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.