Notes on paradigms

Kuhn’s book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is the best-known example of a body of work that drove a coach-and-horses through the empiricist and positivist vision of science.40Kuhn works by means of exemplary historical cases and his argument defies easy summary. For him exemplars are lessons on how to see and understand the world. To be a scientist is to work through cases. Quick accounts don’t get to the heart of things at all. Talk and statements are only the tip of the iceberg. So if I say that three features of his Notes on paradigms account of science are important for us, though this isn’t exactly wrong it is also at odds with the deeper sense of his story. Nonetheless:

First, scientists don’t come to their work naïve but with a whole package which he calls a paradigm. This includes law-like generalisations, implicit assumptions, instrumental and embodied habits, working models, and a general and more or less implicit world-view. As I’ve just noted, it also includes exemplary appli- cations of relevant models and theories. Scientific training, says Kuhn, is about learning to see chosen empirical circumstances in terms Notes on paradigms that fit how other paradigm-sharing scientists see them: to see particular circumstances as instances or applications of relevant models and theories. He writes that students

regularly report that they have read through a chapter of their text, under- stood it perfectly, but nonetheless had difficulty in solving a number of the problems at the chapter’s end. Ordinarily, also, those difficulties dissolve in the same way. The student discovers, with or without the assistance of his instructor, a way to see his problem as like a problem already encountered.

(Kuhn 1970, 189)

You simply have to go Notes on paradigms and do the experiments and learn how to see them properly. Book-learning will not do.

Second, scientists are puzzle solvers. The world presents empirical and theoretical puzzles that can be solved by applying, adapting, and extending the paradigm. This, indeed, is what it is to be a scientist: a puzzle solver who is committed to this package, applies it, and extends it.

Third, very rarely paradigms fail. Systematic attempts to resolve some important puzzle do not work. If this happens for long enough then a sense of crisis develops that may lead to a ‘scientific revolution’ in which one Notes on paradigms paradigm is replaced by another. But this is unusual. Most scientists are engaged in the creative and mundane process, puzzle solving.

Kuhn’s account has many similarities with that of Latour and Woolgar (no surprise, for these authors come after and draw from Kuhn). We can see the Salk scientists as puzzle solvers who draw on and are entangled with a hinterland of more or less standardised instrumental, theoretical, and embodied resources. Furthermore, much of that hinterland is tacit: paradigms are embodied in craft skills, unspoken assumptions, and inscription devices.41 Knowledge is not


44 Interlude

primarily an explicit set of Notes on paradigms statements and theories. It is a more or less inexplicit and indeterminate hinterland.

This means that the entanglements of Kuhn’s picture of science are quite unlike those proposed by Merton. First, they are much less clear. Second, the empirical has a quite different significance because in Kuhn’s way of thinking it is not possible to make observations of nature in a neutral way. Instead, what scientists observe, and how they observe it, is always tied up with their paradigm:42 recognition of similarity in scientific observation is acquired:

What is built into the neural process that transforms stimuli to sensations Notes on paradigms has the following characteristics: it has been transmitted through education; it has, by trial, been found more effective than its historical competitors in a group’s current environment; and, finally, it is subject to change both through further education and through the discovery of misfits with the environment. Those are characteristics of knowledge, and they explain why I use the term. But it is a strange usage, for one other characteristic is missing. We have no direct access to what it is we know, no rules or generalizations with which to express this knowledge.

(Kuhn 1970, 196)

Observations could not Notes on paradigms be neutral. They cannot be disentangled from the context of training or the process of puzzle solving which makes up the hinterland. So though scientists solve real empirical puzzles the reality they are dealing with is partially dependent on the paradigm itself. Out-thereness is not wanton or fickle. It cannot be created willy-nilly. But the particular forms it takes are more or less specific. Kuhn’s vision of knowledge is pragmatic: paradigms are tools for handling out-thereness. But they also in part enact that out-thereness. So, though there are differences between Kuhn on the one Notes on paradigms hand, and Latour and Woolgar on the other, perhaps it is only pushing Kuhn’s vision of science a little to say that specific versions of out-thereness are not independent and prior to the paradigm. And that if they are definite and singular they only become so in relation to a particular paradigm.

The structure of scientific entanglement is far removed from that of Merton.



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