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Popper vs. Kuhn, reconstrued by Mayo

Popper versus Kuhn, reconstrued by Mayo

In July 1965, a number of philosophers of science in the Great Britain (around Popper) organized a colloquium, and one of its major events was a symposium on "Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge". The main speaker was Thomas Kuhn, and the stage for his confrontation with Popper was thus prepared. The proceedings of this colloquium appeared in 1970 as a book edited by Lakatos and Musgrave, Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, Cambridge University Press. Kuhn contributed a paper, "Logic of Discovery or Psychology of Research?" (Kuhn 1970), in this volume.

A famous Japanese writer likened this symposium to the tribunal where Kuhn was accused of a "murder of science" (a funny metaphor, to say the least!), but his exposition of this symposium is not particularly illuminating (see Keiichi Noe, Kuhn, Kodansha, 1998, pp.197-238; he just repeats what we already know, with much sympathy with Kuhn). Deborah Mayo, on the other hand, wrote a quite illuminating review of the same confrontation, and figured out her own constructive view in her Error and the Growth of Experimental Knowledge (ch.2, Univ. Chicago Press, 1996).

... Kuhn finds that he and Popper are separated by a "gestalt switch". Popper views the overthrowing and replacement of scientific theories as the main engine of scientific growth. ... Kuhn views such revolutionary changes as extraordinary events radically different from the "normal" scientific tasks of "puzzle solving"---extending, applying, and articulating theories. Moreover, the growth of scientific knowledge, for Kuhn, is to be found in nonrevolutionary or normal science.

I find Kuhnian normal science to be far more fruitful. It is here that one may discover the elements of Kuhn's story that are most "bang on", most true to scientific practice; and the enlightenment offered by the Kuhn-Popper comparison suggests a new way of developing those elements. (Mayo 1996, 22-23)

All right. What sort of elemnets does Mayo find worthwhile? She mentions the following three:

(1) "it is normal science, in which Sir Karl's sort of testing does not occur, rather than extraordinary science which most nearly distinguishes science from other enterprises." [quotation from Kuhn 1970, 6]
(2) "It is precisely the abandonment of critical discourse that marks the transition to a science". [Kuhn 1970, 6]
(3) "Severity of test-criteria is simply one side of the coin whose other face is a puzzle-solving tradition". [Kuhn 1970, 7]

However, we have to be careful about some of the key words: (the abandonment of) critical discourse, puzzle solving. Kuhn means by "critical discouse" (in this context) the Popperian way of trying to falsify the main theory at hand, by "severe tests" and "criticisms"; the "severity" is understood in terms of the degree of falsifiability of the theory (which Popper does not quite succeed in spelling out), and according to Popper, we should never take the main theory for granted. On the other hand, Kuhn's notion of "puzzle solving" assumes the main theory or background theories, and scientists engaged in puzzle solving take them for granted, not testing or criticizing them. However, they do share common standards for telling whether their proposed "solutions" are correct or not. And Mayo is suggesting (following Kuhn's clue) that the "severity of test" makes sense only in this context, not in the Popperian context; moreover, Mayo claims the criteria for such testing are shared among practioners of different research tranditions (or Kuhnian paradigms), and knowledge from such puzzle solving can remain and grow, despite changes in the main theory or background theories.

It would be a good exercise (I mean, for you, boys and girls!) to spell out where Mayo agrees with Popper or Kuhn, and where she disagrees with them.

For more on Mayo's analysis and Mayo's own view, see her book (which is not as easy to read as Noe's book or Kuhn's books!). Without a bit of tough-mindedness, it is impossible to study the philosophy of science!

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Last modified April 11, 2002. (c) Soshichi Uchii