Kuhn Was Right

This past weekend, Princeton hosted a workshop in honor of Thomas Kuhn called "Structure at 50: Assessing and Reassessing Kuhn and his Legacy." What follows is a guest post by Princeton Ph.D. candidate Michael Barany summarizing the days' events. 

Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions turned fifty this year.

Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions had no right to go beyond this first edition
Penned as a contribution to the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science (and far exceeding its allotted word count), the work scarcely had any right to exist, much less to win a wide readership, much much less to become one of the most influential books ever written.  

This much was abundantly clear from the talks and discussion at a star-studded workshop titled “Structure at 50: Assessing and Reassessing Kuhn and his Legacy” at Princeton University this past Friday and Saturday.  Kuhn and his Structure are two things people love to love and love to hate, often at once, and often without quite being able to articulate why.

The workshop aimed to bring together a group of historians and philosophers intimately familiar with Kuhn and his work to account, among other things, for the failure of Kuhn’s own project for the history and philosophy of science, even as his work so profoundly shaped the respective fields.  

(Mostly absent at this workshop, as several noted, was the relativist strand of the sociology of science that Kuhn vehemently disowned, though it may have been his greatest legacy.)  

The workshop’s Kuhn was a bundle of paradoxes, and it was strange and exhilarating to watch multiple generations of Kuhnians wrestle with competing impulses to exalt and disavow, historicize and philosophize.

Among the philosophizers (which included both philosophers and historians), M. Norton Wise began the workshop by considering the history of the science of snowflakes as a succession of collections, models, and simulations that challenged Kuhn’s paradigm-centered model of history.  

He was followed by Philip Kitcher, who called attention to Kuhn’s overriding commitment to the reasonableness of scientists and the progress of science while extracting a set of philosophical lessons from Structure.  Nancy Cartwright, on day 2 of the workshop, mounted a vigorous defense of a Kuhn-inspired voluntarist epistemology.  

A highlight of the workshop was Cathryn Carson’s interpretation of the transcendental phenomenology and historicism of Husserl, Heidegger, Cassirer, and a few others, launched from a moving reflection on the experience of reading Kuhn.

The historicizers included Mary Jo Nye, who used her recent scholarship on Michael Polanyi to call attention to Kuhn’s disengagement with the politics of science, and Joel Isaac, who artfully situated Kuhn in a stream of debates (following Wittgenstein) on institutions and rule-following in an attempt to explain Kuhn’s puzzling relationship with his surrounding philosophical community.  

John Heilbron, to whom (I learned) we owe Structure’s footnotes, closed the workshop with a tour-de-force reflection on Kuhn’s institutional and intellectual trajectory that distilled Kuhn’s confounding way of reconstructing the thoughts of historical figures by examining his interpretations of Planck and Bohr.

One could be forgiven for thinking, in the end, that we have never been Kuhnian. Though Structure inspired a great many historians, its mode of history is a far cry from the context-sensitive social and intellectual history that has dominated the field since his time. Structure antagonized a great many philosophers, but his propositions were too half-baked and ill-formulated to take on directly and his commitment to incommensurability was (all seemed to agree) at best a red herring.  

Kuhn's Structure remains a very different book for different communities of scholars.  Like the iconic duck-rabbit, Kuhn's work looks a bit odd from either perspective.
We heard of Kuhn’s formative role in most speakers’ biographies (Carson recalled reading Structure at age 16 alongside Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance), but mostly skepticism about Kuhn’s influence on the speakers’ disciplines.  I learned over coffee that I was not alone in first reading Kuhn well after my induction into the field of history of science---sometimes, a book’s influence owes much to the self-perpetuating character of influence.

Near the workshop’s conclusion, Wise observed that Kuhn worked closely with very few students, and (often bitterly) disagreed with all of them.  Who could blame those students?  Kuhn’s commitment to the intelligibility of history and the reasonableness of historical actors was, in a sense I had not previously appreciated, at bottom both anti-historical and anti-philosophical.

Unmoored from the messy realities of historical context and the weighty tethers of analytical reasoning alike, Kuhn’s Structure lived and thrived in a methodological no man’s land while espousing a curious patriotism for that which it could never be.  Several speakers noted the irony that the theorist of paradigms and normal science unselfconsciously believed he could be accepted as a philosopher without having any formal training in the discipline.

Not lost on the workshop was its own ironic predicament.  The historians (even when philosophizing) told historical narratives and the philosophers (even when offering historical context) strung together philosophical propositions. Historians asked historical questions, philosophers philosophical ones; historians were frustrated with generalities and revelled in particularizations while philosophers ached for semantic precision and relished definitive pronouncements.  

There were moments (long stretches, even) of mutual intelligibility, but several tellingly observed that the closed-in work of “normal science” was very much in the room.  Solutions to the problem of Structure were enmeshed in the very social order described therein.  Kuhn was right.

Michael Barany is a student in Princeton’s Program in History of Science.  His work on the history and sociology of modern mathematics is at http://www.princeton.edu/~mbarany


Thanks for the lovely summary, Michael. It raises some issues I've been pondering lately.

I've recently been teaching parts of _Structure_ to college freshmen (it's part of our great books program). While going through the book once again, I was struck by Kuhn's antihistorical pictures of human psychology, community, etc. (I'll leave its antiphilosophical nature aside for now, though it's probably the more important point.) Yet, as I struggled with this aspect of the text, I wondered how the problem could be avoided. I've also been reading David Bloor this week--perhaps you have worked through his sociology of math. Bloor's Strong Programme--the "relativist strand of the sociology of science," you mentioned--is full of ahistorical premises, as is neopragmatist history/sociology. All of this makes me wonder if Kuhn was really that sinful in his ahistoricism.

I think the standard historian's response to me would be something about "actor's categories," but that is surely a cop-out.

Hey! Thanks again for the post.

Hi Lee! It seemed from the workshop that issues like this have been on a lot of minds lately. At a few points we explicitly discussed how one teaches Kuhn to freshmen, and why (or whether, for there were some doubts about this) it remains such a provocative resource.

I thought my HoS grad student colleague Evan Hepler-Smith put it well by observing that even where Kuhn is strikingly antihistorical, he remains in an important way deeply _historicist_. One common thread in the talks I classed as "the philosophizers" that united historians and philosophers was the value placed on Kuhn's commitment to seeing scientific knowledge as a mutable part of history, even if his own way of forumulating that history gives us pause.

I think that is also an important aspect of Bloor's work, though his particular approach to history is of course quite different from Kuhn's. My main point of entry into history of science was through the writings of the Edinburgh School (Bloor, but also Shapin and Schaffer and a few others), and so while many speakers' particular characterizations of the experience of encountering Kuhn were foreign to me, I could definitely identify with the sentiment behind them from my experience with Edinburgh School writers. (I fear I may have inadvertently offended Kitcher in the Q&A after his talk by suggesting that his argument paralleled the interpretation of Kuhn put forward by Barry Barnes in T.S. Kuhn and Social Science.)

Perhaps one lesson is that antihistorical thinking and writing are not categorically to be avoided. Heilbron recounted Kuhn's interview with Bohr where Kuhn interrogated the thinking behind on of Bohr's most influential papers to such an extent that Bohr conceded (in jest, one gathers) that Kuhn was right and he really shouldn't have published the thing in the first place. Heilbron's lesson, which he put much more masterfully than I can here, was that even if on every level we might object to Structure, it would be absolutely the wrong conclusion that Structure shouldn't have been written.

"Carson recalled reading Structure at age 16 alongside Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" ... Thanks for that bit of trivia, it was the same age, simultaneously those two books for me too. I remember exactly where I was during key paragraphs from each now two decades ago. Nice sense of kinship from that. - Kathleen

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