The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

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This is a landmark piece of intellectual history; the sort of work which is must referenced, but rarely read outright. The sort of book that is referenced in textbooks and deployed in master’s dissertations.

Published in the early 1960’s, this book marks an important watershed in the way we think about science as belief and practice; even the way scientists think about science. In this sense, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions assumes a critical, lynch-pin position in both the ongoing debate between logical positivism/analytic philosohpy and the ‘continental’ philosophical tradition, as well as the idea of modernism and postmodernism. This is a whole lot to chew on, so please go easy on me in advance.

Logical Positivism is the position that science, the more quantifiable the better, is the only  route to facts and knowledge. Call it scientific absolutism. This view clashed with more “metaphysical” philosophies, which felt that this “hard” approach ignored its own philosophical underpinnings. Meanwhile, the logical positivists felt that these other philosophies where unverifiable, and therefore dangerous nonsense.

Now there is a difference between the logical positivists – who in the light of some discoveries in quantum mechanics have not had much staying power – must be separated from more mainline analytic philosophy proponents, Karl Popper and Bertrand Russell being the best known of these. Thomas Kuhn fits in here. A serious proponent of hard science; he would be deeply sceptical of less verifiable ways of seeing the world, but in his book, he nonetheless is able to step back and make many powerful observations.

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions revolves around the idea of the paradigm. When somebody throws an apple up into the air and that apple falls to the ground, do you see gravity at work?  Or do you see the mutual sympathy of matter as opposed to ether? Seeing gravity is a paradigm; the most famous paradigm shift is the shift from an geo-centric universe to a solar one. You know, Galileo, Kepler, etc. It’s the mental and intellectual framework that allows individuals to organise,  make sense of and interpret phenomena.

The best part of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is watching Kuhn work out the implications of his idea of paradigms: there is not hard, ultimate scientific truth, just succeeded paradigms, which probably will never fully describe or capture all phenomena. Thus this analytic philosopher winds up dealing with a morass of what feels like relativism; one is tempted to draw out the experience of shifting from a Modernist perspective to a postmodern one. I admit that may be “a bit much,” in terms of the nature of the book; maybe reasonable self-critical might be a better term. Either way, Kuhn wrestles with the idea that science-with a capital S-may not be an absolute accumulation of facts, but merely an other human attempt make sense of the world.

This book is concise and insightful, disciplined yet epic in scope. And surprisingly short, yet full of interesting anecdotes about the process of scientific discovery.

 

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