The Legacy of Thomas Kuhn:
The Right Text at the Right Time

 

Clifford Geertz

 

 

The death of Thomas KuhnˇýTomţ to all who knew him, and considering his principled refusal to play the role of the intellectual celebrity he clearly was, an extraordinary number of people didˇ seems, like his professional life in general, on the way to being seen, in these days of pomos and culture wars, as but another appendix, footnote, or afterthought to his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, written in the fifties and published in 1962.1 Despite the fact that he produced a number of other important works, including the at least as original and rather more careful The Essential Tension (1977) and the meticulously researched Black-body Theory and the Quantum Discontinuity, 1894˝1912 (1978),2 whose tepid reception by the physics community, jealous as always of its origin myths, much pained him, it was Structure, as he himself always referred to it, that defined him both in the world's eyes and, reactively, in his own. He lived, anguished and passionate, in its shadow for nearly thirty-five years. His obituaries, which were numerous, concentrated almost exclusively on it, including a peculiarly unpleasant one, obtuse and disingenuous, in the London Economist, which ended with a taste/ less witticism about his undergoing a paradigm shift. And as, in the very last days of his battle with lung cancer, he finally brought his long-awaited, oft-previewed, second pass at its subject, how the sci/ ences change, near enough to completion to be released for publica/ tion, his reputation will be fueled by it for many years ahead.

 

The question then arises: why has Structure had such an enor/ mous impact? Why has everyone, from particle physicists and phi/ losophers to sociologists, historians, literary critics, and political theorists, not to speak of publicists, popularizers, and counterculture know-nothings, found in it something either to turn excitedly to/ ward their own ends or to react, equally excitedly, against? It can't just be that the book is bold, innovative, incisive, and marvelously well written. It is all that, and in addition scholarly and deeply felt. But there are other books, within the history of science and outside of it, with such virtues. Excellence and significance, however real, assure neither fame nor consequenceˇhow many people, after all, have attended to Suzanne Langer's Feeling and Form? In some myste/ rious and uncertain way, mysterious and uncertain even to Kuhn, who never ceased to be amazed, puzzled, and seriously troubled about his book's reception, Structure was the right text at the right time.

 

From about the 1920s (and especially after Karl Mannheim's Ideologie und Utopie was published in 1929), what came to be called ýthe Sociology of Knowledgeţ was applied to one field of intellec/ tual activity after another. Religion, history, philosophy, economics, art, literature, law, political thought, even sociology itself, were sub/ jected to a form of analysis that sought to expose their connections to the social context within which they existed, that saw them as human constructions, historically evolved, culturally located, and collectively produced. Some of this was crude and deterministic, Marxist reductionism or Hegelian historicism. Some of it was subtle and hesitant, a circumstantial tracing of local developments, a qual/ ified suggestion of specific relationships. But, crude or subtle, head/ long or tentative, it was, a few exceptions that remained exceptions aside, not applied to what had become the most prestigious, the most forbidding, and, by midcentury, the most consequential intel/ lectual activity of allˇthe natural sciences.

 

Set apart in a self-propelled world of thought, physics, chemis/ try, the earth sciences, even biology, remained unsoiled with soci/ ology, or anyway with the sociology of knowledge. What history there was was mostly practitioner history, monumental and whiggish to a fault; a story of landmark achievements leading, one on to the next, toward truth, explanation, and the present condition of things. What sociology there was, Max Weber's or Robert Merton's, remained largely ýexternalist,ţ concerned with the social effects of science, the institutional norms which govern it, or the social origin of scientists. So-called internalist mattersˇwhy and how the theo/ ries and practices of scientists take the forms they do, excite the interest they do, and develop the sway they doˇwere beyond its reach, explicable, if at all, by the energies of reason, the mysteries of genius, or the simple nature of things impressing themselves on the qualified mind.

 

It was this apparently unquestionable, supposedly uncrossable line separating science as a form of intellectual activity, a way of knowing, from science as a social phenomenon, a way of acting, that Kuhn in Structure first questioned and then crossed. He was, of course, not the only one to do so. Such diverse figures as Norwood Russell Hanson, Michael Polanyi, Paul Feyerabend, Mary Hesse, Imre Lakatos, and later on Michel Foucault and Ian Hacking, some of them critics of some of Kuhn's particular arguments, some of them rivals, some of them simply on trajectories of their own, crossed it as well from the fifties on. But, more than any of these, Kuhn, and Structure, cleared the path and, because it is not always either prudent or comfortable to be out in front in a raiding party, drew the fire of the Old Believers. Because the book, originally de/ signed as a maverick entry in Neurath, Carnap, and Morris's positi/ vist-inspired International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, was so schematic, sweeping, confident, and uncompromising, it set, by it/ self, the terms of debate. It became the very image of the study of science as a worldly enterprise; became, to coin a phrase, its domi/ nant paradigm, ripe for imitation, extension, disdain, or overthrow.

 

It is unnecessary here, and anyway impossible, to review again the hundreds of arguments, for and against, the theses that Structure advanced: that scientific change is discontinuous, alternating be/ tween long periods of ýnormalţ stability and short bursts of ýrevolu/ tionaryţ upheaval; that ýnormalţ scientific research is governed by established exemplars, the famous paradigms, that present models to the relevant community for puzzle-solving; that such paradigms are ýincommensurable,ţ and that scientists operating under different paradigms grasp one another's views but partially at best; that ýthe/ ory choice,ţ the movement from one paradigm to another, is better described as a matter of a gestalt-shift intellectual ýconversionţ than as a gradual, point-by-point confrontation of the abandoned view with the embraced one; and that the degree to which paradigms have crystallized in a science is a measure of its maturity, its ýhard/ nessţ or ýsoftness,ţ as well as its distance and difference from non/ scientific enterprises. Some of these formulations Kuhn himself modified in a series of appendices, restatements, replies, and ýsecond thoughts.ţ Many he thought were distorted and misunderstood, in/ deed misused, by his critics and his supporters alike. A few, most especially the claim that scientific change does not consist in a re/ lentless approach to a waiting truth but in the rollings and pitchings of disciplinary communities, he maintained against all attacks from all quarters.

 

It was, in fact, this last and most far-reaching of its propositions, that made Structure itself revolutionaryˇa call to arms for those who saw science as the last bastion of epistemic privilege or a sin against reason for those who saw it as the royal road to the really real. Whether or not theoretical discontinuities are as prominent in other fields as they supposedly are in physics; whether or not gestalt shifts and incommensurability are the norm in theory change or are ever thoroughgoing; whether theory and generalized statement, conceptual schemes and world views, are really the heart of the matter in the first placeˇall these can be left to be fought out in the very sort of study Structure instances and calls for. What remains as Kuhn's legacy, what enrages his most intransigent opponents and befuddles his most uncritical followers, is his passionate insistence that the history of science is the history of the growth and replace/ ment of self-recruiting, normatively defined, variously directed, and often sharply competitive scientific communities. Or, to quote Structure at last, rather than merely alluding to it: ýBoth normal science and revolutions are Í community-based activities. To dis/ cover and analyze them, one must first unravel the changing com/ munity structure of the sciences over time. A paradigm governs Í not a subject matter but rather a group of practitioners. Any study  of paradigm-directed or of paradigm-shattering research must begin by locating the responsible group or groups.ţ3

 

With this firm emplacement of ýthe sciencesţ in the world where agendas are pursued and careers made, where alliances are formed and doctrines developed, the world of group efforts, group clashes, and group commitmentsˇthe world, in short, we all of us live inˇStructure opened the door to the eruption of the sociology of knowledge into the study of those sciences about as wide as it could be opened. As the sociology of knowledge was, in the nature of the case, itself ridden with debate, division, and variety of view (as well as, in some of its more exuberant practitioners, a contrarian tone designed to set establishment teeth on edge), its engagement with the sciences was, and remains, more fraught than it had been with literature, history, or political thought, reminiscent, in fact, of its scuffles, prolonged and venomous, with religion. Once launched, however, this application of the categories, reasonings, procedures, and purposes characteristic of the human sciences to the practices of the sciences tendentiously called ýreal,ţ cannot now be reversed by even the most desperate of countermeasures. Despite cries of ýsubjectivism,ţ ýirrationalism,ţ ýmob psychology,ţ and, of course, the favored execration of the entrenched these days, ýrelativism,ţ all of which have been repeatedly launched against Structure (and against ýKuhn,ţ who has been accused, by people from whom one would expect a rather higher level of argument, of disbelieving in the existence of an external world), its agenda, whatever the fate of its particular assertions, is here to stay. The subjection of the sci/ ences to the attentions, sustained and superficial, informed and ig/ norant, of historians, sociologists, anthropologists, economists, even of science writers and English professors, unwilling to stop at the borders of disciplinary authority or to cower before the solemnities of Nobel laureates, grows apace. This particular genie, once out of the bottle, can't be stuffed back in, however frightening or ill/ behaved he (she?) may beˇor to whom.

 

That Kuhn was imperfectly aware of how unruly the genie would turn out to be, and how large, when he published Structure is plain enough. The great outburst of sociohistorical science studies, Edinburgh, Paris, Bielefeld, Boston, Jerusalem, San Diego, and so on, as well as the great outburst of jeremiads against them, largely postdated what Kuhn himself characterized in its opening pages as but a reflective essay about some things that had been bothering him since his drifting days in graduate school and in the Harvard Society of Fellows. The causes of all this critique and countercri/ tique, which soon spread to non- (or would-be) scientific fields as well, are various, ill-understood, and much discussed. The changing place of the sciences (and scientists) in contemporary culture, the moral concerns arising from their military applications, and their increasing distance from general intelligibility have all been ad/ vanced. So have the growing skepticism about the possibility of value-neutral inquiry, the deepening ambivalence toward rapid technological change, and the university explosions of the late six/ ties. For others, the end of modernity, New Age mysticism, femi/ nism, deconstruction, the decline of Western hegemony, the politics of research funding, or some combination of these, is the culprit.

 

Though Kuhn was cognizant of most of these issues, he was not himself so much concerned with them as he was with under/ standing how science got from Aristotle to Newton, from Newton to Maxwell, and from Maxwell to Einstein, and, given the world's contingencies, what the reasons for its improbable success in doing so might be. ýThe Bombţ debate aside, to which, so far as I know, he never publicly addressed himself, those reasons were hardly prominent, much less central, in the worried but still composed world of the late fifties and early sixties. They became so indepen/ dently after the appearance of Structure, and were then polemically attached to it by its unexpected, and unintended, mass audienceˇ positively, as a demystification of scientific authority, its re-enclo/ sure in time and society; negatively, as a revolt against it, a repu/ diation of objectivity, detachment, logic, and truth. He had prayed for rain and got a flood.

 

Whatever his attitude toward the works, meta-works, and meta/ meta works that collected around Structure after the late sixtiesˇ and it was decidedly mixedˇKuhn found himself in the position of having to state his views over and over again in various sorts of forms and forums. Not that those views were unclear or anything less than direct and straightforward in their first expression. If any/ thing, they may have been a bit too clear. But they had to make their way in a very different intellectual environment from the one in which they were originally formed. Having begun as a ýnormalţ physicist and become a ýnormalţ historian (his case-centered histo/ riography, learned apparently from James Bryant Conant, was as conventional as his arguments were heterodox), Kuhn was far from comfortable with doctrines that questioned either the possibility of genuine knowledge or the reality of genuine advances in it. Nor, for all his emphasis on sociological considerations in understanding theory change, was he ever anything less than scornful of the no/ tion that such considerations affect the truth value of theories of how light propagates or planets move.

 

Kuhn is not the first person to have accomplished, early on in a career, something which upset a lot of apple carts and who had then to come to terms with its far-reaching implications, some more than a bit unpalatable, as it became in its turn common wisdom. That is surely true of Gľdel, who seems rather to have wished his proof had come out the other way and spent a fair part of the rest of his life trying to establish the integrity of reason by other means. And it may have been true of Einstein as well, disturbed by the cleavage in physical theory introduced by his quantal conception of light, and seeking thereafter somehow to close it up again. Living through the aftershocks of an earthquake one has played a major role in bringing about can be as difficult, and as consequential, as producing the original tremor. One needs both serene conviction and settled self/ irony to be able to do it. The revolution that Kuhn (who had an embroidered motto hanging in his house which said ýGod Save This Paradigmţ) put in motion will be disturbing our certitudes, as it disturbed his, for a very long time to come.

 

 

Notes

 

1

T. S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.

2

T. S. Kuhn, The Essential Tension, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977; Kuhn, Black-body Theory and the Quantum Discontinuity, 1894˝ 1912, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

3

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, pp. 179˝180.

 

 


The Legacy of Thomas Kuhn: The Right Text at the Right Time, in:  Common Knowledge (New-York/N.Y./USA etc.: Oxford University Press), vol. 6 no. 1 (1997), pp. 1-5. 


cf. Available light: anthropological reflections on philosophical topics. Princeton/N.J./USA: Princeton University Press, pp. 160-166.


 

online source: http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=99830258

 


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