Caputo begins the next section regarding ‘paradigm shifts’ this way:
“First, Reason suffered a body blow from Heidegger’s hermeneutics in 1927, then a shot to the head from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (1951); finally there came the knockout punch from Thomas Kuhn’s landmark book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). Kuhn was a historian of science at Harvard and he brought us the now-common expression ‘paradigm shift’. The old Enlightenment went down for the count.”
What Kuhn did was humanize science and key in on the fact that science is done by people and people in historical, cultural, political, economic, and philosophical contexts. There was not some nebulous abstract thing called “science” that dropped from the sky. There were people who practiced a method within specific contexts and even the method was a result of philosophical presuppositions, which, again, were all contextual and historical. There is a story or narrative to science; there is an underlying philosophy—there are underlying presuppositions. And none of these are ‘scientific’ or empirical in and of themselves.
When Kuhn used the word ‘revolutions’ in his title he was drawing a link to political revolutions. As one can imagine, this did not sit well with the scientists of his day. Political revolutions are messy and while we might use many words to characterize them, ‘scientific’ is hardly one of them. Political revolutions are normally associated with people driven by passion, emotion, and such movements can be spontaneous, unruly, and even violent. Science, on the other hand, we have been told, is the cold, objective, dispassionate search for truth. It is the opposite of a political revolution. Caputo notes that Kuhn’s suggestion (that there are parallels) was so “scandalous that Kuhn was accused of turning science over to ‘mob psychology.’” Caputo goes on:
“[Kuhn’s] heresy was to defy the central dogma of modernity: that Reason is not to be confused with faith or feelings, and if it is, the result will be ‘irrational’. Science, Kuhn is saying, is of a more supple stuff. Rational and irrational are straitjackets…Kuhn’s hypothesis is that the state of scientific research at any given moment is organized around the prevailing paradigm, by which he meant an established set of scientific practices which the masters of the discipline have perfected, and in which apprentices in the trade are to be initiated, which regulated what he called the ‘normal’ state of scientific practice at the time…so a paradigm is like an interpretive framework or a language game; it supplies a stable matrix for particular practices.”
And these ‘paradigms’ are almost invisible in the sense that they make up just the ‘ways things are’ and the ‘way we do and understand things’. As anyone knows who reads this blog, these are what I often refer to as narratives. Everything that we do, in every area of life, is done and understood within some interpretive framework, narrative, or paradigm. Many people aren’t really even aware of this—they simply think their view of things is ‘common’ sense, ‘common’ knowledge and just true by its very convention and wide acceptance (which usually just means acceptance amongst their peers or in-group). We all know when we run into these people because the only form of argument or reasoning they seem capable of is question-begging. Until the postmodern shift began to take place, the Enlightenment/modernity was the prevailing paradigm for certainly, at least, the educated classes. But much of it was even the reigning view of the street, or of those with no college education. The prevailing paradigm seeps into and filters down until it fills all the crevices and cracks of life. So Kuhn noted that scientists are not immune to this too—this working and understanding within a paradigm or narrative. They work within the bounds of the paradigm. Caputo:
“This is to be distinguished from times of scientific ‘crisis’, which occasion holistic or revolutionary shifts in the entire framework of assumptions that govern the existing paradigm. We see this in the profound conceptual shifts—or shocks—delivered by Copernicus, Newton, Darwin and Einstein (a list of what Hegel might have described as the world spirits of science!)…In 2012, Fabiola Gianotti, a CERN physicist who was part of the team that had confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson particle that year, said that the discovery of this particle actually achieved two results: ‘One is to give [and explanation for how particles acquire] mass. The other is to prevent the standard model from going bananas.’ This is a good way to formulate Kuhn’s notion of normal science. Scientists do not like bananas. They do not want and cannot tolerate having the current paradigm going bananas.”
But of course, sometimes things do go bananas. Sometimes there is an ‘event’—something so intractable—that everything before it is now called into question. Does that mean that everything the former paradigm held was false? Of course not. Newton was correct about many things. Einstein’s theories didn’t mean Newton’s laws or formulations were false. But we know we can never go back to a world understood only in a Newtonian fashion. The world changed after Einstein just like it changed after Copernicus—or rather, we should say that we all changed, our perspective changed. Paradigm’s shifted. Caputo:
“The crucial point to grasp for the idea of truth is that paradigm shifts can happen anywhere. Luther precipitated a comparable crisis in theology, Picasso in painting, Cantor in mathematics, and on and on. Human practices do not divide into rational (science) and irrational (everything else), but are each marked by a distinction between normal and revolutionary that cuts across them all.”
Kuhn was just bringing this aspect to science in general. He was noting the value- ‘laden’- ness of science and how it is practiced. Again, he was bringing the emotional, human-side, into how science is moved forward and how it changes. But for those who thought its precepts and presuppositions handed down on stone tablets, it was like a fundamentalist hearing that the Bible changes—or truth changes. But of course that wasn’t Kuhn’s point. The truth was already there, but we couldn’t “see” it because the current paradigm limited what it was possible to “see” to begin with. Once we shifted, we saw what was already there—we saw possibilities hidden to us before. Caputo:
“My heroes are heretics and whenever I encounter orthodox dogmatic theology I suspect the worst. So Kuhn is a hero for me because he was guilty of high heresy against the Enlightenment. The furious reaction he elicited would have been worthy of the Inquisition. After Kuhn, everything was different, not because everyone became a Kuhnian—then Kuhnianism would become the orthodox theology—but because he had dared enter the very citadel of ‘reason’, the physical sciences, and violate the purity of the goddess, Rationality. After Kuhn one ignored the concrete historical situation of the working scientist only at one’s peril. Kuhn himself represented a kind of event or paradigm shift, a shock in his own right. The passionate reaction against him by the Enlightenment rationalists, stampeded by their fear of relativism, served perfectly to confirm what he was saying—that science is deeply embedded in a passionate search. Passion is why anybody would care about science to begin with…after Kuhn, we began to think about science and scientists in ways that were more historically concrete (Hegel), existential (Kierkegaard), passionate (Nietzsche) and interpretive (Heidegger), all because of the event.”
So there was have the three aspects, the three legged stool of hermeneutics, language games, and paradigm shifts. Those three make up and inform what we call postmodernity—the postmodern rests upon those three aspects. We will no doubt (in fact many already talk about the end or death of postmodernism) move on from the postmodern, but there is no going back. We will never go back to an Enlightenment/modernity just as sure we will never go back to a purely Newtonian understanding of the universe. And there can be no serious discussion of scientific theories or discussions in any significant area of life and discipline that doesn’t take the postmodern (and these aspects) into consideration. One has to deal with Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Kuhn to even attempt a serious discussion of modernity and postmodernity. To dismiss the postmodern, out of hand, without doing the work, without knowing how we arrived here, is simply showing one’s ignorance and is a non-starter.
With our next post, we will begin the last chapter of Caputo’s book.