Monday, December 31, 2012

Thomas Kuhn's Revolution at 50

Writing in The New Atlantis, Matthew Rees reconsiders Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions on it's 50th anniversary. Here are a few passages directed specifically at the social sciences, which were not much on Kuhn's mind when he wrote the book. I'm not sure I agree with Rees, but he makes interesting points.
While the physical sciences were the most prominent in the public mind when Kuhn was writing Structure in the early 1960s, today biology is in ascendance. It is striking, as Hacking notes in his introductory essay, that Kuhn does not explore whether Darwin’s revolution fits within his thesis. It is far from clear that Kuhn’s thesis can adequately account for not only Darwin’s revolution but also cell theory, Mendelian or molecular genetics, or many of the other major developments in the history of biology.... But in the half century since Kuhn wrote his book, biology has taken the place of physics as the dominant science — and so in the social sciences, the conception of society as a machine has gone out of vogue. Social scientists have increasingly turned to biology and ecology for possible analogies on which to build their social theories; organisms are supplanting machines as the guiding metaphor for social life. 
Here come our friends IS and OUGHT:
Perhaps the greatest limitation in the social sciences is that, however good a theory’s explanatory abilities, it can say very little about whether or not a particular action ought to be performed in order to bring about social change. Since human relations are the object of the social sciences, questions of ethics — about whether or not a change should be induced, who should be responsible for it, and how it should occur — must always be at the forefront. It may be desirable, for instance, to reduce alcoholism; but it does not follow that all actors, such as churches, governments, businesses, public and private mental-health experts, and the pressure of social norms, are equally responsible for undertaking the task, or can equally do so without altering society in other ways. Decisions of this sort inevitably depend on our views of the proper function of institutions and on what constitutes the well-being of society....
Value judgments are always at the core of the social sciences. “In the end,” wrote Irving Kristol, “the only authentic criterion for judging any economic or political system, or any set of social institutions, is this: what kind of people emerge from them?” And precisely because we differ on what kind of people should emerge from our institutions, our scientific judgments about them are inevitably tied to our value commitments.
But I do agree that philosophy is not, and never will be, dead:
The lasting value of Kuhn’s thesis in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is that it reminds us that any science, however apparently purified of the taint of philosophical speculation, is nevertheless embedded in a philosophical framework — and that the great success of physics and biology is due not to their actual independence from philosophy but rather to physicists’ and biologists’ dismissal of it. Those who are inclined to take this dismissal as meaning that philosophy is dead altogether, or has been replaced by science, will do well to recognize the force by which Kuhn’s thesis opposes this stance: History has repeatedly demonstrated that periods of progress in normal science — when philosophy seems to be moot — may be long and steady, but they lead to a time when non-scientific, philosophical questions again become paramount.

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