Kuhn vs. Popper by Steve Fuller, Part 1

In Kuhn vs. Popper, Steve Fuller discusses and compares the two most important philosophers of science in the 20th century; Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper. The book is not what I expected it to be (what I expected is not entirely clear, but that is not the point). The book as a broader view than I expected, for example, revisiting philosophers from Plato to contemporary and, to me, new names like Rorty, and shuffles over themes from theology to nazism. The broad view is indeed intentional and announced in the introduction:

This book is designed to recapture the full range of issues that separate these two self-styled defenders of science [Kuhn and Popper, of course].  Many of the issues plumb the depths of the Western psyche: What is the relationship beteween knowledge and power? Can science bring unity to knowledge? Can history bring meaning to life? At the same time, these issues are entangled in more secular concerns about economy and society, politics and war  most of which are still very much with us today [p. 3].*

While I cannot say I found every twist of the book equally interesting, it did help me understand the the ideas of Kuhn and Popper better than before and even correct things I got wrong. For one thing, I used to think of Popper as the normative and Kuhn as the descriptive; Fuller claims I was wrong:

It was not, as is often said, that Kuhn was more ‘descriptive’ and his rivals [the Popperians] more ‘prescriptive’ with respect to the history of science [p. 208].


Thomas Kuhn (1922 - 1996)

According to Fuller, the Popperians appeared ‘perversly contrarian’ to the public when they imposed a normative perspective on the history of science; to the public, science’s authority was self-evicent. Kuhn, on the other hand, ‘never articulated the norm’ he imposed when he selected and arranged the historical examples he used in his arguing (p. 209). In other words, one needs a rather good idea of the history of science in order to see and understand that Kuhn presents only the examples that fits with his theory; according to Fuller, hsitory is abound with examples less in accordance with Kuhn’s theory.

A thing I do not like about the book is that it is densely written, and in order to follow it, one need to at least be acquainted with the theories of Kuhn and Popper up front; Fuller only briefly summarizes the ideas. I find this surprising, as the cover is littered with acclaim from newspapers like the Economist and the Financial Times with the obvious purpose to attract the general reader. According to Fuller, this involved writing, presupposing knowledge of the issue at hand was a trademark of Popper, and, I’m afraid, many philosophers:

Popper and Adorno [another philosopher Popper locked horns with] shared the critic’s tendency [not entirely clear to me what ‘the critic’s tendency’ is supposed to point to here] to presuppose that the audience already knows the target of criticism in some detail, so that one’s own discourse becomes a series of reflections on the hidden opponent. This feature made it frustrating for listeners who sought  constructive advice on the conduct of social research [p. 154].

Frustrating indeed, do you listen, Fuller? (I guess not.)

Now, while flipping through the book, I realize I’ve underlined too many quotable passages and marked too many passages to address them all in one post. I will thus try to focus my opinion of this book in a later post; stay tuned.

* To be sure, page numbers refer to the Icon Books 2006 paperback edition.

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2 Responses to “Kuhn vs. Popper by Steve Fuller, Part 1”

  1. Kuhn vs. Popper by Steve Fuller, Part 2 « Kvams Says:

    […] 2? Take Two, rather (This is Take One). It surprises me how difficult it is to get to grips with this book, particularly given […]

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