Science as Logic of Discovery: Examining Kuhn’s Critique of Popper

This essay will examine and critique Thomas Kuhn’s thesis in his article titled Logic of Discovery or Psychology of Research. To accomplish this I will summarize Kuhn’s thesis, identify key critical arguments made against Karl Popper, analyze these arguments, and critically evaluate the argument with supporting examples. Each of Kuhn’s arguments will be stated clearly and analyzed so that the evidence in favor for or against Kuhn’s claims becomes clear and distinct. I will then present an argument in favor of Kuhn’s criticism on Popper.

Thomas Kuhn states that he is “concerned with the dynamic process by which scientific knowledge is acquired rather than with the logical structure of the products of scientific research.” The aim for Kuhn is to identify and clarify the means in which theories are selected. Kuhn’s contention against Popper is that his use of univocal rhetoric is applied ambiguously to scientific descriptions and situations that Kuhn identifies as real contextual discrepancies. The central dilemma in the essay revolves around seriously mistaken generalizations committed by Sir Karl Popper.

Kuhn begins by presenting areas where Popper and he are in near identical agreement. He states “both of us reject the view that sciences progress by accretion; both emphasize instead the revolutionary process by which one theory is rejected and replaced by an incompatible one; and both deeply underscored the role played in this process by the older theory’s occasional failure to meet challenges proposed by logic, experiment, or observation.”  Kuhn continues on to highlight areas of mutual opposition that he shares with Sir Karl. “We both emphasize, for example, the intimate and inevitable entanglement of scientific observation with theory; we are correspondingly skeptical of efforts to produce any neutral observation language; and we both insist that scientists may properly aim to invent theories that explain observed phenomena and that do so in terms of real objects, whatever the latter phrase may mean.”

While Kuhn and Sir Karl Popper appeal to the same data and generally agree on most responses, there is a difference in gestalt that separates the two philosophers.  According to Kuhn, when making general locutionary descriptions Sir Karl Popper’s rhetoric indicates “symptomatic…contextual differences that…careful literal expression hides”. Kuhn’s intention is to bring the ambiguity to light and show where these differences expose major flaws in Sir Karl Popper’s position.

Kuhn points to an excerpt from Sir Karl Popper’s essay Logic of Scientific Discovery whereby Sir Karl writes, “A scientists, whether theorist of experimenter, puts forward statements, or systems of statements, and tests them step by step. In the field of empirical sciences, more particularly, he constructs hypotheses, or systems of theories, and tests them against experience by observation and experiment.”According to Kuhn, this statement raises three problems. Kuhn insists that Popper is ambiguous with the words “statements” or “theories” being systematically tested as a result of a “historically mistaken” generalization . In addition, Kuhn points out, the statement fails to account for demarcation characteristics of scientific practices that differentiate the sciences from non sciences.

The first problem Kuhn sees is that scientists conduct one type of testing to connect all “statements” or “hypothesis” to individual research dilemmas with the current theory’s body of knowledge. In this way Kuhn uses the words “puzzle solving” to refer to the process by which science practitioners posit “statements” or “hypotheses” and conduct tests in accordance to guidelines appropriated by a current theory. When an individual fails to progress the puzzle solving and inconsistencies arise in testing, Kuhn notes that the individual is castigated rather than the entire corpus of the current operating theory. Kuhn proposes that normal science operates its puzzle solving enterprise out of a paradigm in which a current theory prevails. As such, any normal science research inherently premises the laws or rules within the current theory of operation. This is a result of the internal presuppositions contained within a current theory which allow them to function as puzzle solving enterprises. Whereas an individual’s aim is to find a solution to a puzzle, it is the current theory which provides the ruling guidelines for carrying this out. This ensures that a puzzle solution is effectively guaranteed. In the event that a conclusion is challenged and fails testing, it is the individual science practitioner rather than the current theory that is criticized.

The second problem Kuhn addresses in the way in Sir Karl defines scientific growth as being achieved through the “revolutionary overthrow of an accepted theory and its replacement by a better one” rather than through accretion.  For Sir Karl, testing is necessary for exploring and pressing the bounds of a current theory until a “maximum strain” or tipping point achieves a crisis whereby a revolutionary episode occurs. Kuhn explains that such extraordinary occurrences are rare and that episodic crisis’s need not arise for revolutionary science to occur. Kuhn cites examples in which these revolutions are a result of previous crisis’s within the field or of existing competing theories gaining notable credibility in their puzzle solving enterprise.

Kuhn ends by suggesting that Sir Karl has inflated the role of normal science to encompass the “revolutionary parts” of science. That is, Sir Karl has incorrectly assigned normal science to include all the functions otherwise stipulated by revolutionary science. The ‘uninteresting’ role of normal science, as Kuhn describes it, is to identify points and develop practices of testing. Additionally, normal science cultivates the profession of scientists according to the conventional practices of the current theory. As a result, it is normal science rather than “extraordinary science” which fulfills the role of demarcation from non-science. Popper fails to identify the significant relationship between normal science and revolutionary science, and how the former inevitably lays ground for the latter.

Kuhn makes keen distinctions regarding the rhetorical language employed by Sir Karl. Popper’s use of a univocal language poses a difficulty when his philosophy is confronted by relativist thinkers such as Kuhn. While Sir Karl’s rhetoric certainly seems to be appropriately indicative of the black and white view he maintains for achieving scientific knowledge through strict criteria of falsification, he fails to account for the role that enculturation plays in humanities scientific agenda. In addition, such univocal approaches limit the scope and nature in which the inquiry of scientific activity can be addressed and force inaccurate generalizations.

Kuhn respectfully acknowledges the merits of Sir Karl’s criteria as necessary once a puzzle solving tradition has been established. However, Kuhn goes one step further and incorporates the role of socialization in establishing and maintaining these traditions. As a result, Popper’s language and philosophy becomes less clear and less effective in responding to Kuhn’s criticisms. The significance of Kuhn’s insights points to a lacunae otherwise obscured by Popper’s ambiguous language. This invites the expansion of discourse regarding theory choice and how science can proactively facilitate revolutions.

One contention I want to argue as a counter point to Kuhn is the potential possibility of a reduction in objectivity. Whereas Popper’s attention is turned more objective epistemic claims, Kuhn’s attention seems hinged more on the sociological and psychological features dictating scientific activity. While I am apt to agree that these components play a tremendous role, I am curious if this emphasis reduces science as pure objective knowledge to mere social contrivances. Acknowledging various incentive correlations between monetary investment and scientific discovery among individuals and institutions, what can we say about the value of these scientific discoveries? I am inclined to say that the scientific knowledge gleaned from these puzzle solving enterprises still maintain a respectable level of objective epistemic value. It is possible that the preservation of this value requires a determinate context in order to maintain its original utility.

Additionally, if a scientific puzzle solving enterprise eventually comes to an abrupt halt, either due to the exhaustion of possible puzzle solving combinations or physical limitations within observable phenomenon, what epistemic value does the scientific field maintain? Is it abandoned in favor of puzzle solving pursuits that simply tickle-our-fancy as creatures of curiosity? or can it retain value as an outdated yet pragmatic paradigm despite having no more puzzles? For example, what if the scientific advancement of physics allowed for a paradigm shift that consolidated chemical reactions into complex physical-atomic reactions, and rendered our previous understanding of chemistry obsolete? So long as there were no additional puzzles to solve within that paradigm, Kuhn, it would seem, would likely rule out chemistry as a science.

While Kuhn’s philosophy is much more comprehensive for explaining the various environmental, social and epistemic questions of science, objective epistemic truth seems to be too easily reducible to these factors. Popper’s philosophy seems to preserve a more stolid account of objective knowledge despite excellent criticisms by Kuhn and other’s.

Kuhn, Thomas (1977). The Essential Tension. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.