The Malthusian problem for scientific research

It seems that there is a kind of inverse Malthusian structure to scientific research and knowledge. Topics for research and investigation multiply geometrically, while actual research and the creation of knowledge can only proceed in a selective and linear way. This is true in every field — natural science, biology, social science, poetry. Take Darwin. He specialized in finches for a good while. But he could easily have taken up worms, beetles, or lizards, or he could have turned to conifers, oak trees, or cactuses. The evidence of speciation lies everywhere in the living world, and it is literally impossible for a generation of scientists of natural history to study them all.

Or consider a topic of current interest to me, the features that lead to dysfunctional performance in organizations large and small. Once we notice that the specific workings of an organization lead to harmful patterns that we care about a great deal, it makes sense to consider case studies of an unbounded number of organizations in every sector. How did the UAW work such that rampant corruption emerged? What features of the Chinese Communist Party led it to the profound secrecy tactics routinely practiced by its officials? What features of the Xerox Corporation made it unable to turn the mouse-based computer interface system into a commercial blockbuster? Each of these questions suggests the value of an organized case study, and surely we would learn a lot from each study. But each such study takes a person-year to complete, and a given scholar is unlikely to want to spend the rest of her career doing case studies like these. So the vast majority of such studies will never be undertaken. 

This observation has very intriguing implications for the nature of our knowledge about the world — natural, biological, and social. It seems to imply that our knowledge of the world will always be radically incomplete, with vast volumes of research questions unaddressed and sources of empirical phenomena unexamined. We might take it as a premise that there is nothing in the world that cannot be understood if investigated scientifically; but these reflections suggest that we are still forced to conclude that there is a limitless range of phenomena that have not been investigated, and will never be.

It is possible that philosophers of physics would argue that this “incompleteness” result does not apply to the realm of physical phenomena, because physics is concerned to discover a small number of fundamental principles and laws about how the micro- and macro-worlds of physical phenomena work. The diversity of the physical world is then untroubling, because every domain of physics can be subsumed under these basic principles and theories. Theories of gravitation, subatomic particles and forces, space-time relativity, and the quantum nature of the world are obscure but general and simple, and there is at least the hope that we might arrive at a comprehensive physics with the resources needed to explain all physical phenomena, from black-hole pairs to the nature of dark matter.

Whatever the case with physics, the phenomena of the social world are plainly not regulated by a simple set of fundamental principles and laws. Rather, heterogeneity, exception, diversity, and human creativity are fundamental characteristics of the social world. And this implies the inherent incompleteness of social knowledge. Variation and heterogeneity are the rule; so novel cases are always available, and studying them always leads to new insights and knowledge. Therefore there are always domains of phenomena that have not yet been examined, understood, or explained. This conclusion is a bit like the diagonal proof of the existence of irrational numbers that drove Cantor mad: every number can be represented as an infinite decimal, and yet for every list of infinite decimals it is simple to generate another infinite decimal that is not on the list.

Further, in this respect it may seem that the biological realm resembles the social realm in these respects, so that biological science is inherently incomplete as well. Even granting that the theories of evolution and natural selection are fundamental and universal in biological systems, the principles specified in these theories guarantee diversification and variation in biological outcomes. As a result we might argue that the science of living systems too is inherently incomplete, with new areas of inquiry outstripping the ability of the scientific enterprise to investigate them. In a surprising way the uncertainties we confront in the Covid-19 crisis seem to illustrate this situation. We don’t know whether this particular virus will stimulate an enduring immunity in individuals who have experienced the infection, and “first principles” in virology do not seem to afford a determinate answer to the question.

Consider these two patterns. The first is woven linen; the second is the pattern of habitat for invasive species across the United States. The weave of the linen is mechanical and regular; it covers all parts of the space with a grid of fiber. The second is the path-dependent result of invasion of habitat by multiple invasive species. Certain areas are intensively inhabited, while other areas are essentially free of invasive species. The regularity of the first image is a design feature of the process that created the fabric; the irregularity and variation of the second image is the consequence of multiple independent and somewhat stochastic yet opportunistic exploratory movements of the various species. Is scientific research more similar to the first pattern or the second?

I would suggest that scientific research more resembles the second process than the first. Researchers are guided by their scientific curiosity, the availability of research funding, and the assumptions about the importance of various topics embodied in their professions; and the result is a set of investigations and findings that are very intensive in some areas, while completely absent in other areas of the potential “knowledge space”.

Is this a troubling finding? Only if one thought that the goal of science is to eventually provide an answer to every possible empirical question, and to provide a general basis for explaining everything. If, on the other hand, we believe that science is an open-ended process, and that the selection of research topics is subject to a great deal of social and personal contingency, then the incompleteness of science comes as no surprise. Science is always exploratory, and there is much to explore in human experience.

(Several earlier posts have addressed the question of defining the scope of the social sciences; linklinklinklinklink.)

Discovering the nucleus

In the past year or so I’ve been reading a handful of fascinating biographies and histories involving the evolution of early twentieth-century physics, paying attention to the individuals, the institutions, and the ideas that contributed to the making of post-classical physics. The primary focus is on the theory of the atom and the nucleus, and the emergence of the theory of quantum mechanics. The major figures who have come into this complex narrative include Dirac, Bohr, Heisenberg, von Neumann, Fermi, Rutherford, Blackett, Bethe, and Feynman, along with dozens of other mathematicians and physicists. Institutions and cities played a key role in this story — Manchester, Copenhagen, Cambridge, Göttingen, Budapest, Princeton, Berkeley, Ithaca, Chicago. And of course written throughout this story is the rise of Nazism, World War II, and the race for the atomic bomb. This is a crucially important period in the history of science, and the physics that was created between 1900 and 1960 has fundamentally changed our view of the natural world.


One level of interest for me in doing this reading is the math and physics themselves. As a high school student I was fascinated with physics. I learned some of the basics of the story of modern physics before I went to college — the ideas of special relativity theory, the hydrogen spectrum lines, the twin-slit experiments, the puzzles of radiation and the atom leading to the formulation of the quantum theory of electromagnetic radiation, the discoveries of superconductivity and lasers. In college I became a physics and mathematics major at the University of Illinois, though I stayed with physics only through the end of the first two years of course work (electricity and magnetism, theoretical and applied mechanics, several chemistry courses, real analysis, advanced differential equations). (Significantly for the recent reading I’ve been doing, I switched from physics to philosophy while I was taking the junior level quantum mechanics course.) I completed a mathematics major, along with a philosophy degree, and did a PhD in philosophy because I felt philosophy offered a broader intellectual platform on questions that mattered.

So I’ve always felt I had a decent layman’s understanding of the questions and issues driving modern physics. One interesting result of reading all this historical material about the period of 1910-1935, however, is that I’ve realized what large holes there are in my mental map of the topics, both in the physics and the math. And it is genuinely interesting to realize that there are deeply fascinating questions in this terrain which I haven’t really got an inkling about. It is energizing to know that it is entirely possible to open up new areas of knowledge and inquiry for oneself. 
Of enduring interest in this story is the impression that emerges of amazingly rapid progress in physics in these few decades, with major discoveries and new mathematical methods emerging in weeks and months rather than decades and centuries. The intellectual pace in places like Copenhagen, Princeton, and Göttingen was staggering, and scientists like Bohr, von Neumann, and Heisenberg genuinely astonish the reader with the fertility of their scientific abilities. Moreover, the theories and mathematical formulations that emerged had amazingly precise and unexpected predictive consequences. Physical theory and experimentation reached a fantastic degree of synergy together. 
The institutions of research that developed through this period are fascinating as well. The Cavendish lab at Cambridge, the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, the math and physics centers at Göttingen, and the many conferences and journals of the period facilitated rapid progress of atomic and nuclear physics. The USSR doesn’t come into the story as fully as one would like, and it is intriguing to speculate about the degree to which Stalinist dogmatism interfered with the development of Soviet physics. 
I also find fascinating in retrospect the relations that seem to exist between physics and the philosophy of science in the twentieth century. In philosophy we tend to think that the discipline of the philosophy of science in its twentieth-century development was too dependent on physics. That is probably true. But it seems that the physics in question was more often classical physics and thermodynamics, not modern mathematical physics. Carnap, for example, gives no serious attention to developments in the theory of quantum mechanics in his lectures, Philosophical Foundations of Physics. The philosophy of the Vienna Circle could have reflected relativity theory and quantum mechanics, but it didn’t to any significant degree. Instead, the achievements of nineteenth-century physics seem to have dominated the thinking of Carnap, Schlick, and Popper. Logical positivism doesn’t seem to be much influenced by modern physics, including relativity theory, quantum theory, and mathematical physics.  Post-positivist philosophers Kuhn, Hanson, and Feyerabend refer to some of the discoveries of twentieth-century physics, but their works don’t add up to a new foundation for the philosophy of science. Since the 1960s there has been a robust field of philosophy of physics, and the focus of this field has been on quantum mechanics; but the field has had only limited impact on the philosophy of science more broadly. (Here is a guide to the philosophy of physics provided to philosophy graduate students at Princeton; link.)

On the other hand, quantum mechanics itself seems to have been excessively influenced by a hyper version of positivism and verificationism. Heisenberg in particular seems to have favored a purely instrumentalist and verificationist interpretation of quantum mechanics — the idea that the mathematics of quantum mechanics serve solely to summarize the results of experiment and observation, not to allow for true statements about unobservables. It is anti-realist and verificationist.

I suppose that there are two rather different ways of reading the history of twentieth-century physics. One is that quantum mechanics and relativity theory demonstrate that the physical world is incomprehensibly different from our ordinary Euclidean and Kantian ideas about ordinary-sized objects — with the implication that we can’t really understand the most fundamental level of the physical world. Ordinary experience and relativistic quantum-mechanical reality are just fundamentally incommensurable. But the other way of reading this history of physics is to marvel at the amount of new insight and clarity that physics has brought to our understanding of the subatomic world, in spite of the puzzles and anomalies that seem to remain. Mathematical physical theory made possible observation, measurement, and technological use of the microstructure of the world in ways that the ancients could not have imagined. I am inclined towards the latter view.

It is also sobering for a philosopher of social science to realize that there is nothing comparable to this history in the history of the social sciences. There is no comparable period where fundamental and enduring new insights into the underlying nature of the social world became possible to a degree comparable to this development of our understanding of the physical world. In my view as a philosopher of social science, that is perfectly understandable; the social world is not like the physical world. Social knowledge depends on fairly humdrum discoveries about actors, motives, and constraints. But the comparison ought to make us humble even as we explore new theoretical ideas in sociology and political science.

If I were asked to recommend only one out of all these books for a first read, it would be David Cassidy’s Heisenberg volume, Beyond Uncertainty. Cassidy makes sense of the physics in a serious but not fully technical way, and he raises important questions about Heisenberg the man, including his role in the German search for the atomic bomb. Also valuable is Richard Rhodes’ book, The Making of the Atomic Bomb: 25th Anniversary Edition.

Quine’s indeterminacies

W.V.O. Quine’s writings were key to the development of American philosophy in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. His landmark works (“Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” “Ontological Relativity,” and Word and Object, for example) provided a very appealing combination of plain speaking, seriousness, and import. Quine’s voice certainly stands out among all American philosophers of his period.

Quine’s insistence on naturalism as a view of philosophy’s place in the world is one of his key contributions. Philosophy is not a separate kind of theorizing and reasoning about the world, according to Quine; it is continuous with the empirical sciences through which we study the natural world (of which humanity and the social world are part). Also fundamental is his coherence theory of the justification of beliefs, both theoretical and philosophical. This theory was the source of John Rawls’s method of reasoning for a theory of justice based the idea of “reflective equilibrium.” This approach depended on careful weighing of our “considered judgments” and the adjustments of ethical beliefs needed to create the most coherent overall system of ethical beliefs.

There is another feature of Quine’s work that is particularly appealing: the fundamental desire that Quine had to make sense of obscure issues and to work through to plausible solutions. There is sometimes a premium on obscurity and elliptical thinking in some corners of the intellectual world. Quine was a strong antidote to this tendency. (John Searle makes similar points about the value of clarity in philosophical argument in his comments on Foucault here.)
Take “Ontological Relativity” (OR), the first of the Dewey Lectures in 1968 (link). The essay articulates some of Quine’s core themes — the behaviorist perspective on language and meaning, the crucial status of naturalism, and the indeterminacy of meaning and reference. But the essay also demonstrates a sensitive and careful reading of Dewey. Quine shows himself to be a philosopher who was able to give a respectful and insightful account of the ideas of other great philosophers.
Philosophically I am bound to Dewey by the naturalism that dominated his last three decades. With Dewey I hold that knowledge, mind, and meaning are part of the same world that they have to do with, and that they are to be studied in the same empirical spirit that animates natural science. There is no place for a prior philosophy. (185).
In OR Quine refers to a key metaphor in his own understanding of language and meaning, the “museum myth” theory of meaning. “Uncritical semantics is the myth of a museum in which the exhibits are meanings and the words are labels. To switch languages is to change the labels” (186). Against the museum myth, Quine argues here (as he does in Word and Object as well) for the indeterminacy of “meaning” and translation. The basic idea of indeterminacy of translation, as expressed in WO, comes down to this: there are generally alternative translation manuals that are possible between two languages (or within one’s own) which are equally compatible with all observed verbal behavior, and yet which map expressions onto significantly different alternative sentences. Sentence A can be mapped onto B1 or B2; B1 and B2 are apparently not equivalent; and therefore Sentence A does not have a fixed and determinate meaning either in the language or in the heads of the speakers. As Quine observes in his commentary on his example from Japanese concerning the translation of “five oxen”, “between the two accounts of Japanese classifiers there is no question of right and wrong” (193).
For naturalism the question whether two expressions are alike or unlike in meaning has no determinate answer, known or unknown, except insofar as the answer is settled in principle by people’s speech dispositions, known or unknown. If by these standards there are indeterminate cases, so much the worse for the terminology of meaning and likeness of meaning. (187)
Returning to the extended example he develops of indeterminacy of translation around the word “gavagai” that he introduced in Word and Object, Quine notes that the practical linguist will equate gavagai with “rabbit”, not “undetached rabbit part”. But he insists that there is no objective basis for this choice.
The implicit maxim guiding his choice of ‘rabbit’, and similar choices for other native words, is that an enduring and relatively homogeneous object, moving as a whole against a constrasting background, is a likely reference for a short expression. If he were to become conscious of this maxim, he might celebrate it as one of the linguistic universals, or traits of all languages, and he would have no trouble pointing out its psychological plausibility. But he would be wrong; the maxim is his own imposition, toward settling what is objectively indeterminate. It is a very sensible imposition, and I would recommend no other. But I am making philosophical point. (191)
In “Ontological Relativity” Quine takes the argument of the indeterminacy of meaning an important step forward, to argue for the “inscrutability of reference.” That is: there is no behavioral basis for concluding that a given language system involves reference to this set of fundamental entities rather than that set of fundamental entities. So not only can we not say that there are unique meanings associated with linguistic expressions; we cannot even say that expressions refer uniquely to a set of non-linguistic entities. This is what the title implies: there is no fixed ontology for a language or a scientific or mathematical theory.

These are radical and counter-intuitive conclusions — in some ways as radical as the “incommensurability of paradigms” notion associated with Thomas Kuhn and the critique of objectivity associated with Richard Rorty. What is most striking, though, is the fact that Quine comes to these conclusions through reasoning that rests upon very simple and clear assumptions. Fundamentally, it is his view that the only kinds of evidence and the only constraints that are available to users and listeners of language are the evidences of observable behavior; and the full body of this system of observations is insufficient to uniquely identify a single semantic map and a single ontology.

(Peter Hylton’s article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy does a good job of capturing the logic of Quine’s philosophy; link.)

Hacking on Kuhn


The fourth edition of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions appeared in 2012, fifty years after its original appearance in 1962. This edition contains a very good introduction by Ian Hacking, himself a distinguished philosopher and philosopher of science. So it is very interesting to retread Kuhn’s classic book with the commentary and intellectual frame that Hacking provides. (Here is an earlier post on Kuhn; link.)

Hacking’s reading is somewhat deflationary, compared to the relativist and anti-rationalist interpretations that are sometimes offered of Kuhn’s theories. Hacking sees a great deal of continuity between the Vienna Circle traditions of philosophy of science and Kuhn’s own intellectual commitments about scientific rationality. (Hacking pursues this analogy even down to noting a parallel between Carnap’s title Logical Syntax of Language and a similar description of Kuhn’s later work, Logical Syntax of Scientific Language.)

According to Hacking, the scope of the concept of “paradigm” has been exaggerated by subsequent interpreters. Paradigms are not systems of thought or conceptual systems; they are not even discipline-specific sets of shared assumptions that don’t get questioned in the ordinary pursuit of scientific knowledge. Instead, Hacking argues that Kuhn’s intended meaning sticks fairly close to the classical meaning of the term, as an exemplar of something or other. He quotes Kuhn:

“The paradigm as shared example is the central element of what I now take to be the most novel and least understood aspect of this book.”  (from the Postscript, kl 213)

So a good example of a paradigm in science is something like the Millikan oil drop experiment; it constituted a clear and admirable example of experimental design and implementation which helped to guide later experimentalists in the design of their own experiments.

Hacking also notes that Kuhn later allows for a local use and a global use of the concept, but he suggests that Kuhn did not wholly endorse the global use. Here is how Hacking paraphrases the global use, in the context of the things that hold a scientific research community together:

That’s the global sense of the word, and it is constituted by various kinds of commitment and practices, among which he emphasizes symbolic generalizations, models, and exemplars. (Kl 318)

Hacking gently suggests that Kuhn under-values “normal science,” because he shares a bias towards theory with many other philosophers of science of the preceding generation. But Hacking argues that later philosophers and historians of science, such as Peter Galison, have given more weight to the innovations associated with experimentation and instrumentation (kl 199), and the process of normal science is precisely the context in which innovations in these aspects of science are most likely to occur.

Hacking makes an interesting point about the scientific context in which Kuhn’s ideas took shape. Physics, both classical and modern, set the standard for what was most exciting within the scientific enterprise in the 1950s and 1960s. But Hacking asks an interesting question: what if the examples of biology and the life sciences had been the backdrop against which Kuhn had formulated his theories? Molecular biology and the chemistry of DNA constituted a revolution in biology at roughly the time of the original publication of SSR. How valid are Kuhn’s observations about scientific research and progress against that backdrop? Would the results have perhaps been quite different if he had concentrated on these examples?

Thus The Structure of Scientific Revolutions may be — I do not say is — more relevant to a past epoch in the history of science than it is to the sciences as they are practiced today. (Kl 98)

Hacking gives a very succinct summary of Kuhn’s main theory of the course of science:

Here is the sequence. (1) normal science …; (2) puzzle solving …; (3) paradigm, a word which, when he used it, was uncommon, but which after Kuhn has become banal … ; (4) anomaly; (5) crisis; and (6) revolution, establishing a new paradigm.  (Kl 114)

Hacking thoroughly rejects the most subjectivist aspects of many readings of Kuhn: the idea that scientists inhabiting different paradigms also literally inhabit different worlds. Hacking doesn’t believe that Kuhn actually believes this, or even unambiguously asserts it.

There are many passages in Kuhn’s original text that are worth pulling out again. Here is one, on the gap between observation and scientific beliefs:

Observation and experience can and must drastically restrict the range of admissible scientific belief, else there would be no science. But they cannot alone determine a particular body of such belief. An apparently arbitrary element, compounded of personal and historical accident, is always a formative ingredient of the beliefs espoused by a given scientific community at a given time. (4)

Effective research scarcely begins before a scientific community thinks it has acquired firm answers to questions like the following: What are the fundamental entities of which the universe is composed? How do these interact with each other and with the senses? What questions may legitimately be asked about such entities and what techniques employed in seeking solutions? (4)

These passages make it clear that Kuhn does in fact think that a scientific community possesses a set of unifying but contestable  beliefs — what many of us now mean by a paradigm. And this seems more pervasive and comprehensive than Hacking’s analysis would seem to allow.

I first read Kuhn as an undergraduate in 1969 or 1970, and I confess that my own understanding of his meaning concerning scientific knowledge and reasoning gravitated towards the more anti-objectivist reading that Hacking rejects. I understood paradigms as sets of semi-articulated assumptions about science, the world, and the instruments that hung together as a community-dependent worldview; a worldview that could not be directly empirically evaluated. And I understood incommensurablity to mean that scientists within these mental frameworks arrived at empirical judgments and theories that could not be strictly compared across communities, because their underlying conceptual structures were systematically different. I had read Quine on the indeterminacy of translation at roughly the same time, and I understood incommensurablity in analogy with indeterminacy across language communities. (Kuhn’s preface to the book makes it clear that he too had read Quine, though in the 1950s and therefore prior to the publication of Word and Object (1960); kl 550.)

I also understood Kuhn to hold that standards of scientific reasoning were likewise dependent on the mental frameworks of the research communities — with the result that some disagreements among physicists or biologists could not be resolved on the basis of standards of scientific reasoning or method. There was no “paradigm-independent” scientific method, no community-neutral standard of rational preferability.

It may be that Hacking is right, and that Kuhn never intended to support these radical claims about the limits of scientific rationality. But whether he did or not, the position is an intelligible one, and thinkers as diverse as Althusser and Feyerabend have advocated it. Frederick Jameson’s title, The Prison-House of Language: A Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism, picturesquely captures the core idea.

Structure of Scientific Revolutions richly rewards a rereading fifty years after its original publication. And as is true of so many deeply original works, we are likely to find different things most striking today than we did on first reading decades ago.

Paradigms, research communities, and the rationality of science

An earlier post on scientific explanation provoked some interesting comments from readers who wanted to know why Thomas Kuhn was not mentioned.  My brief answer is that Kuhn’s contribution doesn’t really offer a theory of scientific explanation at all, but instead an account of the cognitive and practical processes involved in formulating scientific knowledge.  Here I’ll dig into this question a bit deeper.

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) Kuhn asks us to recenter our thinking about scientific knowledge in several important ways.  He de-emphasizes questions about the logic of theory and explanation.  He argues that we should not think of science as an accumulation of formal, logical and mathematical expressions that permit codification of observable phenomena.  He doubts the availability of a general, abstract “scientific method” that serves to guide the formation of scientific knowledge.

Against the abstract ideas about the logic of science associated with positivism, Kuhn advocated for a more practical and historical study of science as a concrete human activity.  He arrives at several ideas that have turned out to have a great deal of influence — the idea of a scientific paradigm, the idea of incommensurability across paradigms, and the idea that science doesn’t just consist in the formal theories that a research tradition advances.  But the most fundamental insight that he developed throughout his career, in my judgment, is the idea that we can learn a great deal about method and scientific rationality by considering the history of science in close detail.

This approach has important implications for the philosophy of science at numerous levels.  First, it casts doubt on the hope that we might reconstruct an ideal “scientific method” that should govern all scientific research.  This was a goal of the logical positivists, and it doesn’t survive close scrutiny of the ways in which the sciences have developed.  Second, it leaves room for the idea of scientific rationality, but here again, it suggests that the standards of scientific reasoning need to be specified in each research tradition and epoch, and there is no single “logic” of scientific reasoning that could be specified once and for all.  The injunction, “Subject your theories to empirical tests!”, sounds like a universal prescription for scientific rationality; but in fact, the methods and processes through which theories are related to observations are widely different throughout the history of science.  (And, of course, the post-positivist philosophers of science demonstrated that we can’t draw a sharp distinction between observation and theory.) Methods of experimentation and instrumentation have varied widely across time and across disciplines.  So empirical evaluation takes many different forms in different areas of the sciences.

There is an implicit tension between a sociological and historical understanding of the sciences, on the one hand, and arealist understanding of the sciences, on the other.  When we look at the formation of scientific beliefs and theories as the output of a specific research tradition and set of research institutions, we will be struck by the scope of contingency that seems to exist in the development of science.   When we look at science as a set of theories about the world, we would like to imagine that they are sometimes true and that they represent reality in approximately the way that it really works.  And we would like to suppose that the cognitive and social values that surround scientific research — attentiveness to data, openness to criticism, willingness to revise one’s beliefs — will gradually lead to systems of scientific belief that are more and more faithful to the ways the world is.  From this perspective, the contingency and social dependency of the research process seems at odds with the hope that the results will be univocal.

Following Kuhn’s historical turn, efforts to place scientific knowledge within a social context gained support within sociology rather than philosophy.  A field of thought emerged, called the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK), which took very seriously the idea that social conditions and institutions very deeply influenced or created systems of scientific belief.  Here we can think of David Bloor (Knowledge and Social Imagery), Barry Barnes et al (Scientific Knowledge: A Sociological Analysis), and Bruno Latour (Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts), who took the discipline in the direction of a more relativist understanding of the nature of systems of scientific belief.  According to the relativist position on scientific knowledge, belief systems are internally consistent but incomparable from one to another, and there is no absolute standard that allows us to conclude that X is more rationally justified than Y as an explanation of the world.

Here is David Bloor towards the beginning of Knowledge and Social Imagery:

The sociologist is concerned with knowledge, including scientific knowledge, purely as a natural phenomenon. The appropriate definition of knowledge will therefore be rather different from that of either the layman or the philosopher.  Instead of defining it as true belief — or perhaps, justified true belief — knowledge for the sociologist is whatever people take to be knowledge.  It consists of those beliefs which people confidently hold to and live by. In particular the sociologist will be concerned with beliefs which are taken for granted or institutionalised, or invested with authority by groups of people. (5)

He goes on to assert that the sociology of science needs to be — causal, impartial with respect to truth and falsity, symmetrical in explanation, and reflexive (its principles should apply to sociology itself) (7).

From a philosopher’s point of view, it would be desirable to find a position that reconciles the social groundedness of scientific belief formation — and the self-evident ways in which the research process is sometimes pushed by non-cognitive, non-rational forces — with the ideas of scientific truth and reference.  Essentially, I think that most philosophers would like to acknowledge that human rationality is socially constituted, but is still a form of rationality, and is capable of discovering approximate truths about the world.  It would be desirable to arrive at a philosophy of science that is both sociologically informed and realist.  Imre Lakatos took something like this perspective in the 1970s in his writings about scientific research programmes (The Methodology of Scientific Research ProgrammesCriticism and the Growth of Knowledge). But in general, it is my impression that the discipline of the philosophy of science hasn’t taken much heed of the challenges presented by SSK and the more sociological-historical approach. That is unfortunate, because the premises of the sociological-historical approach, and of the SSK approach in particular, are pretty compelling.

Philosophy of social science today


A sign of arrival for a sub-discipline is the appearance of a handbook for the field. By that criterion, the philosophy of social science has passed an important threshold with the appearance of Ian Jarvie and Jesus Zamora-Bonilla’s SAGE Handbook of the Philosophy of Social Sciences. The 750-page volume offers 37 main articles, as well as an extensive reflective introduction by Ian Jarvie and an epilogue by Jesus Zamora-Bonilla. A majority of the contributors are European, confirming an impression that the most active research networks in this field are currently in Western Europe. Germany and the Scandinavian countries are particularly well represented.

Ian Jarvie’s extensive introduction does a good job of setting the stage for the volume. He is in a unique position to offer this perspective, having served as editor of the key journal Philosophy of the Social Sciences for many years. He begins by noting the heterogeneity of the field:

As a set of problems, the philosophy of the social sciences is wide-ranging, untidy, inter-disciplinary and constantly being reconfigured in response to new problems thrown up by developments in the social sciences; in short, disorderly. (1)

The orientation to the philosophy of social science represented in this volume is largely grounded in the analytic philosophy tradition. By this I mean an emphasis on rationality, an interest in generalizations and laws, a commitment to empirical methods of inquiry, and an over-arching preference for conceptual clarity. (Paul Roth describes the analytic approach in his contribution to the volume; 103ff.) But David Teira also offers an interesting contribution on “Continental Philosophies of the Social Sciences.” He begins the article by writing,

In my view, there is no such thing as a continental philosophy of the social sciences. There is, at least, no consensual definition of what is precisely continental in any philosophical approach. (81)

Among these approaches he highlights Marxist, phenomenological and Foucauldian philosophies and theories of the social sciences. His finding is one that I agree with — that one of the particularly valuable aspects of the continental traditions is the fact that thinkers in this tradition have offered large, insightful conceptual schemes for thinking about social life — whether historical materialism, ethnomethodology, or the rhetoric of power. He writes, “I guess that if continental philosophies seem attractive to many social scientists, it is because they offer the prospect of a somewhat radical reconstruction of current research practices” (96).

Particularly interesting for me were contributions by Alban Bouvier (“Individualism, Collective Agency and The “Micro-Macro Relation”), Daniel Steel (“Causality, Causal Models, and Social Mechanisms”), Joan de Marti and Yves Zenou (“Social Networks”), Peter Hedstrom and Petri Ylikoski (“Analytical Sociology”), Chris Mantzavinos (“Institutions”), and Jeroen Van Bouwel and Erik Weber (“Explanation in the Social Sciences”).

What is particularly valuable in this collection is the fact that most of the essays are not dogmatic in their adherence to a “school” of philosophical thought. Instead, they get down to the serious business of understanding the social world, and understanding what is involved in achieving a scientific understanding of that world. Chris Mantzavinos’s essay, “Institutions,” is a good example of this intellectual pragmatism. His contribution is a careful study of the new institutionalism and the variety of theoretical challenges that the concept of an institution raises. The essay is very well grounded in the current sociology and political science literatures on institutions, and it goes on to make substantively interesting points about these debates. “Only a theory of institutions that increases our information about the structure of social reality can provide us with the means of reorienting this reality in a direction that we find desirable” (408-9).

Many of the contributors — probably the majority — have taken seriously what I think is a particularly fundamental requirement for productive work in the philosophy of an area of science. This is the need for the philosopher to take up the particular theories and controversies of some current research in the social sciences as a framework and stimulus to their philosophical analysis. The philosopher needs to gain a significant level of expertise in a particular field of social science if his or her work is likely to find traction with conceptual issues that really matter. The topics for the philosophy of social science should not derive from apriori speculation about society; instead, they should be selected on the basis of careful engagement with serious empirical and theoretical attempts to explain the social world.

This is the kind of book that would benefit from a simultaneous digital edition. An affordable Kindle edition would help; but more radically, an online, hypertexted and cross-linked version would be fantastic. It would be fascinating to see a concept map linking the articles by theme or keyword; it would be illuminating to see some analysis of the patterns of citation across the articles in the volume; and it would be great for the reader to be able to click to some of the references directly. (Jarvie provides something like a map of themes in his tables representing “Principal Problems in Philosophy of the Social Sciences” and “Problematics in 14 Selected Anthologies”; 7-8.)



Feyerabend as artisanal scientist

I’ve generally found Paul Feyerabend’s position on science to be a bit too extreme. Here is one provocative statement in the analytical index of Against Method:

Thus science is much closer to myth than a scientific philosophy is prepared to admit. It is one of the any forms of thought that have been developed by man, and not necessarily the best. It is conspicuous, noisy, and impudent, but it is inherently superior only for those who have already decided in favour of a certain ideology, or who have accepted it without having ever examined its advantages and its limits. And as the accepting and rejecting of ideologies should be left to the individual it follows that the separation of state and church must be supplemented by the separation of state and science, that most recent, most aggressive, and most dogmatic religious institution. Such a separation may be our only chance to achieve a humanity we are capable of, but have never fully realised.

Fundamentally my objection is that Feyerabend seems to leave no room at all for rationality in science: no scientific method, no grip for observation, and no force to scientific reasoning. A cartoon takeaway from his work is a slogan: science is just another language game, a rhetorical system, with no claim to rational force based on empirical study and reasoning.  Feyerabend seems to be the ultimate voice for the idea of relativism in knowledge systems — much as Klamer and McCloskey seemed to argue with regard to economic theory in The Consequences of Economic Rhetoric.

This isn’t a baseless misreading of Feyerabend. In fact, it isn’t a bad paraphrase of Against Method. But it isn’t the whole story either.  And at bottom, I don’t think it is accurate to say that Feyerabend rejects the idea of scientific rationality.  Rather, he rejects one common interpretation of that notion: the view that scientific rationality can be reduced to a set of universal canons of investigation and justification, and that there is a neutral and universal set of standards of inference that decisively guide choice of scientific theories and hypotheses.  So I think it is better to understand Feyerabend as presenting an argument against a certain view in the philosophy of science rather than against science itself.

Instead, I now want to understand Feyerabend as holding something like this: that there is “reasoning” in scientific research, and this reasoning has a degree of rational credibility.  However, the reasoning that scientists do is always contextual and skilled, rather than universal and mechanical.  And it doesn’t result in proofs and demonstrations, but rather a preponderance of reasons favoring one interpretation rather than another.  (Significantly, this approach to scientific justification sounds a bit like the view argued about sociological theories in an earlier posting.)

Here are a few reasons for thinking that Feyerabend endorses some notion of scientific rationality.

First, Feyerabend is a philosopher and historian of science who himself demonstrates a great deal of respect for empirical and historical detail.  The facts matter to Feyerabend, in his interpretation of the history of science.  He establishes his negative case with painstaking attention to the details of the history of science — Newton, optics, quantum mechanics. This is itself a kind of empirical reasoning about the actual intellectual practices of working scientists. But if Feyerabend were genuinely skeptical of the enterprise of offering evidence in favor of claims, this work would be pointless.

Second, his own exposition of several scientific debates demonstrates a realist’s commitment to the issues at stake. Take his discussion of the micro-mechanisms of reflection and light “rays”. If there were in principle no way of evaluating alternative theories of these mechanisms, it would be pointless to consider the question. But actually, Feyerabend seems to reason on the assumption that one theory is better than another, given the preponderance of reasons provided by macro-observations and mathematical-physical specification of the hypotheses.

Third, he takes a moderate view on the relation between empirical observation and scientific theory in “How to Be a Good Empiricist”:

The final reply to the question put in the title is therefore as follows. A good empiricist will not rest content with the theory that is in the centre of attention and with those tests of the theory which can be carried out in a direct manner. Knowing that the most fundamental and the most general criticism is the criticism produced with the help of alternatives, he will try to invent such alternatives. (102)

This passage is “moderate” in a specific sense: it doesn’t give absolute priority to a given range of empirical facts; but neither does it dismiss the conditional epistemic weight of a body of observation.

So as a historian of science, Feyerabend seems to have no hesitation himself to engage in empirical reasoning and persuading, and he seems to grant a degree of locally compelling reasoning in the context of specific physical disputes.  And he appears to presuppose a degree of epistemic importance — always contestable — for a body of scientific observation and discovery.

What he seems most antagonistic to is the positivistic idea of a universal scientific method — a set of formally specified rules that guide research and the evaluation of theories. Here is how he puts the point in “On the Limited Validity of Methodological Rules” (collected in Knowledge, Science and Relativism). 

It is indubitable that the application of clear, well-defined, and above all ‘rational’ rules occasionally leads to results. A vast number of discoveries owe their existence to the systematic procedures of their discoverers. But from that, it does not follow that there are rules which must be obeyed for every cognitive act and every scientific investigation. On the contrary, it is totally improbable that there is such a system of rules, such a logic of scientific discovery, which permeates all reasoning without obstructing it in any way. The world in which we live is very complex. Its laws do not lay open to us, rather they present themselves in diverse disguises (astronomy, atomic physics, theology, psychology, physiology, and the like). Countless prejudices find their way into every scientific action, making them possible in the first place. It is thus to be expected that every rule, even the most ‘fundamental’, will only be successful in a limited domain, and that the forced application of the rule outside of its domain must obstruct research and perhaps even bring it to stagnation. This will be illustrated by the following examples. (138)

It is the attainability of a universal, formal philosophy of science that irritates him. Instead, he seems to basically be advocating for a limited and conditioned form of local rationality — not a set of universal maxims but a set of variable but locally justifiable practices. The scientist is an artisan rather than a machinist.  Here is a passage from the concluding chapter of Against Method:

The idea that science can, and should, be run according to fixed and universal rules, is both unrealistic and pernicious. It is unrealistic, for it takes too simple a view of the talents of man and of the circumstances which encourage, or cause, their development. And it is pernicious, for the attempt to enforce the rules is bound to increase our professional qualifications at the expense of our humanity. In addition, the idea is detrimental to science, for it neglects the complex physical and historical conditions which influence scientific change. It makes our science less adaptable and more dogmatic: every methodological rule is associated with cosmological assumptions, so that using the rule we take it for granted that the assumptions are correct. Naive falsificationism takes it for granted that the laws of nature are manifest and not hidden beneath disturbances of considerable magnitude. Empiricism takes it for granted that sense experience is a better mirror of the world than pure thought. Praise of argument takes it for granted that the artifices of Reason give better results than the unchecked play of our emotions. Such assumptions may be perfectly plausible and even true. Still, one should occasionally put them to a test. Putting them to a test means that we stop using the methodology associated with them, start doing science in a different way and see what happens. Case studies such as those reported in the preceding chapters show that such tests occur all the time, and that they speak against the universal validity of any rule. All methodologies have their limitations and the only ‘rule’ that survives is ‘anything goes’.

His most basic conclusion is epistemic anarchism, expressed in the “anything goes” slogan, but without the apparent relativism suggested by the phrase: there is no “organon,” no “inductive logic,” and no “Scientific Method” that guides the creation and validation of science.  But scientists do often succeed in learning and defending important truths about nature nonetheless.

(Here is an online version of the analytical contents and concluding chapter of Against Method.  And here is a link to an article by John Preston on Feyerabend in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

Scientific realism for the social sciences

What is involved in taking a realist approach to social science knowledge? Most generally, realism involves the view that at least some of the assertions of a field of knowledge make true statements about the properties of unobservable things, processes, and states in the domain of study.  Several important philosophers of science have taken up this issue in the past three decades, including Rom Harre (Causal Powers: Theory of Natural Necessity) and Roy Bhaskar (A Realist Theory of Science).  Peter Manicas’s recent book, A Realist Philosophy of Social Science: Explanation and Understanding, is a useful step forward within this tradition. Here is how he formulates the perspective of scientific realism:

The real goal of science … is understanding of the processes of nature. Once these are understood, all sorts of phenomena can be made intelligible, comprehensible, unsurprising. (14)

Explanation … requires that there is a “real connection,” a generative nexus that produced or brought about the event (or pattern) to be explained. (20)

So realism has to do with discovering underlying processes that give rise to observable phenomena. And causal mechanisms are precisely the sorts of underlying processes that are at issue.  Here is how Manicas summarizes his position:

Theory provides representations of the generative mechanisms,including hypotheses regarding ontology, for example, that there are atoms, and hypotheses regarding causal processes, for example, that atoms form molecules in accordance with principles of binding. We noted also that a regression to more fundamental elements and processes also became possible. So quantum theory offers generative mechanisms of processes in molecular chemistry. Typically, for any process, there will be at least one mechanism operating, although for such complex processes as organic growth there will be many mechanisms at work. Theories that represent generative mechanisms give us understanding. We make exactly this move as regards understanding in the social sciences, except that, of course, the mechanisms are social. (75)

Manicas’s illustrations of causal powers and mechanisms are most often drawn from the natural world. But what basis do we have for thinking that social entities have stable causal properties — let alone a profile of causal powers that are roughly invariant across instances?

Consider an example, Theda Skocpol’s definition of social revolutions:

Social revolutions are rapid, basic transformations of socio-economic and political institutions, and–as Lenin so vividly reminds us–social revolutions are accompanied and in part effectuated through class upheavals from below. It is this combination of thorough-going structural transformation and massive class upheavals that sets social revolutions apart from coups, rebellions, and even political revolutions and national independence movements. (link)

Realism invites us to consider whether “social revolutions” really have the characteristics she attributes to them.  Do social revolutions have an underlying nature distinctive causal powers that might be identified by a social theory?  More generally, what basis do we have for thinking that certain types of social entities possess a specific set of causal powers?

The answer seems to be, very little.  Types of social entities — revolutions, states, riots, market economies, fascist movements — are heterogeneous groupings of concrete social formations rather than “kinds” along the lines of “metal” or “gene”.  Each of the extended historical events that Skocpol offers as instances of the category “social revolution” is unique and contingent in a variety of ways; these historical episodes do not share a common causal nature.  It is legitimate to group them together under the term “social revolution”; but it is essential that we not commit the error of reification and imagine that the group so constituted must share a fundamental causal nature in common.  So the most direct application of this kind of realism to the social sciences seems somewhat unpromising.

But we are on firmer ground when we consider a particularly central type of assertion in the social sciences: claims about underlying causal mechanisms or social processes.  So what does it mean to assert that a given social mechanism “really exists”? 

Take the idea of “stereotype threat” as one of the mechanisms underlying an important social fact, the racial and gender differences in performance that have been observed on some standardized tests (Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson, “Stereotype Threat and the Intellectual Test Performance of African Americans” (link); see also this article in the Atlantic).  We can summarize the theory along these lines: “Prevalent assumptions about the characteristics and performance of various salient social groups can depress (or enhance) the performance of members of those groups on intellectual and physical tasks.  This provides a partial explanation of the observed differentials in performance.”  This mechanism is hypothesized as one of the ways in which performance by individuals in various groups is socially influenced in such a way as to lead to differential performance across groups.  It postulates a set of internal psychological mechanisms surrounding cognition and problem-solving, all related to the individual’s self-ascribed social identity.

The realism question is this: do these hypothetical psychological effects actually occur in real human individuals?  And do these differences in cognitive processes lead to differential performance across groups?  If we confirm both these points, then we can conclude that “stereotype threat is a real social psychological mechanism.”  The microfoundations of this mechanism reside in two locations: the concrete cognitive processes of the individuals, and the social behaviors of persons around these individuals, giving subtle cues about stereotypes that are discerned by the test-taker.

So we might say that we can conclude that a postulated social mechanism “really” exists if we are able to provide piecemeal empirical and theoretical arguments demonstrating that the terms of the mechanism hypothesis are confirmed in the actions and behavior of agents; and that these patterns of action do in fact typically lead to the sorts of outcomes postulated.  In other words, we need to look at our hypotheses about social mechanisms as small, somewhat separable theories that need separate empirical, historical, and theoretical evaluation.  And when we are successful in providing convincing support for these mechanism-theories, we are also justified in concluding that the postulated mechanism really exists.  The social world really embodies stereotype threat if individuals are really affected in their cognitive performances by the sorts of subtle behavioral cues mentioned by the theory, in roughly the ways stipulated by the theory.  And we will feel most confident in this assertion if we also find new areas of behavior where this mechanism also appears to be at work.

This approach has an important implication about social ontology.  The reality of a social mechanism is dependent on facts about agents, their characteristics of agency, and the environment of social relationships within which they act.  So there is a close intellectual relationship between the ontology of methodological localism and realism about causal mechanisms.

(The smokestack image above illustrates a different kind of social mechanism — the workings of externalities in a market economy, creating pollution by dumping public harms to save private costs.)

Merton’s sociology of science

The organized study of “science” as an epistemic practice and a knowledge product has taken at least three major forms in the past century: the philosophy of science, the history of science, and the sociology of science.  Philosophers have been primarily interested in the logic of scientific inquiry and the rational force of scientific knowledge.  Historians have been interested in the circumstances, both external and internal, through which important periods of the growth of scientific knowledge have occurred — the Newtonian revolution, the Darwinian revolution, the “discovery” of cold fusion (above).  And sociologists have been interested in examining the norms and organizations through which “science” is practiced — how young scientists are trained, how collaboration and competition work within a scientific discipline or a laboratory, how results are assessed and communicated.

And because the intellectual frameworks within which philosophers, historians, and sociologists have been educated differ substantially, these meta-disciplines of the study of science are significantly different as well.  The philosophers are largely interested in the quality of the product — the rational force of a given body of scientific knowledge.  The historians are interested in the contingencies of development of a given field.  And the sociologists are interested in the social processes that lead to the creation of a body of scientific knowledge; they are inclined to “bracket” the epistemic standing or truth-value of the theories and hypotheses that a tradition has produced.

Robert Merton was one of the giants of American sociology.  One of his core contributions had to do with his efforts to define the subject matter and methodology of the sociology of science.  A volume of Merton’s essays from the 1930s through 1960s on the sociology of science appeared in 1971, The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations, and these essays are worth re-reading today.  Here are some of Merton’s formulations of the task of the sociology of science in “The Neglect of the Sociology of Science” (1952):

Numerous works … have variously dealt with one or another part of the subject [of the sociology of science].  But these … have not examined the linkage between science and social structure by means of a conceptual framework that has proved effective in other branches of sociology. (210)

Among current introductory textbooks in sociology … all deal at length with the institutions of family, state, and economy, many with the institution of religion, but very few indeed with science as a major institution in modern society. (211)

Unlike the pattern in solidly established disciplines, in the sociology of science, facts are typically divorced from systematic theory.  Empirical observation and hypothesis do not provide mutual assistance.  Not having that direct bearing on a body of theory which makes for cumulative knowledge, the empirical studies that have been made, from time to time, by natural scientists have resulted in a thin scattering of unconnected findings rather than a chain of closely linked findings. (212-13)

So the goal of the sociology of science is to examine the linkage between science and social structure using the “conceptual frameworks” of sociology.  The sociology of science needs to be based on empirical observation — i.e. it cannot be a purely conceptual discipline.  But it must possess an appropriate framework of sociological theory within the context of which empirical observations of scientific practice can be explained.

Several ideas were particularly important in Merton’s efforts to conceptualize the processes of science:

  • the importance of discovering the norms that underlay the research and thinking of scientists in a given field (the ethos of science); (“the emotionally toned complex of rules, prescriptions, mores, beliefs, values and presuppositions that are held to be binding upon the scientist”)
  • the internal social structure of various scientific disciplines (training, communication, information flow, evaluation)
  • the incentives that exist within the scientific disciplines that constitute the driving force for scientists to aggressively pursue publishable results; the reward system.  How do the imperatives of the ethos and the institutions of science come together to determine the patterns of behavior of the individual working scientist?  

One of Merton’s key methodological contributions was the idea that it was possible to observe and measure the institutions of science through careful empirical examination of the biographies, journals, and other objective markers of scientific activity. (This is what he refers to as the conceptual framework of sociology.)  He repeatedly attempts to quantify and measure the activities of science — publication rates, inventions, numbers of scientists in a field, and so forth.  For example, in “Changing Foci of Interest in the Sciences and Technology” (1938) he attempts to estimate the pattern of shifting scientific interest in England over the period of 1665-1702 by counting the numbers of articles to be published in various areas of science (tables 3-4). He finds that the physical and formal sciences fall in frequency during this time period, while the life sciences rise significantly (201).  How should we explain this shift in the interests of the scientific community?  Merton advocates a sociological cause.  Referring back to Rickert and Weber, he argues that this shift is likely to be linked to the broader societal interests of the time period:

Scientists often choose problems for investigation that are vitally linked with major values and interests of the time.  Much of this study will examine some of the extra-scientific elements which significantly influenced, if they did not wholly determine, the foci of scientific interest. (203)

Another of Merton’s key ideas is the role of the reward system of science, which he takes to be the motor of scientific change:

Like other institutions, the institution of science has developed an elaborate system for allocating rewards to those who variously live up to its norms…. The evolution of this system has been the work of centuries, and it will of course never be finished.  (297)

And he finds that this reward system gives great weight to originality and priority — which leads to the recurring phenomena of priority disputes, fraud, and plagiarism in science (309).  And it leads as well to the phenomenon of multiple discovery by independent researchers:

The pages of the history of science record thousands of instances of similar discoveries having been made by scientists working independently of one another.  Sometimes the discoveries are simultaneous or almost so; sometimes a scientist will make anew a discovery which, unknown to him, somebody else had made years before.  Such occurrences suggest that discoveries become virtually inevitable when prerequisite kinds of knowledge and tools accumulate in man’s cultural store and when the attention of an appreciable number of investigators becomes focused on a problem, by emerging social needs, by developments internal to the science, or by both. (371)

A final topic of interest in Merton’s sociology of science is his treatment of “peer review”.  Here is how he describes this part of the institutions of science in “Institutionalized Patterns of Evaluation in Science” (1971):

The referee system in science involves the systematic use of judges to assess the acceptability of manuscripts submitted for publication.  The referee is thus an example of status judges who are charged with evaluating the quality of role-performances in a social system.  They are found in every institutional sphere. (460)

So we might encapsulate Merton’s intellectual framework for the sociology of science in a few basic ideas: the sociologist needs to find ways of observing scientific practice empirically; the conduct of science is driven by the values that the institutions of science inculcate and enforce; the incentives created by the scientific institutions shape and motivate the behavior of scientists; and the product of science is the result of the constrained activities of scientists shaped and motivated in these particular ways.  So the sociologist needs to discover and document the values, he/she needs to uncover the evaluation mechanisms, and he/she needs to discover in detail how innovations and theories have emerged in specific research environments.

What this description leaves out from a contemporary perspective might include:

  • analysis of social networks of collaboration and communication among scientists
  • analysis of the institutions of training through which scientists learn their craft
  • content analysis of the results of scientific inquiry — recurring features of theory and explanation within specific research traditions

(Trevor Pinch is an important contemporary contributor to current sociology of science and is one of the editors of the 1995 volume, Handbook of Science and Technology Studies. Here is a link to his syllabus for a seminar on the sociology of science that indicates how he conceptualizes the discipline.)

Kuhn’s paradigm shift

Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) brought about a paradigm shift of its own, in the way that philosophers thought about science. The book was published in the Vienna Circle’s International Encyclopedia of Unified Science in 1962. (See earlier posts on the Vienna Circle; post, post.) And almost immediately it stimulated a profound change in the fundamental questions that defined the philosophy of science. For one thing, it shifted the focus from the context of justification to the context of discovery. It legitimated the introduction of the study of the history of science into the philosophy of science — and thereby also legitimated the perspective of sociological study of the actual practices of science. And it cast into doubt the most fundamental assumptions of positivism as a theory of how the science enterprise actually works.

And yet it also preserved an epistemological perspective. Kuhn forced us to ask questions about truth, justification, and conceptual discovery — even as he provided a basis for being skeptical about the stronger claims for scientific rationality by positivists like Reichenbach and Carnap. And the framework threatened to lead to a kind of cognitive relativism: “truth” is relative to a set of extra-rational conventions of conceptual scheme and interpretation of data.

The main threads of Kuhn’s approach to science are well known. Science really gets underway when a scientific tradition has succeeded on formulating a paradigm. A paradigm includes a diverse set of elements — conceptual schemes, research techniques, bodies of accepted data and theory, and embedded criteria and processes for the validation of results. Paradigms are not subject to testing or justification; in fact, empirical procedures are embedded within paradigms. Paradigms are in some ways incommensurable — Kuhn alluded to gestalt psychology to capture the idea that a paradigm structures our perceptions of the world. There are no crucial experiments — instead, anomalies accumulate and eventually the advocates of an old paradigm die out and leave the field to practitioners of a new paradigm. Like Polanyi, Kuhn emphasizes the concrete practical knowledge that is a fundamental component of scientific education (post). By learning to use the instruments and perform the experiments, the budding scientist learns to see the world in a paradigm-specific way. (Alexander Bird provides a good essay on Kuhn in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

A couple of questions are particularly interesting today, approaching fifty years after the writing of the book. One is the question of origins: where did Kuhn’s basic intuitions come from? Was the idea of a paradigm a bolt from the blue, or was there a comprehensible line of intellectual development that led to it? There certainly was a strong tradition of study of the history of science from the late nineteenth to the twentieth century; but Kuhn was the first to bring this tradition into explicit dialogue with the philosophy of science. Henri Poincaré (The Foundations of Science: Science and Hypothesis, The Value of Science, Science and Methods) and Pierre Duhem (The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory) are examples of thinkers who brought a knowledge of the history of science into their thinking about the logic of science. And Alexandre Koyré’s studies of Galileo are relevant too (From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe); Koyré made plain the “revolutionary” character of Galileo’s thought within the history of science. However, it appears that Kuhn’s understanding of the history of science took shape through his own efforts to make sense of important episodes in the history of science while teaching in the General Education in Science curriculum at Harvard, rather than building on prior traditions.

Another question arises from the fact of its surprising publication in the Encyclopedia. The Encyclopedia project was a fundamental and deliberate expression of logical positivism. Structure of Scientific Revolutions, on the other hand, became one of the founding texts of anti-positivism. And this was apparent in the book from the start. So how did it come to be published here? (Michael Friedman takes up this subject in detail in “Kuhn and Logical Positivism” in Thomas Nickles, Thomas Kuhn (link).) George Reisch and Brazilian philosopher J. C. P. Oliveira address exactly this question. Oliveira offers an interesting discussion of the relationship between Kuhn and Carnap in an online article. He quotes crucial letters from Carnap to Kuhn in 1960 and 1962 about the publication of SSR in the Encyclopedia series. Carnap writes,

I believe that the planned monograph will be a valuable contri­bution to the Encyclopedia. I am myself very much interested in the problems which you intend to deal with, even though my knowledge of the history of science is rather fragmentary. Among many other items I liked your emphasis on the new conceptual frameworks which are proposed in revolutions in science, and, on their basis, the posing of new questions, not only answers to old problems. (REISCH 1991, p. 266)

I am convinced that your ideas will be very stimulating for all those who are interested in the nature of scientific theories and especially the causes and forms of their changes. I found very illuminating the parallel you draw with Darwinian evolution: just as Darwin gave up the earlier idea that the evolution was directed towards a predeter­mined goal, men as the perfect organism, and saw it as a process of improvement by natural selection, you emphasize that the develop­ment of theories is not directed toward the perfect true theory, but is a process of improvement of an instrument. In my own work on in­ductive logic in recent years I have come to a similar idea: that my work and that of a few friends in the step for step solution of prob­lems should not be regarded as leading to “the ideal system”, but rather as a step for step improvement of an instrument. Before I read your manuscript I would not have put it in just those words. But your formulations and clarifications by examples and also your analogy with Darwin’s theory helped me to see clearer what I had in mind. From September on I shall be for a year at the Stanford Center. I hope that we shall have an opportunity to get together and talk about problems of common interest. (REISCH 1991, pp.266-267)

Against what Oliveira calls “revisionist” historians of the philosophy of science, Oliveira does not believe that SSR was accepted for publication by Carnap because Carnap or other late Vienna School philosophers believed there was a significant degree of agreement between Kuhn and Carnap. Instead, he argues that the Encyclopedia group believed that the history of science was an entirely separate subject from the philosophy of science. It was a valid subject of investigation, but had nothing to do with the logic of science. Oliveira writes,

Thus, the publication of Structure in Encyclopedia could be justified merely by the fact that the Encyclopedia project had already reserved space for it. Indeed, it is worth pointing out that the editors commissioned Kuhn’s book as a work in history of science especially for publication in the Encyclopedia.

Also interesting is to consider where Kuhn’s ideas went from here. How much influence did the theory have within philosophy? Certainly Kuhn had vast influence within the next generation of anti-positivist or post-positivist philosophy of science. And he had influence in fields very remote from philosophy as well. Paul Feyerabend was directly exposed to Kuhn at UCLA and picks up the anti-positivist thread in Against Method. Imre Lakatos introduces important alternatives to the concept of paradigm with his concept of a scientific research programme. Lakatos makes an effort to reintroduce rational standards into the task of paradigm choice through his idea of progressive problem shifts (The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes: Volume 1: Philosophical Papers). An important volume involving Kuhn, Feyerabend, and Lakatos came directly out of a conference focused on Kuhn’s work (Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge: Volume 4: Proceedings of the International Colloquium in the Philosophy of Science, London, 1965). Kuhn’s ideas have had a very wide exposure within the philosophy of science; but as Alexander Bird notes in his essay in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, there has not emerged a “school” of Kuhnian philosophy of science.

From the perspective of a half century, some of the most enduring questions raised by Kuhn are these:

  • What does the detailed study of the history of science tell us about scientific rationality?
  • To what extent is it true that scientific training inculcates adherence to a conceptual scheme and approach to the world that the scientist simply can’t critically evaluate?
  • Does the concept of a scientific paradigm apply to other fields of knowledge? Do sociologists or art historians have paradigms in Kuhn’s strong sense?
  • Is there a meta-theory of scientific rationality that permits scientists and philosophers to critically examine alternative paradigms?
  • And for the social sciences — are Marxism, verstehen theory, or Parsonian sociology paradigms in the strong Kuhnian sense?

Perhaps the strongest legacy is this: Kuhn’s work provides a compelling basis for thinking that we can do the philosophy of science best when we consider the real epistemic practices of working scientists carefully and critically. The history and sociology of science is indeed relevant to the epistemic concerns of the philosophy of science. And this is especially true in the case of the social sciences.

Reisch, George (1991). Did Kuhn Kill Logical Empiricism? Philosophy of Science, 58.