4 An Episode from the History of History and Philosophy of Science: The Phenomenal Publishing Success of Kuhn’s Structure
One of the most intriguing issues in the history of history and philosophy of science would be to examine how and why some historians and philosophers of science and their work have been able to become (well) known outside the relatively narrow circle of historians and philosophers of science, and of some scientists. Karl Popper
There have been many works that attempt to situate Kuhn in the context of the period he worked in and to understand how Structure was formed. Perhaps, the strongest thesis is that of Steve Fuller, who argues that Structure is an “exemplary document of the Cold War era [...] [and Kuhn] a normal scientist in the Cold War political paradigm constructed by James Conant
Another work, perhaps one that bears the most direct relevance to what I shall try to argue in this paper, is Jon Agar’s
First, certain scientists and sciences were objects of criticism because they were seen within social movements as tools of their opponents. Second, places where science was done became theaters for social movement demonstration. Third, scientists as activists were contributors to social movements. This third relationship took two forms: their science could be incidental to their involvement in a movement or, most significantly, it could be the cause, the tool, the object and subject of activism.
(Agar 2012, 404–405)
The work provides an admirable overview of what the title promises, but, also, it analyses many episodes that had been rather decisive in questioning the prestige of science and its authority. It was through these episodes that a critical discourse against the dominant scientific practices had been articulated. According to the author, this period, among other things, was characterized by conflicting expert testimony in the public sphere which brought forth all the ideological, political as well as the methodological difficulties concerning the discussions about knowledge claims. Furthermore, Agar
What will be attempted in this essay is more akin to the exploration of the career of the book itself. Almost axiomatically, the impressive publishing record of Structure (which, having sold almost two million copies, constitutes a unique case in the history of history or philosophy of science) cannot be understood solely with respect to the appeal the book may have had among professors and instructors in the humanities and social sciences, or its inclusion in the reading lists of undergraduate and graduate classes. Neither the ambivalence of some philosophers (and to a much lesser degree historians) of science, who stressed some merits of the book, nor of course the references in the early works on social constructivism, can explain its huge success. Thus, my argument will not be based on those who liked and who strongly criticized the book.
Such a phenomenon needs to be understood in terms of the public perception of Structure. In what follows, I shall attempt to explore the possibilities of correlating the book’s phenomenal success with various events that took place especially in the USA, but also in Britain and, to a lesser extent, continental Europe during the period 1962 to 1969, which is the period between the two editions of the book. Though the Cold War created an all-encompassing ideology and mentality, it may be instructive to note that during the same period there were serious deviations from this hegemonic ideology. During the Cold War era, there were a lot of events and initiatives whose theoretical articulation and practical repercussions clashed with the Cold War mentalities, seriously questioned the status-quo and attempted to propose different alternatives for many aspects of everyday life, be it in industrial production, scientific research, education, the role of women, the emancipation of black people, etc. During the 1960s and 1970s, a large number of scientists became seriously disillusioned with the ways in which science was practiced; they aired their varied criticisms and sought to formulate different alternatives. At the same time, many social and political events brought to the surface the deep grievances of the black community, as well as women and young people who were demanding these issues take center stage. A number of books, which I shall be discussing later on, argued persuasively for radical reorientations in a wide spectrum of academic disciplines, as well as in mainstream social and economic practices and, a few years after they appeared, became standard reading. It may not be unreasonable to argue that a book with such a suggestive title as Structure, and publicly perceived as a scathing criticism of the received view about philosophical issues associated with science and its history, could have become a reference point for many of those dissatisfied with the practices of the time.
In this paper I shall attempt to put forward such a plausibility argument (and it is, at best, a plausibility argument). Structure is a book that has been discussed and bought by many more people than its originally intended audience and in the process became a kind of cultural icon and a “must-read” for people with a wide range of interests. The book is one of the bestsellers of the twentieth century, as well as the most cited book in the humanities. Though the book appeared in the reading lists of courses on a wide variety of subjects, what happened exclusively within academia cannot be the only explanation for such a success.1
But what kind of book is Structure? There are, surely, arguments to classify it as a book on the philosophy of science, yet some prefer it as a book on historiography, while others consider it a precursor of the new sociological approaches to the history of science. Strictly speaking, the book does not “belong” to any of these categories. In this paper, the book will be regarded as a long essay about science, as a book perceived as having all the elements of philosophy, history and sociology of science, yet not written with the heavy terminology of these disciplines. It can surely be regarded, even by professionals, as a book that discusses what science “was all about.” For many, it was a book that was easy to understand; it emphasized the significance of collective work for the development of the sciences and, importantly, it discussed the grand scheme of things.
It may thus be worthwhile to distance oneself from dilemmas about the “true” nature of the book, and instead examine how the book has been perceived by the wide audience of people whose experiences as citizens made them realize, if only dimly, that perhaps the scientific enterprise was not as “innocent” and “straightforward” as generations of teachers have insisted. Thus, by distancing ourselves from the theoretical issues dealt with in the book and the subsequent reactions by philosophers and historians of science, and seeking to understand the social and ideological context within which such a book made its presence felt, we may gain additional insight into the success of the book. It may also help us to understand the social history of the book itself: not its influence within a rather narrow group of philosophers (and to some extent historians) of science, but the conditions within which the book became what it became.
My inclination is to think of the book as emerging twice: in 1962 (date of first publication) and in 1969 (date of second edition which included the epilogue/postscript).2 The book’s presence was felt among philosophers of science sometime between its first and second edition when the spokesman par excellence of the established order in philosophy launched an attack against Kuhn.
The Public Perception of Structure
When discussing such widely circulated books (and not only scholarly ones), one should always be aware of the difference between the character of the consensus among the specialists and experts about the merits of the book, and the social perception of the book. The two are not necessarily identical, and may not even be consistent with each other. The social perception of Structure has resulted from the complex mechanisms that shaped the circulation of knowledge about the book: the serious, and less serious, popularizations of the book led to an amazingly large number of people apparently knowing “something” about the book and having an “idea” of what the book was about, without having necessarily read the whole or even parts of the book. Scientific popularization is neither impervious to what is happening in the wider social context nor is it a process where every aspect of what is being popularized is carefully scrutinized by those who popularize it. The social perception of such books is the result of eclectic presentations and the ensuing discussions of what is projected in these books as being the “relevant” aspects of the subject matter. Hence, the public perception of such books appears to be tandem with various social and political prerogatives of the time, rather than exclusively academic or disciplinary ones. Indeed, in the period between the two editions of Structure, we do witness a number of such social and political and social prerogatives.
One of the best ways to get a feeling about the public perception of Structure is by looking at Kuhn himself. In his interview with John Hogan in 1991 for Scientific American,3 he reminds the interviewer that as he had often said he was “much fonder of my critics than my fans.” Kuhn recalled a student thanking him for telling “us about paradigms. Now that we know about them, we can get rid of them.” In one seminar, he experienced both students and the professor discussing “how [his] book denied truth and falsity.” And when Kuhn tried to explain that within the framework of a paradigm such concepts were, in fact, necessary for the scientists’ work, the professor intervened and told him “you do not know how radical this book is.” There were instances when things got out of control: “I get a lot of letters saying, ‘I’ve just read your book, and it’s transformed my life. I’m trying to start a revolution. Please help me,’ and accompanied by a book-length manuscript” (Horgan 2012).
In fact, it has been often noted by anyone who talked to Kuhn that he was greatly distressed by all those who opposed science, and especially in the 1960s, thought they had found an ally for “pure experience” in Structure. Kuhn himself had acknowledged that many people thought that science is nothing more than power politics, triggering strong reactions on his part. In addition to all the “misunderstandings” the public perception of his book brought about, another aspect of it made it particularly welcome to many who were becoming uneasy and critical with what had been going on around them, be it in science or politics. Though the notion of progress in the sciences was not free of problems, Kuhn had given it a rather intriguing twist. Science was surely progressing—it was changing—but it was not evolving toward the Truth. Hacking
Concerning the public perception of Structure, Kuhn himself was even more forthcoming in one of his interviews:
I mean, a lot of the early audience [for SSR] was social scientists ...I gradually realized that a lot of the response was coming from social scientists. I thought of the book as directed to philosophers. And I think not a lot of them read it, I think it was picked up much more widely than that [...] The sixties were the years of the student rebellions. And I was told at one point that, Kuhn and Marcuse
are the heroes at San Francisco State University. Here was the man who had written two books about revolutions, and students used to come to me: it’s “thank you for telling us about paradigms, now that we know what they are we can get along without them.” All seen as examples of oppression. And that wasn’t my point at all! I remember being invited to attend and talk to a seminar at Princeton organized by undergraduates during the times of troubles. And I kept saying, “But I didn’t say that! But I didn’t say that! But I didn’t say that!” And finally, a student of mine, or a student in the programme who would sort of help get me into this and had come along to listen said to the students, “You have to realize that in terms of what you are thinking of, this is a profoundly conservative book.” And it is, I mean, it was in the sense that I was trying to explain how it could be that the most rigid disciplines and the most authoritarian could also be the most creative. [...] So, it’s hard to say how I felt. I thought I was being, I want to say badly treated, badly misunderstood. And I didn’t like what most people were getting from the book [...]5
Throughout the 1970s and to a certain extent 1980s, the book met the fate of what Copernicus
[C]ollect hands, feet, a head, and other members from various places, all very fine in themselves, but not proportionate to one body, and no single one corresponding in its turn to the others, so that a monster rather than a man would be formed from them.6
The public perception of Structure and the way the catchword paradigm has been (ab)used may have had monstrous overtones for professional philosophers of science and for Kuhn himself.7 Nevertheless, the perception of the book by an impressively large audience as a book proposing alternative ways for science gained a dynamic of its own.
The book had the catchiest of titles. Every word triggered all kinds of connotations in the new realities being formed in the 1960s when science and revolutions were strongly present in the public discourse of, at least, the English-speaking world. Structure was less conspicuous in the public domain, yet its meanings and repercussions were strongly contested in the academic environments, at least in the French-speaking world.
The notion of “structure” or its more formal expression “structuralism” had a rather insistent presence in academia and had been a source of major re-orientations in various fields: linguistics, psychology, sociology, economics, literary criticism, architecture and, of course, anthropology have all had a rich history of discussions concerning the possibilities opened up by a structuralist approach to each discipline. Given the difficulties involved in defining such approaches, Simon Blackburn’s
Though structuralism was originally put forward in linguistics by Ferdinand de Saussure at the beginning of the twentieth century, it was the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss
During the period between the two editions of Structure, Noam Chomsky
Science was surely a structured set of beliefs, and logical positivism, so dear to the hearts of most practicing scientists, was a program to unfold the logical structure(s) of science. In 1961, a year before the appearance of Structure, Ernest Nagel’s
In the period between the two editions, the problematique concerning structuralism underwent a deep metamorphosis yet, at least in the USA, most of the repercussions of these discussions were basically confined to academia. It was what “happened” to the other two words in the title—science and revolution—that proved absolutely decisive for the book’s success.
The manifesto of Undercurrents: the magazine for radical science and the people’s technology, founded in 1972 and published in London, captured rather succinctly the climate of the times:
Science, we feel, has largely abandoned its original “quest for truth”—if the phrase today sounds naive, it is a measure of that abandonment. Undercurrents believes it is possible to evolve a ‘sadder but a wiser’ science, a science that is aware of its limitations as well as its strengths which will search the hitherto ignored areas of human experience for clues to more meaningful and relative synthesis than is dreamt of in our present philosophies.10
One can speculate that if such a manifesto had been written ten years earlier, it would have had almost no audience. The 1960s, however, witnessed serious cracks in the perception of science as a process of a continuous accumulation of new and useful knowledge to be exploited for the benefit of humanity. Many social phenomena appeared to be undermining such an image of science, with serious repercussions. The shocking effects of pesticides, the involvement of scientists in planning the atrocities of the Vietnam War, the renewed discussion (and in many cases application) of lobotomies as a means of containing violence, the energy crisis and the realization that there may be non-reversible environmental damage caused by humans slowly started to mar the image of science.
The first edition of Structure in 1962 coincided with the publication of Rachel Carson’s
Interestingly, such “cracks” in the image of science appeared within a context where success stories of science and technology continued. The reaction to Sputnik resulted in an appeal for more advances in science and technology, and in the 1960s, once TV sets had also invaded households, this flooded the public discourse. The hugely successful Apollo Program, which culminated with three astronauts landing on the moon in 1969, made not only the Americans re-live the triumph of the Manhattan Project. Though not as lethal in its connotations this triumph was equally forceful in the message it conveyed to the Soviet Union. The term “personal computer” seems to have been coined for the first time in 1962.12 The period between the two editions of Structure was the period of human organ transplants: it was the time when liver, lung, kidney and later, in 1967, heart transplants were successfully carried out on humans. In a different direction, William Masters
But, as we noted, all was not well. It was in 1962 that an article in the Washington Post by Morton Mintz
The case of the XYY chromosome and its connection to violent behavior was a particularly instructive case. After the unprecedented Watts Riots in Los Angeles in 1965, two publications in prestigious scientific journals—in Nature (December 1965) and in The Lancet (March 1966)—reported that in a study of 315 male patients in one of the special security hospitals for the developmentally disabled, nine of them were found to have the 47th chromosome.15 It was reported that these patients were taller than the average height of the other patients and the authors characterized them as being “aggressive and violent criminals.” In 1968, The Lancet and Science published the findings of Mary Telfer
The first comprehensive review article about the XYY syndrome was published by the end of 1968 in the Journal of Medical Genetics. The author was Michael Court Brown, director of the Medical Research Center Human Genetics Unit.17 The article reported no statistical differences when the chromosome surveys in prisons and hospitals for the developmentally disabled were compared to those of the population at large. Telfer’s
Perhaps no other incident in the 1960s showed in such a dramatic manner how “scientific findings,” social events, the hegemonic ideology and the mass media comprised such an integral whole. Though from the very beginning, the methodological flaws in this line of research were pretty clear, the amazing publicity it received from the “serious” scientific journals, newspapers and magazines showed that this kind of interrelationship was indicative of the less-than-objective nature of some scientific work. It can, of course, be claimed that all was well, since in the end the “bad science” of Tefler was exposed. But this was hardly the case. In 1974, psychologist John Money
Science—or, at least the scientific enterprise—did not by definition appear to be an undertaking pursued by virtuous individuals seeking objective results for the benefit of humanity. One needed many qualifications to reach such a conclusion. And though there had been similar worries in some scientific circles in the early 1950s concerning the build-up of nuclear weapons, the 1960s brought about a deeper sense of disappointment in the role of science to many more people. Increasingly, more and more scientists, students from a wide range of disciplines, intellectuals and of course, philosophers and historians of science were becoming very uneasy with the received view of science.
In less than ten years, Stanley Kubrick
In an altogether different framework, between 1965 and 1975, Berkeley physicist Geoffrey Chew
“Unhappiness” with the present state of science was also expressed from other quarters in rather extreme forms. After Timothy Leary
Apart from individual critical reactions to prevalent mainstream scientific practices in the late 1960s and early 1970s, three collective initiatives provided the medium for articulating a systematic criticism of many facets of scientific activities—especially those related to the war in Vietnam. Three journals, accompanied by three collectives, appeared at the beginning of 1970s. Radical Science Journal was based in the UK. Undercurrents, ‘the magazine of alternative science and technology’ was also published in England between 1972 and 1984, when it was merged into Resurgence: Science for the People which was based mainly in the USA. In the 1969 meeting of the American Physical Society, two well-known physicists Charlie Schwartz and Martin Perl led an initiative to get a resolution passed against the Vietnam War. Though this did not materialize, a group of physicists established a group called “Scientists and Engineers for Social and Political Action” (SESPA), which participated in the 1970 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The subsequent collective Science for the People became rather vocal in similar meetings and began to publish the journal.
It is interesting to note that the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science was founded in 1969 by a large number of well-known academics, including over 40 fellows of the Royal Society with the Nobel Laureate Maurice Wilkins
The creation of these three journals and the activities of the members of the collectives resulted in a sharpening of the critique of science, of its practices and, most notably, of the political implications of scientific research in some subject areas. Science and technocracy could not continue their march unscathed. The problems appeared more serious than “bad” applications of otherwise “good” science. The whole fabric of scientific activity, whether in the production of new knowledge or its applications, was perceived as needing serious readjustment. The postwar image of science and the ethos of those associated with its practices undermined the questionable status of the health and safety regulations of government or companies: the effects of pesticides, the laxity of government agencies in granting patents, the strong presence of pharmaceutical companies in research in university laboratories, the involvement of scientists in the war machine, the forum provided by prestigious journals for methodologically questionable scientific work, the dead end of “expensive” physics and even the attempts to escape the restraints dictated by dominant scientific practices. If left to their own devices, neither the scientists nor the government agencies and companies seemed able to achieve the virtuous effect going hand in hand with textbook narratives of what science and scientists should do for society. While in the long run it appeared that a democratic society had the means and the people to bring about at least a partial catharsis, by the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s the image of science had been severely tarnished.
If a number of events played a catalytic role for society at large to reflect on and re-appraise the development, practice, research and applications of science between the two editions of Structure, the same period witnessed a rather strong re-orientation concerning another word appearing in the title of the book. No one could ignore the references to revolutions in what was happening among students, hippies and the black community as well as in the colonies in Africa, the movements in Latin America, China and, of course, Vietnam. Neither citizens in general nor the intellectuals in particular were indifferent to this. Whether friend or foe of these actual or potential political and social upheavals, no one could afford to dismiss them as fleeting, transient and ephemeral situations. The word “revolution” was no longer associated solely with the threat from the Soviet Union, and society at large became used to hearing the term and discussing its implications. Much like “science,” “revolution” also became the talk of the town—admittedly a very large (global) town.
The completion of what was long considered as the paradigmatic revolution was heralded in 1962: the protracted uprising of the Algerians against the French, culminating in the declaration of their independence. In 1963, Hannah Arendt published her influential book On Revolution. Interestingly the most popular phase of the “revolutionary” Beatles coincides with the period between the editions of Structure: Their first hit Love me Do was released in 1962 and the band broke up in 1970, having recorded the song Revolution in 1968. Three years earlier, in 1965, Bob Dylan recorded Mr. Tambourine Man and his “revolutionary” album Highway 61 Revisited.
Another event with momentous repercussions was the Cultural Revolution in China, initiated by Mao Zedong himself in 1966 and lasting until 1976. Many scientists and scholars both in the USA and (Western) Europe were very sympathetic to the Cultural Revolution because, among other things, one of its aims was to create alternative sciences in agriculture and medicine.
In 1968, the expression “Green Revolution” was inaugurated for the first time, associating the word revolution with something whose beneficial repercussions were almost identical to utopian pronouncements. In the same year, the director of the United States Agency for International Development, William Gaud
1962 was also the year when a declaration known as the Port Huron Statement spelled out the principles and aims of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which would play an absolutely decisive role in many of the developments among American students and youth during the coming decade. The manifesto condemned the role of large corporations, blamed the government for poverty, reproached racism and called for a participatory democracy.
Last but not least, the years between the two editions witnessed one of the most tempestuous events in American history: the uprisings in black neighborhoods, especially those in Watts and Detroit. The Civil Rights Movement following Martin Luther King Jr.’s
The Watts riots (or rebellion) references what occurred in one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in Los Angeles in 1965. The arrest of a black motorist by a highway policeman sparked riots that lasted for six days and could not be contained, even after troops of the National Guard moved in. After a curfew was imposed and the riots subsided, there were thirty-four dead, a thousand injured and four thousand arrested. The investigation that followed found that the reasons for the riots were the abominable living conditions of the people living in the Watts neighborhood. The Watts riots and the following events in Detroit in 1967, which were brought about by essentially the same reasons as the Watts riots, resulted in even more casualties. These events became emblematic symbols for the most radical aspects of the Civil Rights Movement. The urban riots were at the beginning conveniently regarded as the expression of violent behavior by innately violent individuals. Yet, soon they came to symbolize the plight of the black community in the USA.
In fact, this was the same period when the Revolution(ary) became visible. The murder of Che Guevara in Bolivia in 1967 caused his image to be shown almost everywhere, also portraits in the famous iconoclast, Andy Warhol’s, pantheon. Graffiti, blouses, t-shirts and posters helped the image of revolution invade private spaces and become part of people’s appearances. For better or for worse, fewer and fewer people could afford to be indifferent about “The Revolution(ary).” Thus spurred by momentous world events in the period between the two editions of Structure, the word “revolution” became deeply entrenched in the public discourse.
The public discussions about Kuhn’s book outside the narrow circle of philosophers of science (since historians of science hardly participated in the discussions), its popularizations and the references to it, all took part in the context surrounding these events. Science was no longer something to be unconditionally worshipped. Between those who were uncritically talking about science and those who were inaugurating the anti-science movements, many people began to seek a third approach whose faint yet definite path was now becoming feasible. The same thing happened to revolution. Revolution was no longer a reference to characterize the birth of two “nations”: one in 1776, which personified everything that was (absolutely) good, and one in 1917, which personified everything that was (absolutely) bad. An alternative approach, with its excesses and contradictions, was also being articulated. Within such a framework, a book with such a title as Structure could hardly have gone unnoticed in the 1960s and 1970s. This does not go to say that all who were attracted to its title read it closely, nor do I imply that the title in itself is responsible for the book’s success. Surely, however, in the specific conditions of the period, such a title greatly helped the propagation of the book and increased the number of people who became acquainted with its contents through its many and varied popular expositions.
Kuhn’s book appeared in a period when, on one level, there were concerted efforts to normalize educational programs in accordance with the hegemonic Cold War mentality, and “prove” that the USA could do better things in space, in technology (as the famous Kitchen Debate between Nixon and Khrushchev showed during the opening of the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959), in cinema, in economy and in education. On another level, there was the formation of a multiplicity of viewpoints which, by the mid-1960s and throughout the 1970s, would strongly challenge established and long-cherished values and ideals, mainly in the USA and, then, in many European countries. The book appeared and slowly took off during a period of intense criticism of the ways in which science was produced, practiced and applied. The 1960s and 1970s became a period of both radical criticism of the sciences and of a search for alternative models concerning the production, practices and applications of science. Such discussions and controversies were not part of the anti-science trends of the 1960s. Quite the opposite: painstaking efforts were made to articulate a new paradigm, in education, in the ways that science was practiced and applied, in energy consumption and even in personal relationships. There was an overall feeling that American society was in search of a paradigm shift. A paradigm shift appeared to be the common aim of those who were critical of many aspects of the sciences and technology. Kuhn’s book, surely without its author’s blessings, became a kind of reference point for many people who were unsatisfied with the status quo.
It was a book with a specific title, which according to its popular accounts argued that there could be changes in the sciences, and not necessarily through only well-defined methods and rational undertakings. It that insisted the new paradigm could be incommensurable with the old; it had no difficulty catching the imagination of many people who were discontented and even disgruntled with both the way in which science was pursued and the ways that society was run.
It was not unreasonable for people who were frustrated with the social function of science to have thought that Structure could provide clues for an alternative approach, or that it would help them understand the reasons why so many things, at least in the sciences, went wrong. Since more and more people began to associate the book with the notion of paradigm change, it may have appeared that Structure—which in the minds of many was about science and scientists and not a strictly philosophical book—had the answers. Scientists could relate to the book in their everyday lives; students could find a critique of education. People participating in social movements (whether for civil rights, the running of the universities, pro-peace, “science for the people,” and so on) found justification to diverge from rational ways to change the status quo. Self-proclaimed revolutionaries considered the possibility of erasing old memories and starting a clean slate, regardless of whether these “readings” could hold when the contents of the book were analyzed in accordance with the rules of academic discussion. Society at large and its various sub-cultures do not always obey the rules of academia when perceiving and appropriating ideas expressed in books. It is these processes that “made” the book into a cultural artifact.
Books in Search of New “Paradigms”
I knew someone at Princeton, who congratulated me on avoiding being a guru. And she said I could so easily have been the Marshal McLuhan
The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of the Typographic Man by Marshall McLuhan
But the period between the two editions of Structure saw the publication of a number of books that have, since their publication, played a rather decisive role in raising public awareness by questioning some of the long held “untouchable” beliefs of Western societies.
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
Two other influential books were published in 1962. Given the context within which Milton Friedman’s
The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan
The Making of the English Working Class by E. P. Thompson
One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society by Herbert Marcuse
Unsafe at Any Speed Ralph Nader
Science and Survival by Barry Commoner
These books had a large circulation and almost all of them have since remained in various “100 most important books” lists, most notably that of Time magazine with its huge readership—independent of what the validity of such lists may be. Nevertheless, such lists are indicative of the public perception of these books and it is surely the case that these books have challenged dominant values, practices, policies and viewpoints, resonating with the demands expressed through many social issues of the period.
What I have discussed above is, of course, not an exhaustive list. Many other books of similar character, which were widely discussed yet perhaps not as catalytic as the ones mentioned, were published in the period between the two editions of Structure. The Age of Revolutions, the first book of a planned trilogy by Eric Hobsbaum, was published in 1962. Between 1964 and 1966, Richard Feynman’s lectures in physics, were published, bringing a totally new approach to undergraduate physics teaching. In 1963, the Letter from the Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King and the authorized version of Che Guevara’s Reminiscences were both published. Two iconoclastic books appeared in the next two years and found a very large readership. In 1964, Timothy Leary’s
For many people, Structure became part of this constellation of books that through their incisive criticism of various aspects of dominant values and practices were, in effect, putting the demand for a change of paradigm on the social and political agenda, whether in the role of women in society, economic development, technology, ideology or the writing of history.
During the period between the two editions of Structure, a number of social issues were publicly negotiated through books that, eventually, commanded large readerships and came to symbolize the new social movements and a new public consciousness. There was a deep metamorphosis in the public perception of the status of the black community, women, university students, America’s military might, the environment, industrial production, historiography and other aspects of social and academic life. The scathing criticism of the status quo and the search for new paradigms went hand in hand. These books became emblematic of the new era, and so did Structure. It described the past of the sciences and the structure of its revolutionary changes in ways that were perceived as homologous with whatever was happening “out there.”
More specifically, within such a framework an increasing number of scientists were becoming dissatisfied with the dominant trends in the social function of science, seeking alternative ways of organizing and applying science. Structure—independent of its philosophical problems—became some kind of reference point. To many it signified a critique of the traditional way science was viewed. Paradigm change implied that changes were indeed possible. Incommensurability meant that the “old” state of affairs would not linger on in the “new.” The importance of consensus around a paradigm that Structure claimed raised hopes about different practices if consensus could be achieved with respect to different values. The questioning of progress in science helped the discussion about the possibilities for other modes of social development. Though such a “neat” codification was surely unacceptable to professional philosophers, it did form a framework that provided some kind of theoretical justification to many of those who were frustrated with what was going on in both society at large and within the field of science.
Discussions among philosophers of science did not seem to deter a large number of people from considering the book as addressing many of the issues that were bothering them. Fuller has perceptively noted that
The appeal of SSR is founded on its ability to compel readers without demanding too much engagement in return. It is [a] narrative that is indefinitely adaptable to user’s wishes [...] certainly the book does not encourage deep reading [...] [it has a] non threatening prose style, which contains relatively little technical language invites the reader to participate in correcting its flaws and completing its argument. But this invitation is less to interpret than apply the text [...] a common thread that runs through the formal and informal comments people make about the book is that it is quite thin in their own field of expertise, but truly enlightening in some other field. (Fuller 2001, 31–32); (Reingold 1991, 389–409)
Indeed, Structure was many things to many people or (slightly) different things to different people. And such a characteristic was particularly “convenient” in the 1960s and 1970s for the success of the book.
The period between the two editions of Structure embraced many events that forced a reconceptualization of both revolution and science in the minds of an amazingly large number of people. The civil rights, student and anti-war movements brought the realities of uprisings very close to home, to which American society had seemed immune to more than a generation before. What was understood as happening in lands far from the US, in the mid-1960s became part of the everyday experience of American society. No one could afford indifference. Independent of whether Kuhn’s views were formed during the period when American educational exigencies were adapting to the Cold War, one cannot ignore the fact that at the same time, at the height of the Cold War, all kinds of new critical approaches to the ways the sciences were practiced started to play an increasingly important role. These events brought about deep divides and lasting changes within the scientific community. The sales figures of the book imply that eventually, Kuhn’s book was appropriated by an increasing number of people who wanted to bring forth changes in many aspects of American society.
It was during this very same period that the social perception of science and scientists, and the assessment of what these scientists were doing, became rather critical. If the sentiment in American society in the post war years was “in scientists we trust,” then this long-cherished unconditional trust in what the scientists were engaged in started to wane. It was not a question of scientists’ ethics; it was the crisis within the strong ties between science and democracy that many thought was irrevocably broken. A whole generation that was raised to believe that science and democracy were strongly correlated was realizing that neither science nor democracy was faring well.
This uneasy and confusing social context made Kuhn’s book a respectable choice for all those who had become disillusioned by the occurrences of the era, and despite its success stories, even in the sciences. Structure became a point of reference for those who wanted to understand what was happening in the chaotic developments which, in one way or another, touched them. For those with some scientific background and who felt that the old ways were over, Kuhn’s book, with its comprehensible philosophy and its history, which gave a sense of relevance, was, at least, a good starting point.
So we see that in the period when Kuhn’s book began its career, there was a deep political, social, institutional and ideological realignment among various groups of scientists. This brought all kinds of reactions, criticisms and, most importantly, a search for alternatives; a search of alternative ways of how to do science, what kind of science to do and how to apply it. Paradigm shift, though it used in a totally different way than Kuhn used it, became the “term” that unified the disgruntled. This is not to say that Kuhn and his book had a leftist or even a radical agenda. Nevertheless, how books and their ideas are appropriated in societies often has little to do with what the authors believe, or with what the expressed aims of the book actually are.
As I stressed at the beginning, the point of this essay is to give credence neither to the hypothesis that the phenomenal success of the book was not primarily due to the philosophical discussions it initiated, nor to the sympathetic views that some scientists expressed towards it, but rather because of the general social climate in the USA. In order to substantiate such a hypothesis, a number of events—especially those that directly or indirectly questioned the dominant views and practices of science—have been discussed to show how the demands or trends among many social groups in the USA appeared to resonate with the social perception of Kuhn’s book.
It is not inconceivable that the public reception of Structure was tinged with an aura of radicalism, since it was a book with such a “radical” title and it was, at the same time, criticized severely by the established philosophers of science. Thus, misreading this work in the 1960s and early 1970s should not be taken as a sign of collective inability to understand the details of the arguments in Structure, but rather as a way to appropriate a cluster of ideas which appeared to be in alliance with the ideas of all those who had become disillusioned with science and its practitioners.
I have tried to bring together a number of events whose beginnings can be traced in the period between the two editions of Structure—whether publishing enterprises or large-scale social and political movements—that strongly criticized many of the constitutive pillars of modern Western societies: the role of women, the status of black people, science, economic development, industrial production—and persuasively put forth alternatives. Neither the books nor the social movements were marginal events. The books and the discussions around social events generated ideas, proposals and practices that for sometime caught the imagination of a large number of citizens. The problem for discussion was the phenomenal success of the book or rather, the phenomenal sales figures of the book, which made it a unique—and only—success story on such a scale in the history of the history, and/or philosophy and/or sociology of science.
I have greatly benefited from comments by Theodore Arabatzis, Thanassis Lagios, Vasia Lekka, Grigoris Panoutsopoulos, Manolis Patiniotis and Ana Simões. I thank them all.
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