradigm which can take a very long time. People will stick with the old paradigm for all sorts of reasons — personal, financial, religious, cultural, ethical, aesthetic, and yes, empirical (because by its own standards, the old paradigm is doing just fine, thank you very much). Kuhn even notoriously suggests at one point that it really takes the adherents of the old paradigm dying off before the new paradigm is fully accepted (people less entrenched in the old ways are more likely to be accepting of the new paradigm). In the case of the Copernican Revolution, Kuhn would say that there there was initially still a lot going for the Ptolemaic system and not much advantage to the Copernican, unless one were into the simplicity and beauty of the new mathematics (and some were). But others required the evidence of Kepler, Galileo, and then Newton puts the final nail in the coffin. Of course, as you say, there was a lot more going on in Newtonian physics than an endorsement of Copernicus. But after Newton, it was simply no longer credible to be a Copernican. (again, according to Kuhn — all of this is according to Kuhn).

        The choice of the term “revolution” may thus have been a misleading one on his part, but I think it was intended to indicate that the old paradigm is entirely thrown out and (eventually) completely replaced with the new one (and again, I think he was probably wrong about that). Another parallel is supposed to be the way that people end up joining the revolution — as I suggest above, not a fully rational process according to Kuhn, but something like a “religious conversion” (a phrase which made Lakatos blow his top).

      • A wonderful reply Roberta (I may call you Roberta?) and I agree with almost everthing you say, in particular the constant Kuhn is probably wrong asides: in terms of the development of astronomy in the early modern period he certainly was in almost every detail.

        Kuhn even notoriously suggests at one point that it really takes the adherents of the old paradigm dying off before the new paradigm is fully accepted…

        I don’t think that the core of this thought originates with Kuhn, I have memories of having read it (with theory not paradigm) in the writings of one of the early quantum mechanics, I believe Dirac! I have been trying to refind it for some years now, do you or anybody else know who first wrote it? Or am I suffering from delusions in my dotage?

      • buermann

        “I don’t think that the core of this thought originates with Kuhn, I have memories of having read it (with theory not paradigm) in the writings of one of the early quantum mechanics, I believe Dirac!”

        It was Max Planck, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” Quoted, coincidentally, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, p.151:

      • jimhexis

        The notion that the old guard never accepts the new paradigm is simply false, even if there are always some hold outs. I lived through the triumph of plate tectonics in geology and remember how quickly geologists, even old geologists, signed on to the new model. There was one piece of evidence that seemed to be especially convincing: the zebra pattern of magnetic polarity reversals on either side of the mid-Atlantic ridge. The team that had measured these reversals went from geology department to geology department giving seminars—I attended one—and the effect was rather like the scene in old Perry Mason TV shows where the real killer, caught out at last in open court, blurts out his confession. Even Hamilton Berger is convinced.

        I remember one particular historical geography textbook from that era that appeared just at the end of the controversy. Its authors had taken the conventional continental cores approach to their subject and interpreted everything from that perspective through the umpteen pages of what was a very impressive brick of a book. They went ahead and published, but they had to add a kind of an appendix recanting their basic error because the book came out at just the wrong time. Note that what occurred wasn’t a gestalt switch. Everybody who read the journals already understood what the plate tectonic people had been claiming. What changed was the balance of the evidence. Things changed pretty fast, but it wasn’t a moment of Zen.

  6. Will Thomas

    See, I’ll defend Kuhn. Maybe it’s not “good history”, but the notion that philosophy does not narrate “good history” is not something that necessarily speaks against it. If you have a series of claims that fit together in some kind of theoretical framework, and then you redefine the framework while retaining the validity of most or all the claims (Einstein’s revision of Maxwell and Newton has to be the paradigmatic example!), that, to me, fits the bill.

    Now, this might not make science turn on a dime, so to speak, nor is it necessarily the way that science develops, but, taken in broad-brush, I can see the insight in it that makes scientists like it, and I can see the inadequacies that make philosophers and historians not like it. Personally, as a historian, I tend to scavenge my philosophical concepts and leave the rest, and I root for underdogs (and in the History of Science today, Kuhn and Popper are underdogs), so I’ll come out swinging for Kuhn.

  7. Wes

    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.

    This echoes my own thoughts on the topic almost exactly, mainly because I have never been able to find, in any scientific “revolution” (Copernican and Darwinian being the most celebrated) any point where one “incommensurable” paradigm replaced another. It seems to me that in every case, what we have are diverse thinkers drawing in ideas from their predecessors and contemporaries, critiquing them, and then adding some degree of speculation beyond the evidence which becomes the source for more critique and speculation in later generations.

    If you look at the most prominent actors in the heliocentric “revolution” of early modern science–say, Copernicus, Galileo, Tycho, Kepler, Campanella, Descartes, Newton, etc.–at what point does the “paradigm” shift? Which scientist is working under a paradigm which is “incommensurable” with what came before him? It’s like trying to pin down the exact point of “speciation”. I don’t think it can be done.

    And I may be wrong about this, but didn’t the term “Copernican Revolution” originate with Kant? And didn’t he develop the idea to serve his own philosophical interests, rather than to describe a historical event?

    • thonyc

      You are indeed right on Kant; it was he who first introduced the concept “Die kopernikanischen Wende” (The Copernican Turn) to signify what he conceived to be a new era in human thought. For Kant the Copernican Turn was the most important change of our perception of ourselves and our world in the entire history of mankind. Before Kant Copernicus was not regarded as being especially important in the history of science and Kant’s use of his name signals the beginning of the turning of Copernicus into a myth.

  8. Yes of course, please call me Roberta. I too recall that the idea of old adherents dying off before new views are fully accepted to predate Kuhn, but like you, I can’t remember who else said it. Sorry.

    • hoyawildcat

      It was Max Planck: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

  9. I’ve been intending to write a comment on old theories dying off, but I had to wait until I could double-check that I was remembering correctly. The earliest person I’ve found who says that theories change through the dying off of the old generation is Whewell, in the essay “Of the Transformation of Hypotheses in the History of Science” (May 19, 1851). The essay is not actually on the subject; he mentions it at the beginning as one of two ways in which theories succeed each other. This is one, but Whewell only briefly mentions it because the essay is on the other one (which involves gradual transformation). Whewell says:

    “The history of science suggests the reflection that it is very difficult for the same person at the same time to do justice to two conflicting theories. Take for example the Cartesian hypothesis of vortices and the Newtonian doctrine of universal gravitation. The adherents of the earlier opinion resisted the evidence of the Newtonian theory with a degree of obstinacy and captiousness which now appears to us quite marvellous: while on the other hand, since the complete triumph of the Newtonians, they have been unwilling to allow any merit at all to the doctrine of vortices. It cannot but seem strange, to a calm observer of such changes, that in a matter which depends upon mathematical proofs, the whole body of the mathematical world should pass over, as in this and similar cases they seem to have done, from an opinion confidently held, to its opposite. No doubt this must be, in part, ascribed to the lasting effects of education and early prejudice. The old opinion passes away with the old generation: the new theory grows to its full vigour when its congenital disciples grow to be masters. John Bernoulli continues a Cartesian to the last; Daniel, his son, is a Newtonian from the first. Newton’s doctrines are adopted at once in England, for they are the solution of a problem at which his contemporaries have been labouring for years. They find no adherents in France, where Descartes is supposed to have already explained the constitution of the world; and Fontenelle, the secretary of the Academy of Sciences at Paris, dies a Cartesian seventy years after the publication of Newton’s Principia.”

  10. Duncan Parks

    Wow – it seems like this is more about what the author is reading into Kuhn, than what his books say. I teach with the text (The Copernican Revolution), and I don’t think Kuhn ever said that the Ptolemaic theory was “in crisis”; further, he describes the developments of Brahe, Kepler, and Newton as “Completing the Revolution”. He describes and gives credit to Tycho for reconciling the Copernican model with a fixed Earth, then points out how Kepler’s model makes the Tychonian obsolete. Hardly a putsch, by his own history.

    The book is concise, readable, and hardly comprehensive as a history, but as an approachable way to walk students through the scientific issues and social context of the time, it is unsurpassed.

    • hoyawildcat

      Here are couple things Kuhn said about Ptolemy:

      “If awareness of anomaly plays a role in the emergence of new sorts of phenomena, it should surprise no one that a similar but more profound awareness is prerequisite to all acceptable changes of theory. On this point historical evidence is, I think, entirely unequivocal. The state of Ptolemaic astronomy was a scandal before Copernicus’ announcement” (1970, p.67)

      “When Aristarchus’s suggestion [i.e. heliocentrism] was made, the vastly more reasonable geocentric system had no needs that a heliocentric system might even conceivable have fulfilled. The whole development of Ptolemaic astronomy, both its triumphs and its breakdown, falls in the centuries after Aristarchus’s proposal. Besides, there were no obvious reasons for taking Aristarchus seriously. Even Copernicus’ more elaborate proposal was neither simpler nor more accurate than Ptolemy’s system. Available observational tests, as we shall see more clearly below, provided no basis for a choice between them” (1970, p.75-76)

  11. hoyawildcat

    IMHO, the best way to understand Kuhn is to (1) read his book in its entirety; and then (2) read his book again but skip ALL of the historical examples (e.g. Copernicus and Lavoisier.) Not surprisingly, it’s a much quicker read the second time! The second reading allows one to focus exclusively on Kuhn and his ideas, without the historical digressions. This does NOT mean that Kuhn’s historical examples are irrelevant or erroneous. They obviously are relevant (and largely accurate) because Kuhn relies on them to advance his argument. Rather, they tend to obscure Kuhn’s thesis, i.e. his “train of thought.”.

    Also, I don’t think Kuhn should be considered a “philosopher of science” in the strict sense. Rather, he was a historian of science who attempted to describe “how science ACTUALLY works,” which obviously has some bearing on the philosophy of science (epistemology in its modern garb). In that regard, Kuhn is fundamentally different than Popper, who was more interested in how science SHOULD work (falsifiability, etc.). Popper was challenging the “positivist paradigm” (inductivism) in general, and the Vienna Circle in particular, and in so doing he introduced a few historical examples to buttress his case, e.g. relativity. Thus, Kuhn’s work was descriptive whereas Popper’s was prescriptive (or normative). To borrow a Kuhnian concept, Kuhn and Popper are basically “incommensurable,” which, to my mind highlights the enormous value of Lakatos, who tried to synthesize their work, and also Feyerabend, whom I believe came closest to the mark on both the history and philosophy of science (i.e. “anything goes”).

    One last thing about Kuhn’s book. Although the book obviously focuses on “scientific revolutions,” its greatest value lies in its discussion of Normal Science and “puzzle solving.” Unfortunately, scientists (e.g. geologists in the 1960s) latched onto “paradigm shifts” to explain “the revolution in Earth science, i.e. Plate Tectonics.) In that regard, Kuhn’s book almost became a cookbook, or a “how to” book — a “Dummy’s Guide to Scientific Revolutions” — not unlike Lenin’s or Mao’s writings on fomenting political revolution, It makes one wonder whether the 60s geologists who talked about “a new paradigm in Earth science” (and those in other disciplines who are similarly obsessed) suffered from “paradigm envy.” I just wish Kuhn had chosen a different title, focusing on Normal Science, because Kuhn’s great book (and it is great) is about much, much more than scientific revolutions, which IMO is the weakest part of his thesis.

  12. Why does anyone take Kuhn seriously at all? As you note, even his own examples don’t work, and even if they did, they would say nothing about how science works, but rather about how it is hindered by external forces.

    Let’s assume his ideas are valid science. Then they will just be replaced by the next paradigm, so we can ignore them! 🙂

    • I totally reject Kuhn’s concept of scientific revolutions and paradigm shifts and I think his historical arguments to support his theories are highly defective, however his concepts of normal science, puzzle solving and the scientific community were important contributions to the HPS debate.

  13. For some inexplicable reason scientist of all colours are enamoured with the Kuhnian paradigm concept.

    Isn’t the obvious answer that they’re a) in it to overthrow some more powerful senior scientist and b) did in fact learn some organa and norms in their early days?

  14. … Johannes Valentinus Andreä. … era el de un teólogo alemán que a principios del siglo XVII describió la imaginaria comunidad de la Rosa – Cruz – que otros luego fundaron, a imitación de lo prefigurado por él.

    The fact that latter-day scientists buy into a philosophy isn’t evidence of its historicity or. I also doubt without Star Trek inventing fictional talking computers if the refrigerator would have been invented as it is now.

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