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Thomas Kuhn, 1922-1996


Thomas Kuhn, 1922–1996Paradigms as soft structures

Kuhnʼs The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was, despite the modesty of its author, a revolutionary work. Like Darwinʼs Origin of Species (with which it shares many other likenesses), its wider cultural and political resonances far exceeded the intentions and expectations of its author – both in scope and in direction. Developed through painstaking scholarly work in the history of science, Kuhnʼs concepts of ʻparadigmʼ, ʻnormal scienceʼ, ʻanomalyʼ, ʻcrisisʼ, and ʻscientific revolutionʼ itself, exploded their initial disciplinary confines. Throughout the humanities and social sciences, and even in some heretical margins of the natural sciences, the implications of Kuhnʼs arguments were intensely debated. And, beyond the classrooms and libraries, Kuhnʼs ideas became commonplaces in the intellectual and cultural ferment of the 1960s and early 1970s.

Why was this? The most obvious answer lies in the key words of Kuhnʼs title.

ʻStructuralismʼ had already gained an exotic presence in Anglophone culture through the work of a Francophile intellectual vanguard. ʻScienceʼ was an important site of cultural and political contestation, both because of the challenge to scientific authority mounted by the emerging counterculture, and because of the more circumscribed battle for scientific status going on in the social sciences. And the word ʻrevolutionʼ! Here the resonances are far more complex and mediated. The word had a place in the popular music and youth culture of the time, as the generation of the 1960s defined itself in opposition to military power, imperial domination and rampant consumerist ʻmaterialismʼ. Some among the generation of ʻpeace and loveʼ were also revolutionaries in a more self-consciously political sense, and it was perhaps in these circles more than elsewhere that Kuhnʼs ideas were taken up and debated. Increasingly, as revolutionary practice was seen to require revolutionary theory, the status of Marxism, in particular, became a central issue. With that, as the work of the French structural Marxists became better known among English-speaking radicals, the question became: ʻscientificʼ or ʻhumanistʼ Marxism? The nexus of structure, revolution and science seemed inescapable.

This was the wider context within which Kuhnʼs new view of science was introduced into the more specific and localized disputes occurring within the academic disciplines. As a graduate philosophy student at Oxford in the late 1960s, I had managed to suppress my growing scepticism about philosophical orthodoxy sufficiently well to get that far, but felt unable to carry on doing it. Luckily, I wasnʼt the only one, and, equally luckily, it was possible to find like-minded sceptics among the staff – or at least those who were prepared to hear their professional assumptions questioned by mere students. Kuhnʼs characterization of crisis in the history of science seemed to fit our situation all too well: a dominant paradigm (ʻanalyticalʼ philosophy) faced with unresolved ʻanomaliesʼ and competing schools. How tempting it was to cast ourseves in the heroic role of ʻrevolutionariesʼ, bearers of a new philosophical paradigm!

Looking back over old notes and essays, however, my sense is that Kuhnʼs work had a more subtle and nuanced role.

Three features of his work, especially, seemed liberating in that context. The first was the way Kuhn drew attention to the institutional setting of academic work.

Questions about which were the influential journals and departments; how they controlled definitions of what was a legitimate enquiry within their discipline; how they shaped the education and training of younger generations of scholars – these were deeply subversive for a discipline that prided itself on embodying the sovereignty of reasoned argument. The second was the simple fact of Kuhnʼs demonstration of the intellectual force of historical inquiry. Philosophy tended to be practised as if its questions were timeless, even when, as in linguistic philosophy, everyday speech was the topic of analysis. When we studied Aristotle, Kant, Hume or Leibniz, whole swathes of their writings were ignored, and they tended to be read as if their lives had somehow been devoted to the puzzles generated by mid-twentieth-century Oxford philosophers.

By contrast, Kuhnʼs quite self-conscious concern with ʻwhat it was like to think scientifically in a period when the canons of scientific thought were very different from those current todayʼ came like a bolt from the blue. Of course, it was no such thing.

Kuhnʼs own influences in this were continental European historians and philosophers of science, most especially Koyré. In this, as in many other respects, the extent of Kuhnʼs impact was a measure of the insularity of so much of British intellectual life prior to the 1960s.

The third respect in which Kuhnʼs work seemed to open up new and welcome intellectual possibilities had to do with his structuralism. His was a ʻsoftʼ structuralism, which accommodated plurality and change in the history of scientific research traditions, but which, by way of the ever-disputed idea of ʻparadigmsʼ, drew attention to the interconnectedness of scientific concepts, both with one another and with the questions they were used to address, and the methods and criteria by which they were answered. The ramifications of this took off in all directions. What sense did it make, in the philosophy of science, to search for timeless demarcation criteria between science and non-science? What about the status of de-legitimated forms of knowledge, like Marxism or psychoanalysis? They had their own methods and ʻinternalʼ critical standards and epistemologies, so why should they be accorded any less status than established sciences? Right, so what about theology, magic, witchcraft, astrology…? ʻAnything goesʼ, as Feyerabend was to say. Of course, this sort of intellectual libertarianism was far from Kuhnʼs own concerns, and from those of many of his followers. Another direction in which to take the idea of paradigms, one closer to Kuhnʼs own use of it, was to recognize that, at least with respect to intellectual work, historical change had to take place by way of qualitative shifts, wholesale transformations of thought, rather than by piecemeal accretion. The widespread sense, certainly in philosophy but in other disciplines too, of a desire to sweep away a suffocating orthodoxy, rather than chip away at it, bit by bit, seemed confirmed by Kuhnʼs way of mapping the history of the natural sciences.

As I was soon to discover, Kuhnʼs ideas had also been taken up in the social sciences. As a newly appointed ʻtokenʼ philosopher in a prominent sociology department at the beginning of the 1970s I began to see a less liberatory side of the use of Kuhnʼs ideas. The towering presence in postwar sociology in the English-speaking world was the functionalism of Talcott Parsons and his followers. Prior to my entry into the discipline, Parsonian orthodoxy had been challenged on what eventually turned out to be two rather different fronts. The charge that functionalism carried an implicit valuecommitment to the status quo, and could neither countenance nor explain radical social change, was common ground among the critics. However, they themseves were divided over what was to replace the Parsonian paradigm. One tendency, more influential in the USA, emphasized functionalismʼs demotion of the role of human agency and drew upon the interpretative traditionʼs focus on meaning and subjectivity. The Parsonian concern with whole societies as ʻsystemsʼ tended to give way to small-scale ethnographic studies of micro-social interaction.

The alternative to Parsons which became most influential in British sociology retained the emphasis on whole societies, but incorporated a quasi-Marxian recognition of system-contradiction.

In the pioneering work of David Lockwood, system-integration was distinguished from integration at the level of social relations. The core questions deriving from this approach were to do with the way in which social relations, mainly thought of as class relations, could either sustain social stability or bring about change, in the face of system-contradictions. This was an immense theoretical achievement which promised to unify the discipline through a clearly defined agenda of empirically researchable questions. So influential did it become that some of its practitioners came to define themselves as ʻmainstreamʼ sociologists – later to be pilloried by feminists as ʻmalestreamʼ.

For a discipline only recently and unevenly acknowledged as worthy of its place in the academy, the professional and political status to be gained from the accolade of ʻscienceʼ were considerable. And for sociologists, who better to confer the accolade than Kuhn – by now well established as the founding figure of a revitalized sociology of science? One way of mapping Kuhnʼs historical schema onto the current state of sociology was to identify scientific status with the achievement of consensus around a single approach. Kuhn, indeed, seemed to some to legitimate, as distinct from merely describe, the exercise of institutional and professional power to suppress or marginalize alternatives (though I can remember no one spelling it out quite so clearly!). This project was, of course, never realized. However, it is interesting to note that two important potential competitors for paradigm status – Marxism and feminist sociology – gained their own legitimacy within the academy largely by critical engagement with the ʻmalestreamʼ research programme. Arguably, those researchers who did so implicitly adopted the main assumptions of the approach they sought to overthrow, and thus confirmed its ʻparadigmʼ status.

Despite such periods of near-hegemonic domination of the discipline by a single influential research programme, sociology has remained, of all the social sciences, the most radically pluralist. If we follow Kuhn in identifying science with consensus around a paradigmatic intellectual achievement, then sociology seems not to qualify.

Either sociology continues to languish in the pre-paradigmatic phase of its development, awaiting its first paradigm; or it is undergoing a remarkably prolonged and unresolved ʻcrisisʼ. Both diagnoses have been offered. There is no shortage of candidates to supply the missing paradigm, often, as in the earlier period, associated with rising social movements – witness Catton and Dunlapʼs proposal for a ʻNew Ecological Paradigmʼ to replace the ʻHuman Exemptionalismʼ of the classical sociologies. As the authoritative status of science has been weakened (partly as a result of the new understandings of science made possible by Kuhnʼs own work), it has come to seem much less important to legitimate sociologyʼs place in the academy in this way. The proliferation of postmodernist and post-structuralist approaches has converged with a strong current of anti-scientism already present in the interpretative traditions, into a dominant mood of rejection of any model of science as prescriptive for sociologists.

Paradoxically, for all his insistence on the idea of ʻprogressʼ through scientific revolutions, Kuhn is now cited more often in support of relativism and incommensurability.

Any takers for a view of scientific progress through pluralistic dialogue?

Ted benton

Kuhn as trojan horse

From a distance, the legacy of Thomas Kuhn to academia appears to have been a radical one. After all, isnʼt he the person most responsible for overturning the positivist philosophical orthodoxy by defining science so that the social and natural sciences could both be seen as forms of organized enquiry or ʻparadigmsʼ?

And didnʼt his definition stress the social dimension of science to such an extent that he breathed new life into the sociology of science, starting with the Edinburgh School and eventuating in the professionalization of ʻscience studiesʼ? And hasnʼt the advent of science studies paved the way for a radical reconsideration of the place of science in society, leading to the ʻScience Warsʼ that have periodically erupted on both sides of the Atlantic over the last five years? The presuppositions informing each of these three questions are false, as Kuhn himself has been at pains to point out since the introduction to his collected essays, The Essential Tension, in 1977. Indeed, as I have stressed in a set of essays and a forthcoming book, Kuhnʼs influence has been a profoundly conservative one, but one in keeping with the setting in which The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was written. [1]

The key to understanding the impact of Kuhnʼs work is the dedication of that classic work to Harvard President James Bryant Conant, an administrator of the US atomic bomb project, staunch cold warrior and Kuhnʼs early academic mentor. It was Conant who conceived of the courses, ʻGeneral Education in Scienceʼ, in which Kuhn developed his famous conception of science as iterated cycles of paradigms and revolutions, in the decade following World War II. The constituency for Conantʼs courses was the returning soldiers whose education was funded by the US government. They were expected to become managers who would be increasingly asked to decide on projects containing a strong scientific component. From Conantʼs standpoint, it was important that they remained friendly to science, despite public calls for greater regulation of scientific research in the wake of the US atomic bombing of Japan (which Conant strongly encouraged).

Conantʼs pedagogical strategy was to show that the scientific mindset has remained constant from Galileo and Boyle to Einstein and Heisenberg, changes in the material conditions of research notwithstanding. Kuhn was among a number of Harvard graduates who had become disillusioned with their career prospects as scientists while serving in World War II. Nevertheless, they sympathized with Conantʼs attempt to perpetuate what was quickly becoming a nostalgic ʻlittle scienceʼ image of enquiry.

Conantʼs courses – and Kuhnʼs book – downplayed the role of economics and technology in the conduct of enquiry, let alone the political pressures exerted on science from the larger society. Unwittingly, this selective vision of science obscured traditional differences between the study of the natural and social worlds, which emboldened social scientists in the 1970s to claim that they too were in hot pursuit of paradigmatic enquiry. Ultimately, this strategy enabled them to purchase academic respectability in return for muting their critical sensibility – an outcome that is not so surprising, given that Kuhnʼs conception of revolution owes less to Marx than to the restorationist Vilfredo Pareto. [2]

Equally unintended was the resonance that Structure had in the UK, where C.P.

Snow had announced a ʻtwo culturesʼ problem and Harold Wilson called for the integration of science and technology into the mainstream of British society. The result was a series of courses instituted in the late 1960s to teach science and engineering majors about the social dimensions of their research, in the hope of tracking them in more socially beneficial directions. Among these new service teaching programmes was the Edinburgh Science Studies Unit, where Kuhn figured prominently. However, the early success of the Unit and the expansion of science enrolments in the early 1970s justified the need for funding ʻresearchʼ in the sociology of science, which gradually autonomized the Unitʼs interests from its original pedagogical mission. It will be no surprise to learn that this transformation happened as if Structure had provided the recipe. [3] Thus, journals were established in which cross-citation to approved contemporary authors gradually replaced historical precedents laden with inconvenient political (i.e. Marxist) baggage. Not only has this strategy telescoped the fieldʼs sense of its own history (an Orwellian outcome that Kuhn deems necessary for motivating scientific acitivity4) but, more importantly, it has problematized the fieldʼs relationship to contemporary social movements in which science figures prominently, as the aims, methods and discourse of science studies have come to be defined in ways that make it less permeable to larger political concerns. [5]

A striking marker of this last tendency is the rhetorical currency in which the ʻScience Warsʼ are traded. When debates over the social dimension of science had a strong Marxist flavour, sociologists and scientists would be expected to argue over the direction in which science should be heading. However, now the debates focus almost entirely on who is academically authorized to pronounce on the nature of science. Alternative visions for socially situating enquiry have become overshadowed by demonstrations of technical competence – or lack thereof – about how science is actually practised. Rather than favouring one side or the other, public reaction to these new exchanges has been irritation at both, for they lack any sensitivity to the future of science. In that sense, Kuhnʼs famous ʻevolutionaryʼ model of scientific change as a progress from that is not a progress to has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hopefully, it is a legacy that we shall soon come to regret.

1. ^ See Steve Fuller, Being There with Thomas Kuhn: A Philosophical History of Our Times, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1997. For scientistsʼ critiques of science studies, see Lewis Wolpert, The Unnatural Nature of Science, Faber & Faber, London, 1992; Steven Weinberg, Dreams of a Final Theory, Pantheon, New York, 1992; Paul Gross and Norman Levitt, The Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, Johns Hopkins University Press,

Baltimore, 1994. All, in one way or another, ultimately lay blame on Kuhn. For a collection of science studies responses, see Andrew Ross, ed., Science Wars, Duke University Press, Durham NC, 1996.2 See Barbara Heyl, ʻThe Harvard “Pareto Circle”ʼ, Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 4, 1968, pp. 316–34. The Circle was created by the biochemist Lawrence Henderson, who also came up with the idea for Harvardʼs Society of Fellows, a private club for elite young scholars, where Kuhn first socialized with Conant. 3. To appreciate the increasingly ʻKuhnifiedʼ character of science studies, compare the contents of its two major handbooks: I. Spiegel-Roesing and D. de Solla Price, eds, Science, Technology and Society: A Cross-Disciplinary Perspective, Sage, London, 1977; and S. Jasanoff et al., eds, Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, Sage, London, 1995. The first chapter of the latter, aptly entitled ʻReinventing the Wheelʼ, documents the ascendency of the Edinburgh School. 4. See Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd edn, University of Chicago Press,

Chicago, 1970, p. 167.5. See the convoluted soul-searching that plagues the special issue of the fieldʼs leading journal, which is dedicated to ʻThe Politics of SSKʼ (SSK = the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge, the research programme of the Edinburgh School): Social Studies of Science 26, 1996, pp. 219–418.

Steve fuller

No turning back:

Kuhn and feminist epistemology

Feminist epistemology may owe more to Quine and Wittgenstein philosophically, but Thomas Kuhnʼs dramatic delineation of the differences that ʻparadigmsʼ could make in the sciences gave content and material consequence to the philosophical ideas. This emboldened feminists to articulate the kinds of difference feminist inquiry might exhibit by comparison with the mainstream.

Kuhnʼs work was important to feminists in several respects. It was first invoked as a way of articulating convictions about the role of gender ideology in the content and practices of the sciences. I can recall taking Kuhn as my legitimating text in the first public lecture I ever gave (1973), on masculinist bias in biology and psychology. And Ruth Hubbard, in her classic essay ʻHave Only Men Evolved?ʼ, also cites Kuhn as offering a framework within which to place her critique of the representations of the roles of male and female organisms in evolutionary theory. What Kuhnʼs ideas offered were ways to make sense of the perpetuation of gender stereotypes in an arena allegedly governed by objective, empirical methods. The notions of the theory-ladenness of observation and of paradigm made it possible to see and say how careful scientists could nevertheless persist in treating certain kinds of human variation as falling into bivalent and exclusive categories of masculine and feminine, or even in seeing variation where there was none. But Kuhnʼs insistence that elements other than empirical evidence and logic were required for theory-choice facilitated even stronger views. As Evelyn Keller put it in the introduction to Reflections on Gender and Science, ʻthe direct implication of such a claim is that not only different collections of facts, different focal points of scientific attention, but also different organizations of knowledge, different interpretations of the world, are both possible and consistent with what we call scienceʼ (p. 5). So, interpretations of the world expressive of a feminist sensibility, or at least of a non-androcentric and non-masculinist sensibility, should also be possible and consistent with what we call – that is, should be recognizable as – science.

Even those philosophical positions opposed to this conception of the sciences were transformed by Kuhnʼs powerful and influential challenge to mid-century orthodoxy.

This transformation meant an intellectual opening of varying degrees of breadth for the ideas feminist epistemologists and philosophers of science would later go on to develop.

What it gave them permission to explore was not just the ways in which gender ideology could enter explicitly and through metaphor into the content of scientific theory, but the manner in which gendered ideals of scientific practice and inquiry could shape the very contours of the knowable. Feminist epistemology has by now gone in too many directions from these beginnings to try to characterize any single line of influence from Kuhn. And, indeed, as though marking how far we have come, in my own recent work Kuhn functions as spokesperson for some mainstream positions in the philosophy of science. Yet our independence should not overshadow our indebtedness.

Nor should our indebtedness blind us to the high likelihood that Kuhn would have deplored the aid and comfort his work gave feminist philosophers, perhaps even more than he deplored the interpretations and uses of it made by scholars in social studies of science. He was, in spite of his emphasis on acculturation and communities, an internalist, and, I would say, an intellectualist. The investigation of gender ideologies, and their communication through scientific content, could not have been welcome to him. Feminist explorations of the affective dimensions of knowledge would have been anathema. Once having opened the door, if only slightly, to contextual factors, however, there was never any principled place at which to draw a line between the permissible and the impermissible. I suspect that it is the very conservatism that runs through his work that made his ideas so much more influential and respectable than those of the also recently deceased, and certainly more politically radical, Paul Feyerabend. In spite of himself, Kuhn laid the groundwork for the critical and constructive analyses of feminist epistemologies and others contesting the modern Western consensus. And there is no turning back.

Helen E. Longino

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