Category Archive: Kuhn vs. Popper

Icon Books: 2006.

Enlightenment yet to be fully realised

Significantly, Adorno and Popper differed on the current state of the Enlightenment project. Whereas Adorno held that both totalitarian fascism and consumer capitalism have taken the Enlightenment to its self-destructive extreme, Popper held that the Enlightenment has yet to be fully realised. [148−9]

The price of knowledge

In his epistemological sensibility, Popper follows in the footsteps of the philosophers of the 18th-century Enlightenment. Their common starting point may be summarised in the following principle: The price of acquiring any knowledge at all is that it will be somehow distorted by the conditions of its acquisition; hence, criticism is the only universally reliable method. [127]

Kuhn’s progeny

Unlike the positivists and the Popperians, Kuhn did not postulate an end to science other than what satisfied the con­straints laid down by the dominant paradigms. Thus, post-Kuhnians have come to accept scientists’ working assump­tions at face value, including the counter-intuitive implication that reality consists of many distinct worlds, each roughly corresponding to a scientific discipline. For example, whereas Lakatos had called on historians, philosophers and soci­ologists to master the technical details of contemporary science so as not to depend on scientists’ own ex cathedra pro­nouncements about the merits of their research programmes, Kuhn’s progeny master such details in order to impress scientists that they are sufficiently competent to be taken seriously at all. Kuhn’s reduction of the ends of science to the trajectories already being pursued by particular sciences has now inspired two generations of philosophers to believe that they should be taking their normative marching orders from the sciences they philosophise about, and hence do not question them unless the scientists themselves have done so first. [86]

A necessary condition for critical distance

Even if ideas and arguments should be evaluated independently of their origins, we must still first learn about their origins, in order to ensure the evaluation is indeed independent of them. The only thing worse than accepting or reject­ing an idea because we know about its originator is doing so because we know nothing of the originator. Ignorance may appear in two positive guises. Both are due to the surface clarity of relatively contemporary texts, which effectively discourages any probing of their sources: on the one hand, we may read our own assumptions into the textual inter­stices; on the other, we may unwittingly take on board the text’s assumptions. In short, either our minds colonise theirs or theirs ours. In both cases, the distinction between the positions of interpreter and interpreting is dissolved, and hence a necessary condition for critical distance is lost. [71−2]

A Kuhnian invasion of creeps and incompetents

Kuhn’s ideas are interesting but, alas, they are much too vague to give rise to anything but lots of hot air. If you don’t believe me, look at the literature. Never before has the literature on the philosophy of science been invaded by so many creeps and incompetents. Kuhn encourages people who have no idea why a stone falls to the ground to talk with assurance about scientific method. Now I have no objection to incompetence but I do object when incompetence is accompanied by boredom and self-righteousness. [68]

[Paul Feyerabend: ‘How to Defend Society against Science’]

Never put to a fair test

Of course, like the most enduring monarchies, the scientific establishment continues to enjoy widespread public sup­port on most matters, including the tinge of divine inspiration that has traditionally legitimated royalty. It might therefore be claimed that science already represents ‘the will of the people’, and hence requires no further philosophical schemes for democratisation. Here Popper’s anti-majoritarian approach to democracy – what I would call his ‘civic republican’ sensibility – comes to the fore. Many authoritarian regimes, especially the 20th-century fascist and com­munist ones, could also persuasively claim widespread popular support, at least at the outset and in relation to the available alternatives. For Popper, however, the normative problem posed by these regimes is that their performance is never put to a fair test. Kuhn suffers from the same defect: a paradigm is simply an irrefutable theory that becomes the basis for an irreversible policy. [47−8]

Accountable to more than just themselves

Popper and his followers were unique in seizing a glaring weakness in Kuhn’s theory: Kuhnian normal science was a politically primitive social formation that combined qualities of the Mafia, a royal dynasty and a religious order. It lacked the sort of constitutional safeguards that we take for granted in modern democracies that regularly force politicians to be accountable to more people than just themselves. Scientists should be always trying to falsify their theories, just as people should be always invited to find fault in their governments and consider alternatives – and not simply wait until the government can no longer hide its mistakes. This notoriously led Popper and his students to be equal opportunity fault-finders across the natural and social sciences. [46]

More or less corrupt versions of the scientific ideal

Whereas actual scientific communities existed for Popper only as more or less corrupt versions of the scientific ideal, for Kuhn the scientific ideal is whatever has historically emerged as the dominant scientific communities. [6]

Alternative expressions of the open society

Once Popper’s philosophy of science is read alongside his political philosophy, it becomes clear that scientific inquiry and democratic politics are meant to be alternative expressions of what Popper called ‘the open society’.

… The open society is one whose members, like the citizens of classical Athens, treat openness to criticism and change as a personal ethic and a civic duty. [26]

Kuhnian success

In the last twenty years, however, a new generation has come to dominate the history, philosohpy and sociology of science. They take Structure as the unproblematic foundation for its inquiries – as if the original criticisms had never been made. Certainly Kuhn never answered the criticisms, and the current generation of science studies practitioners is sufficiently beholden to Structure not to want to answer them. One thing must be said in Kuhn’s behalf: he succeeded according to the terms set out by his own theory. [40−1]