Kuhn and Scientific Realism

18 September 2006 at 11:07 am 4 comments

| David Gordon |

As Peter noted, Thomas Kuhn made an important point about the history of science. Established scientists often reject revolutionary theories, and these theories become dominant only when a new generation of scientists replaces the old guard. The new theories, Kuhn also thought, were not necessarily better in all respects than the ones they replaced; rather, they asked different questions.

Kuhn’s views influenced Murray Rothbard’s An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought. (Incidentally, this is my favorite of Rothbard’s books — it’s enormously learned and insightful.) Like Kuhn, Rothbard rejected the Whig view of science as continually progressing by small advances. Rather, he thought that knowledge could be lost. In his view, this is exactly what happened in the nineteenth century when Ricardian economics eclipsed the discoveries of the Spanish Scholastics and other subjectivists.

Rothbard differed sharply with Kuhn in one respect. Kuhn thought that one can’t say that a new “disciplinary matrix” or paradigm is a closer approximation to the truth than the view it replaced. Rothbard by contrast was a strong scientific realist. Austrian economics is not only a different theory from its Ricardian predecessor; it is true.

Kuhn’s relativist views depend on very controversial philosophical positions. He supported a strong version of “meaning holism”, in which the theoretical terms of a science can’t be independently defined. Also, observation is so theory-laden that advocates of different theories see the world differently. No neutral description of the world enables one to say that a theory is closer to the truth than its predecessor.

But is Kuhn correct? It seems counterintuitive to say that, because Newton and Einstein had different theories about space and time, they literally saw different worlds. There is no good reaon to accept Kuhn’s exaggerated claims. Two good criticisms of Kuhn’s views are D.C. Stove, Popper and After: Four Modern Irrationalists and Israel Scheffler, Science and Subjectivity.

Entry filed under: Austrian Economics, Former Guest Bloggers, Methods/Methodology/Theory of Science.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jung-Chin Shen  |  18 September 2006 at 11:43 am

    Interesting. I am not familiar with the three books you mentioned in the post, but the term “meaning holism” catches my eyes. According to my not-so-reliable memory (and my often misreading, see “M&O blocked” below), George Stigler criticizes Kuhn that he fails to operationalize the construct “paradigm”, so there is no way to empirically examine Kuhn’s argument about the progress of science. It is not surprising to hear Stigler uses Popper’s standard to evaluate Kuhn. But is it because Kuhn’s “meaning holism” approach so the operationalization of his construct becomes so difficult?

  • 2. Donald A. Coffin  |  18 September 2006 at 4:28 pm

    Someone, I forget who, wrote a paper arguing that Kuhn uses the term “paradigm” is a very large number of senses in “Structure” (a criticism whihc Kuhn conceded was accurate). And I’ve never read Kuhn as denying that there is objective truth, but only that all scientific knowledge is contingent.

  • 3. Jung-Chin Shen  |  19 September 2006 at 8:36 am

    Donald Coffin’s post reminds me that in an interview by The Economist(?) a couple of years ago Kuhn clearly says that he never denies the existence of objective truth.

  • 4. David Gordon  |  19 September 2006 at 8:55 am

    Kuhn doesn’t deny that objective truth exists. Also, he thinks that there are criteria that often enable us to say that one scientific theory is better than another. But he doesn’t think we can know that a theory more closely approaches the truth than its rivals.

    I think the essay on paradigms that Mr.Coffin has in mind is Margaret Masterman, “The Nature of a Paradigm”, in Lakatos and Musgrave, Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge.

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