The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

In his heavily influential work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, author Thomas S. Kuhn challenges the then traditional view of scientific progress by outlining his own schematic for the way in which science is practiced and moves forward. The concept of science as a progression from lesser theories toward the ultimate goal of understanding the natural world, Kuhn argues, is a construction primarily articulated and perpetuated through the way in which science is taught — through textbooks that focus on the prevailing “paradigm” and glorify those scientists who led to its formation and acceptance. The reality of the way that science is carried out, however, is far different.

Science is practiced haphazardly and independently until, united under an agreed upon framework composed of theory, methodology, and instrumentation (what Kuhn calls a paradigm) leads to the pursuance of problem-solving in the realm of “normal science.” Following the unspoken rules implied by the paradigm, scientists attempt to articulate it and solve problems they know to be within its power to solve. When enough anomalies, or inconsistencies, accumulate, a crisis results in which extraordinary research is conducted in an attempt to either “fix” the existing paradigm so that it will include or explain the anomalous data or construct a new paradigm. When shifts in paradigm occur, a scientific revolution has occurred.

Kuhn’s book was at least mentioned in almost all of the reading this week. It clearly had a very important impact on the field; it was the inspiration for the sociology of scientific knowledge movement, which had huge implications for the direction the field went in redefining what science is. By pointing out that science is far from a linear process, getting more “right” as time passes, Kuhn called into question the very basis on which the history of science situated itself.

Reading this book helped me understand the huge implications of the constructivist movement in the practice of the history of science. Kuhn addresses in several statements the prevailing view of science as an accumulation of data and theory that has ultimately led to the superior practice of it today. As someone who grew up reading history that acknowledges the flawed, disjointed, and far from objective characteristics of science, it has been difficult for me to imagine a time in which these adjectives were not used to describe scientific progress (or even science itself). The clear schematic presented as an elucidation of scientific development leaves out many factors that today we know are quite important — institutional authority, cultural predispositions, economic motivations, etc. — but tearing down the goal-oriented idea of scientific endeavor was, I now understand, an important and monumental step in understanding how science is actually carried out.



Both Prefaces & Introduction to Making Natural Knowledge, Jan Golinski

            In her prefaces and introductory chapter, author Jan Golinski states her goals in writing Making Natural Knowledge and gives an outline of the development of the “constructivist” outlook and its implications for the practice of the history of science. She defines constructivism as an approach that emphasizes the importance of the role humans play in the creation and distribution of scientific knowledge, and she tells the story of how these views came to be important and influential in history through the works of Thomas Kuhn through Bruno Latour (including many members of the field of sociology). Constructivism has encouraged a departure from the traditional view of science as a goal-oriented progressive process, instead pointing the study of the history of science in directions that address the roles of language, motivation, instruments, networks, laboratories, and other social factors in the construction of scientific knowledge.


“Visualization and Cognition: Thinking with Eyes and Hands,” Bruno Latour

            Bruno Latour suggests a new method for investigating the history of science in his article on visualization and cognition. He posits that the increasing power of science is due not to the modern age’s development of “more rational” scientists, or even to the institutional and social influences emphasized by the sociologists of science, but to the tools, particularly inscribed or visual ones, at their disposal. Articulating knowledge in a way that conforms to what Latour terms “optical consistency” allows it to be mobile without risking alteration; anyone (or institution) can then superimpose or reanalyze the flattened data to form cascades of knowledge, each more influential than the last. In this way, theories garner empirical and human support and become increasingly difficult to contest and as a result become more powerful (in both predictability and practicality).


“De-Centring the ‘Big Picture’: “The Origins of Modern Science” and the Modern Origins of Science,” Andrew Cunningham and Perry Williams

            Authors Andrew Cunningham and Perry Williams make a convincing case for restructuring the “big picture” of the history of science in a very big way. They first argue that it is worth doing; grand narratives have pedagogic value that outweighs their problematic implications. The authors find certain aspects that constitute the traditional narrative of the history of science, namely the idea of the “scientific revolution,” out of date and misleading, part of a past narrative whose constructors’ motivations are no longer those of the field. Their proposed novel narrative would, instead of telling the story of the development of something in the present, inform students of the history of many things, placed in context. In order that future students of the history of science be made aware of the contingent place our culture holds in the grand scheme of things, the authors suggest three forms of a process they call “de-centring” – recognizing egocentrisms and biases and opening up minds to the reality that many things are peculiar to a nation, ethnicity, class, culture, etc.


“Continental Philosophy and the History of Science,” Garry Gutting

            Garry Gutting begins his outline of Continental developments in the history and philosophy of science by juxtaposing them against the Anglo-American positivist approach; that is, he claims, assuming that scientific knowledge is the only true source of knowledge. He outlines three fields’ contributions, beginning with those of the Phenomenologists and the Existentialists. They emphasize that science is derivative of the “life-world,” and assert that the tendency of scientists is to lost sight of this and view the knowledge they garner from their abstractions as absolute; this, they claim, leads to crises (moral and scientific) when scientific theories cease to explain the world. The second philosophical tradition outlined, the Marxists, identify themselves as directly opposed to positivists. They allege that the problem with the traditional construction of scientific theory is that it is objective, and instead propose critical theory, which gives human interests (rooted in what is essential for human survival, namely communication) the decisive role in what problems science will attempt to solve. Lastly, Gutting summarizes the French network of philosophers; they looked to history to discover the nature of reason, and their analyses lead to their acknowledgement of scientific progress but not continuity.


“Cosmologies Materialized: History of Science and History of Ideas,” John Tresch

            “Cosmologies Materialized” begins with a recapitulation of the historical relationship between the history of science and intellectual history. They shared similar ideas when the history of science concerned itself primarily with establishing the “big picture” narrative that categorized science as a single idea, but with the launch of the sociology of scientific knowledge, historians of science rejected the history of ideas as an impediment to analyses that were newly based on political, institutional, technological, and social factors, to name a few. Author John Tresch then gives an account of the state of the history of science today — quite fragmented and without a narrative at all — and suggests that it return to its earlier place in line with the history of ideas. He proposes that the history of science once again embrace the idea of a “cosmological” view of science as an idea, and he insists that this can be done while still thinking about all of the gaps and inconsistencies within the concept of “science.” Tresch believes that this reorientation of the field will enable it to answer modern pressing questions more ably.

The reading this week has primarily stimulated thought on grand narratives, their reason for being, and the changes that have rendered them scarce in recent scholarship. I understand on a deeper level now why McClellan and Dorn’s Science and Technology in World History, with all of its problems, is still in common use in introductory courses to the history of science; there simply are not many options available due to the destabilization of the field. The reaction, a reaction almost every reading attributes (at least as an instigator) to Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, to the grand narrative that was perpetuated for so long, was (and is) extremely severe. That being said, there are historians who are attempting to pick up the pieces and resume the field’s duty of establishing a general narrative — Bowler and Morus’s Making Modern Science, if it can be judged on its introduction, seems to be a good example of a valid attempt — and they are trying to be as inclusive as possible.

My biggest question after this week’s reading is this — what does deconstructing science to the point that it is unrecognizable do, realistically, to improve the methodology employed by historians of science? The reaction against the admittedly unjust portrayal of science as a linear progression has been extremely severe, but it has produced little in regards to constructing a narrative that represents science as it is — a framework for understanding the world that, like all others, is human, flawed, unobjective, and not deterministic. While historians and philosophers squabble over the minutia of what constitutes and creates “science” and “scientific knowledge,” the public is left with the goal-oriented “big picture” that everyone was so discontent and horrified with half a century ago.

Science & Technology in World History

Authors James McClellan and Harold Dorn attempt to survey the world history of science and technology in their book Science and Technology in World History. Their general method for dealing with such a huge volume of information is clear, but definitely leaves to the reader the establishment of a solid timeline; they divide the book roughly by large time periods, and then by location. General trends are highlighted, such as the disunity of science and technology until recent times and the importance of certain societal and cultural institutions for the advancement of science, and evidence is provided in the form of a few basic, albeit specific, examples. They are careful in the introduction and the conclusion to emphasize that, in writing a survey of such magnitude, they had to be selective in what they included, and that the reader should understand that the historical record is far more complex than appears in their work.

Peter Bowler and Iwan Morus, in the introduction of their work Making Modern Science, stress similar problems inherent in a survey and with the history of science in general. It is a contentious field, they emphasize, and far from a “smooth process of fact gathering,” due in no small part to the influence of scientists themselves.[1] The authors go on to trace the history of the history of science, from its post World War II conception (brought about by a society that had become painfully aware of science’s dangers) through its various critical stages of development. Their history serves another purpose; it highlights an idea that the history of science, along with sociology, philosophy, and related fields, have been working toward — treating science like other fields of inquiry are treated. In conclusion, Bowler and Morus justify a study focused on modern science based on the claim that research interests have changed in the field in order to address culturally relevant scientific problems, which involve institutions and other influences unique to modernity.

Both readings address a theme I have found quite prominent in my first week of classes here. Science has acquired an authority similar to that of religion in the early modern world, and it continues to fight for that power. Thomas F. Gieryn, in his article “Boundary-Work and the Demarcation of Science from Non-Science,” deals with a similar idea. He analyses, through three examples of scientists’ own writing, how science has used the ambiguity of its ideologies to cast itself in different roles in order to claim authority in various situations. The outline of the history of science gives a few examples of scientists engaging in this activity; when confronted in the past by other academic disciplines about the fallibility of their methods, they maintain that their art is an objective one and should be treated differently. The survey also plays into this discourse by emphasizing the dangers of the power of the industrial science complex. The power of science, and the willingness of its proponents to defend it in light of its flaws, has major implications for the future.

The reading for this week was both broadly informative — I knew next to nothing about early science — and methodologically illuminating. Surveys have always been rough to read because I find them tantalizing, but this one was satisfying in that the authors did their best to include specific examples of the broad phenomenon they were describing. The general intellectual feeling I garnered from the two readings was disparate; on one hand, the survey painted a vivid picture of the development of an amazingly capable way to understand and analyze the world, and on the other, the introduction highlighted problems with science as an authoritative institution. It seems that humanity will take any powerful interpretive framework and abuse it. My main point of inquiry would be this; can science be “fixed”? Is a truly objective method within the capability of humanity to carry out, and if not, what is the role of the historian (and the sociologist, and the philosopher…) in mitigating the “human” component of science? And should we be striving to improve this method or, seeing its flaws and its dangers, should we engage in a “paradigm shift” and attempt to find a more perfect framework for inquiry into the universe?

[1] Peter Bowler and Iwan Morus, Making Modern Science, 1.