U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Has Intellectual History Had a Kuhnian Revolution?

This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a book which clearly belongs on any list of the most significant historical works of the twentieth century.  Over the weekend, the UK’s The Observer featured an excellent journalistic account by John Naughton of the significance of Kuhn’s book, both within the history of science and in the wider sphere of (at least educated Anglophone) culture, which got me thinking both about my encounters with the book (and Kuhn) and about the place of Kuhn’s vision of of the past in intellectual history beyond the history of science.

I first read Structure as a first-semester freshman in Science A17, the first half of Owen Gingerich’s history of science survey course that, as part of Harvard’s Core Curriculum, was a direct heir to the Gen Ed science course whose formulation had led Thomas Kuhn from physics to the history of science and to the metahistorical revolution embodied in his book.

Usually one encounters a famous book’s reputation long before actually reading the book. But reading Kuhn as a first-semester freshman in the early 1980s, I had absolutely no preconceptions.  I had no idea of the book’s significance within its field. And the explosion of paradigm talk in the wider culture had yet to occur. So my sense of wonder at reading The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was relatively unmediated (though, of course, the fact that it was being assigned and discussed in a class was itself a form of mediation).  It was, I think, one of the first times that I experienced how a work of history can fundamentally change the way one understands the world, not simply through revealing what happened in the past, but also through its critical understanding of what happened in the past.  And, like many others who encounter Kuhn for the first time, I and my classmates began busily applying the idea of paradigm shifts to realms beyond science.  I remember my section leader cautioning us that Kuhn himself was very insistent that his idea of scientific change applied only to science.  That made us slow, but not stop, our excited, undergraduate Kuhnification of everything.

Sometime during my senior year I found myself at a reception with Thomas Kuhn himself.  It was, I think, a celebration of some anniversary of the Harvard Society of Fellows, of which Kuhn was a particularly notable alumnus (and with which I, it should be said, have never had a direct affiliation).  I spent much of the reception trying to work up the nerve to talk to Kuhn, who had really made an enormous intellectual difference to me, but I could never figure out what I might say to him.*

Kuhn’s direct impact on the rest of my college education was slight (I took only one other history of science class), but his name frequently showed up in reviews of recent works in the history of science that I read during those years in various periodicals. I was struck both by the hostility with which many philosophers of science and scientists treated Kuhn, and by the tendency to dismiss him as an epistemic relativist. The latter was a charge that particularly puzzled me, as Kuhn’s understanding of scientific revolutions relies on the appearance of anomalies in the results of “normal science” to trigger a paradigm shift.  It seemed to me that a theory-independent reality was necessary to generate those anomalies.

As John Naughton notes in his Observer article, in the ensuing decades, Kuhn–or at least Kuhn-speak–has spread throughout the culture…though it’s an interesting question why this is the case and whether popular talk of “paradigm shifts” suggests real Kuhnian influence or just the shallow importation of a piece of jargon, rather like Gramsci’s rising popularity in the ’70s and ’80s made “hegemony” a common word without actually suggesting that its users were notably Gramscian.

Certainly the rise of paradigm-talk has helped cement the book’s status as a key, late 20th-century text, well beyond the history of science.  While I expect that we’ll see many changes to the latter chapters of Hollinger & Capper’s American Intellectual Tradition, the excerpt from Structure has a very secure place in the volume, not least because it’s a fine, early example of the postmodern turn in American thought.

All of which brings me to the question posed in the post’s title: what has been the impact of Kuhn on the practice of intellectual history?  Of course, that title has something of a double-meaning. It might also be read as: does the practice of intellectual history undergo Kuhnian paradigm shifts?

I actually think that this second question is easier to answer than the first: Kuhn’s vision of the practice of science seems radically unlike the way intellectual history is practiced.  In Kuhn’s view, “normal science” consists of problem solving within a paradigm, until anomalies in the results build up to the point that a revolutionary paradigm shift needs to take place. Under normal science, the paradigm within which science works is not only unquestioned, but in effect unquestionable.  And the new paradigm is, according to Kuhn, incommensurable with the old paradigm, hence the need for a revolutionary leap.**

This all seems very unlike the way historians (and most other humanists) work. In particular, the stark division between “normal science” and a scientific revolution simply doesn’t exist. Yes, we can all think of plodding bits of archival work that do nothing but add a further example to an established historical story. And works that truly alter our sense of how historical change takes place are few and far between. But, in principle at least, our narratives, our metanarratives, even our most basic methodology are all always up for grabs.  We don’t need a single stable paradigm (in the Kuhnian sense) in which to work. Nor is it possible to claim that our paradigms (in the looser, popular sense) are in any way incommensurable with each other. Indeed, much of the most vibrant activity in history involves paradigms (in this looser sense) facing off against each other.***

But if intellectual history itself doesn’t quite fit the Kuhnian, er, paradigm, perhaps what we study might.  Interestingly enough, at the very moment that Kuhn was (if you’ll pardon the expression) revolutionizing the history of science, a parallel revolution of sorts was going on in intellectual history: the rise of the Cambridge School.  This is not the time or place to enter into a close comparison of Kuhn and Pocock, so I’ll just note that it seems to me that their visions of historical change–and historical study–are quite distinct from one another, yet clearly emerge from the same broader intellectual moment.****

History is sometimes said to be the pirate discipline, and I have no doubt that many intellectual historians have raided the Kuhnian castle in their efforts to understand the past. But I’m somewhat embarrassed to say that I can’t think of any really successful attempt to write a strictly Kuhnian history of any non-scientific aspect of thought. Back in 1997, Adolph Reed, Jr., wrote critically of what he believed were misplaced attempts to write about African American thought in a Kuhnian way [h/t to Lauren Kientz Anderson for drawing my attention to that Reed piece].  And though Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions played an absolutely central role in my admittedly modest intellectual biography, I cannot honestly say that I pattern my own thinking consciously after his ideas (though I’m sure that he contributed to my–and my generation of historians’–general suspicion of historiographical Whiggishness).

Was Kuhn an influence on your development as an historian? Is he an influence on the way you think and/or write about the past?  What works of intellectual history (outside of the history of science) seem to you to be most influenced by Kuhn?

* The only other person I can think of around whom I was similarly utterly tongue tied was Tom Lehrer, with whom I was at another reception that same year. 

** The Marxian notion of revolution is, of course, a very important intellectual context for the Kuhnian notion of a scientific revolution (a phrase which had previously been used to describe a single, particular moment in the history of science in a not-particularly-Marxian way).

*** I should add that the idea of the incommensurability of paradigms remains one of the most controversial aspects of Kuhn’s thesis.

**** In the early days of this blog, Tim Lacy drew some interesting parallels between John C. Greene’s 1957 essay on “Objectives and Methods in Intellectual History” and Kuhn’s work.

14 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. It is worth pointing out that incommensurability was not something that Kuhn tended to stress himself. However, it became a heated topic of discussion because of its perceived implications for relativism. How the problem of relativism tended to consume and intermix more specific debates in anthropology, linguistics, and other fields is a fascinating question for intellectual history.

    On history as not fitting the paradigm model, Kuhn had a concept of pre-paradigmatic science that had failed to settle into any defined pattern of normal science. Whether this is a useful way of thinking about historical methodology, or anything else that appears to be pre-paradigmatic, is certainly open to serious question.

  2. My feeling is that Kuhn has been often misapplied and misunderstood by social scientists (I don’t know about historians specifically), though this misapplication is not as widespread now as it used to be.

    Not only did Kuhn intend his model of scientific change to apply only to the history of natural science, but a ‘paradigm’, at least according to one of the early definitions in the book (and admittedly he doesn’t always stick with one consistent definition), must have core substantive, specific assumptions or beliefs that all practitioners share. With the possible exception of ‘mainstream’ economics, there are no paradigms in this sense, as far as I’m aware, in history or the social sciences. So all the popular and much of the academic ‘paradigm-talk’ is, as you suggest, just “the shallow importation of a piece of [misunderstood] jargon.” Which is not necessarily bad as long as it’s understood that ‘paradigm’ is being used as a kind of synonym for worldview, rather than being used as Kuhn used it. (I suspect I have just repeated something I wrote in a Crooked Timber comment thread a long time ago when the subject of Kuhn and ‘Structure’ came up there, though as I recall that thread was more focused on Kuhn’s somewhat troubled, iirc, personality/psyche.)

    Btw I don’t entirely get your paragraph about Kuhn and Pocock. Perhaps you could elaborate on it in a subsequent post at some point.

  3. Ben – I’m glad you called attention to the anniversary of Kuhn’s important book. Much work considering its impacts can be anticipated — not only on intellectual history itself, but on the universe of subject-matters to which sub-discipline addresses itself.

    I can add some personal recollections regarding my slightly earlier encounter with Thomas Kuhn’ book. When I entered the PhD program in American Studies at the University of Iowa in September, 1969, one of my professors, Alexander Kern, was pushing Kuhn on everyone he encountered, so I read it, which led to additional work in the philosophy, history and sociology of science. It was one of the half dozen or so books that had a huge influence on me.

    It was still fairly new at that time, and its enormous impact in intellectual history and other historical fields was just beginning. For example, Hollinger’s “T.S. Kuhn’s Theory of Science and Its Implications for History” was not published in the AHR until 1973. It’s still worth reading to get a sense of some early efforts to come to terms with his work.

    It would be interesting to learn how Hollinger sees the issues now, almost forty years later. I wonder whether, in the light of more recent history — I’m thinking of creationism, climate change denialism and freewheeling ontological constructivism, etc — he would rethink his apparent confidence that we had little to fear from Kuhn’s alleged subversion of science as objective knowledge, and of nature as unquestionably real. It’s harder now to be sure, as he put it, that “the transition from transcendent objectivity to socially grounded objectivity need not be a substitution of terror and caprice for rationality.” [392]

    An intriguing part of the reception history is that from the outset it was not narrowly academic, and my gut sense is that its broad impact was partly due to the fact that in the late ‘60s, so to speak, revolution was “in the air,” for the hell of it or otherwise — and of course Kuhn was explicitly drawing an analogy between politics and history of science, and the perceived political implications of his work have been discussed extensively. For example, Theodore Roszak drew on Kuhn in his chapter on ‘The Myth of Objective Consciousness” in The Making of a Counter Culture, 1969, and the next year, Michael Rossman, author of The Wedding Within the War, noted that Kuhn had shown that science is part of our “cultural mythology…powerful, explicitly anti-revolutionary, and dead wrong.”

    Kuhn was prominent in intellectual history at least into the early eighties, as suggested by the fact that in Higham and Conkin’s New Directions, 1979, Kuhn was referenced more times than Geertz, cited in the contributions of John Higham, Gordon Wood, Hollinger, Thomas Haskell, Murray Murphey and Tom Bender. At the time, his book was taken to support the attention being given then to communities of discourse. In that volume, though, Haskell was the only one to give Kuhn sustained attention, as he worried over the “deterministic” implications of his work as applied in history.

  4. continued …

    You remark that while Kuhn is often taken as an epistemic relativist, it seemed to you that his thesis implied some sort of philosophical realism, even though anomalous observations or facts are ordinarily, though apparently not in revolutionary times, paradigm-laden. On that, a recent article by Peter Gordon, “Agonies of the Real: Anti-Realism From Kuhn to Foucault,” in Modern Intellectual History 9,1, April 2012, traces the evolution of Kuhn’s thinking on this issue and suggests that he remained undecided. His article is also germane vis-à-vis your reference to Kuhn’s work as “a fine, early example of the postmodern turn,” or at least the cultural turn.

    To take your second question first, you make some excellent points, which seem quite close to those offered by Hollinger back in ’73. As to the first question — the historical topic — in the late ‘70s I began but unfortunately haven’t completed a project on just that question, looking mainly at the social sciences, including history. As far as I know, no one has finished it.

    Some recent work includes: Steve Fuller, Thomas Kuhn: A Philosophical History for Our Times, 2000, and a review symposium in History of the Human Sciences 14, 2, 2001; John Zammito, A Nice Derangement of Epistemes: Post-positivism in the Study of Science from Quine to Latour, 2004, reviewed by Gary Gutting in History and Theory 46, May 2007; Thomas C. Walker, “The Perils of Paradigm Mentalities: Revisiting Kuhn, Lakatos, and Popper,” Perspectives on Politics 8, 2, June 2010; and the Forum: Kuhn’s Structure at Fifty, in Modern Intellectual History 9, 1, April 2012, which includes articles by Joel Isaac, Michael Friedman and Deborah Coen, as well as the aforementioned Peter E. Gordon piece.

  5. Good comments from B. Fine.

    Another ref. that some here might be interested in: an early use of the word ‘paradigm’ in writing on U.S. foreign policy is Michael Roskin’s 1974 article “From Pearl Harbor to Vietnam: shifting generational paradigms and foreign policy,” reprinted in Ikenberry, ed., ‘American Foreign Policy: Theoretical Essays’ (6th ed. 2011).

  6. LFC – Thanks for the comment and citation. Since you are apparently in international relations, you might find the Walker article mentioned in my second installmemt interesting, since it deals mostly with international relations, specifically the pros and cons of “realism” as a paradigm in the field.

    • Bill Fine – thanks. I had seen the Walker article (b/c the journal Perspectives on Politics arrives in my mailbox), but I don’t think I read it closely. Might have another look. Yes, I am in International Relations in the sense that that is what my degree says (most such advanced degrees in the US are in Political Science, but mine happens to be labeled IR). I don’t have an academic position, however, and partly for that reason I feel free to comment (pontificate? whatever) beyond the bounds of IR and political science. 🙂

  7. The comments on this thread have been a pleasure to read. One thing about LFC’s first comment in particular has stuck with me:

    My feeling is that Kuhn has been often misapplied and misunderstood by social scientists (I don’t know about historians specifically), though this misapplication is not as widespread now as it used to be.

    The inclusion of “historians” among “social scientists” reflects a particular perspective that I would surmise many historians don’t share — it seems to me, for example, that many of the essays in the Wingspread Conference proceedings (cited by Bill here) were all very much concerned with drawing a distinction b/w history and social science. (This goes along w/ debates about “covering laws” or history as a “proto-science,” discussed in Mink’s essay.)

    And all of this reminded me in turn of this fabulous line from Harold Rosenberg’s essay, “Everyman a Professional.” Rosenberg writes,

    “The normal relation of each profession with others contiguous to it is border warfare….”

    Proudly guilty as charged! Rosenberg goes on in the essay to give history a bit of a drubbing for its professional ritualization — just one example among many. His real target, though, is “popularization” and popularizers in the service of modern industry.

    It’s a good read — Rosenberg is such a sharp, fine stylist.

    Here’s the citation, if anyone is looking to spend a few hours with a post-war intellectual:

    Harold Rosenberg, “Everyman a Professional,” The Tradition of the New (New York: Horizon Press, 1960), 58-73.

    • Point taken.
      A lot of ink has been spilled on the relation(s) between history and social science, and I’m sure more is being spilled every day; given the confines of a blog comment space, I’ll leave it at that.
      Nice line from Rosenberg; the only phrase of his I know offhand is his reference to intellectuals as “a herd of independent minds.”

  8. I can testify that Kuhn had a huge impact for how I tried to understand the intellectual history of development studies, and the rise and fall of modernization theory, in particular.

    The more reflexive question of whether intellectual history itself is subject of Kuhnian revolutions is an interesting one. I tend to think not. Changes in fashion (regarding both topics and methods), certainly, but full scale “paradigm shifts” whereby a build-up of anomalies within a normal science framework leads to an epistemic crisis… that doesn’t seem to describe any of the major shifts that have taken place over the last fifty years.

  9. Thanks for the dialogue.

    LFC – Keep pontificating. I am in a post-academic position, so I feel free for slightly different reasons. It’s great fun: I used to annoy sociologists, now I can entertain myself by upsetting historians.

    LD – No argument with LFC that “Kuhn has been often misapplied and misunderstood,” but it’s also interesting to see that debates about what Kuhn said, where he was coming from, and even more, whether the impact of his work has been on balance beneficial, are still going on. I recommend the Modern Intellectual History forum to those who are interested. I found Deborah Coen’s article especially provocative in raising issues that weren’t familiar to me. Haven’t read Joel Isaac’s piece yet. Sure, historians at Wingspread and today are “concerned with drawing a distinction b/w history and social science,” but everyone has a good deal of what Weber called “trained incapacity” to see outside their little groups, especially when they’re engaged in border wars, though perhaps they need them to maintain a sense of solidarity and purpose. It’s quite a broad statement, but some historians have a caricatured image of the social sciences, as if they were still followers of Comte – or Hempel – and hadn’t been as swept up in “the cultural turn,” post-structuralism, and the like as much as historians.

    Nils – I tend to think not also. Some early efforts to fit various disciplines into the Kuhnian model advocated forcing acceptance of a particular paradigm. In a quick review of Novick’s extended treatment of Kuhn, I didn’t discover him comparing “that noble dream” to a disciplinary paradigm. I wonder whether “historicism” might be a candidate. But it seems that the discussion has moved past such questions of straightforward applicability, since Kuhn’s very model is considered more problematical than it was in the early days.

  10. Hey Bill-
    I enjoyed your post a few days ago regarding J. Livingston and was wondering if his notion against thrift prompted any paradigm shifts in your mind. I read Kuhn 40 yrs ago for a Poli Sci class and know the model is suited for hard science but the impulse is strong (it was a poli sci class afterall)to apply it to the “softer” sciences. Whether you accept his thesis or not it seems evident, theoretically speaking, that a culture that accepts Livingston’s premise would have to do it on a slow bottom up,welling of an idea that eventually has to imbue the culture. The idea of thrift as more of a vice than a virtue and consumption as almost a civic duty to keep the engine of the economy running requires a rather dramatic about face. Perceptions about money, avarice, theft, social relations, to name a few things, could be quite different. If social sciences could claim a paradigm shift wouldn’t this be one?

  11. Paul – You raise a large question. I have read only a few of Livingston’s blog pieces and articles on this topic, not the new book. Of course we need to distinguish paradigms in social sciences, which are theoretical explanations and associated research practices from a notion of fundamental shifts in political and cultural understandings, morality and social policy.

    It appears that he sees a sort of discordance, a lag perhaps, between economic possibilities and the way we understand and do things. As he says at the conclusion of a piece in HNN – 7.8.11 –

    “Why not say, we have reached a point in the development of the human species where socially necessary labor no longer contains, describes, or determines our possibilities, so that work can neither create the disciplined character we want from ourselves nor generate the incomes we need to support ourselves? Why not say, the criterion of productivity has outlived its utility, and, as a result, insist that the criterion of need has now become an eminently practical program of both economic and moral progress?”

    Perhaps he’s saying that we need something like a paradigmatic shift in how we understand and judge things. But like you, I tend to think of that as something that would come over a long period, through “a slow bottom up, welling of an idea,” as you put it.

    I guess there’s some ambiguity in the idea of “revolution,” implying deep or fundamental change, but often sudden change as well — as in “industrial revolution” and “French revolution.” I don’t know the historiography, but I recall that James Axtell wrote about a 17th century “consumer revolution” in England.

  12. Thanks for your response Bill-

    You said – But like you, I tend to think of that as something that would come over a long period, through “a slow bottom up, welling of an idea,” as you put it.

    I didn’t properly represent that idea although I do agree with it. That is Livingston’s as I extrapolated from a response (by him) to a question on his blog.

    “In any case, these comments are at least interesting because they reflect two very different notions of what “movement” on the Left or in the larger society means. On the one hand, a movement convened for particular, often political purposes, permeated but also constituted by its ideas–a movement that can demobilize as an activist vanguard when its mission is accomplished. On the other, a mostly silent, long-term, almost glacial movement of people, in space and time, which changes everything slowly but more deeply: the spring lies waiting beneath this frozen ground. El Mono Liso and Marcelo Corrales want us to measure the latter, Paul and Jim want us speak to the former. I think they go together, and I’ll bet we agree on this. But for now my point about the Left borrows and shares more with el Mono and Marcelo.” “Socialism without socialist or what’s the matter with Leftists?” comment 7/29/12

    The quote doesn’t speak directly to “Against Thrift” but I think it accurately represents Livingston’s world view. He certainly puts it more lyrically than I could.

    I recommend the book it’s one of the more provocative I’ve read for a long time.

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