(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 24)

When Thomas S. Kuhn died on July 18, 1996, obituaries appearing in many academic as well as popular publications praised the work of this physicist, historian, and philosopher as providing the twentieth century’s most penetrating analysis of scientific development. His influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) sold, in its English edition, more than a million copies, and its ideas spread via twenty-five translations to countries around the world. Such Kuhnian terms as “paradigm shift,” which encapsulated his view of scientific revolutions, became inextricably intertwined with how scientists and other scholars analyzed what they did, and the term became so popular that it appeared in New Yorker cartoons and as the name of a rock group. In short, Kuhn’s treatise accomplished what few scholarly books have ever done—it changed the way specialists thought about their fields and shaped the way the public understood science.

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn saw history as possessing the power to transform the image of science as a means of amassing discoveries. Before Kuhn’s work, thinkers about science saw its progress as the accumulation of deep insights by great geniuses, but after Kuhn, the “paradigm” became the central concept for understanding the evolution of science. A paradigm is a universally recognized scientific achievement, such as the sun-centered system of the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, that provides a model for how a community of practitioners interprets phenomena and solves problems. During “normal science,” the paradigm provides a scientific community with a context for articulating its ideas and applying them to new situations. However, scientists sometimes encounter new phenomena (anomalies) that the paradigm cannot explain. As these anomalies accumulate, some scientists may start to question the dominant paradigm. If one of these scientists comes up with a set of ideas that solves both the problems solved by the old paradigm and its anomalies while also suggesting new problems to be solved, and if this new set of ideas is accepted by the scientific community, then a scientific revolution (a paradigm shift) has occurred. Kuhn further argued that competing paradigms are incompatible with each other (the earth-centered and sun-centered systems are radically different), so much so that he called their views of the world incommensurable.

Steve Fuller encountered this analysis of science early in his career, and he went on to interview Kuhn, study his works, and analyze the writings of the many scholars who have praised and criticized his accomplishments. Fuller’s career as a social epistemologist has well prepared him for his revisionist treatment of Kuhn’s life and work in Thomas Kuhn: A Philosophical History for Our Times. His American career has included appointments in philosophy, science and technology studies, and the rhetoric of science, while his subsequent British career at the University of Durham and the University of Warwick has centered on sociology and social policy. His previous books include Philosophy, Rhetoric, and the End of Knowledge: The Coming of Science and Technology Studies (1993) and The Governance of Science: Ideology and the Future of the Open Society (2000). One scholar who is sympathetic to Fuller’s views believes that his contributions represent “the most creative addition to the philosophy of science since Kuhn’s work on scientific revolutions,” but others who deeply admire Kuhn’s vision of science have found Fuller’s treatment overly critical and mean-spirited. Fuller admits that he is out to dethrone Kuhn, since he feels thatThe Structure of Scientific Revolutions has been overpraised, misunderstood, and detrimental in its influence on science and those who analyze it.

As a self-described “devout social constructivist,” Fuller is in favor of a democratized “citizen science” and against the elitist science described in Kuhn’s normal science. Some of the aims of Fuller’s book are to convince readers who believed that The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is both a good and important book that it is bad in its ideas and deleterious in its influence. To accomplish these tasks, Fuller divides his own book into two main sections: chapters 1 through 4 deal with the background to the writing of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, while chapters 5 through 8 are concerned with this book’s influence on social scientists, philosophers of science, and sociologists of science.

One of the principal points of Fuller’s early analysis is that The Structure of Scientific Revolutionsis not a book for the ages but a book shaped by the Cold War (when it was conceived, written, and published). During part of this time Kuhn was teaching in James Bryant Conant’s General Education Program at Harvard University. Conant, a chemist who became president of Harvard, was what Fuller calls an “action intellectual,” someone who wanted to determine the place of science in post-World War II American society and in an increasingly dangerous and competitive world. Fuller implausibly insists that Kuhn’s analysis of normal and revolutionary science derived from Conant’s Cold-War worldview. Conant certainly wanted to keep science free from unwelcome political influences,...

(The entire section is 2206 words.)