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Revolution and Discontinuity

rather than sweep them away in a torrent of
technical jargon. On the other hand, there can be
no general recipe for clarity and good style, if
only because the personal flair of the writer will
always, and rightly, be a contributory factor, and
because the nature of the material under consideration must to some extent determine the appropriateness of a particular form of expression.

It is in pursuit of a clarity defined and qualified in
these kinds of terms that Radical Philosophy sees it
as important not only to challenge the academicism
of the left, but to continue its critique of main – .

stream analytical philosophy. Some might argue
that the latter is unnecessary. They would say that
the influence and authority of radical ideas is now
so great that a new and different policy is necessary.

and that it is no longer worth bothering with traditional British philosophy and its academic heirs
(Wittgenstein, Russell, Austin, etc). However, it
would be absurd to exaggerate the success of
Radical Philosophy and the influence of radical and
Marxist ideas. The view that left-wing thought now
dominates higher education would be no more
correct if assumed by us than if asserted by the
Gould report. It has had an influence, but it is
very far from being dominant. In general it
remains true that ‘the dominant ideas of an epoch
are those of the ruling class’. Therefore to

abandon our critical engagement with the dominant
academic tradition of philosophy would be a
serious mistake. We hope, in the future, to give
regular attention to the assessment of orthodox
philosophy, identifying what is valuable in it and
criticising its reactionary and ideological aspects.

In our wanting to maintain a debate at these
various different levels we shall no doubt be
charged with eclectism. So be it. The charge is
familiar. But we repudiate any description that
suggests that our policy is a purely negative
policy of ‘anything goes’. Our positive commitments are clear. Firstly, we are, unequivocally,
a magazine of the left. Second, we are committed
to the work of philosophy – and this needs stressing.

We have always opposed the isolation of philosophy
from other disCiplines, but we do recognise that
there is identifiably philosophical work to be done
on the left, and we want to promote it. And, both
because we are of the left and because we are
committed to philo’sophy, we cannot treat any
theoretical claim as beyond question, or accept any
thesis as a dogma. We shall encourage critical
thinking, clear communication, and open debate,
and we shall oppose all scholasticism, wherever
it is to be found.

It is all too easily forgotten that revolutionary
changes are a major concern of Some of the most
important contemporary philosophers and historians
of science. The copious literature surrounding the
work of Popper, Lakatos, Feyerabend and Kuhn
frequently fails to recognise that, as Kuhn puts it,
both he and his Popperian critics ‘share the conviction that the central episodes in scientific
advance – those which make the game worth playing
and the play worth studying – are revolutions’. (1)
To characterize one’s project in this way is, of
course, to assume that revolutions have occurred
in science. This assumption has not gone unchallenged. Among philosophers of science Toulmin,
for example, has consistently queried it. Historians
most notably Duhem, are also sceptical. Their
reluctance is informed by the continuities which
they have detected in the historical record. In
particular, the apparently unbroken line of descent
leading from at least fourteenth century impetus
theory through Galilean physics to the ‘classical’

principle of inertia has led them, and others, to
doubt that there was a revolution in science in the
seventeenth century, as is commonly believed.

Revolution and discontinuity, then, go hand in hand.

And insofar as one is concerned with the development of scientific thought, it is typically the nature
and extent of conceptual transformations which
serve as an index-of revolutionary change. This
*This article is an amalgam of material drawn from the Introduction to and
first chapter of, my Science, Revolution and Discontinuitv which is to ~
published by Harvester Press early in 1980.

John Krige

point is important. FOT as Laudan, for one, has
noted, presently dominant empiricist epistemologies tend to concentrate on the role which the solution of empirical problems has played in scientific
advance. This has often been done at the expense of
analysing the conceptual changes which are also an
essential part of the growth of knowledge. As a
matter of fact, the solution of certain particularly
intractable empirical problems may itself require
conceptual innovation of a fairly drastic kind.

The question of just how deep or far reaching
conceptual change in science has been, or need be,
is the question of whether there have been, or need
be, discontinuous transitions in the development of
scientific thought. Historically speaking, has the
advance of knowledge involved, perhaps even
demanded, the production of conceptual frameworks
which are so different from their predecessors that
there is no effective overlap between them? Or, in
language which is rather more familiar to contemporary philosophers of science, have there been
transitions between incommensurable systems of
thought which, for that reason, are to be regarded
as discontinuous transitions?

Foucault is one historian who believes that transformations of this type have indeed occurred. For
example, he invites us to conSider:

medicine at the end of the eighteenth century:

read twenty medical works, it doesn’t matter
1 T. S. Kuhn, ‘Reflections on my Critics’, in I. Lakatos and A. Musgrave
(eds.), Criticism and the Growth of Knowle<ke, Cambridge University
Press, 1970, p241


which, of tIE years 1770 to 1780, then twenty
others from the years 1820 to 1830, and I would
say, quite at random, that in forty or fifty years
everything had changed; what one talked about,
the way one talked about it, not just the remedies
of course, not just the maladies and their classifications, but the outlook itself. .. [This change
was] a matter of a collective and complex transformation of medical understanding in its practice
and its rules … it represents the application of
an entirely new grille, with its choices and
exclusions; a new play with its own rules,
decisions and limitations, with its own inner
logic, its parameters and its blind alleys, all
of which lead to the modification of the point of
origin. (2)
In similar vein Koyre insists that a decisive
mutation occurred in physics in the seventeenth
century, and that classical physics was not in fact
continuous with medieval physics. It is this, he
which explains why the discovery of things which
see m to us nowadays childishly si mple required
such prolonged efforts – and not always crowned
with success – by the greatest of geniuses, by
Galileo and Descartes. This is because it was
not a matter of battling against theories which
were simply inadequate or erroneous, but of
changing the very intellectual framework itself,
of overthrowing an intellectual attitude, one
which was when all is said and done a perfectly
natural one, and substitute for it another, one
which was not natural at all. (3)
If we accept Foucault’s and Koyre’s reading of the
historical record we are forced to reconsider the
relationship between revolution and discontinuity.

It is one thing to detect discontinuities and another
to assert that the process or mechanism whereby
they took place was it revolutionary one. ‘The
revolutionary process’, as Kuhn has pointed out,
is one ‘by which an older theory is rejected and
replaced by an incompatible new one’. (4) But it
is more than this. For revolutions are conventionally regarded as more or less sudden, catastrophic
and rationally inexplicable outbursts of energy which
precipitate the discontinuous changes alluded to by
Kuhn. And since the transformations in understanding of which Foucault and Koy~e’ speak demanded a
great deal of time and effort, there is some question
as to whether or not they are to be regarded as
revolutions even though they were discontinuous

This then is the difficulty’ with which we are faced.

Historical studies suggest that at times one’ conceptual framework has completely replaced a predecessor which was incommensurable with it. The
transition in question was thus discontinuous.

Furthermore the comprehensive nature of the
change, involving rejection and replacement of the
old by the new, suggests that the transformation in
question was revolutionary. On the other hand the
transition is not sudden; it is Il:ecessary to consider
two universes of discourse separated by a considerable
period of time to detect historical discontinuities at
all. In the short term a measure of conceptual
continuity is as evident as is a certain ‘amount of
co~~eptual disco~tinuity. In conjunction with the view
2 M. Foucault, ‘Human Nature: Justice versus Power’, debate with
N. Chomsky in F. Elders (ed.), Reflexiye Waters, London, Souvenir
Press Ltd, 1974, p150
3 A.Koyre, Galileo Studies, trans.J.Mepham, Hassocks, Sussex,
Harvester Press, 1978, p3
4 T. S. Kuhn, ‘Logic of Discovery or Psychology of Research?’, in
Lakatos and Musgrave, QlI…ill., p2


of revolutions which takes the.m to be sudden,
cataclysmic events, it appears then that insofar as
a discontinuous transition occurred at all, it was
not a revolutionary one. Correlatively, it seems
that even fairly drastic changes are essentially
gradual, piecemeal and evolutionary.

It is my contention that the dilemma just identified
is a false one and is precipitated by an inadequate
conception of revolution (and an associated conception of reason). It is that conception which takes
revolutions to be explosive, rationally inexplicable
events which virtually destroy an established order
in one fell swoop, replacing it with a new and quite
different system or pattern of relationships. For
convenience I shall call this the liberal conception
of revolution. As we shall see below, if one
approaches the historical record armed with this
conception of revolution, one has little option but
to deny that discontinuous transitions ever occur.

It seems that all historical change is evolutionary,
or that revolutions, if they take place at all, are
so localised that they do not substantially disturb
the tranquility of an essentially continuous historical

In what follows I shall contrast the liberal conception of revolution with what I shall call, again for
convenience a Marxist conception of revolution. It
is my contention that an adequate appreciation of the
nature of discontinuous transitions requires that the
revolutionary process be understood in the ‘Marxist’

sense. From this angle, revolutionary changes are
still regarded as being discontinuous, and as involving a double aspect: the rejection of one framework and its replacement by another. But it is
stressed that these two aspects of a revolutionary
transition are, so to speak, out of phase with each
other. Rejection and replacement, in other wordS,
do not occur more or less simultaneously. The old
order is rejected, and the foundations for the new
one laid fairly rapidly. However, it takes time for
the latter to r.eplace the former. That granted, if
the commitment to revolutionary change is to be
regarded as rational, a conception of rationality is
required which reflects the asymmetrical and
protracted nature of tteprocess.

From the outset I should stress that in this article
lhave sometimes chosen to be leSs than rigorous
rather than omit material which is potentially fruitful and illuminating. By doing so, I hope to make the
reader aware of the richness and complexity of
discontinuous transitions – phenomena which all too
easily elude our gaze as long as we remain trapped
within the confines of a stultifying conception of
revolution and of rationality.

The ‘liberal’ Conception of Revolution
As is only to be expected, revolutions in society
and in science have often been thought about in the
same way. No doubt Kant’s frequent use of the word
‘revolution’ in the Preface to the second edition of
his Critique, which was published in 1787, was
indicative of the turmoil which surrounded him.

Prior to about 1700 the concept of revolution does
not appear to have been applied to scientific
changes (5). In fact it was not even com monly used
in political discourse until after the Glorious
Revolution of 1688. At this time the concept of
revolution invoked in this context was usually that
borrowed from astronomy and geometry: it meant a
cyclical, continuous process, with the connotation
of a return to a former state. During the eighteenth
~ntury its meaning changed. Increasingly it came
to signify a somewhat drastic transformation of the
social and political order, possibly accompanied by
violence. This new sense of the term was then fed
back into accounts of scientific change itself, which
was ‘now visualised as a series of secular discontinuities of such magnitude as to constitute definite
breaks with the past’ (6). It was this, still prevalent,
meaning of the term which rose to prominence at
about the time when Kant was writing – after 1789,
in fact.

More than an allusion to far-reaching change is
built into the conception of discontinuity inspired by
the French (and American) revolutions. It is also
implied that one system is effectively wiped out ‘and
replaced by another bearing no resemblance to it in
a very short space of time. In 1890 Berthelot wrote
of Lavoisier’s achievements in chemistry in this
vein. He compared the political and scientific events
of revolutionary France with one another. The
former ‘reconstituted the society among us on new
foundations, and demarcated an era baSically new in
the history of humanity’ (7). Simultaneously there
was a ‘considerable revolution’ in the sciences,
including chemistry. And in both cases the
trans fo rmations
were not effected gradually, through the slow
evolution of years and the accumulated work of
several generations of thinkers. No! They were
on the contrary produced suddenly: fifteen years
were enough to accomplish them. (8)
Narrow in time, with effects as deep as they are
wide – it is these features which together constitute,
for Berthelot, a rupture with the past.

If anything, some contemporary historians of
science have tended to see intellectual breaks with
the past as. being even more sudden than Berthelot
imagined. For Butterfield, for example, the initial
transition from Aristotelian dynamiCS to inertial
physics· was instantaneous. He attributes this to the
5 I. B, Cohen, ‘The Eighteenth-Century Origins of the Concept of Scientific
Revolution’, Journal of the History of Ideas n, 1976, pp257 -58
6 ilWJ, p259
7 M. Berthelot, quoted in L. S, Feuer, Einstein aDd the Generation of Science,
New York, Basic Books, 1974, p244
8 Berthelot, quoted in Feuer, p245

specific nature of the relationship which holds
between the two systems of thought. In Aristotelian
physics it was a body’s persistence in motion that
needed to be explained; rest was the natural state
for all non-celestial bodies. In classical physics,
on the other hand, it is the failure to persist in a
state of uniform motion (or rest) which demands an
explanation. Thus Butterfield suggests that inertial
physics emerged ‘somewhat on the policy of picking
up the opposite end of the stick’ (9), But to do that
one had to imagine geometrical bodies moving
freely in abstract Euclidean space. This novel way
of thinking about motion could not be effected, says
Butterfield, by observing the movement of real
bodies more carefully; ‘it required a different kind
o.f thinking cap, a transition in the mind of the
scientist himself’ (10).

Like Kant, then, Butterfield suggests that a new
light dawned on students of nature in the seventeenth
century. However, although he isolates a ‘moment’

of revolutionary rupture, he does not imply that
there was Simultaneously a complete break with the
past. This is an important distinction, to which I
shall return later.

Kuhn’s Gestaltism
But of course it is in Kuhn’s theory of history that
we find one of the most comprehensive and radical
conceptions of discontinuous change. His views are
articulated in opposition to a historiographical
tradition which identifies science with the constellation of facts, theories and methods which constnute
the standard diet of today’s scientists. From this
perspective, its development
becomes the piecemeal process by which these
items have been added, singly and in combination,
to the ever growing stockpile that constitutes
scientific technique and knowledge. And history
of science becomes the diSCipline that chronicles
both these successive increments and the obstacles
that have inhibited their accumulation. (11)
The past is studied for the sake of the present, to
which it is subordinated; the present, as 13utterfield
pOints out, is thereby ratified if not glorified. An
historian who adopts this ‘Whig’ interpretation of
histo ry, as he calls it,
is bound to construe his function as demanding
of him to be vigilant for likenesses between past
and present, instead of being vigilant for unlikenesses; so that he will find it easy to say
that he has seen the present in the past, he will
imagine that he has discovered a ‘root’ or an
‘anticipation’ of the 20th century, when in reality
he is in a world of different connotations altogether,
and he has merely tumbled upon what could be
shown to be a misleading analogy. .. The total
result of this method is to impose a certain form
upon the whole historical story, and to produce
a of general history which is bound to
converge beautifully upon the present – all
demonstrating throughout the ages the workings
of an obvious principle of progress. (12)
A continuist history of this type sees scientific
knowledge as developing by accretion. It fails to
recognise the internal coherence of earlier theories
and of different belief systems, which seemed just
9 H. Butterfield, The Origins of Modern Science London, G. Bell, 1968, p7
10 ibid, p4
11 T. S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago
Press, 2nd ed., 1970, p149
12 H. Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History, London, Bell, 1931,


as well-founded and reasonable to their protagonists
as do our beliefs to us. As such, it overlooks the
discontinuous and revolutionary transitions from
one interwoven ‘world of connotations’ to another
quite different one which, Kuhn insists, are
revealed by a careful scrutiny of the historical
record. More specifically, and typically,
Even a theory like energy conservation, which
today seems a logical superstructure that relates
to natu,re only through independently established
theories, did not develop historically without
paradigm destruction. .. Only after the caloric
theory had been rejected could energy conservation become part of science. And only after it
had been part of science for time could it
come to seem a theory of a logically higher type,
one not in conflict with its predecessors.· It is
hard to see how new theories could arise without
these destructive changes in beliefs about nature.

Though logical inclusiveness remain,s a permissible view of the relation between successive
scientific theories, it is a historical
implaus ibility . (13 )
Kuhn does not deny that the piecemeal, cumulative
conception of scientific development has some merit.

In fact, he concedes that it provides a .more or less
satisfactory account of scientific progress during
the”, often protracted, periods of history which
Kuhn labels ~normal science’. During these periods
reSearch is conducted under the restrictive
umbrella of a ‘paradigm’. Kuhn’s” conception of a
paradigm is notoriously vague and ambiguous.

Typically it is a ‘strong network of commitments conceptual, theoretical, instru.mental and methodological’ (14) which maps out in advance permissible
directions in which scientific inquiry is to proceed,
and the techniques appropriate to that task. Once
socialized into a paradigm, the practitioners of
normal science do not question its fundamentals.

Rather, equipped with a more or less explicit set
of rules for conducting research, they aim to solve
puzzles which are generated by the paradig.m.

Puzzles- for what a paradigm does is to instill in
those who accept it the confidence that the difficulties which they encounter in their research can be
resolved within its framework. Like the student
who tackles illustrative examples at the end of the
chapter in a science textbook, they believe that
their ‘problems’ can be solved as long as they
follow the guidelines laid down by the paradigm.

Normal science, then, is the generally
cumulative process by which the accepted beliefs of
a scientific community are fleshed out, articulated,
dlld extended. It is what scientists are trained to
do … ‘ (15)
The hegemony of normal science is not total,
however, nor is its reign interminable. There are
always mismatches between paradigm-induced
expectations and the actual state of affairs. These
anomalies are initially brushed aside. Some are
solved with the passage of time; others become
naggingly perSistent. Under the pressure exerted by
the build-up of anomaly, scientists’ commitment to
their paradigm falters. A state of crisis ensues.

Fundamentals are questioned, and a number of
competing theories are put forward: we have entered
a period of extra-ordinary science (or, in some of
Kuhn’s formulations, of non-science or metaphysics}
The crisis is terminated when one of the competitors
13 Kuhn, The Structure, pp97-98
14 ibid, p42
15 T.S.Kuhn, ‘Reflections on my Critics’, in Lakatos and Musgrave,
on. cit., p250


is espoused at the expense of its rivals, and a new
paradigm is established. With its advent, the terms
of scientific debate are changed, often so drastically
that only a new generation of practitioners has the
mental fleXibility required to espous£ it.

It is these ‘tradition-shattering co.mplements to
the tradition-bound activity of normal science’ (16)
that Kuhn calls scientific revolutions. And he is
emphatic that they cannot be accommodated within
a theory of history which sees science as developing
in a piecemeal, cumulative way:

The transition from a paradigm in crisis to a new
one from which a new tradition of normal science
can” emerge is far from a cumulative process,
one achieved by an articulation or extension of
the old paradigm. Rather it is a reconstruction
of the field from new fundamentals, a reconstruction that changes some of the field’s most
elementary theoretical generalizations as well
as many of its ‘Paradigm methods and applicatiOllS. .. (17)
For Kuhn, then, revolutions are ‘destructive
changes in beliefs about nature’ which transform
both the theory and practice of a science in a profound way. They are discontinuous transitions in
which one mode of conceptualizing and interacting
with the world is rejected and replaced by another
incompatible rival. As such, their effects are both
far-reaChing and deep-rooted; an entire field is
reconstructed from new fundamentals. That granted,
we need to ask how rapidly these transitions take
place, and whether or not Kuhn thinks that they are
rationally intelligible.


The text which follows immediately on the quotation just given suggests that Kuhn believes that discontinuous transitions take time to occur. He writes:

During the transition period there will be a large
but never complete overlap between the problems
that can be solved by the old and by the new paradigm. But there will also be a decisive difference
in the modes of solution. When the transition is
complete, the profeSSion will have changed its
view of the field, its methods, and its goals. (18)
However, Kuhn then alludes to Butterfield’s description of the transition from Aristotelian physics to
classical mechanics, and to Hanson’s excursions
into gestalt psychology, both of which suggest that
revolutionary changes occur more or less instantaneously. As l pointed out above, Butterfield’s
argument can be reconciled with the view that it
takes Ume to replace one system with another.

Hanson’s illustrative exa.mples lead one to believe
that replace.ment is im mediate, however.

16 Kuhn, The Structure, p6
17 ibid,pp84 -85
18 ibid, p85, my emphasis

Hanson (19) suggested that after a revolutionary
change people saw the world differently. He compared the transition across a revolutionary divide
to the perceptual flips experienced when one sees a
particular set of marks on paper now as an antelope,
then as a bird. Other familiar instances of such .

gestalt switches are the Necker cube, which suddenly seems to change its orientation in space, and the
so -called ‘duck-rabbit’. In all such cases the entire
image changes instantaneously – from a duck to a
rabbit, for example.

Although he borrows the metaphor of a gestalt
switch from Hanson, Kuhn introduces it with some
hesitancy. It is, he says, ‘a useful elementary
prototype for what occurs in full-scale paradigm
shift’ (20). He also remarks that when paradigm
changes occur in science, they differ from gestalt
switches in that they are ‘usually more gradual and
almost always irreversible’ (21). He is not entirely
consistent, however. Crises in normal sciences,
he notes, ‘are terminated, not by deliberation and
interpretation, but by a relatively sudden and unstructured event like the gestalt switch’ (22).

Stunned as by a flash of lightning, scientists find
that ‘large portions’ oLtheir experience are transformed in one fell swoop. On this view, then, time
.more or less shrinks to an instant, and in that
instant a new intellectual framework, often incommensurable with its predecessor, is ‘laid down
… on nature whole’ (23) as Kuhn puts it.

Kuhn’s uncertainty over the rate at which a discontinuous transition takes place reaches acute
proportions in his seemingly incoherent assertion
that ‘like the gestalt switch, it must occur all at
once (though not necessarily in an instant) or not at
all’ (24). Plainly Kuhn feels that the gestalt metaphor
has its limjtations. Yet he is loath to abandon it,
partially because it performs another very important
function in his theory of revolutionary change. It does
not simply suggest that such changes are relatively
sudden and comprehensive; it also indicates that
‘ultimately they are not rationally intelligible.

As we have just seen, Kuhn insists that crises in
normal science are not resolved by ‘deliberation and
interpretation’, but by an event akin to a gestalt
switch. His invocation of the metaphor, here and
elsewhere in his work, reflects his conviction that
there are limits to the value of argument or reasoning as motors of historical development. Resistance
to change is inevitable and legitimate, he says, and
is overcome, in the last instance, by what he calls
a conversion experience. Kuhn does not deny that
good reasons can be advanced by the proponents of
a new theory in defence of their poSition. These
provide motives for conversion and a climate in
which it is more likely to occur. On their own, however, they are not sufficient to effect a change of
allegiance. The discontinuous transition between
competing paradigms, Kuhn writes, ‘cannot be made
a step at a time, forced by logic and neutral experience’ (25). It involves a relatively sudden and
explosive revelation, a new way of looking at things,
and the mechanism by which it occurs ulti.mately
defies analysis. This means that
communication a.cross the revolutionary divide is
inevitably partial … the proponents of competing
paradigms practice their trades in different

N.R.Hanson, Patterns of Discovery, Cambridge UP, 1958, Chapter 1
Kuhn., The Structure, p85
ibid, pHI
ibid, p122
ibid, p149
ibid, p150
ibid, p150

worlds … before they can hope to communicate
fully, one group or another must experience the
conversion that we have been calling a paradigm
shift. (26)
To summarise. On the basis of his historical
analyses, Kuhn came to the conclusion that the
advance of science has sometimes involved the
destruction of one set of beliefs about the world and
its replacement with another, and that such discontinuous transitions cannot be achieved by reasoning or argument alone. Effectively identifying the
limits of reasoning with the limits of reason itself,
Kuhncould not but conclude that the nonrational
plays an important, even crUCial, role in precipitating fundamental changes in science. In the notion of
a gestalt switch he discovered the metaphor which,
despite its limitations, illustrated what he took to
be the central features of revolutionary change . For
Kuhn such changes are relatively sudden, mor~ or
less comprehensive and, in the last resort, nonrational transferrals of allegiance from one conceptual framework to another. All of these ideas are
fused in the notion of the gestalt switch. As such it
encapsulates the central features of. what I am
calling the liberal conception of revolution. What’s
more its use reflects the espousal of that liberal
conception of rationality which identifies reason
with reasoning.

Retreating’ from the Non-Rational
Kuhn’s insistence that ‘nonrational’ considerations
(i. e. for him, considerations other than those of

logic and experience) have played a role in shaping
the growth of scientific knowledge has dis.turbed
many philosophers and historians. To argue that
major scientific developments ulti.mately lie beyond
the bounds of rational intelligibility is to question
the rationality of science itself, and to undermine
one of the central pillars on which its epistemological and social authority rests. What’s more, it
is to imply that, ill” the last analysis, there is no
way in which too nature or direction of scientific
change can be controlled. By suggesting that the
post-revolutionary order suddenly emerges almost
full-blown in a somewhat arbitrary and random
m’anner, ‘gestaltism’ undermines the efforts of
those who would consciously intervene in the historical process. In the last resort historical ‘agents’

simply become the victims of inscrutable forces
and pressures which lie beyond their rational

Faced with these rather unpalatable conclusions,
those who share ~uhn ‘s liberal conception of revolution and of rationality tend simply to reaffirm the
view which he is challenging. Thus we find an
eminent historian o.f the seventeenth century, Rupert.

26 ibid, pp149,150


Hall, adopting more or less as a working hypothesis
the view that:

I think we may properly maintain in relation to
the past that the process of the succession of
theories in science was neither irrational nor
random: that it was not largely directed by the
workings of the unconscious, but by the conscious
reasoning mind; and that it occurred as the consequence of rational discourse between men,
founded upon the knowledge of natural phenomena
accessible to them. (27)
In similar vein we find Toulmin attempting to turn
Kuhn, the historian of the Copernican Revolution,
against Kuhn, the social psychologist. Kuhn’s own
work, says, Toulmin, shows that:

If the men of the sixteenth and seventeenth
centu;ries changed their minds about the structure
of the planetary system, they were not forced,
motivated, or cajoled into doing so; they were
given reasons to do so. In a word, they did not
have to be converted to Copernican astronomy;
the arguments were there to convince them. (28)
Now as I pointed out above, Kuhn does not deny
that there were reasons for espousing Copernicanism
in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. What he
does deny is that ‘rational discourse between men’,
as Hall puts it, was sufficient to get its opponents
to espouse the new world system. It is one thing to
say that people were given reasons for becoming
Cope rni cans , and that argu.ments were put forward
to convince them. Blit whether or not those reasons
or arguments were good ones, and even if they were,
whether or not people were in fact persuaded by
them: these are quite different matters. Toulmin’s
failure to perceive these distinctions amounts to an
.implicit assumption on his part that the arguments
put forward by the Copernicans were so compelling
that no sane person could possibly dissent from
them. Effectively, then, his pOSition is precisely
that which Hall adopts as a working hypothesis viz’.

that progress in science is directed by the
‘conscious reasoning mind’.

It is to Kuhn’s credit that he refuses to .make this
unfounded assumption. Insisting that there have been
discontinuous transitions in science involving the
destruction of an established conceptual framework,
he regards resistance to the new as inevitable and
legitimate. On the other hand, while avoiding his
critics’ mistake, he promptly falls into the opposite
trap. He shares his opponents’ unduly restrictive
concept of rationality and a liberal conception of
revolution which sees the new order as quickly
replacing the old. Thus as an alternativs or
complement to argument, he stresses the importance
for historical development of relatively sudden,
comprehensive and nonrational processes like a
conversion experience or gestalt switch. It is
because Hall and Toulmin, justifiably, retreat fro.m
this abyss that they, unjustifiably, place argument
and discussion centre -stage as .motors of historical
development. Correlatively, Toulminargues that
although the development of science reveals conceptual discontinuities, they are I’1either as drastic nor
as infrequent as Kuhn suggests, and that the progress of science is evolutionary rather than
revolutionary (29).

27 A. R. Hall, ‘Magic, Metaphysics and Mysticism in the Scientific
Revolution’ in M.Righini BoneUi and W.R.Shea, Reason Experiment
and Mysticism in the Scientific Revolution New York, Science History
Publications, 1975, pp280-81
28 S. Toulmin, Human Understanding, Vol. I, Oxford, Clarendon Press,
1972, p105
29 S. Toulmin, ‘Does the Distinction Between Normal and Revolutionary
Science Hold Water?’ in Lakatos and Musgrave, op.cit., pp39-47


From Science to Politics
Iremarked above (0.5) that the tendency
to think of scientific and political changes’ changes
in the same terms has been a featUre of Western
thought since about the middle of the eighteenth
century. And indeed we find connections of this kind
being explicitly made by Toulmin. Having argued
that Kuhnian-type revolutions have not occurred in
science he goes on to weave Kuhnian categories
into the’ context of political theory with a view to
showing that they are inappropriate there too.

Liberal democratic thinkers, he says, used to
believe that ‘steady constitutional change represented
a “rationally intelligible” political continuity; by
contrast, political revolutions were disruption~ o~
‘normality’ which introduced historical disconhnulties unanalysable in normal, rati~nal terms’. Now
they know better; experience has shown th~t ‘even
the most unconstitutional change does not Involve
absolute and comprehensive breaches of political
continuity’ (30). Any realistic theory of scientific
and of political change must then be evolutionary.

It will begin from the premise that revolutions are
illusory and will recognize that science (society)
comprises ”’historical populations” of logically
independent concepts and theories’ (institutions)
which are necessarily modified ‘piecemeal or one
at a time’ (31).

A theory of history which stresses continuity and
piecemeal reform is also tied up with a liberal
political stance through the conception of rationality
which Kuhn, Toulmin and Hall all share. It is that
conceptiol which identifies rational change with
reasoning and argument, and which takes violence
(against, but not by, those who are willing to go on
talking) as its direct antithesis. ‘In the great
tradition of Western rationalism’, writes Popper,
‘we fight our battles with words rather than with
swords’ (32). This is unduly restrictive, of course.

The law attempts to change people’s behaviour, not
by arguing wi~h them, but by imposing sanctions on
them for violating its prescriptions. Only in extreme
and regrettable circumstances do these sanctions
actually involve the death of the offender. Be that as
it may, having espoused this dichotomy, it is but a
short step to aligning discontinuity land revolution
with violence and irrationality, opposing to it continuity, piecemeal reform and what Hall calls the
rational discourse between men.

From the above it emerges that, once one is
committed to a liberal theory of revolution and of
reason, there are strong pressures on one to adopt
continuity as a methodological postulate in historical
analyses. Within this framework to opt for discontinuity is to opt for sudden, possibly violent and
cataclysmic destruction and replacement: it is to
side with unreason. Fundamental, wide-ranging
transformations are taken to be both earth-shattering
and, ultimately, arbitrary, and the possibility of
rationally controlling history is jeopardised. Faced
with this alternative the advantages of a continuist
pOSition are .many. It’ res cues historical change
fro.m the sway of blind forces, it locates the motor
of progress in the conscious, reasoning mind, and
it buttresses a political commitment to ‘piecemeal

Yet for all their apparent advantages the liberal
30 Toulmin, Human Understanding, p117
31 Ullil, pp129,130
32 K. R. Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, Vol. n, London,
Routledge and Kegan Paul, 5th ed. 1966, p396

conceptions have serious drawbacks, not least of all
as far as an event like the “Scientific Revolution is
concerned. For, as we have seen, even some of
those who adopt continuity as a methodological
postulate admit that this event involved a radical,
dramatic and far-reaching transformation of the
human understanding. However, within the liberal
framework, to accept that the change was discontinu0us is to claim that it was relatively sudden and, in
the last resort, rationally unintelligible. On the
other hand, to preserve its rationality is to deny its
discontinuous and revolutionary character. Clearly,
an alternative approach, free from the liberal
assumptions which shape methodological continuity,
is called for. It is my contention that the seeds of
such an approach lie in the work of Koyre and, more
recently, Clavelin. It is to them that I now turn.

The ‘Marxist’ Conception
of Revolution
Koyre is one’ historian of science who has
uncompromisingly faced up to the fact that
Aristotelian physics was rejected in toto and was
replaced by another system of thought. As I pointed
out above, he believes that Galileo and his heirs
.’had to destroy one world and replace it by another’.

This meant that they had ‘to reshape the framework
of our intellect itself, to restate and to reform its
concepts’. As far as Koyre is concerned, then, a
discontinuous transition occurred in science in the
seventeenth century involving a transformation of
the human understanding and the production of a new
conceptual framework incompatible with the
orthodoxy of the day.

To appreciate the extent of Koyre”s achievement
it is imperative that one recognise that one of his
central aims is to explore the processes whereby
this new conceptual apparatus was produced. Thus,
isolating the principle of inertia as one of the
identifying characteristics of classical mechallics,
he writes:

The principle of inertia did not emerge straight
away in final form, like Athena from the head
of Zeus, from the thought of Descartes or
Galileo. The new concept of motion, with its
implicati()n of a new conception of physical
reality, of which the principle of inertia is
both the basis and the expression, was elaborated
increaSingly accu:t;’ately as the result of a long
and difficult mental labour. The Galilean and
Cartesian revolution – for it was nonetheless
a revolution – had a prolonged preparation.

It is the history of this preparation which we
intend to investigate here, a history which
constitutes a necessary prerequisite for any
understanding of Galileo’S achieve ments, a
history in which the human mind can be
observed obstinately grappling over and over
again with the same problems, untiringly
coming up against the same objections, the
same difficulties, and slowly and laboriously
forging the instrument which would enable it
to overcome them. (33)
KOYrEf’s view that the transition to classical
mechanics occurred ‘slowly and laboriously’

contrasts starkly with Kuhn’s retreat to gestalt
switches and conversion experiences to acc()Unt for
discontinuities. This difference inconceptualization
is not accidental. It reflects their quite different
33 A.Koyre, Galileo Studies, p131

ways of thinking about revolutionary change. For
Koyre’, revolution is a protracted and painful process
of rejection and replacement. For Kuhn it is, in the
last analysis, a more or less explosive and unstructured event which destroys the old and replaces it
with the new. In other words, Koyre’ sets out to
explain the process of production of new knowledges.

Kuhn, in line with Popper, Lakatos and, to a certain
extent, Feyerabend, tends to define his task as
accounting for changes of allegiance from one
more or less ready made knowledge -product to

There is another way of looking at this. As I
stressed earlier, Kuhn formulated his ‘theory’ of
discontinuous transitions in opposition to the view
that historical change is a piecemeal process in
which development occurs by the successive accumu1ation of small increments. Along with Butterfield,
he opposed the so-called Whig interpretation of
history, which subordinates the past to the present,
emphasising likenesses, anticipations and roots,
and generating a spurious continuity. And with
Butterfield he agreed that the proper task of the
historian was to understand the past for its own sake.

For Kuhn this means that the opinions of historical
agents must be located in their proper historical
context, and studied ‘from the viewpoint – usually
very different from t.hat of mode,n science – that
gives those opinions the maximum internal coherence
and the closest possible fit to nature’ (34).

What does this project amount to in Kuhn’s case?

Kuhn in effect rationally reconstructs different conceptual systems which have emerged in the past,
showing how their several elements are related to
one another. In doing so, he treats them as fully
articulated and relatively coherent bodies of thought.

What he fails to appreciate is that it takes time to
build up structures of the kind whicnhe reconstructs
Thus Kuhn can write that ‘to make the transition to
Einstein’s universe, the whole conceptual web
whose strands are space, time, matter,. force, and
so on, had to be shifted and laid down again on
nature whole’ (35). In other words Kuhn looks back
on history from the vantage point of wha,t is in fact
the outco me of a protracted historical process.

His is essentially a spectator’s, not a partiCipant’s,
perspective, and as such it completely misses the
point that an immense intellectual effort is required
to produce and extend a new conceptual scheme.

His theory of revolutionary change is flawed accordipgly; it is, in the last analysis, an ahistorical
theory of gestalt switches.

Koyre and Clavelin also rationally reconstruct
now defunct conceptual frameworks like
A ristoteliatlis m . However, their aim in doing so
is not to study the past for its own sake. On the
other hand, nor are they iiiterested in resurrecting
the Peripatetic system. Unlike Feyerabend, for
example, they do not explore the past with a view
to demolishing the arrogance of those who think
that modern science is the only intelligible way of
making sense of the world. For Koyre and for
Clavelin the cognitive respectability of Aristotelian
thought is not in doubt. They rationally reconstruct
it because it was as a- 2000-year-‘0Id richly developed system of thought that Galileo encountered it,
and against which he rebelled. It is by doing so, by
adopting an actor’s perspective in the historical
process, that they have been led to conclude that
the development-by-accumulation thesis of a con-



Kuhn, The Structure, p3
35 ibid, p149


tinuist historian is seriously defective.

Koyre’s and Clavelin’s approach to the historical
record exemplifies some of the features of what
Foucault calls an ‘archaeological description’ of
what people have said or” more technically, of
discursive practices. Such analyses also reject
that tradition in the htstory” of ideas which attempts
to iron out differences by appeals to traditions,
influences, anticipations and so on. Archaeology
does not aim to dissolve differences, thereby
retrieving the continuous. It
seeks rather to untie all those knots that
historians have ‘patiently tied; it increases the
differences, blurs the lines of communication,
and tries to make it more difficult to pass from
one thing to another. .. For the history of ideas,
the appearance of difference indicates an error
or a trap; instead of examining it, the clever
historian must try to reduce it: to find beneath
it a smaller difference, and beneath that an even
smaller one, and so until he reaches the ideal
limit, the non-difference of perfect continuity.

Archaeology, on the other hand, takes as the
object of its description what is usually regarded
as an obstacle: its aim is not to overcome
differences, but to analyse them, to say what
exact~y they consist of, to differentiate them. (36)

A crucial aspect of Koyre’s approach to revolution
is begimming to emerge here. As far as he is concerned, the absence of the principle of inertia from
Greek and medieval thought is not merely accidental.

Modern physics, he writes, ‘has been able’ to
formulate this principle; Aristotelian thought not
only did not, it actually could not do so. Koyre goes
on to explain why it was impossible for the
Peripatetics to take this step:

I believe that the intellectual attitudes of classical
science can be characterised by the following two
changes, which are moreover intimately related:

geometrisation of space and dissolution of the
Cosmos, that is to say the disappearance from
within scientific reasoning of the Cosmos as a
presupposition and the substitution for the
concrete space of pre-Galilean physics of the
abstract space of Euclidean geometry. It was
this substitution that made the law of inertia
possible. (38)
For Koyre’, then, it was essential that some of the
fundamental assumptions of Aristotelianis m be
eliminated if the principle of inertia was to be
formulated. A conceptual revolution was necessary
in which these assumptions were jettisoned and
replaced by others which provided the -material conditions under which it was possible to produce
inertial physics. The reasoning lying behind this
pOSition is complex. Nevertheless it is instructive
to illustrate the general point that he is making by
briefly touching on one or two aspects of his argument.

Mathematics:An Aristotelian ‘absence’

This is indeed Koyre’s starting point. It is the
differences between classical physics and Aristotelian dynamics which interest him. In this spirit he
attaches particular importance to the formulation
of the principle of inertia. However, Koyre is not
satisfied merely to record this difference. He wants
‘to analyse it, to say exactly what it consists of’.

Thus while agreeing with those who characterise
classical physics in this way, he goes on to say
that, nevertheless,
this characterisation seems somewhat superficial.

It is not enough simply to point to these facts. It
must be explained why mode’rn physics has been
able to adopt the principle of inertia, 1. e., It
must be explained why and how this idea, which
seems to us so very obvious, has been able to
acquire this status as an a priori, self-evident
truth, whereas for the Greeks and for medieval
thought it seemed, on the contrary, to suffer
from a self-evident and irremediable absurdity.

36 M. Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, London, Tavistock, 1974,
37 Koyre, Ga.1!leo studies, p2


As we have seen, the mathematization or geometrization of nature, and of science, is regarded by
Koyre to be one of the two specific cha.racteristics
of the Scientific Revolution. The other, complementary, feature was the destruction of the Cos mos and
the associated hierarchical conception of the
universe. The absence of mathematization in
Aristotelian thought is thus of particular significance
for him. It is to be treated as a symptom of certain
constraints built into the framewor~ of Aristotelianism itself, which excluded it. It could only rise to
prominence, therefore, along with an entirely
different framework; piecemeal reform of the
prevailing system of thought would never have
ensured its survival.

Cassirer and Randall effectively deny this.

Schmitt, in turn, has persuasively defended Koyre”s
pOSition. By isolating the main threads of this
debate, we can gain some insight into the conception
of revolution which is implicit in Koyre’s work.

The argumenf focusses on the work of lacopo
Zabarella (1553-1589) of the School of Padua. Both
Cassirer and Randall see in it the culmination of a
long, incremental development of Aristotelian
methods, and an antiCipation of the Galilean
approach. Randall argues that Zabarella’s originality, and that of the tradition which he summed up,
lay in the distinction which he drew between
‘scientific experience’ on the one hand, and the
random or planless collection of observations on
the other. Zabarella did not use mathematics,
however; according to Randall, that ‘gradually
emerged’ into its dominant position as a result of
the activities of a s mall group of initially marginal
scholars. Randall continues:

38 ibid, pp2-3

With this mathematical emphasis added to the
logical methodology of Zabarella, there stands
completed the ‘new method’ for which men had
been eagerly seeking … it turned out to be the
least novel of all the elements that went into
the formation of the new science. (39)
Randall’s claim is instructive in that it reveals two
of the characteristic features of a continuist historiography, viz. the piecemeal, cumulative conception
of development and the denial of originality. The
so-called new method of Galilean science, he claims:

can be obtained simply by adding a mathematical
emphasis to Zabarella’s logical methodology.

Koyre, while describing Randall’s article as
brilliant, also claims that Randall’s defence of
continuity is incompatible with his admission that
Zabarella effectively ignored the importance of
mathematics in natural science. Schmitt explains
that absence in the followi~ terms:

The major difference which we find between the
two thinkers seems to stem from the entirely
different way~ in which they viewed the world.

Zabarella, following Aristotle and the long
Aristotelian tradition, saw it as a living, biological entity, teleologically oriented and best
understood through experience and syllogistic
reasoning. Galileo, on the other hand, saw the
. world in mathematical terms, composed of
geometrical figures which move in conformity
with mathematically explicable laws and best
understood through the modes of mathematical
analysis. It would be difficult to over-emphasize
the’ significance of this distinction when one is
faced with the evolution of seventeenth -century
science. (40)
In short, against Randall, Schmitt argues that one
cannot consistently hold that Zabarella failed to
appreciate the importance of mathematics and that
all that Galileo had to do was to ‘add’ this missing
component to the Aristotelian tradition. The new
scientific method developed in the seventeenth
century was genuinely novel, and its absence from
Zabarella’s work is not accidental.

Schmitt’s point then, somewhat reformulated, is
that in order to make sense of certain natural
phe~omena (e. g. freely falling bodies) the
Aristotelians developed a framework which pivoted
on a number of metaphysical assumptions about the
nature of reality. On that basis they generated a set
of concepts for explaining change, or motion in
.general, and for explaining the motion of heavy
bodies on earth, in particular. Because they
conceived of any and every change, including
locomotion, in qualitative, teleological terms,
mathematics was only of secondary importance to
them for deve,loping a physics of motion. Detailed
attention to it, and the emergence. of experimental
methods which relied on it, were excluded by the
presuppositions of the Aristotelian system of
thought. Those presuppositions imposed limits on
the kinds of questions one posed as a corn mitted
Aristotelian, the kinds of issues one thought were
worth pursuing, the directions in which one
believed progress lay. Galileo could not therefore
simply ‘add’ a mathematical approach to the prevailing Aristotelian methodology when developing
his new physics. He had to reject Aristotelianism
along with its fundamental metaphysical assump39 J, H. Randall Jr., ‘The Development of Scientific Methods in the
School of Padua’, .JoUrnal of the Historv Qf Ideas 1, 1940, pp205, 177
40 C. B. Schmitt, ‘Experience and Experiment: A Comparison of
Zabarella’s View with Galileo’s in lk..MQ!y’, Stud in the Renaissance
1969, p124

tions. To repeat Koyre’s now familiar claim,
Galileo had to reshape our intellect itself; ‘to give
to it a series of new concepts, to evolve a new
approach to being, a new concept of nature, a new
concept of science, in other words, a new
philosophy’ (41).

Yet Galileo was not a Newton. Although he
rebelled openly against Peripatetic thought and the
institutions which embodied it, he was not able
completely to sever his links with it. As far as .

Koyre and Clavelin are concerned, Galileo never
managed to formulate the ‘classical’ prinCiple of
inertia. For Galileo it was circular, not rectilinear
motion that was conserved. Constrained by his
Greek heritage, he could not fully transcend the
limits which it imposed on the process of conceptual
innovation which he undertook. ‘The impossibility
of Galileo’s arriving at the principle of inertia’,
writes Koyre:

is to be explained on the one hand by his refusal
to completely abandon the idea of the Cosmos,
i. e., the idea of a well-ordered world, and to
unambiguously accept the infinity of space; and,
on the other hand, by his inability to conceive
of physical bodies (or the bodies of physics) as
being without the constitutive property of
gravity. (42)
As I noted above, the former idea was a fundamental
tenet of Aristotelianis m. The view that gravity was
an inherent property of bodies is a spontaneous-,
commonsensical way of conceiving of it which
Koyre traces to Aristotelian and Archimedean
41 Koyre, Metaphysics, p3
42 Koyre, Galileo Studies, p187

Spring 1979

Number S

CQntents include:

Jacques Donzelot: The PQverty Qf political culture.

Nikolas Rose: The psychQlogical complex: mental measurement and
social administration.

Grabam Burcbell: A note on juvenile justice.

Jill Hodges and Atbat Hussain: Review article: )acques Donze1ot’s La
police des families.

Roger Woods: Review – Terence Hawkes’ Structuralism and Semiotics.

Previous issues have included work on histories of the social, studies of
.. the relations of knowledge and power in the prisons and in psychoanalytic practice, discussions of theories of ideology, psychology,
psychoanalysis, semiology and sexuality, plus reviews, correspondence
and debate.

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Transition: Opposition and Emergence
Galileo, then, is a transitional figure. His break
with his past was neither clean nor complete. As
Clavelin puts it:

though Galileo. succeeded in drawing conclusions
that classical dynamics would fully endorse, he
did so by means of a conceptual system that in
no way foreshadowed that of classical dynamics
. .. Galileo could do no better than to erect a
scaffolding, one that was bound to be removed
just as soon as the new edifice had been
completed. (43)
This aspect of revolutionary change has been ably
stressed by Marx, who writes:

Men make their own history, but they do not make
it just as they please; they do not make it under
circumstances chosen by themselves, but under
circumstances directly encountered, given and
trans mitted from the past. The tradition of all
the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on
the brain of the living. And just when they seem
engaged in revolutionising themselves and things,
in creating something that has never yet existed,
precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis
they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past
to their service and borrow from them names,
battle cries and costumes in order to present
the new scene of world history in this ti mehonoured disguise and this borrowed language. (44)
In similar vein !bsen has one of his heroines, Mrs
Alving, say:

It isn’t just what we have inherited from our
father and mother than walks in us. It is all
kinds of dead ideas and all sorts of old and
obsolete beliefs. They are not alive in us; but
they remain in us none the less and we can never
rid ourselves of them. I only have to take a newspaper and read it, and I see ghosts between the
lines. There must be ghosts all over the country.

They lie as thick as grains of sand. And we’re
all so horribly afraid of the light. (45)
These ‘ghosts’ surreptitiously undermine the
attempts made by a new system to forge its own
identity, and subvert its struggles to distance itself
from the structure to which it is opposed. Yet even
while acting as obstacles to its development, they
play an essential role in the construction of a different pattern of relationships. As Clavelin notes,
Aristotelianism was ‘the conceptual universe from
which (and also in opposition to which) classical
mechanics was founded’ (46). It is not surprising
that it should have lived on fragmentarily in
Galileo’s thought, circumscribing the scope of his
achievement. Several of his prinCiples and concepts
may have been somewhat rough and ready. At times
his arguments may have been contradictory and
even regressive. This is only to be expected. For,
writes Clavelin:

The uncertainties and limitations in his path
were the typical obstacles encountered by every
creative thinker who finds that each new principle
and each new concept must be wrested from
diametrically opposite principles and concepts
and that each new step not only introduces a
new content but also marks an advance from
one intellectual universe to another. (47)
43 M.Clavelin, The Natural Philosophy of Galileo, trans. A.J.Pomerans,
London, MIT, 1974, p357
44 K. Marx, ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’, in K. Marx
and F. Engels, Selected Works (in one volume), London, Lawrence and
Wishart, 1970, p96
45 H. !bsen, Ghosts, Act I I
46 Clavelin, pll
47 ibid, pp244-45


The broad outline of the conception of revolution
which is implicit in these analyses has now emerged.

Both Koyre and Clavelin begin by accepting the fact
that Aristotelian cosmology and mechaniclS were
rejected by the natural philosophers of the seventeenth century, and replaced with a new syste m of
thought. However, in contrast to Kuhn’s theory,
they emphasise that that transition took time – it
was a process not an event – and that it involved an
almost superhuman intellectual effort. What ‘8 more,
they recognise that there is a double aspect to
revolutionary transformations. On the one hand, a
new pattern of relationships is gradually built up in
opposition to the old order, which it ultimately
replaces. When conSidered across a sufficiently
wide time-span, such transitions are thus seen to
be discontinuous. On the other hand, the new system
also emerges from the old order and carries with
it, particularly in its early stages, survivals and
residues which betray its heritage. It is these which
give a spurious appearance of continuity to what are
in fact revolutionary changes.

It emerges from the analyses of these two authors
that Galileo’s rejection of Aristotelianism amounted
to the recognition that the solution of certain problems which had become focal points of controversy
since Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus not only had
not, but actually could not be solved within the
Peripatetic framework. Having grasped this,
Galileo set out to lay the foundations of a new
physics within the womb of the old, struggling both
intellectually and politically against the prevailing
orthodoxy. These foundations were built on by his
successors who gradually managed to eliminate the
outworn components of the old order in the new,
differentiating it ever more thoroughly from its
crumbling rival, and transforming the human understanding in the process. The outcome of this
achievement was that magnificent structure which
we call classical mechanics – a system which was
in turn to become an orthodoxy against Which a
rather different kind of rebellion recently took

Methodologically speaking, this theory of history
aims to isolate the specificity of an event like the
Scientific Revolution and is ever alert for those of
its aspects which differentiate it from that which
cam~ before. Looking back from the vantage point

of the achievements of a Newton, it postulates that
their previous absences were’ not accidental, but
that they were structurally excluded by the system
of thought which was ultimately eliminated. It thus
shows that the progress which they represent was
only possible by virtue of a rupture with the past,
which ultimately involved a transformation of the

Yet even while insisting on discontinuity, this
theory recognizes the importance of continuity; its
site is those residues and survivals of the old order
which live on in the new. The ‘Marxist’ theory of
revolution thus locates Galileo in the historical
stream of his day; he is not seen as being above
history, leaping arbitrarily from one world-view to
another. Rather, he is always constrained by his
present, drawing on it even as he struggles against
its stifling grip. Discontinuity of this kind does not
deny continuity; it accepts it. Roughly speaking, it
shares with Braudel the view that ~
mankind is more than waist deep in daily routine,
countless inherited acts accumulated pell-mell
and repeated time after time to this very day,
that become habits that help’us to live, imprison
us and make decisions for us· throughout our
lives. Ancient, yet still alive, this multi··
centuried past flows into the present like the
Amazon pouring into the Atlantic ocean the
vast flood of its cloudy waters. (48)
What it emphasizes is that through transformations
of the understanding achieved by determined opposition and criticism of the common-sense of the day
– the habits that imprison us and make decisions
for us – those waters are slowly becoming clearer,
and ‘mankind’ is gradually becoming more able to
make its history rather than being made by it.

It must be emphasized that the ‘Marxist’ conception of discontinuous change outlined above is
compatible with there being a ‘moment’ of revolutionary rupture. However, this moment is one in
which the seeds of a new and ultimately victorious
conceptual frameworK are sown. It is not the
moment of a gestalt switch for, as I have stressed,
the replacement of one system by another is a
protracted and laborious process. The ‘Marxist’

-theory of revolutionary change is thus a theory of
levels moving at different speeds, a theory which
sees the new as struggling to differentiate itself
from the old, from which it breaks and in which it
is initially embedded.

From Politics to Science
At the beginning of this article I remarked that a
concept of reyolution inspired by the French and
American Revolutions had been frequently used
since the late eighteenth century to describe major
innovations in science. A notable feature of it was
that it took revolutions to be both sudden and farreaching; I quoted Berthelot as saying that, in the
French Revolution, society was reconstituted on
new foundations and a basically new era established
in just fifteen years. This is the ‘liberal’ conception
of revolution which ‘gestaltism’ pushes to an
extreme limit, shrinking time to an instant, and
the transformation achieved in that instant to a

However, since the Russian Revolution, a new
concept of revolution has risen to prominence.

Cohen, in {act, points out that scholars today have
48 F. Braudel, quoted by P. ScoU, Times Higher Education Supplement,
9 Dece mber 1977, p9

adopted the notion of a continuing revolution, which
he takes to be one of the innovative features of the
Russian experience (49). To indicate that the
Revolution needed to be consolidated and that this
would take time, the Russian revolutionaries
reckoned the calendar in years of, not years since,
the Revolution. The idea that revolutions do not
occur within a short space of time, says Cohen, is
now generally accepted among historians of science,
and is reflected in the title of one of.Hall’s books,
viz. The Scientific Revolution, 1500-1800. This
immediately suggests the possibility of there being
a fruitful exchange between Marxist political theory,
on the one hand, and the history of sCience, on the
other, both being concerned to develop an adequate
theory of discontinuous transition.

I shall give just two quotations to illustrate the
resonances. The first stresses the discontinuous
component in a revolutionary transformation. Thus
Colletti points out that, for Lenin,
the destruction of the old [state] machine is the
destruction of the limits imposed on democracy
by the bourgeoiS state. It is the passage from
a ‘narrow restricted’ democracy to a full democracy. And, adds Lenin, ‘full democracy is
DQ.t qualitatively the same thing as incomplete
democracy’. Behind what might seem formally
a difference in quantity what is actually at stake
is ‘a gigantic replacement of certain institutions
by other institutions of a fundamentally different
type’. (50)
For Lenin, then, a revolutionary change involves
the replace ment of one set of institutions which
impose limits on democracy by a qualitatively
different, more adequately democratic network of

The second quotation alludes to the continuity that
is also a characteristic of the ‘Marxist’ theory of
revolutionary change. It derives .from a comment
by Fagen on the claim made in a Cuban document
to the effect that ‘the past has its claws into the
present’. Fagen writes that the ‘inertia of a cultural
system is very great indeed’. The Cuban revolutionary leaders, he says, have had
to learn to live with some of the ideas, habits
and concepts that were well integrated into the
pre-revolutionary way of life .•. The developmental effort is constantly and inevitably slowed
down by the persistence of old values and patterns
of behaviour, even in the bosom of the newest
and most disciplined of revolutionary institutions.

Once we reject the idea that revolutions are necessarily sudden, cataclysmic, ultimately nonrational events, we need also to revise our conception of what constitutes rational progress in science
and society. The liberal conception of reason, as I
pointed out above, identifies reason with reasoning,
and takes argument to be the rational motor of
historical development. Criticism (and thus
growth) is effected through the notions of contradiction, conSistency, implication and so forth.

These relationships are thought to hold essentially
between propositions, items that _can be true or
false and which are the content of our statements
and arguments. Mediated by these concepts reason
exerts its critical, progressive force only through
reasoning and discussion. Hall, it may be
49 Cohen, p259
50 L. Colletti, ‘Lenin’s State and Revolution’, in R. Blackburn (ed.),
Revolution and Class Struggle, FontanajCollins, 1977, p71
51 R. R. Fagen, ‘A Perspective on the Transformation of Political Culture
in Cuba’ in S.A.Halper and J.R.Sterling (eds.), Latin America: The
Dynamics of Social Change, London, Allison and Busby, 1972, p195


remembered, eloquently expressed the associated
theory of history when he asserted that scientific
progress is largely directed ‘by the conscious
reasoning mind’, and that it occurs ‘as the consequence of rational discourse between men’.

The attempts which have been made recently,
particularly by Edgley (52), to develop a dialectical
conception of reason suggest that it is in this
direction that the articulation of an adequate theory
of rational progress lies. Very briefly, it
emphasizes the importance of criticism and opposition, and particularly of contradiction, as a motor
of progress. However, it does not see reason as
being critical simply of arguments, but of beliefs
and actions. It thus transcends that arid conception
of history which, as Dunn puts it, simply
maps the logic of arguments and sets these out
against its own prescriptive logic, so that their
structure can be grasped clearly. All the statements contained in it are state ments about the
relationships of propositions to propositions.

Men, breathing, excreting, hating, mocking,
never step inside it. Their role is merely to
label a particular set of propositions with the
name which they bear themselves. Their names
appear in this story but never their selves. It
is a tale to be told by clever and subtle men,
and it signifies much but in it there is neither
sound nor fury. (53)
52 R.Edgley, ‘SCience, :SOcial Science and Socialist Science: Reason as
Dialectic’, Radical Philosophy 15 (Autumn 1976), pp2-7. Also
,R. Edgley, ‘The Contradiction of Colletti··, Critique, No.7 (Winter
1976/7), pp47-52
53 J. Dunn, ‘The Identity of the History of Ideas’, Philosophy ~, 1968,

By locating the beliefs and actions of historical
agents as targets for criticism and opposition,
dialectical reason effectively takes a participant’s
perspective on the process of change. And it recognizes that behind the ‘conscious reasoning mind ‘ ,
mocking its arrogance and pretentiousness, lie the
habits of thought and action which imprison us and
make decisions for us. It is thus potentially a far
richer conception of rationality than one which
restricts reasonable means of achieving progress
to critical discussion. Discontinuous transitions
are as wide as they are deep. To ove rco me
resistance to them procedures other than argument
or reasoning may be required, and can be defended
as rational.

My aim in this article has been to demarcate a
terrain, to establish landmarks and points of reference. For reasons which will by now have become
clear, the related concepts of discontinuity and
incommensurability are as important as they are
controversial. At present in most, if not all,
debates in the philosophy of science the Kuhnian
version of the thesis is dominant. However, given
the serious flaws which it has, Kuhn’s ‘theory’ of
discontinuous transition is more or less readily
dismissed. Sweet reason calmly and triumphantly
disposes of it. This article will have achieved one
of its major objectives if it succeeds in dispelling
some of that complacency, if it makes some
readers hesitate before advancing some of the more
or less standard objections to discontinuity, and if
it succeeds in re-opening the problem of ruptures
and breaks in history on ground different to that
occupied by Kuhn.

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