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Thomas Kuhn: A Philosophical History for Our Times (review)

A. W. Coats

History of Political Economy, Volume 35, Number 3, Fall 2003, pp. 566-569 (Article) Published by Duke University Press

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source of a structural break is not an intervention in the process of an unaccountedfor common cause. These were the same problems Trygve Haavelmo discussed in his epoch-making paper The Probability Approach in Econometrics (1944) that functioned as the blueprint for the Cowles Commission approach (Morgan 1990, 251). The Cowles Commission structural approach was the answer to problems discussed in that paper. One of the central problems was that of autonomy. Haavelmos idea of autonomy is equivalent to Hoovers notion of structure: A causal structure must remain invariant to interventions in some dimensions and serve to transmit interventions in one part of the structure to other parts of the structure (26). If one agrees with John Aldrich (1989) that autonomy is essential to any structural econometrics, one can paraphrase his question with the same kind of astonishment: How can Hoover play Hamlet year after year without the Prince being noticed? This book is a major contribution to causal analysis in economics. It discusses the main causal approaches of relevance to economics, but above all it shows that still today the economist has something to say to the philosopher. Marcel Boumans, University of Amsterdam References Aldrich, John. 1989. Autonomy. In History and Methodology of Econometrics, edited by Neil de Marchi and Christopher Gilbert. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Haavelmo, Trygve. 1944. The Probability Approach in Econometrics. Econometrica 12 (supplement): S1S115. Hoover, Kevin D. 2001. The Methodology of Empirical Macroeconomics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Morgan, Mary S. 1990. The History of Econometric Ideas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Simon, Herbert. 1953. Causal Ordering and Identiability. In Studies in Econometric Method, edited by William C. Hood and Tjalling C. Koopmans, 4974. Cowles Commission Monograph no. 14. New York: Wiley.

Thomas Kuhn: A Philosophical History for Our Times. By Steve Fuller. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. xvii; 472 pp. Steve Fullers impressive and provocative study of the origins, publication circumstances, short-term impact, and longer term signicance of Thomas S. Kuhns Structure of Scientic Revolutions (1962; 1970; hereinafter cited as SSR) may come as a surprise, even a shock, to some social scientists, as it has to this reviewer. I rst learned about SSR in 1963 from Ronald Coase, who had been a Fellow at the Behavioral Sciences Center at Stanford University while Kuhn was there. I was one

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of a handful of historians of economics who warmly welcomed Kuhns book in the 1960s and early 1970s, as providing an original and illuminating standpoint from which to survey and interpret the entire history of the subject. That history was already becoming swamped by conventional piecemeal studies of great (and sometimes not so great) economists and other thinkers, books, ideas, doctrinal schools, and economic policy episodes. Against this background, Kuhns grand design had obvious attractions. There was, of course, a healthy skepticism toward ambitious general theories of history. But Kuhn offered suggestive new hypotheses within a stimulating developmental framework that was too exible to become a restrictive straitjacket, yet substantial enough to seem applicable to the evolution of economic ideas and the eventual emergence of economics as an academic discipline. Admittedly Kuhn had maintained that his historico-philosophical theory was designed to account for developmental patterns in the natural sciences only, and, within that group of disciplines, only (or mainly) physics and chemistry. Yet hadnt many econo mists claimed that their subject was the most scientic of the social sciences? Moreover, soon after SSR appeared, any urge to scholarly self-restraint disappeared as specialists from a remarkable range of academic eldssome, like art history, far removed from the natural sciencesjumped on the bandwagon, declaring their commitment to Kuhnication and displaying clear symptoms of the virus paradigmitis (these are Fullers semi-mocking terms). Much of the earlier part of Fullers book is designed to explain how and why this enthusiasm became so widespread. When the century ended, almost a million copies of SSR had been sold, and it remains one of the most highly cited works in the humanities and the social sciences, and certainly one of the few major works in these elds that have been received sympathetically by natural scientists (1). Like his rst book, The Copernican Revolution: Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought (1957), SSR was written while Kuhn was teaching (for fteen years) in Harvards General Education in Science curriculum, which helps to explain the ambitious subtitle of the earlier volume. The curriculum was devoted to education, not original research. . . . That Kuhns preparation for writing Structure was more the classroom than the archives, is revealed by its nonthreatening prose style, which contains relatively little technical language, and, for that matter relatively few footnotes to other authors, no matter how much they may have inuenced him (31). Specialist readers of SSR frequently commented that the book is quite thin on matters in their own eld of expertise, but truly enlightening in some other eld, one in which they have long had an interest, but could not locate a suitable point of scholarly intersection. It might be said that Structure has a philosophers sense of sociology, a historians sense of philosophy, and a sociologists sense of history (32). Fuller therefore calls SSR a servant narrative (emphasis in original), for it garnered many grateful users but few devoted followers (31, 32). Unhappily for Kuhn, he was denied tenure at Harvard in 1955, after unusually lengthy deliberations. Two years earlier, his most inuential backer and mentor, J. B. Conant, formerly president of the university, atom bomb administrator, and chief


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architect of the General Education in Science program, had left to become United States high commissioner for Germany, thereby weakening Kuhns prospects. When the universitys General Education Committee came to examine Kuhns case, The Copernican Revolution was deemed a work of popularization, useful for teaching but not an original piece of research, although it clearly contributed to the aims of the science program. Indeed Fuller argues that Kuhns next book, SSR, accomplished much of what the Committee had wanted (384). Fuller characterizes SSR as an exemplary document of the Cold War era (5), for it directly reected the contemporary intellectual and political climate of opinion, and the rival conceptions of the political, social, and academic roles of the sciences and the humanities. Kuhn had been anointed by Conant to provide a philosophical defence of the Big Science initiatives that increasingly characterized American research in the Cold War era (391). Yet both of Kuhns books were at a disadvantage when viewed in relation to the contemporary general shift in leading American universities away from teaching toward research, and away from the humanities and social sciences toward the natural sciences. Kuhns training as a physicist qualied him to teach in the General Education in Science program, which some of its supporters believed might displace Western Civilization as an educational inuence. However, Kuhn himself turned away from theoretical physics after becoming profoundly disaffected by the routine and destructive uses to which science was put in World War II (388). Indeed he eventually distanced his concerns from those of the historians and sociologists of science who had derived inspiration from his work (388). Fullers Kuhn embraces a remarkable range of issues and topics in addition to science: philosophy (including epistemology), history, historiography, politics, theology, literary studies, education, and the sociology of science (including science and technology studies), among others. SSR was published as the nal volume of the International Encyclopedia of Unied Science written and sponsored by members of the Vienna Circle and published by the University of Chicago Press. Yet SSR does not appear to have been heavily inuenced by the Vienna Circles ideas or by the logical-positivist movement generally that appeared elsewhere in the Encyclopedia. The elements of Kuhns main argumentthe fundamental contrast between normal and revolutionary science, the central role assigned to paradigms, and the problems of incommensurabilityare no doubt familiar to readers of HOPE. Of more direct interest are Fullers many references and comments on economic matters, including economic conditions (e.g., the Great Depression) as well as economic ideas. Economic uctuations, and the relationship between Marxist and capitalist economic ideas and systems, gure prominently. Many economists are mentioned or discussed in the text, well beyond the predictable bows to Smith, Mill, Marshall, Schumpeter, Hayek, and Keynesfor example List, Veblen, Pareto, Simons, Pigou, and Kaldor. (Some of these names do not appear in the index, which is also decient in other respects.) Fullers overall judgment that the impact of The Structure of Scientic Revolutions has been largely, though not entirely, for the worse (xvi) may seem mild, but

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many of his particular judgments, especially taken in combination, are much harsher. We are told that Kuhns history was incoherent (210), displaying an utter lack of historical self-consciousness (31); he adopted a policy of strategic vagueness (74); his outlook was conservative, perhaps even authoritarian (74); he had an overriding concern for consensus formation in science (407), repudiating all radical interpretations of SSR; and he adopted an acritical stance in his writing. Consequently Fuller terms him a culturopath, because he lacked reexive engagement with what he said and did (398). SSR was historically truncated, for Kuhns case studies in chemistry stopped after the mid-nineteenth century, in physics after 1920, and were completely lacking in other disciplines and periods (73), as though science had come to a halt under the inuence of paradigms. According to Fuller, Paradigms should be seen, not as the ideal form of scientic inquiry, but rather an arrested social movement in which the natural spread of knowledge is captured by a community that gains relative advantage by forcing other communities to rely on its expertise to get what they want (37). He sees this as part of the long process of secularization, stressing the political aspects of the process. In philosophical terms, a mode of inquiry undergoing Kuhnication can be described as on epistemic cruise control. Specically, the Kuhnied eld loses any sense of historical reexivity, a precondition to effective political engagement: that is, a sense of where one has come from and where one should be going (354). The denigrating tone in Fullers assessment of Kuhns work is strengthened by his references to Kuhnication, Kuhnspeak, the Great Kuhnian Scramble, and paradigmitis, even the curse of Kuhn (13, 15 n; also 318, 361). This impression is reinforced by Fullers opening comparison between Kuhn and the reception of his work with Peter Sellerss character Chance, in the brilliant lm Being There, which may be seen as a paradigm for understanding the reception of Kuhns Structure (xii). Like Chance, at every opportunity Kuhn disavowed all of the more exciting and radical theses imputed to him by friends and foes alike. . . . It is doubtful that there has ever been another academic who has met the greatness thrust upon him with such ingratitude (xiixiii). Fullers book is too rich, broad-ranging, and judgmental to be fully analyzed and fairly evaluated in a review of moderate compass. (It has innumerable long footnotes, in small print, which reveal the extent and subtlety of the authors thinking.) Indeed, one over-enthusiastic reviewer has termed it an introductory intellectual history of the most important trends in Western social thought in the entire second half of the 20th century (William R. Everdell, Washington Times). In more appropriate academic terms, it is an important contribution of direct interest to economic methodologists, and open-minded economists generally. A. W. Bob Coats, University of Nottingham