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The Scientific Revolution vs. Scientific Revolutions March 8, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.

I’m not really all that sure what the “history of science community” thinks these days about “The Scientific Revolution” vs. “scientific  revolutions” in the sense offered in Thomas Kuhn’s landmark book The Structure of Scientific  Revolutions (1962).  I know I have my own notions about the relationship between the two, but, reading Harkness’ book on Elizabethan sciences, I have to admit that I don’t know whether everyone’s on the same page—or even in the same chapter—on the question, so I thought I might want to expand on my quick gloss on the issue featured in my last post.

As I mentioned in my “pocket history” of the profession, Kuhn’s work came at a point in the history of science when some historians of the modern sciences started to see it as necessary to make sense of old ways of seeing the world, rather than just explaining their falsehoods away as superstitions or vestiges from a primeval confusion or “error”.  To set up such a history, Kuhn imagined that there were periodic “revolutions” wherein one system of knowledge, or “paradigm”, was replaced by another.  Kuhn’s scientific revolutions were clearly intellectual, and they occurred periodically.  In the 1960s, it was still common for historians to suppose the existence of sequential “revolutions” , with a second revolution occurring in the nineteenth century, and maybe a third in the twentieth.

This Kuhnian idea of “scientific revolutions”, and particularly the first, could then hold sway over historical periodization.   In particular, one might suppose that “The Scientific Revolution” represented an obvious sea change in natural inquiry.  By extension, one might say that The Scientific Revolution “came late” to fields such as chemistry.  Ambitious cultural historians and theorists might even take a page from their Enlightenment-era predecessors that The Scientific Revolution marked a dividing point through all of human history, distinguishing an age of reason from an age of superstition, for good or for ill.

I’m sympathetic to Kuhn’s idea of revolution, but not as a tool for historical periodization.  What Kuhn, in my mind, identifies are problems of conceptualization and reconceptualization.  In other words, to work effectively, one needs to have a useful conceptualization of a problem, and it is indeed the case that conceptualizations can come to dominate fields.  You can’t work in molecular genetics without the conceptualization of DNA (or at least technologies that operate based on the conceptualization of DNA).  The problem of finding an effective initial conceptualization of a problem is at least analogous to what Kuhn things of as a shift from “pre-paradigmatic” science to a scientific “paradigm”.  Similarly, problems can be reconceptualized, say by replacing one ontology with another, Einstein replacing ether mechanics with relativity, for example.

I don’t, however, think that it is useful to try and tell the history of science as simply a history of “normal” science punctuated by sudden revolutions.  In specific fields, I think it hides more issues than it reveals, and it certainly doesn’t work across sciences, or even within the bounds of a specific field.  I certainly don’t think it is useful to speak of intellectual reconceptualizations in one area as having broad effects on the ideas  of other areas, let alone in general history.

But, going back to my previous point about The Scientific  Revolution, I do think the term is worth retaining, because it nicely describes a widely articulated and accordingly organized project of systematic inquiry.  Although this project was not necessarily intellectually transformative or unifying, it did have specific historical implications that we can trace.

So, the final question is whether I think The Scientific  Revolution had anything at all to do with Kuhnian revolutions.  I would have to say: only slightly.

Specifically, I think the influential Newtonian reconceptualization of celestial mechanics was a landmark achievement of the enterprise constructed during the Scientific Revolution, but that its larger significance for the enterprise was primarily limited to its use as a propaganda tool for the enterprise.  The further notion that it was desirable for a project of inquiry to seek simple organizing principles, while rhetorically influential, had effects that were too diffuse to be useful as an organizing historical concept.  For example, we might say that natural history awaited its “Darwinian moment”, but to tell the history of natural history around the Darwinian moment, or to suppose that the Darwinian moment had anything more than a remote connection to what Newton did, would be wildly irresponsible.  By extension, to tell the history of science, or even of any particular line of inquiry, as organized around a “scientific” moment, strikes me—and I imagine almost all historians of science—as similarly irresponsible.

But what exactly other historians of science think about either Kuhnian revolutions or The Scientific Revolution, not to mention their relationship to each other, is not something about which I’m at all sure.



1. John S. Wilkins - March 9, 2009

IMO, there has never been a Kuhnian revolution, especially not the one he used as his own paradigm case (pun intended): Copernicus. Terms were quite commensurate across theories in every case, and in many cases these “rapid” shifts took over centuries to occur. The Darwinian paradigm and the tectonic plate paradigm are the two most likely (Ruse for the first, and I can’t recall who argues the second), and in each case the shifts took decades – some fifty years for Darwin and forty years for Wegener.

As a sort of historian I reckon that Kuhn is misled by his view that meaning is internal to the theory, and so terms in different theories have to have incomparable meanings, and the rest follows from that. As to the historical turn in scientific theories, I think Sarton started that well before Kuhn.

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