by Steve Fuller, Columbia University Press, November 23, 2004, 978-0231134286
Steve Fuller writes a full book. This was my introduction to
Thomas Kuhn. I think he did a pretty good job, especially now that I
have also read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn did
write sloppily. Fuller calls him an intellectual coward. At the same
time, I do think Kuhn modeled the history of science pretty well.
Popper's view is to "objective", when reality is quite subjective, and
there is certainly a winner's history in all of science.
Fuller's history of how Popper and Kuhn came by their different
versions of the philosophy of science was also excellent.
I didn't so much like the end. It was a technical take-down of Kuhn.
He models Kuhn on Heidegger. I suspect Paul Feyerabend would have
ripped Fuller's argumentation to shreds.
This slim book is a good read to pique your interest in the science of
philosophy. It certainly piqued mine enough to keep me reading other
books by 20th century philosophers. I should warn you that although
slim, it's dense. Fuller writes like a professor of philosophy with
ten-dollar words and jargon. Neither Kuhn, Popper, Lakatos, nor
Feyerabend would appreciate his writing, I think. If you find Kuhn vs
Popper impenetrable, you might go directly to the source for an easier
[p28] Of course, like the most enduring monarchies, the scientific
establishment continues to enjoy widespread public support on most
matters, including the tinge of divine inspiration that has
traditionally legitimated royalty. It might therefore be claimed that
science already represents 'the will of the people', and hence
requires no further philosophical schemes for democratisation. Here
Popper's anti-majoritarian approach to democracy-what I would call his
'civic republican' sensibility-comes to the fore. Many authoritarian
regimes, especially the 20th-century fascist and communist ones, could
also persuasively claim widespread popular support, at least at the
outset and in relation to the available alternatives. For Popper,
however, the normative problem posed by these regimes is that their
performance is never put to a fair test. Kuhn suffers from the same
defect: a paradigm is simply an irrefutable theory that becomes the
basis for an irreversible policy.
Popper's pro-active strategy for challenging dominant scientific
theories- including his critical attitude toward the histories that
legitimate those theories-aims to render science as game-like as
possible. The full import of this point has been rarely appreciated,
mainly because it has not been taken literally, perhaps even by Popper
himself. It means that rational decisions about science as a form of
inquiry cannot be taken, unless two general conditions are met. First,
tests cannot be biased toward the dominant theory. This is akin to
ensuring that two opposing teams operate on a levelled playing field
during a match, regardless of the differences in their prior track
records. Second, the tests must not be burdened with concerns about
the costs and benefits of their outcomes, especially in relation to
the political and economic prospects of the scientists or their
supporters. Allowing such considerations to influence the course of
play would invite the equivalent of match-fixing.
[p35] Lakatos realised that science, mathematics included, has made
progress- in a way that philosophy has not- by its selective
encouragement and appropriation of criticism, or in terms that could
have come from that master German dialectician, Hegel, criticism
applied critically to itself. In other words, criticism is productive
only under certain conditions-for example, not in a research
programme's early stages. Kuhn implicitly understood this point much
better than Popper. But at the same time, Lakatos could not tolerate
Kuhn's conservative complacency, which went to the other extreme of
permittingcriticism only once a standing paradigm had already run into
so many difficulties that it had entered a state of 'crisis'.
Lakatos believed he had improved on Popper's account by showing how-at
least in mathematical inquiry-the discovery of error is followed by
something more than the simple removal of the falsified
theory. Rather, in the process that Lakatos called 'lemma
incorporation', a counter-example to a theory is retransmitted as a
boundary condition for applying a successor version of the
theory. Thus, error elimination is made into a genuinely collective
learning experience, whereby a [p36] prima facie negative episode in
the theory's history becomes a feature of its logical structure.
Moreover, from a pedagogical standpoint, this process is better seen
as dialectical than strictly deductive. Dialectics lays bare patterns
of reasoning that are normally mystified by mathematicians' appeals to
the 'intuitiveness' of a proof's axioms and lemmas. The social, indeed
rhetorical, dimension of mathematical inquiry is therefore finally
exposed. Lakatos would have us focus more on how one from among
several competing sets of axioms came to be selected than on how, once
selected, this set manages to entail a set of conclusions.
Why does Lakatos' preoccupation with dialectics matter in the
Kuhn-Popper debate? The answer is encapsulated in what analytic
philosophers call the underdetermination thesis-the idea that any body
of evidence can be explained by any number of mutually incompatible
theories. In that case, theory choice is 'underdetermined' by the
evidence. Whether the evidence base is the fossil record or the Holy
Bible, it is easy to see how many conflicting interpretations can be
generated, hence providing intuitive support for the
thesis. Nevertheless, this is not how science has been officially
portrayed, at least since Newton claimed to have 'deduced from
phenomena' his laws of motion.