Kuhn vs. Popper: the Struggle for the Soul of Science – Steve Fuller
Thoughts: I found this book unexpectedly engaging. In Kuhn vs. Popper, Steve Fuller attempts to outline the main points in the debate between Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper and their followers, and to clarify what he sees as points of misunderstanding between the two camps. Fuller is up-front about his position in the debate—he argues that the Kuhnian approach has had negative effects on the scientific enterprise—but he gives the impression of accurately representing the views of both sides, and I was struck by how often I would agree and then disagree with successive points raised by both philosophers. I’m not familiar enough with the main actors to evaluate most of Fuller’s claims, and there were many arguments raised that I didn’t fully inderstand but that I made a note of simply because they were striking or counterintuitive and I’d like to revisit them in the future. I really don’t think I could recommend this book to others—the prose is dense and the subject matter narrow—but in spite of this, I found this book surprisingly interesting.
(The notes below are not a summary of the book, but rather raw notes - whatever I thought, at the time, might be worth remembering.)
Fuller, Steve. 2004. Kuhn vs. Popper: the Struggle for the Soul of Science. Columbia UP.
Chapter 1 - In Search of the Causes of a Non-Event
- 11: shortly before Kuhn and Popper’s 1965 debate, Kuhn debated Theodor Adorno. Fuller identifies this debate as “a watershed of what I call the ‘rationalist left’, the coalition of liberals and Marxists who defended a unified conception of science as a beacon of human progress.” He identifies the “main beneficiaries” of this allegedly misunderstood debate as “the post-leftist postmodernists for whom Kuhn is a standard-bearer”
- 11: “Adopting a Popperian perspective” in the book’s final chapters, Fuller concludes that “the career of Kuhn and the reception of his work manifest failures of intellectual responsibility on several levels, from which we may still hope to recover.”
Chapter 2 - Kuhn and Popper: A Case of Mistaken Identities
- 12-13: Fuller’s explanation of the main points in Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions:
- Science begins in earnest when a new ‘paradigm’ is proposed, which provides a blueprint for future research, with researchers agreeing to “a common pattern of work and common standards for adjudicating their knowledge claims”
- Most of “normal science” (Kuhn’s term) amounts to the solving of puzzles within that paradigm
- when enough unsolved/unsolvable puzzles crop up, a paradigm is “in crisis”, and scientists start searching in earnest for other frameworks that provide explanations for those puzzles. When a new, viable paradigm is discovered, a “revolution” has occurred.
- 14: Kuhn’s examples in Structure were drawn exclusively from the physical sciences, but Kuhn’s admirers have mostly come from the humanities and the social and biological sciences, and the impact on physics etc. has been quite limited.
- “Nevertheless, Kuhn’s admirers persisted in wrenching Structure from its original context and treating it as an all-purpose manual for converting one’s lowly discipline into a full-fledged science”
- 15-16: logic, for Popper vs positivists: “For positivists, logic bolstered scientific authority, whereas for Popper logic challenged it.”
- “For the positivists, deduction demonstrates the coherence of a body of thought.”
- “For Popperians, deduction is mainly a tool for compelling scientists to test the consequences of their general knowledge claims in particular cases by issuing predictions that can be contradicted by the findings of empirical research.”
- 16: “Kuhn accepted Popper’s critique of positivism but could find little historical basis for falsifiability as a working ethic in science”
- 16: Popper’s idea of an ‘open society’: “The open society is one whose members… treat openness to criticism and change as a personal ethic and civic duty”
- 17: Popper railed against ‘historicism’, the idea that all our trials/experiments lead us “closer to the ideal”: “Historicism’s cardinal sin… is its refusal to admit genuine error and hence the need to alter one’s course of belief or action”
- he saw historicism in “knowledge by induction, legitimation by tradition…, evolution by natural selection…”
Chapter 3 - Popperian Suspicions and Kuhnian Vindication
- 23: Fuller asserts that Kuhn asserts that “scientific revolutions succeed not because the same people are persuaded of a new way of seeing things (à la Popper) but because different people’s views start to count.”
- 23: “Kuhn’s interesting and controvertial point… is that very few scientists are intellectually bilingual [i.e. able to understand the world through the lens of two incompatible paradigms at the same time] because it is not part of their normal training. Consequently, the main propellant of revolutionary change in science is that subsequent generations are taught only the new and not the old paradigm. Scientists are not taught to be mentally flexible.”
Chapter 4 - We’ve Been Here Before: The Prehistory of the Debate
- 26-27: Popper argued that “science is much too important to be left to scientific discresion. The growing authority of scientists offers too many opportunities for the corruption of science. Philosophers are thus needed to ensure that scientists remain true to the normative ideal…. From this impulse came Popper’s falsifiability principle as the scientific ethic.”
- 27: Fuller’s summary of Popperian views: “Scientists should be always trying to falsify their theories, just as people should always be invited to find fault in their governments and consider alternatives—and not simply wait until the government can no longer hide its mistakes” j: the latter alternative being similar to a revolution between paradigms
- 28: Popper thought that science should be made as game-like as possible, in that:
- Tests should not be biased towards the dominant theory - there should be an “even playing field” between explanations, no matter the theories’ track records in the past
- j: to what extent is this counter to a bayesian approach, where we can slowly accumulate evidence?
- We shouldn’t be concerned about the costs/benefits of the outcome of the study
- 32-33: Fuller argues that the Kuhnian approach to science is “backward-looking”, deferring to acknowledged winners, whereas a Popperian approach is “forward-looking”, focussing on how our actions and knowledge can always be improved upon
Chapter 5 - Dialectics as the Pulse of Scientific Progress
- 36: the underdetermination thesis: “that any body of evidence can be explained by any number of mutually incompatible theories”. This is evidently true (j: cf. Sean Carroll’s planets of belief), though science is rarely portrayed as dealing with underdetermination
- 38-39: Fuller’s characterization: If two mutually incompatible explanations are proposed:
- Kuhn’s approach: wait to see which explanation eventually wins out
- Popper’s approach: look for situations where the two explanations would lead to different predictions. If we can identify such situations, they can be used to set up “crucial experiments” to decide between the two explanations
Chapter 6 - A Parting Shot at the Misunderstanding
- 40: “So, Popper was a democrat concerned with science as a form of dynamic inquiry and Kuhn an élitist focussed on science as a stabilising social practice. Nevertheless, they normally appear with these qualities in reverse. How can this be?” !!
- 41: “Popper’s detractors read him as… treating the social sciences as uniformly inferior to the physical sciences. But this is false…. If Popper was ‘scientistic’ or ‘positivistic’, it was in precisely this sense: he wanted society to be reorganized so that it could be as genuinely experimental in its policies as a laboratory science in its hypotheses”
- 42: “Even if ideas and arguments should be evaluated independently of their origins, we must still first learn those origins, in order to ensure that our evaluation is independent of them. The only thing worse than accepting or rejecting an idea because we know about its originator is doing so because we know nothing of the originator.” !!
Chapter 7 - Why Philosophers Get No Respect from Scientists
- 48: Fuller points out the parallelism between Kuhn’s paradigms and Georges Cuvier’s catastrophism
Chapter 8 - So, Why Are Philosophers of Science Pro-Science?
- 50: “Kuhn’s reduction of the ends of science to the trajectories already being pursued by particular sciences has now inspired two generations of philosophers to believe that they should be taking their normative marching orders from the sciences they philosophise about, and hense do not question them unless the scientists themselves have done so first.”
Chapter 9 - The Return of the Repressed: Philosophers as Tory Historians of Science
- 54: “Master narratives are historical accounts of history that presuppose an active universal subject—one with whom the author happens to identify—who overcomes a series of obstacles to reach full self-realization. This plot outline is common to the nvisible hand of Divine Providence in the Christian salvation story, the philosophical histories of progress recounted in the Enlightenment… and the scientific theories of dialectical materialism and evolutionary naturalism inspired by Marx and Darwin. The style in which these histories are typically written is often called Whig history, named after the victors of the 17th-century English Civil War, who wrote of the conflict as one they were bound to win as defenders of liberty.”
- 55: “Postmodernists have rarely adhered to Kuhn’s historiographical segregationism. Thus… cultural studies scholars (allegedly) try to demystify the natural sciences’ claims to epistemic authority. In response to Whiggish tales of inevitable progress that suppress divergence and disagreement, they advance of plurality of parallel ‘subaltern’ accounts that aim to undermine science’s narritive finality. It was exactly this sort of hostile engagement that made Kuhn suspicious, and sometimes even disparaging, of the entire field of science studies, despite his own status as its mythical progenitor.”
Chapter 10 - The Religious Unconscious of the Debate
Chapter 11 - Do We Believe by Evidence or by Decision?: A Very Short History of Epistemology
Chapter 12 - The University As the Absent Presence of the Kuhn-Popper Debate
Chapter 13 - Popper and Adorno United: The Rationalist Left at Positivism’s Wake
Chapter 14 - Popper and Adorno Divided: The Rationalist Left Haunted by Historicism
- 91: “Hilary Putnam’s famous formulation, that the success of science would be a miracle, were it not getting closer to the truth.” Popper and Adorno identified this idea as an example of historicism, “that things could not be other than they are”.
- j: Putnam’s seems like a very Bayesian sort of claim. It also feels similar to many of Steven Pinker’s claims in Enlightenment Now.
- 93-94: “Adorno’s strategy has… led to a dissipation of the critical impulse, as the criticised hegemons typically do not recognize themselves in the criticism—mainly because they cannot make sense of it. The result, of course, is that the so-called critiques launched by cultural studies have failed to hit their intended targets, who cannot see the point of a response. Indeed the pointlessness of this form of pseudo-critical non-exchange was notoriously publicised in the parody known as the Sokal Hoak, whereby a disgruntled US physicist, Alan Sokal, managed to publish an article in a leading cultural studies journal that turned out to be a mix of impenetrable jargon, politically correct references and bogus accounts of technical physics”
Chapter 15 - How to Be Responsible for Ideas—the Popperian Way
- 98: negative responsibility: the idea that, if you choose not to take a course of action, you should still be held responsible for the effects of your non-action
- 100: regarding anti-historiographic efforts: “Scientists happily take responsibility for developments that enhance the human condition, even if they occurred several decades after the original intellectual innovation (e.g. Newton’s responsibility for the Industrial Revolution), while distancing themselves from developments that diminish the human condition, even if they were brought about by the original intellectual innovators (e.g. the responsibility of the founders of modern atomic physics for nuclear weapons).”
Chapter 16 - Failing the Popperian Test for Intellectual Responsibility: Rorty on Heidegger
- 104: the genetic fallacy is “committed whenever someone infers the validity of an idea from its origins.” It was initially proposed in the 1930s “to counter cryptoracist claims that certain forms of knowledge are intrinsic to certain cultures, as in ‘Jewish science’ and ‘Aryan science’”
- 104: Popper and Hans Reichenbach both proposed, around the same time, the distinction between context of discovery, the origin of a scientific idea, and context of justification, the validation of that theory. It was hoped that the genetic fallacy would help to popularize this distinction.
- 105: the genetic fallacy can also be defined as “the origins of an idea need not imply anything about its validity”. But when reasoning about it, people sometimes commit the modal fallacy, arriving at the conclusion that “the origins of an idea never imply anything about its validity” (modal fallacy: “need not imply” is not the same as “never imply”).
Chapter 17 - Is Thomas Kuhn the American Heidegger
- 111: Fuller claims that Structure was ridiculed when it first came out for its ambiguities: “Margaret Masterman notoriously recorded 21 distinct meanings of ‘paradigm’ in the first edition of Structure alone.” He argues that, in both Kuhn’s work and Heidegger’s, this has come to be seen by some as a feature rather than a bug: “these original liabilities have come to be seen as marks of the ‘semantically rich’ and ‘open-textured’ nature of their books.”
- 116: “What neither [James Bryant] Conant nor Kuhn anticipated, or approved, was that their shared non-instrumental vision of science would be appropriated by humanists and social scientists, in part to relativise the nature of science to whatever a community of inquirers happens to agree as their ‘paradigm’”
Posted: Aug 27, 2021. Last updated: Aug 27, 2021.