Thomas Kuhn and the charge of irrationalism

For Christ’s sake, if I had my choice of having written the book or not having written it, I would choose to have written it. But there have certainly been aspects involving considerable upset about the response to it
Kuhn, cited by Horgan 2012.

This is the real challenge: not to insist that Kuhn be read as having a position (be it ‘relativist’ or otherwise) at all
Read 2012b:72.

The paper discusses Thomas Kuhn’s account of science and the dominant criticisms brought against it by the philosophers of science. The argument that Kuhn is an irrationalist will be put under scrutiny, showing that his critics have misunderstood the way Kuhn must be read: as a historian, not as a philosopher. Therefore, contrary to the argument put forward by the philosophers of science, Kuhn’s depiction of science is based on (satisficing) rationality. Through the use of a case study on the climate change debate, the aspects of science which Kuhn cannot account for will be underscored, namely the influence of economic and political contingencies upon scientific communities’ paradigm shift. In short, although Kuhn’s work resonates with the practices of scientific communities to an extent, his concepts fail to evaluate the importance of economic, political, social contexts at play in relation to the development of science.


Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions (hereafter ‘SSR’) is one of the most influential, but also controversial books on the philosophy of science of the past century, having arguably contributed to the downfall of positivism (Bird 2002:462). Kuhn is without doubt hard to ‘categorise’: in Reflections on My Critics he himself identifies two ‘Kuhns’: Kuhn1 is the real author of SSR, and Kuhn2 is the name given to the popularised Kuhnian ideas, which do not reflect real Kuhn’s views (Kuhn 1970a:231). By marking this distinction, he points to the fact that other scholars have largely misunderstood his work.

Kuhn’s comment also reveals an important distinction between the non-normative history of science and the normative philosophy of science, the latter relying on a methodological prescription (Kuhn 1970a:233). The normative approach is concerned with the best methodology for the discovery of knowledge (in philosophy), and the ethics to which scientific communities ascribe (in sociology). Although he asserts that he is not concerned with ‘rational reconstruction’ or with the ‘discovery of essentials’ (Kuhn 1970a:236), calling himself a historian of science, Kuhn nevertheless has been widely read as a philosopher and moralist (Barnes 1982:60) and criticised for his alleged irrationalist stance on science. These accusations and misinterpretations determined Kuhn to claim that he is not a ‘Kuhnian’, distancing himself from the theory which had emerged from his concepts.

To be more precise, Kuhn has been problematically (Read 2012b:31) called a relativist (Popper 1970:56); a constructivist similar to Putnam (Devitt 2009:148); naturalist (Kuukkanen 2010:552); transcendental nominalist (Hacking 1993:306); metaphysical anti-realist (Ghins 1998:48); anti-realist (Polsby 1998); realist (Ghins 1998:50), and even ‘a Wittgenstein of the sciences’ (Read 2012b:34). Politically, he is portrayed a conservative (Fuller 2000; Bird 2003:127; Walker 2010:445), or radical (Pinch 1997:473). For the purpose of the paper we shall look more closely at the claim that Kuhn’s theory of science is irrational.

After a more careful reading of Kuhn, one can state that he ‘would be better thought of as a methodologist than a philosophical theorist’ (Read 2012b:51; emphasis in original). Indeed, as his book is neither normative, nor fully descriptive, his work should be read as descriptive and prescriptive at once (Kuhn 1970a:237), entailing an observation of sciences, both from within and from outside of scientific circles. In short, his portrayal as an irrationalist is relative to the approach from which one analyses Kuhn’s oeuvre.

An account of Kuhn’s work
Firstly, what distinguishes science from non-science in Kuhn’s work is the existence of paradigms (Chalmers 1999:109). Theories which do not agree over their fundamentals are pre-paradigmatic, but this does not necessarily mean that they are meaningless. Every paradigm has a set of puzzles and methods which are applied by scientists trained to understand and use them – to an extent, uncritically. However, paradigms are not easy to define; according to Masterman, there are twenty one meanings of paradigm in Kuhn’s SSR (1970:61).

To be more precise, Kuhn regards the structure under which scientists work as a ‘paradigm’ which ‘is what the members of a scientific community, and they alone, share’ (Kuhn 1974:460). The relevance and success of paradigms are dependent upon the social factors of persuasion and conversion. In the process of becoming familiarised with a new paradigm, practitioners encounter ‘concrete problem-solutions’ called ‘exemplars’ which they seek to solve, learning about exemplary problems and becoming familiarised to the paradigm through practice (Kuhn 1970b:186-9). Anomalies and refutations, although not common to ‘normal science’, occur during puzzle-solving experiments and theories, but they do not necessarily create a crisis which requires a scientific revolution, as Popper argues (1970b:146). Normal science represents to him a consensus between scientists who do not question a former pre-paradigmatic science’s fundamentals (Walker 2010:435), but who work on exemplars through puzzle-solving. Within normal science, a crisis emerges only when enough scientists arrive to the same conclusion, namely that a scientific revolution is needed for a paradigm which offers a better representation of nature to replace the old one (1970b:206). When a scientific community changes a paradigm ‘we may want to say’ that the world of the community changes in the form of gestalt switch (1970b:111). In fact, however, the material world remains the same (1970b:129) but practitioners’ way of perceiving it and solving puzzles becomes adjusted.

An illustration of a paradigm shift: the duck-rabbit illusion

Sciences are organised within partially incommensurable paradigms (Kuhn 1970b:198). It is to be noted that Kuhn refutes the neo-positivist misconstruction of his incommensurability concept, claiming that he does not attempt to portray sciences as radically incommensurable based only on the incompatibility between discourses and concepts. He proposes instead a reconceptualisation of the notion of incommensurability understood as ‘methodological’, and not ‘taxonomic’ (De Langhe 2012:16). Kuhn recognises the possibility of translation and comparison of concepts and questions from a paradigm to another (Kuhn 2000b:34-5), and therefore incommensurability does not imply incomparability (Devitt 2001:144). It would be impossible for one to change a paradigm if they could not understand the logic and use of a different paradigm, thus the choice between paradigms becomes ‘circular’ (De Langhe 2012:17). Then, incommensurability is represented by the methodologies which are responsible for paradigms’ standards of judging rationality (De Langhe 2013a:401; 2012:18). It is Kuhn’s standards that are often explored by his critics, and thus it is now time to focus on the charge of irrationality against Kuhn.

Accusations of irrationality
There are three types of rationality associated with science: confirmationism, falsificationism –both being generally ahistorical (De Langhe 2012:14), perceiving scientific validity in terms of accumulation of knowledge- and the historicist ‘Kuhnian account’ which is a dialectical synthesis of the former two (Read 2012a:11-2). The irrationalist debate encompasses two aspects: whether he is a relativist or not (for making science historical) or whether he lacks a method that is deemed ‘rational’ (e.g. induction). These two issues are separate, but for the purpose of this paper we shall look at the former debate, which is counteracted by those who employ Kuhn’s ‘value-based’ response to “neo-positivists” (De Langhe 2013a:399).

Karl Popper is the post-positivist falsificationist who argues that science progresses by trial and error, conjectures and refutations (Chalmers 1999:60), assuming that science can reach closer to the unattainable, presumed truth of realism (Cruickshank 2009:14). Contrary to Popper, Kuhn argues that scientific progress is not linear, posing ‘the greatest challenge to the Popperian conception of the growth of scientific knowledge’ (Fetzer 1993:131). He refutes the idea that science is a search for truth (Fetzer 1993:160) and the claim of theory-truth correspondence (Kuhn 2000c:95), as science does not evolve towards the truth, but on the contrary, from the truth (Meynell 1975:80). He believes in an evolutionary depiction of science as a process ‘driven from behind, not pulled from ahead’ (Kuhn 2000c:96) but he argues that a theory or a paradigm works as a ‘normal’ science, and scientific revolutions do not occur as often as in Popper’s theory. For Popper, science starts with problems (Chalmers 1999:69), scientists’ motivation for problem-soling being moral (Cruickshank 2014). Therefore, when considering the historical advancement of science a paradox of falsificationism emerges: had all theories and sciences been refuted in the past, they would not have led to the advancement of science (Chalmers 1999:91). It is then apparent that falsificationism cannot account for the periods in which revolutions do not occur, and this is an instance when Kuhn’s theory of paradigms complements Popper’s too dynamic interpretation of science.

Popper’s normative evaluation of science and politics ought to be considered together, as they are both based on ethical and moral assumptions about fallibilism and openness to (self-)criticism, in support of ‘freedom from dogmatism’ (Gattei 2002:242-3) and in search for truth. Justification as ‘an irrational faith in reason’ cannot be based on reasonable arguments, says Popper (Popper, cited by Gattei 2002:246). This statement leads him to advocate for science as a falsifiable ethical exemplar (Cruickshank 2014:29) and for the moral dimension of critique, both deemed by him as objective. He assumes that scientists can always make ethical decisions, and consequently they can break out of frameworks at any time (Cruickshank 2014:25), but this view fails to illustrate the contingencies which restrict scientists’ ability to act freely. In other words, he prioritises ethical attitudes whilst claiming that his rationalism is not dogmatic (Gattei 2002:248) because it is based on critical reason (Omar 2012:38). Disagreeing with Kuhn’s account of normal science and accusing it of being unscientific and irrationalist (Barnes 1982:59), Kuhn’s ‘normal scientist’ is considered by Popper a victim of indoctrination (Popper 1970:53); for Popper, the scientist should operate as a ‘falsification agent’ (Omar 2012:35). Kuhn’s work completes Popper’s account of science by avoiding the utopian-liberal strain in the latter’s theory, albeit he is too optimistic about scientific communities’ freedom of choice.

Lakatos characterises Kuhn’s theory as a ‘matter for mob psychology’ (1970:178), considering that Kuhn’s scientists’ paradigm change is not a matter of logic (Fetzer 1993:132). He also criticises Kuhn for his lack of scientific standards to assess scientists’ rationality of choosing in periods of ‘crisis’ (Lakatos 1970:178). Following this point, he affirms that Kuhn’s scientists’ paradigm change is irrational, analogous to religious conversion. As Lakatos argues from the perspective of a post-positivist, his standard of analysis is set between inductivism and deductivism; he says that because Kuhn criticises both falsificationism and justificationism, he falls into irrationality and non-inductivism (Lakatos 1970:93; 178). However, Kuhn’s thought is much more complex and subtle than Lakatos gives it credit for. Kuhn does employ rationality in his writings, but it is one which does not fit within Lakatos’s framework. However, Lakatos is perhaps right to claim that in Kuhn’s work, the scientist is isolated from the world, crisis possibly appearing only in the ‘world of ideas’ (Lakatos 1970:179; emphasis in original).

Finally, Stove argues that all post-positivists (including Kuhn) are irrational because ‘deductivism is intrinsically a thesis of a deeply frivolous nature’ (Stove 2001:191), of irrationalist kind (Watkins 1985:259). Kuhn however rejects all charges of irrationality: ‘my critics respond to my views on this subject with charges of irrationality, relativism, and the defence of mob rule. These are all labels which I categorically reject’ (Kuhn 1970a:234). Thus, the answer to the question whether Kuhn is an irrationalist rests upon the way in which one defines rationality. If Kuhn’s way of writing about scientific revolutions and paradigms does not fulfil certain rationality criteria of either inductivism or deductivism, it does not mean that he is an irrationalist.

Paradigm choice and rationality in Kuhn’s thought
Different from falsificationism, Kuhn depicts science as more complex, contemporary science being not much closer to reality than ‘old’ science, thus undermining the logical empiricist research consensus of Kuhn’s time of writing (De Langhe 2013b:69) and post-positivist philosophy, as he considers science as a social institution (Read 2012b:85). Therefore, the history of rationality corresponds to the one of science. On the other hand, one can claim that as a historicist Kuhn overlooks the importance of alternative knowledge claims not recognised as ‘paradigms’ in the history of science.

Kuhn admits to be ‘in one sense’ a relativist, re-emphasising his rejection of the idea that sciences can be judged and compared according to an ‘approximation to the truth’ (Kuhn 1970a:265). In other words, he does not believe that sciences can be hierarchically positioned according to their ability to reveal the truth, so it is impossible for science to seek to reveal a unified, undeniable ‘truth’. One can further the argument by stating that if a science claims to have discovered the truth about nature, there would be no possibility or need for a scientific revolution or paradigm change. Truth, according to Kuhn, has only intra-theoretical applications (1970a:266), truth-claims being made within the ‘context of a given lexicon’ (Gattei 2002:250), and not outside of it – an openly relativist claim. Thus, he does not hold that there are only ‘conceptual incongruities’ between theories, but that after a revolution, terms change their meaning in subtle ways (Kuhn 1970a:266-7), whereas the ‘world’ changes like gestalt switch.

In his interpretation of ‘normal science’ as research within a framework (Kuhn 1970a:242) based upon ‘one or more past scientific achievements’ (1970b:10) he infers a certain form of rationality. The tenets of the rationality of science, according to him, are accuracy, consistency, simplicity, fruitfulness and scope (2002:422). Kuhn recognises the agency of scientists in choosing a paradigm, as there is a variability of judgement as to what is more important to an individual scientist (Kuhn 1970a:262) linked not only to the research they are involved in, but also to their education and professional initiation (1970a:275). He recognises both the subjective and objective, the individual and the shared factors in scientists’ decisions (2002:424). Then, scientists consider the criteria for choice according to their own algorithm, influencing a paradigm from within. Even if they all apply the same criteria to assess scientific paradigm, this does not guarantee a consensus of views (2002:424), argument which counteracts the positivist and realist beliefs in cumulative knowledge. His emphasis on individual desideratum, against the structuralist understanding of science clearly adds a deeper level of understanding to the workings of science. Rather than taking an inductivist or deductivist stance, he looks back in history and learns from the way in which science has developed, employing, as I will argue further, satisficing rationality (De Langhe 2012:12; 2013a:408).

One can say that confirmationism and falsificationism are based on optimising rationality (according to the means-end assumption), whilst Kuhn is more concerned with satisficing. In the 1950s’, Herbert Simon wrote about satisficing rationality as a ‘consequence of taking transaction costs into account’ (De Langhe 2012:19). In other words, instead of trying to find the best choice possible, the satisficing principle first evaluates the costs of further enquiries. Scientists only need to work within their paradigm, as the phenomena that do not ‘fit the box’ are irrelevant (Kuhn 1970b:24). Exemplars illustrate the validity of a paradigm, giving it more weight through replication and elaboration of a research programme (Read 2012a:12), or, on the contrary, by refuting it and producing a crisis. Satisficing rationality occurs because there can be no common view on ‘utility’, as the very disagreement between paradigms is about what ‘utility’ is (De Langhe 2013a:402). This satisficing model is appealing inasmuch as it can account for an understanding of aspiration standards (De Langhe 2013a:402-3), although it ignores the extent to which politics and power are factors which can construct satisfaction or standards.

Kuhn, however, does not only focus on the subjectivity of scientific communities in influencing scientific development. Arguing that Kuhn is not a relativist and irrationalist, Chalmers interestingly proposes a reconceptualization of Kuhn’s explanation of the development of science by recognising his presentation of both subjective and objective knowledge (1999:126). There is a distinction in Kuhn’s work between scientific communities (their sociology and psychology) and the objective comparability between paradigms; this comparability is to be done in a non-evaluative way. Furthermore, Kuhn acknowledges the existence of a non-essentialist, redundancy conception of truth (Kuhn 2000c:99) which represents the undisputable, shared knowledge between all scientists, without claiming to represent an alleged essence of reality. Knowledge therefore rests upon the intersubjective (Nickles 2003:60), minimal laws of logic which are a precondition of evaluations (Kuhn 2000c:96-99). It is apparent here that Kuhn’s theory is based on rationality: the satisficing approach is possible partly because of an objective comparability between paradigms.

Although Kuhn’s theory is insightful and revolutionary for its provision of a new way of conceiving knowledge-as-noncumulative (2000a:15), there are certain limitations in his work. He grants too much autonomy to the scientific community, isolating it from the social and political influences, regarding paradigm shifts as a consensus within a community, failing to problematise the idea of consensus itself, and idealising it instead. Even though he recognises the variability of judgement of individual scientists in choosing a theory, in order to be rational they have to commit to the rationality presented by Kuhn, otherwise consensus would not occur. This rationality is expected to emerge from their training to become scientists, argument which portrays scientists as apolitical, ahistorical and dogmatic.

Kuhn’s account is to an extent functionalist, as it only describes the workings of science, paradigms and scientific communities having their own internal logic and functions, neglecting extra-paradigmatic criteria for assessing science. It is the scientific community through which individual scientists have the ability of theory-choosing (Kuhn 1970a:238). According to this argument, the scientist is controlled by their community from the moment they license their membership in one, dogmatically following the structural impositions of a paradigm. Although Kuhn recognises that there is a distinction between the ‘progressive’ or ‘degenerative’ (Kuhn 1970a:239) criteria of paradigm choices, he does explain why this distinction happens in the first place. Furthermore, the assumption of a ‘social psychology’ of science (Kuhn 1970a:240) leads to an essentialisation of the identity of a scientist. ‘Normal’ science represents in Kuhn’s oeuvre the ideal-type of scientific communities (not of individuals, as he clearly states (1970a:240)), which ignores the social origins of scientific knowledge and how ‘that which we come to call knowledge is constituted and accepted’ (Knorr-Cetina 1983:116).

Indeed, the definition of rationality in Kuhn’s work remains underdeveloped, and the notion of paradigm insufficiently articulated (De Langhe 2013b:66), as he does not supply an adequate theory of structures and beliefs to show how they influence research. It follows, then, that Kuhn’s scientists are atomistic custodians of knowledge who adhere to a paradigm or a community to follow their purely curiosity-driven research, but they are also indoctrinated by their communities, and have little agency in making modifications to paradigms over certain periods of time: when a failure to solve a puzzle occurs, the blame is reflected on the scientist and not the paradigm (Kuhn 1970b:80). Although scientists do identify themselves as having affinities with particular research projects and paradigms, the underlying sociological causes for the formation of these very communities are less clear in Kuhn’s work. His dismissal of the possibility that ‘what passes for scientific knowledge becomes, then, simply the belief of the winners’ is unfortunate, accusing the statement of being ‘an example of deconstruction gone mad’ (1992:9). According to Kuhn, deconstructionists fail to consider the role of nature played in scientific research. It is therefore a matter of scrutiny whether his rationality addresses the causes and the social construction of the ‘costs’ of research projects.

The climate change debate
This section looks at the incommensurability of value between scientists who are part of the climate change debate, and the sociological context which shapes their attitude towards climate change. The climate change debate is an illustrative example which shows how Kuhn’s scientific development can be applied to competing and oppositional scientific programmes.

Both climate change advocates and climate change deniers accuse each other of being ideological (Tracy 2013; McKie 2010) pseudo-scientists. The former base their arguments around the need to protect human and non-human life and the environment, some even prescribing a threshold of pollution which can be afforded. On the other hand, climate change deniers regard economic growth as the standard for assessing the very ontological existence of climate change (Jacques 2006). From this analysis, an incommensurability of value (i.e. economic vs. environmental) can be traced. Although both groups claim to prioritise environmental issues, the value they attach to nature differs: climate change advocates and eco-centrists recognise the intrinsic value of nature (in other words, nature has value for its own sake), whereas climate change deniers consider nature in instrumental and (sometimes) inherent terms (assuming that nature has value inasmuch as it is useful and aesthetically pleasing to – some – humans) (Watson and Sharpe 2002:225). These values, when employed by the two scientific communities, affect the practices and outcomes of the two paradigms and ultimately the policies, behaviour and beliefs of societies.

Scientific debates are however not isolated from the ethical, social, economic and political world, private funding intervening in research agendas of universities and other organisations. Between 1997 and 2011 the Koch Brothers have provided $67 million to scientific groups which deny climate change (Greenpeace website). A causal relationship between this action and the rise of climate change scepticism in opinion polls has been documented (BBC 2010). It becomes clear that it is not enough to only assess the scientific evidence of the paradigms, but it is necessary to also deconstruct the meaning attached to the environment and the economy by the two paradigms. For instance, the success of the climate change paradigms depends also upon laypeople’s opinion, which itself can be influenced by political, economic and scientific bodies, process which can be explained sociologically. Kuhn rightly states that ‘the status of knowledge is in no way reduced when knowledge is seen as social’ (Kuhn 1983:30). Although Kuhn acknowledges, in passing, that sociological factors are significant (1983:29) and that incommensurability between paradigms is dependent upon the context and statements in which concepts are used (Read 2012:68), he does not focus enough on the effects of external factors upon scientific debates.

Governments work with environmental specialists, and the groups which can exercise more influence upon political decision-making bodies are economically powerful. It is then no surprise that policy measures and political debates on climate change reflect the rationality driven by ‘economic cultures’ (Knorr-Cetina 1991:105) of the paradigm which does less ‘harm’ to the economy, and not to the environment (Grundmann 2007:418). Thus, the ideological differences between scientists and scientists’ research play a crucial role in how they do science, as science has a political dimension: it is used and it affects the micro- and macro- politics of everyday life. For this reason, the similarity between Kuhn’s paradigms and Foucault’s ‘episteme’ is to be noted, with the additional comment that Foucault succeeds in further analysing the social and political dimensions of science.
It can be seen that a scientific theory is not a ‘logical system’ (Guerra, Capitelli and Longo 2012:22) independent of the social, economic and political phenomena. Furthermore, even within higher education institutions there are increasing threats to critical thinking and critical disciplines. Institutional pressure, audit cultures, paradigm mentalities and framework exercises such as the Research Excellence Framework (Holmwood 2011:13), and Research Council agendas are institutional advantages for the culture of managerialism which prevails within private and public institutions. All these factors have the potential of shaping paradigm choices: scientists who resist structural limitations and dominant paradigms can find their work discredited; anti-capitalist environmentalists and environmental activists are portrayed as idealists who fail to see the “real” needs of societies: economic growth (Foster 2013).

Consequently, radical environmentalists can be affected by the allegedly measurable ‘scientific impact’ which can sideline ‘pre-paradigmatic sciences’. In the REF representatives’ own words, the outcomes of this exercise are to ‘provide benchmarking information and establish reputational yardsticks’ (REF website), meaning that the economically ‘viable’ projects and institutions will be kept on the pedestal of scientific and marketing success for yet another seven-year period. In short, it is not only the conformity of scientists to work within a puzzle-solving paradigm which counts in the ‘normal science’ of the paradigms around climate change.

I argue that it is necessary to consider the social production of knowledge and the factors which contribute to influencing scientific communities. Consensus is not an agreement made by entirely objective individuals who employ the same rationality, especially when they adhere to different paradigms; rather, there are more factors involved within and outside of scientific communities. New paradigms emerge not only due to a programme’s success in puzzle-solving at the expense of another’s failure; the dialectical and ideal-type relationship between sciences in solving puzzles does not always occur. Political, institutional, economic and social contexts contribute to the shaping of social norms, the success of a paradigm, and how science is conducted. Although Kuhn does not oppose this argument, he fails to offer a more holistic explanation of how science works, as his preoccupation is more with analysing mainly the internal practice of ‘normal science’ practitioners within and between ideal-type communities.

To reiterate, Kuhn looks at the social conventions that Popper admits shape our perceptions, and which Kuhn calls them the ‘gestalt switch’ between the two (Kuhn 1970c:22). I have argued here that Kuhn is a rationalist, but his rationality does not give a complex enough account of science, as it does not address the extra-paradigmatic criteria for judging science. It does not mean, however, that Kuhn’s theory is to be entirely refuted: his critique of knowledge as cumulative, the idea of ‘normal’ science and his acknowledgement of the incommensurability between paradigms are indeed insightful as they can be illustrated in a variety of scientific settings and instances. It is important, then, that when one analyses the rationality behind theory choice and the success of certain paradigms, factors such as economic, social, political, historical, technological and environmental are taken into account, in order to avoid Kuhn’s functionalist and essentialist approach. Otherwise, the philosopher of science remains guilty of dehistoricising and depoliticising scientific research, which in no way represents a comprehensive account of the development of science. What is sure is that, agreeing with Kuhn that scientific revolutions require a change in the lexicon and concepts of paradigms, it is equally true that his contribution to the philosophy of science has revolutionised the way we conceive scientific development.


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