The audiobook reviewed here is ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ by Thomas Kuhn. In the preface, Kuhn tells us that he began the work as a way of explaining to himself and his friends why he chose to study the history of science. In the preface he describes the work as an essay and that he had hoped to include additional material in order to compile a book. He mentions the many people that influenced his thinking and amongst these were Paul Feyerabend. It was perhaps unsurprising that Feyerabend would have been an influence as they were based at the same university and shared common interests. However for the most part I have been a little skeptical of the ideas presented in Feyerabend’s ‘Against Method’ and have made some attempt to address these in an essay (see here and here). The sharing of some similar themes is evident later in the book. Already in the preface, Kuhn approaches a very sensitive subject area by marking out the social sciences as opposed to the natural sciences for special attention.
‘Both history and acquaintanence made me doubt that practitioners of the natural sciences possess firmer or more permanent answers to such questions than their colleagues in social science. Yet somehow the practice of astronomy, physics, chemistry or biology normally fails to evoke the controversies over fundamentals that today often seem endemic amongst say psychologists or sociologists. Attempting to discover the source of that difference led me to recognise the role in scientific research of what I have since called paradigms‘
However here he makes clear that the practitioners of the two share similarly ‘permanent answers’ to the questions posed within their science while in the same paragraph drawing attention to ‘controversies over the fundamentals’. Such controversies however are more a reflection of the relative simplicity of the ‘fundamental’ phenomenon being described in each of the disciplines. While in the fundamentals of one branch of physics – mechanics, there is consideration of the motion of bodies in an idealised environment in psychology or sociology the fundamentals are concerned not with inanimate idealised objects but richly complex human beings. That fundamentals should be arrived at all is testimony to the skill of the practitioners in those fields where matters are complicated not only by volition but also by the complex genetic coding resulting from 3 billion years of evolution, multilayered environmental influences and the interplay between all of these not just in the individual but in group and society settings. Perhaps the benefits to society of the technological advances informed by the natural sciences are the real reason why the natural and social sciences are separated. To propagate the arguments within the social sciences, various distribution media are needed – the printing press, the internet, the radio and so on. These medium however are impossible without the associated manufacturing facilities which in turn are directly dependent on an understanding of branches of physics or chemistry. Thus rather ironically one might suggest that the wider debate in social sciences can take place only because of the success of the natural sciences. This in turn can be reduced to ‘what can your science do on a practical level’.
While there have been innumerable successes in the social sciences, wherever we turn in the modern world we are faced with the end-results of an understanding of the natural sciences – bricks, paint, plastics, paper, ceramics, artificial light, electronics, metals, telecommunication, automobiles. Many of these have existed for millenia but in the current age an understanding of the natural sciences is necessary for the mass manufacturing of such items for large populations. On the other hand, the ‘evidence’ of the success of the social sciences is abundant but altogether more subtle in manifestation and more effort must be made to find this evidence. To reiterate however, this dichotomy is altogether different from the ‘process’ of doing science in these two branches of science which I would argue reduces to a combination of empiricism and rational, systematic investigation. Although ‘creative’ methods and intuition can be used to arrive at solutions more quickly, it is the error-checking rational, systematic and empirical investigation that validates the results and enables the foundations to be formed and built upon.
There is thus a difficulty in focusing on such a dichotomy in the preface – even before the book is properly begun. Such debates occur continue rather artificially in various guises (e.g see here) but the generalisations necessary are such that the accuracy of statements is exchanged for the expediency of the immediate discussion. However unlike Feyerabend, Kuhn contextualises his statement by suggesting that his consideration of the issues led to him formulating the concept of paradigms in scientific research and indeed this becomes a central tenet of the subsequent work.
Thomas Kuhn. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Audible. 2009. Narrated by Dennis Holland. (Paperback originally published in 1962).
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