Contemplating Kuhn

Thomas Kuhn

For those of us who were just admitted to the University of Oregon for this term, our classes start tomorrow after a long and tiring week of orientation meetings and activities.  Those of us who are embarking on the (newly renamed) Media Studies PhD program in the School of Journalism and Communication will be meeting together for the first time for a course called Proseminar IA, which is a broad overview of the major theories and schools of thought within the realm of communication and media.

Our first assignment for the class was to read and react to The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn. This was my first exposure to Kuhn’s work; for those of you who are unfamiliar with the man, he was a linguistics and philosophy professor at MIT (he died in 1996), and his specialty was science history.  The book, as the back cover puts it, “challeng[es] long-standing linear notions of scientific progress [as he argues] that transformative ideas do not arise from the day-to-day, gradual process of experimentation and data accumulation, but that the revolutions in science… occur outside of ‘normal science,’ as he call[s] it.”

In other words, Kuhn has a big problem with the fact that scientists discard disproven notions as progress marches on; he would prefer more reflection on how we got here.  The end.

I felt more than a little frustrated with this book. While I am not a scientist (and would never claim to be), I do like to refer to myself as a “science-ist” (someone who is enthusiastic about science) and a skeptic–indeed, my college career began with an aborted attempt at the pre-med program thanks to my realization that surgery is too gruesome for me to witness, much less perform.

But back to the text: It was apparent to me from the get-go that Kuhn is approaching science in a way that only a historian could. Much of the text focuses on examples that are drawn from the Renaissance and shortly thereafter (Galileo, Newton, et. al. are brought up repeatedly), but more importantly, there are several points in the book where Kuhn seems surprised that scientists don’t focus more attention on how we got here: “…the textbook tendency to make the development of science linear hides a process that lies at the heart of the most significant episodes of scientific development” (2012, 139).

Again, a few pages later, the same observation re: textbooks supplanting labyrinthine historical accounts comes up again: “Until the very last stages in the education of a scientist, textbooks are systematically substituted for the creative scientific literature that that made them possible” (2012, 164). But on the very next page, Kuhn admits that this approach has “in general… been immensely effective” (2012, 165).

At one point in human history, it was indeed possible–though difficult–for a person to know essentially everything, but as knowledge has exploded, libraries (and now databases) are required to even attempt to index everything that we know and that we once thought we knew. This, I think, is an essential problem with Kuhn’s objection to textbook pedagogy; it is simply inefficient, and more to the point perhaps irrelevant, for a scientist to know about every single misstep and change in paradigm that occurred in his or her field.

I disagree with Kuhn in many ways; as he says himself, “What a man sees depends both upon what he looks at and also upon what his previous visual-conceptual experience has taught him to see” (2012, 113). Kuhn’s experience as a science historian has informed his ideas, and the book comes across (to me, at least) as a non-scientist’s longing for more attention to be paid to what used to be instead of the scientific march towards further understanding of the universe.