Kuhn as Empiricist

Thomas Kuhn’s career quite possibly occurred at precisely the wrong time for him.  By “for him,” I mean that he did his work at a time when ideology was thick, and when revolutionary thought pervaded America, and it resulted in his having to spend the rest of his career correcting everyone else on what he meant.  (The length restrictions placed on his monograph, and his ability to cause problems for himself by creating analogies that used words like “religious conversion,” only made things worse.)  Setting the mood and the stage of the period, and to do it accurate, is no easy task, so I leave it for another post.  But the reader should not require too much priming for this post, considering that the 60’s were about social change, conservatives were suspicious, being that it was the Cold War era, and philosophy of science was dominated by logic-first, physics-minded thinkers, such as the logical positivists not named Popper and Karl R. Popper.  No doubt, I will have more to say in later posts about the period that basically shaped the way we think about history and philosophy of science as a single entity, HPS.  For this post, to properly motivate it, let me fill the reader in on my background experience, insofar as the way Kuhn was taught to me.

In one case, Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions wasn’t even read in class, only excerpts, which can be extremely misleading.  In a history course, Kuhn was presented as a radical revolutionary, and we read half-page sections of Kuhn.  Without explicit emphasis that Kuhn was a Marxist (and this may have been a sense in which Popper understood him, but I will need to explore more of Popper’s thought), Kuhn was related to Hegel, emphasizing the dialectical, the thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.  Students began speaking up, as though it were their own ideas and not primed, stating that “Kuhn might have been a Marxist.”  Well, I had by then learned to not contradict a professor with an ideological ax to grind, so I wasn’t about to mention the fact that Marx was a liberal Hegelian who thought we could just jump to the end of history, whereas, even if one could construe Kuhn as a Hegelian, Kuhn very explicitly makes clear that the history of science cannot be seen as moving toward a final telos.  Nonetheless, this is one of the odd sorts of construals one may come across, when taking classes that involves SSR.  Another class, a humanities course geared toward sociological considerations, presented Kuhn in the way that Lakatos would have presented him, as one who saw science as the product of mob psychology.  This seems to be standard fair among many SSK (sociology of scientific knowledge) scholars, as far as presentations of Kuhn’s work.  What I got out of that course was that Kuhn was probably saying something about individual psychology more so than collective psychology, not that SSR purports science to be a social construction without anything like an objective foundation.  There are even very good scholars (tops, in fact) that conflate the Kantian element of psychology with something that Kuhn was trying to say.  For anyone who doesn’t know, thinkers like Kant and Hume are foundations of modern cognitive science, and their lingo is never absent from a single cognitive science reading group I attend.  So if you happen to be reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article on “The Unity of Science,” don’t take the author’s word for it that the “less literal” interpretation is the “world-picture”: there simply was no difference for Kuhn between “world” and “world-picture,” and the Kantian element seen is a product of psychology’s underpinnings as a discipline.

The only case in which I have seen Kuhn get a really fair shake is thanks to his friend, Lisa Lloyd, who has done a great service to him, by presenting Kuhn as Kuhn was to her students, namely, as an empiricist.  In many, many of his subsequent publications after SSR, he was defending his position, which, for any scientist willing to give a sympathetic reading to SSR, was nothing more than a description of what goes on in science.  The kind of debate setting that Kuhn presents in “Objectivity, Value Judgment, and Theory Choice”is in no way different from the kind of account that is given in Planck’s retelling of crisis in Where is Science Going? Or Einstein and Infeld’s The Evolution of Physics.  The point of all of this is that no author, save Nietzsche, can claim to be so misunderstood as Kuhn, and the appended essay, “Kuhn as Empiricist,” (click here) is a rough first attempt to get one aspect of this point across.

(Note: I intend to further develop this paper, over time, so suggestions and comments are welcome.)

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