On Kuhn and the scientific revolution

I had the welcome opportunity recently to read an essay by Dan Garber on why the scientific revolution wasn’t a scientific revolution. It’s bound for a collection of essays on the legacy of Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolution, and reading it gave me a chance to reflect a little on Kuhn. It seems to me Kuhn is right from high altitude, and he was certainly right to rebel against overly rationalistic histories of science, but I agree with Garber that Kuhn’s “structure” idea doesn’t help to map the actual terrain of the 16th-18th centuries. There wasn’t a single old paradigm, nor was there a single new paradigm, and thinkers shifted among available theories for wild mixes of reasons.  Some sought a firmer Biblical foundation for what they believed; some were excited by the potentials for astrology and alchemy; some preferred neoplatonic mystical rationalism over the more straight-laced Aristotelian empiricism; and others just thought the more “geometrochanical”, the better. (I just coined “geometrochanical” – and plan to use it now wherever I can.) To be sure, it wasn’t just elegance or simplicity that drove astronomers to reject Ptolemy in favor of Copernicus – and in this negative thesis, Kuhn was right. But the structural alternative he proposed to the rationalizing accounts of the scientific revolution was too simple and too crude.

It is tempting to say this: on the one hand (before Gutenberg) there was a comprehensive world view; and on the other (after 1750 or so) there was another program underway, one that is closer to what we know as “science”; and in between, there was a complicated, irrational mess. But this too oversimplifies. There were philosophical disagreements before Gutenberg, of course, and one can call them “in-house” or “within a paradigm” only if one is trying to tidy things up for imposing Kuhn’s structure. Same goes for the post-1750 scene. And the mess in the middle appears as a “mess” only if you’ve already tidied up the end points. For the people living in the mess, judgments were being made in a generally rational manner, given the options and the information that was available. The only safe general thesis is that, over time, lots of theories changed – but that’s hardly a thesis worth naming.

Still, there really was a scientific revolution – wasn’t there? What is it to affirm or deny this claim? For most occasions, the claim simply means that there was a substantive change in the way western Europeans thought of the natural world, and surely this is true. But there was equally substantive change over the years 800-1100; and 1800-2000; and perhaps, when you really study it, over any two or three century period in historical times. Why then do we give a special name to the 1450-1750 period? Is it just a leftover from those bad old days, when people oversimplified the early modern period and tried to see it as an accelerated “growth spurt” in our rational faculties? Is “the scientific revolution” itself a paradigm that should be rejected, now that we have better histories available?

It’s hard at this point not to start talking about Newton. The fact is that, before Newton, no one had a physics worth a bag of magic beans; and after Newton, we had a physics that could carry us to the moon and back. That, surely, is something. Then again, before Turing, we had human beings with pads of paper serving the role of “calculators”; and after Turing, we had the world wide web. Isn’t that something too? And let’s not forget before/after Edison, before/after Darwin, and before/after Jobs. All of these are in the same class, or could be registered as “smaller” and “greater” within a broad class, with the (so-called) scientific revolution somewhere in the middle. Each named figure is merely a convenient tag for a largish shift in practices, knowledge, or technology that required thousands of hands, and happened alongside many other shifts and changes that, as things panned out, didn’t lead to much of anything. Focus on the actual terrain, and the mountains merge comfortably into the landscape, surrounded by lesser peaks and foothills.

Maybe the lesson to be learned from all this is not to reify any historical “revolution” as anything more than a period that saw some (to our eyes now) eventful change, and leave it at that. This is perhaps the biggest, most obvious, and yet hardest-to-see error of Kuhn’s: to think there was a thing there that had a structure to be described.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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