Monday, 12 July 2010

Thomas Kuhn - The Philosophical Legacy

Steve Fuller 'Thomas Kuhn: A Philosophical History for Our Times' Chicago: University of Chicago Press (2000).

Thomas Kuhn, as we know, was one of the foremost philosophers of science in the 20th century and the father of the so-called 'sociological turn' in contemporary philosophy of science.

But what, exactly, was Kuhn’s legacy to philosophy of science. According to Steve Fuller, Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick, it was to have dulled the critical edge of the concept of rationality in this philosophical sub-discipline - making philosophy’s relationship to the natural sciences increasingly problematic (p280).

Kuhn, in Fuller’s view, was the latest in a long line of modernist philosophers whose aim was to pave the way from philosophical to (social) scientific modes of thought. These anti-philosophical tendencies can also be found in Wittgenstein’s work, but espeically in followers of Kuhn like David Bloor; who believed that philosophy is an atavism in an epistemic culture dominated by science.

Post-Kuhnian philosophers of science have attempted to understand science as a social phenomenin; that is from the narrow vantage point of the practicing scientist’s current professional interests. For Fuller, this is too parochial a conception of science and in his view post-Kuhnian philosophers - like, for example Rorty - fail to see any intermediate position between a sociological conception grounded professional interests and a philosophical conception derived from the God’s eye view.

Against Kuhn, Fuller wants to defend a quasi-Popperian conception of science, in that he advocates an open ‘republican’ conception of science against a ‘closed’ professional conception of scientific practice (an issue that has recently come to the fore in the ‘climategate’ scandal). For Fuller, Popper’s ‘distinctive pragmatist revision’ of positivism was dismissed too easily by Kuhn and his socilogical acolytes.

This is an interesting book by Fuller, unfortunately, provides a rather rambling account. Although erudite in the extreme, he attempts to critique Kuhn on three fronts at once - sociological, political, philosophical. This is perhaps to broad a critical focus. Fuller does make many subtle points against the viability of ‘the Kuhnian framework’, but there is a certain randomness in his mode of argumentation. Fuller, it strikes me, is trying to shoot the Kuhnian elephant with a weapon that, although powerful, he seems unwilling to bring under sufficient control. This maybe because he is attempting to criticise the sociological turn from 'within' when a more philosophical approach is clearly needed here.

Neil Turnbull

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