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Dwarf Standing on Giants

Thomas Kuhn: A Philosophical History for Our Times
September 1, 2000

Thomas Kuhn: A Philosophical History for Our Times
By Steve Fuller
University of Chicago Press, 472 pp., $35

If historians of science had to choose one book to represent their field to the world, it would not be Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Yet this is the one history-of-science book that almost everybody, from Al Gore to Bob Metcalfe, knows about, the one that is constantly invoked for its beguilingly useful concept of paradigm shifts. In Kuhn’s picture of science, investigators keep busy most of the time filling in the corners of the paradigm, or frame of reference, in which they were all trained. But over time, as anomalies that cannot be explained within the ruling paradigm accumulate, a new paradigm, or “revolution,” emerges, after which everyone wonders why they ever thought differently. The problem with Kuhn’s thesis is that he only meant it to describe one science, physics, and only during the period from 1620 to 1920-certainly not the 20th century’s era of Big Science. Yet since the publication of Structure in 1962, the concept of paradigms and revolutions has been appropriated and (mis)applied in fields from biology to social science to business, to the enormous frustration of today’s historians of science.

Books like Steve Fuller’s Thomas Kuhn: A Philosophical History for Our Times are one product of this frustration. Fuller, a sociologist at the University of Warwick in Coventry, England, is deeply disappointed by what he calls the “acritical” stance Kuhn’s work has fostered in the academy. He calls Kuhn a dwarf who stood on the shoulders of giants and attributes Structure’s ascendancy to a “comedy of errors” reminiscent of the Peter Sellers movie Being There.

Fuller’s first line of attack is to show how rooted Kuhn’s thesis was in its Cold War environs. Fuller chronicles Kuhn’s early career at Harvard, where he came under the wing of university President James Bryant Conant, a true Cold Warrior and the era’s leading advocate for Big Science. Conant’s worldview left little room for public criticism of science, and according to Fuller this was played out in Kuhn’s teaching and writing, which characterized scientific revolutions as the working-out of purely internal contradictions, free of any social, political or technological influences. Post-Structure, Fuller charges, science and technology studies (STS) has put too much emphasis on case studies of the development of narrow scientific disciplines, rarely stepping back to examine the ends and means of science in general.

Fuller’s arguments are persuasive and well-documented, and I share his view of STS. However, I have a harder time pinning the blame solely on Kuhn’s book. If Structure has assimilated science studies, surely this has something to do with the lack of effective resistance.

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