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Paradigm Shift

April 18, 2012

Did you know this is the semicentennial year not only for Rothbard's Man, Economy, and State, but also for Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions? David Kaiser offers some reflections at Nature.

At the heart of Kuhn's account stood the tricky notion of the paradigm. British philosopher Margaret Masterman famously isolated 21 distinct ways in which Kuhn used the slippery term throughout his slim volume. Even Kuhn himself came to realize that he had saddled the word with too much baggage: in later essays, he separated his intended meanings into two clusters. One sense referred to a scientific community's reigning theories and methods. The second meaning, which Kuhn argued was both more original and more important, referred to exemplars or model problems, the worked examples on which students and young scientists cut their teeth. As Kuhn appreciated from his own physics training, scientists learned by immersive apprenticeship; they had to hone what Hungarian chemist and philosopher of science Michael Polanyi had called “tacit knowledge” by working through large collections of exemplars rather than by memorizing explicit rules or theorems. More than most scholars of his era, Kuhn taught historians and philosophers to view science as practice rather than syllogism.

Kuhn did not, to my knowledge, say much about the social sciences, though in a later essay he described them in somewhat unflattering terms:

[T]here are many fields -- I shall call them proto-sciences -- in which practice does not generate testable conclusions but which nonetheless resemble ph9ilosophy and the arts rather than the established sciences in their developmental patters. I think, for example, of fields like chemistry and electricity before the mid-eighteenth century, of the study of heredity and phylogeny before the mid-nineteenth, or many of the social sciences today. In those fields, . . . though they satisfy [Popper's] demarcation criterion, incessant criticism and continual striving for a fresh start as primary forces, and need to be. No more than in philosophy and the arts, however, do they result in clear-cut progress.

Murray Rothbard took an explicitly Kuhnian approach to his history of economic thought, agreeing with Kuhn that there is no linear, upward progression and condemning what he called the "Whig theory" of intellectual history. [Cross-posted at Organizations and Markets]

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