Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Reading update...

I was dragging my feet a little towards the end, but I finally finished Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I highly recommend it. It's a very functionalist, pragmatic understanding of science (unbelievably pragmatist in flavor - it was a good one to read right after reading The Metaphysical Club). I wish he contrasted his project with that of Popper earlier because I think people get the wrong idea in comparing the two. Kuhn is not interested in epistemology. When he finally picks up Popper towards the end of the book, he points out that he had only used the word "truth" once in the whole book (and that was when he was quoting Francis Bacon). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is not about establishing truth - it is about the process by which a common set of understandings, definitions, theories, etc. (a "paradigm") emerges historically to be productive in explaining observed phenomenon. It is about the emergence, endurance, and reformation of distinct ways of talking about and understanding the world.

I've started reading a somewhat more obscure book - David M. Hart's Forged Consensus: Science, Technology, and Economic Policy in the United States, 1921-1953. I think it's fairly well known in the science and technology policy community, but it's not a landmark book like Kuhn. Very good so far - he's trying to take the whole Vannevar Bush story of the emergence of science policy in the mid-forties, and stretch it back to Hoover's time as Commerce Secretary in the twenties, and incorporate a lot of other actors and factions that are usually excluded from the traditional Vannevar Bush narrative.


  1. You might also want to check out Feyerabend's _Against Method_, Lakatos's _The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes_,and most especially Polanyi's _Personal Knowledge_.

  2. You should read Davidson's essay "The Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme" as an example of an anti-Kuhnian pragmatism. This is more where I fall on matters.

  3. Speaking of scientific method books - I've been meaning to ask you, Evan - did I give you my copy of Durkheim's Rules of Sociological Method? I can't seem to find it.

  4. For those interested, the Davidson essay that Evan mentions is here:

    I just read the first two pages of it, and I'm wondering to what extent this is really "anti-Kuhnian". The version of Kuhn I read was the 1969 edition which came with a new postscript responding to criticisms. One of the criticisms he responded to was this one that Davidson makes accusing him of relativism (which of course is a very common accusation). He flatly rejects that he's trying to say paradigms are wholly unable to be translated from one to the other (which, at least in the first two pages, is how Davidson characterizes him). He notes that large portion of the language employed in different paradigms is shared, even if a fundamental element of it is adjusted (with ramifications for all other elements). Indeed, this is why revolutions can even occur - this is why people can be persuaded. If a translation was truly impossible, persuasion wouldn't really be in the cards.

    Kuhn talks a lot about gestalt-switches (like the duck/rabbit pictures that look like a different picture to different people). It's not that reality cannot be conceived in both ways by the same person - it's just that reality perceived in a certain way (say, Newtonian physics) cannot be simultaneously maintained with the fundamental rearrangement introduced by Einsteinian physics. You can see the world in a Newtonian way, and then you can see the world in an Einsteinian way, but you cannot see them both together - you can't see the duck and the rabbit simultaneously in the gestalt experiments. Paradigms, in that sense, are an all or nothing compendium of understandings, which is why I paradigm shift is so revolutionary.

    That is very different from relativism, and Kuhn makes quite clear he's no relativist.


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