Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 774

With the publication of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn came to be recognized as a provocative contemporary philosopher of science. He joined the company of previously established figures as Karl Popper, Imre Lakatos, and Paul Feyerabend. While it is not appropriate here to compare and contrast the writings of these various philosophers of science, two comments are relevant.

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In 1965, a symposium focusing on Kuhn’s work was held in London under the auspices of the Division of Logic, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science of the International Union of the History and Philosophy of Science. Kuhn, Popper, Lakatos, and Feyerabend were all contributors to the resulting volume Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, which was published by Cambridge University Press in 1970. Two essays by Kuhn are included, “Logic of Discovery or Psychology of Research” and “Reflections on My Critics.” In these essays, Kuhn discusses the differences between himself and the other three; he also tries to correct some misinterpretations of his work.

Despite these attempts by Kuhn to clarify his writings, David Stove, an Australian philosopher of science, published a sharply critical commentary, Popper and After: Four Modern Irrationalists, with Kuhn one of the four. In particular, Stove charges these theorists with expounding the view that scientific knowledge is never true or false and that even the best scientific opinion at any given time is an unjustified conjecture, deeply influenced by its contemporary context.

Other philosophers of science who have found themselves at odds with Kuhn’s views are Israel Scheffler and Dudley Shapere. Scheffler is disturbed by the subjectivity that Kuhn attributes to scientific investigation, and Shapere is critical of the notion of paradigms set forth by Kuhn. Margaret Masterson, another contributor to Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, also criticizes Kuhn’s use of the word “paradigm.” Kuhn took note of and responded to some of those critics in the postscript to the second edition of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. To some extent, it appears that misunderstanding of Kuhn’s words has contributed to the disquietude which some readers have experienced. Nevertheless, the notion of paradigms and all that the word connotes for Kuhn, the importance Kuhn places on consensus within a scientific community, and Kuhn’s strict use of the term “revolution” have resulted in considerable debate about his views, especially within the communities of scientists and historians, or philosophers, of science.

On the other hand, writing in 1980, Gary Gutting stated that The Structure of Scientific Revolutions “has had a wider academic influence than any other single book of the last twenty years.” Gutting was particularly struck by the number of different disciplines that have found a Kuhnian approach useful. As the editor of Paradigms and Revolutions: Appraisals and Applications of Thomas Kuhn’s Philosophy of Science, Gutting assembled a collection of fourteen essays responding to Kuhn’s views from the areas of philosophy, the social sciences, the humanities, and the history of science. Also, he has provided a bibliography of about 250 items (including sources in English, French, and German) whose publication was stimulated by their authors’ consideration of Kuhn’s writings. In addition to studies by scholars in the fields listed above, there are entries specifically related to theology and religion, to art and literature, and to education. Social scientist Barry Barnes is also very appreciative of the value of Kuhn’s ideas for his discipline. Writing in 1982, when his book T.S. Kuhn and Social Science was published, Barnes stated that research into the sociology of knowledge had already benefited from Kuhn’s work and would continue to do so in the future.

The extension of Kuhn’s ideas to fields beyond the physical sciences had already begun before the second edition of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was published. In his postscript, Kuhn seems somewhat surprised by the enthusiastic responses to his ideas coming from widely different disciplines, and he makes some cautionary comments.

Kuhn continued to expand upon his original writings and published a number of articles in line with the main themes set forth in The Structure of Scientific Revolution. Fourteen of those articles were republished in 1977 by the University of Chicago Press under the title The Essential Tension: Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change. In one of the essays in this volume, he discusses the essential tension that he believes exists between tradition and innovation in scientific research. Regardless of the degree of agreement (or disagreement) with Kuhn’s ideas that each reader experiences, it is impossible not to recognize how provocative they have been, and continue to be, stimulating scholars from diverse disciplines to examine and reexamine their methods and beliefs.

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