THOMAS KUHN ON REVOLUTION AND PAUL FEYERABEND
BOOK VI - Page 3
Feyerabend on Theory Proliferation vs. Kuhn’s Consensus Paradigm
Feyerabend also criticizes Kuhn, and says that the doctrine of normal science is an ideology that Kuhn propagandizes among social scientists. His principal methodological criticism of Kuhn’s philosophy is that Kuhn’s theory cannot explain the transition from a monistic normal science to a pluralistic revolutionary science, since the impossibility of a semantically neutral observation language makes a plurality of alternative theories a precondition for the transition to be brought about. Feyerabend’s criticism of Kuhn is given in his “Consolations for the Specialist” in Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge.
Firstly Feyerabend notes that he and Kuhn had discussed their views while both were at the University of California at Berkeley. And he says that while he recognizes the problems that interest Kuhn, notably the omnipresence of anomalies, he is unable to agree with Kuhn’s theory of science, which he also calls an ideology. Feyerabend maintains that Kuhn’s ideology can give comfort only to the most narrow-minded and conceited kind of specialist, that it tends to inhibit the advancement of knowledge, and that it is responsible for such inhibiting tendencies in modern psychology and sociology. He elaborates on his view that Kuhn’s theory is an ideology: He states that Kuhn’s presentation contains an ambiguity between the descriptive and the prescriptive mode of presentation. As a result more than one social scientist has pointed out to him that after reading Kuhn’s book, he at last knows how to turn his field into a “science”. Feyerabend reports that the recipe that these social scientists have taken from Kuhn consists of such practices as restricting criticism, reducing the number of comprehensive theories to one, creating a normal science that has one theory as its paradigm, preventing students from speculating along different lines, and making more restless colleagues conform and do “serious work”.
He then asks whether or not Kuhn’s following among sociologists is an intended effect, whether it is Kuhn’s intention to provide an historical-scientific justification for sociologists’ need to identify with some group. In criticism of Kuhn, Feyerabend concludes that it is actually Kuhn’s intention to provide an ambiguity between the descriptive and the prescriptive modes of presentation, and that Kuhn wishes to exploit the propagandistic potentialities in this ambiguity. He says that Kuhn wants on the one hand to give solid, objective historical support to value judgments, which he and others regard as arbitrary and subjective, while on the other hand Kuhn also wants to leave himself a safe line of retreat. When those who dislike Kuhn’s implied derivation of values from facts object, Kuhn’s line of retreat consists of telling them that no such derivation can be made, and that the presentation is purely descriptive.
Secondly Feyerabend turns his criticism to Kuhn’s thesis as a descriptive account of science. The central thesis of his criticism of Kuhn is that the latter’s theory of science leaves unanswered the problem of how the transition from the monistic normal-science period to a pluralistic revolutionary period is brought about. Feyerabend notes that both he and Kuhn admit to what Feyerabend calls the methodological “principle of tenacity”, which he defines as the scientist’s selection from a number of theories one which promises in the particular scientist’s view to lead to the most fruitful results, and then sticking to the selected theory even if the anomalies it suffers are considerable.
He then asks how this principle can be defended, and how it is possible to change allegiance to paradigms in a manner consistent with it. He answers that the principle of tenacity is reasonable, because theories are capable of development and may eventually be able to accommodate the anomalies that their original versions were incapable of explaining. This is because relevant evidence depends not only upon the theory, but also upon other subjects, which are conventionally called “auxiliary sciences”. Such auxiliary sciences function as additional premises in the derivation of testable consequences, and these premises “infect” the observation language in which the testable consequences are expressed, thereby providing the very concepts in terms of which experimental results are expressed. But it happens that theories and their auxiliary sciences often develop out of phase, with the result that apparently refuting instances may turn out not to indicate that a new theory is doomed to failure, but instead may indicate only that it does not fit in at present with the rest of science.
Therefore scientists can tenaciously develop methods which permit them to retain their theories in the face of plain and unambiguously refuting facts, even if testable laws for the clash with facts are not immediately forthcoming. The significance of the principle of tenacity, the practice whereby scientists no longer use recalcitrant facts for removing a theory, is that a plurality of alternative theories can coexist in a science at any given time. This pluralism is strategic to Feyerabend, because in his view the fact that theory determines observation implies that theories are not compared with nature, but must be compared with other theories. Alternative theories function to accentuate the differences between one another, such that the principle of tenacity itself may eventually urge the elimination of a theory. Hence, if a change of paradigms is the function of normal science then one must be prepared to introduce alternatives to a given theory. Feyerabend notes that in fact Kuhn himself has described in detail the magnifying effect which alternatives have upon anomalies, and has explained how revolutions are brought about by such magnifications.
Thirdly Feyerabend therefore proposes a second methodological principle, the “principle of proliferation”, and he asks rhetorically, why not start proliferating theories at once, and why allow a purely normal science, as Kuhn conceives it, ever to come into existence? Feyerabend replies to his own rhetorical question about theory proliferation vs. normal-science consensus, and switches from a purely methodological perspective to an historical one.
Using his two methodological principles of tenacity and proliferation to examine the history of science, he maintains that normal science is a “big myth”. He argues that even though there are scientists who practice puzzle-solving normal science, there is no temporally separated periods of monistic normal science and pluralistic revolutionary science. He supports a view initially proposed by Imre Lakatos, a professor of logic at the University of London that the practices of tenacity and proliferation do not belong to successive periods in the history of science, but rather are always copresent. Feyerabend says that the interplay between tenacity and proliferation is an essential feature of the actual, historical development of science. It is not the puzzle-solving activity that is responsible for the growth of knowledge, but the active interplay of a plurality of tenaciously held views. It is the continuing intervention of new ideas and the attempts to secure for them a worthy place in the competition that leads to the overthrow of old and familiar paradigms.
Feyerabend furthermore maintains that revolutions are basically matters of appearance, and that during a revolution there is actually no profound structural change such as a transition from normal to extraordinary science as described by Kuhn. Thus, instead of advocating conformity to a monolithic consensus paradigm, as Kuhn does, Feyerabend issues what he calls a “plea for hedonism”, by which he means the continuing practice of the theory-proliferating principle of tenacity.
Feyerabend also took occasion to comment more favorably on Kuhn’s philosophy, and to relate Kuhn’s views to his own where they manifest similarities. One aspect of Kuhn’s philosophy that Feyerabend considers to be important is the concept of paradigm. Feyerabend says that Kuhn expanded on Wittgenstein’s criticism of the logical positivists’ emphasis on rules and formal aspects of language, and that Kuhn made this criticism more concrete. He also says that by introducing the notion of paradigm, Kuhn stated above all a problem. Kuhn explained that science depends on circumstances that are not described in the usual accounts, that do not occur in science textbooks, and that have to be identified in a roundabout way. However, most of Kuhn’s followers, especially in the social sciences, did not recognize the idea as a statement of a problem, but regarded Kuhn’s account as a presentation of a new and clear fact. Feyerabend maintains that by using the term “paradigm”, which is awaiting explication by research, as if explication had already been completed, social scientists started a new and most deplorable trend of loquacious illiteracy.
finds three noteworthy aspects in Kuhn’s treatment of the relations between different paradigms. (1) Different paradigms use sets of concepts that cannot be brought into the usual logical relations of inclusion, exclusion, or overlap, and that incommensurability is the natural consequence of identifying theories with paradigms or, as Feyerabend calls them, traditions. (2) Different paradigms make researchers see things differently, such that researchers in different paradigms not only have different concepts, but also have different perceptions. (3) Paradigms have different methods including intellectual as well as physical instruments for practicing research and evaluation results. Feyerabend says that it was a great advance to replace the idea of theory with the idea of paradigm, which includes dynamic aspects of science. He notes that his earlier work had principally been concerned only with the first of the three mentioned aspects, and then only with theories. As it happens, however, Kuhn later substituted “theory” for “paradigm”. Shapere’s criticism may explain why.
Shapere’s Criticism of Kuhn’s Concept of Paradigm
Dudley Shapere argues that Kuhn’s concept of paradigm is so vague as to be of questionable explanatory value, and he also rejects the relativism he finds in the concept of incommensurability. He wrote a critical review of Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions in the Philosophical Review (July 1964), and shortly later wrote a critique of the philosophies of both Kuhn and Feyerabend in “Meaning and Scientific Change” in Mind and Cosmos (ed. R.G. Colodny, 1966). Unlike the criticisms of Popper and Feyerabend that are principally directed at Kuhn’s new concept of the aim of science, Shapere’s criticism is directed at Kuhn’s semantical views, and particularly at Kuhn’s thesis of pre-articulate meaning set forth in the concept of paradigm.
Shapere finds particularly perplexing Kuhn’s thesis that paradigms cannot be formulated adequately or articulated completely. He objects that if all that can be said about paradigms and scientific development can and must be said only in terms of what are mere abstractions from paradigms, as Kuhn maintains, then it is difficult to see what is gained by appealing to the notion of a paradigm. He notes that in most of the cases that Kuhn discusses the articulated theory is doing the job that Kuhn assigns to the paradigm, yet in Kuhn’s thesis the theory is not the same as the paradigm.
Shapere says that Kuhn discusses the theory in these cases, because it is as near as he can get in words to the inexplicable paradigm. He therefore asks how can historians know that they agree in their identification of the paradigms in historical episodes, and so determine that the same paradigm persists through a long sequence of such episodes. Where, he asks, does one draw the line between different paradigms and different articulations of the same paradigms? On the one hand it is too easy to identify a paradigm, and on the other hand it is not easy to determine in a particular case what is supposed to have been the paradigm in that case. The inarticulate status of the paradigm makes individuation of the paradigm problematic.
Shapere concludes that in Kuhn’s theory anything that allows science to accomplish anything at all can be part of or otherwise somehow involved with a paradigm, with the result that the explanatory value of this concept of paradigm is suspect. He maintains that this idea of shared paradigms, which are purportedly behind historically observed common factors that guide scientific research for a period of years, appears to be guaranteed not so much by a close examination of actual historical cases, as by the breadth of definition of this term “paradigm”. He furthermore questions whether such paradigms even exist, since the existence of similarities among theories does not imply the existence of a common paradigm of which the similar theories are incomplete articulations. Shapere thus rejects what he calls the “mystique” of the single paradigm.
In addition to criticizing Kuhn’s concept of paradigm Shapere also criticizes the thesis of incommensurability. He maintains that Kuhn offers no clear analysis of meaning, and therefore no clear analysis of meaning change. The principal problem that he finds with the incommensurability thesis advocated both by Kuhn and by Feyerabend is that it destroys the possibility of comparing theories on any grounds whatsoever. He asks: if the incommensurable paradigms differ in all respects including the facts and the problem itself, then how can they disagree? Why do scientists accept one of them as better than the other? Neither Kuhn nor Feyerabend in Shapere’s view succeeds in providing any extratheoretical basis for comparing and for judging theories and paradigms. The result he says is historical relativism.
Shapere proposes a resolution. He notes that the thesis of incommensurability requires that two expressions or sets of expressions must either have precisely the same meaning or else they must be utterly and completely different. He proposes what he calls a “middle ground” by altering this rigid notion of meaning. He proposes that meanings may be similar, such that they may be comparable in some respects even as they are different in other respects, and thus may be said to have degrees of likeness and difference.
In “Reflections on My Critics” in Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge Kuhn replies to his critics. Firstly Kuhn distances himself from the sociologists. He states that in this matter he agrees with Popper; he says the received theories of sociology and psychology are “weak reeds” from which to weave a philosophy of science, and he adds that his own work no more relies on current sociological theory than does Popper’s. But he still maintains that his theory of science is intrinsically sociological, because whatever scientific progress may be, it is necessary to account for it by examining the nature of the scientific group, discovering what it values and what it disdains. Scientists must make decisions. They must decide what statements to make unfalsifiable by fiat and which ones will not be considered unfalsifiable. Using probability theory they must decide upon some probability threshold below which statistical evidence will be held to be inconsistent with theory. And they must decide when a research programme is progressive in spite of anomalies, and when it has become degenerative due to them.
He states that answers to such questions require a sociological type of analysis, because they are ideological commitments that scientists must share, if their enterprise is to be successful. So, the unit of investigation is not the individual scientist, but rather is the nonpathological, normal scientific group. He adds that while group behavior is affected decisively by the shared commitments, individuals will choose differently, due to their distinctive personalities, education, and prior patterns of professional research, and that these individual considerations are the province of individual psychology. And he adds that he agrees with Popper in rejecting any rôle for individual psychology in philosophy of science.
Secondly Kuhn addresses what Feyerabend called the ambiguity of presentation, the ambiguity between the descriptive and the prescriptive. He replies that his book should be read in both ways, because a theory of science that explains how and why science works must necessarily have implications for the way in which scientists should behave, if their enterprise is to flourish. He states that if some social scientists have gotten the idea that they can improve the status of their field by firstly legislating agreement on fundamentals and then turning to puzzle solving, they have misunderstood him. Kuhn states that maturity comes to those who know how to wait, because a field gains maturity when it has achieved a theory and technique that satisfy four conditions that he sets forth. (And it might be noted parenthetically that the practices recommended in Kuhn’s four conditions are quite different from the practices prevailing in contemporary academic sociology). Those four conditions are as follows:
(1) Popper’s demarcation criterion must apply, such that concrete predictions emerge from the practice of the field.
(2) Predictive success must be consistently achieved for some subclass of the phenomena considered by the field.
(3) The predictive technique must have roots in the theory, which explains the limited success, and which suggests means for improvement in both scope and precision.
(4) The improvement in predictive technique must be a challenging task demanding high talent and dedication.
Thirdly the statement of these four conditions leads to Kuhn’s defense of his normal-science thesis. He states that these conditions are tantamount to a good scientific theory, and he maintains that with such a theory in hand the time for criticism and theory proliferation has past. The scientist’s aim, then, is to extend the range and precision of the match between existing experiment and theory, and to eliminate conflicts both between the different theories employed in their work and between the ways in which a single theory is used in different applications. These are the types of puzzles that constitute the principal activity of normal science. And Kuhn says that the difference between him and Popper on this issue of criticism is only one of emphasis.
Fourthly Kuhn takes up the topic of semantic incommensurability that he used to explain the communication breakdown occurring during revolutionary science. And he also discusses the topics of irrationality in theory choice and of historical relativism that his critics find implied in the incommensurability thesis. His thesis is that the communication problem is not one of complete breakdown and that partial communication occurs. Nevertheless Kuhn maintains a version of the incommensurability thesis. He says that a point-by-point comparison of two successive theories demands a language into which at least the empirical consequences of both theories can be translated without loss or change, and he denies that there exists such a theory-independent, semantically neutral observation language that would enable such a comparison. He states that Popper’s basic statements function as if they have this neutral character, and he joins Feyerabend in stating that there is no neutral observation language, because in translating from one theory to another, the constituent words change their meanings and applicability in subtle ways.
But Kuhn adds that for him “incommensurable” does not mean “incomparable”, and in this respect he departs from Feyerabend’s incommensurability thesis. In Kuhn’s view the fact that translation exists, suggests that recourse is available to scientists who hold incommensurable theories. His explanation for the fact that communication is only partial and the fact that translation is difficult is given in terms of his concept of paradigm. The paradigm is pre-articulate knowledge that functions as an example that enables the scientist to recognize similar cases without having to articulate or to characterize the similarity relations explicitly in a generalization. He states that the practice of normal science depends on a learned ability to group objects and situations into similarity classes, which are “primitive” in the sense that the grouping of objects is done without supplying an answer to the question, “similar with respect to what?” In scientific revolutions some of the similarity relations change, such that objects, which are grouped in a set are regrouped into different subsets than before. The example given by Kuhn of grouped objects is the sun, the moon and the stars that were regrouped in the transition from the Ptolemaic to the Copernican celestial theory. As it happens Feyerabend does not consider the transition to the Copernican celestial theory to be a case of semantic incommensurability.
Kuhn states that partial communication occurs, because in such a redistribution of similarity sets two men whose discourse had previously proceeded with full understanding may suddenly find themselves responding to the same stimulus with incompatible descriptions or generalizations. He maintains that scientists experiencing communication breakdown can discover by continued discourse the areas where their disagreement occurs, and what the other person would see and say, when presented with a stimulus to which his visual and verbal response would be different. With his theses of partial communication and of incommensurability-with-comparability, Kuhn believes he can escape his critics’ claims that his views of theory choice are irrational and that he is an historical relativist. He still maintains that there is an element of conversion in theory choice, because in the absence of a semantically neutral observation language the choice of a new theory is a decision to adopt a different language, and to deploy it in a correspondingly different world.
In any debate over theory choice neither party has access to an argument that is compelling like logical or mathematical proofs. But their recourse to persuasion is for “good reasons”, such as accuracy, scope, simplicity, or fruitfulness. These good reasons are the group’s shared values, but not all scientists in the community apply these values in the same way. Consequently there will be variability that occasions revolutions. This is Kuhn’s answer to Feyerabend’s principal criticism: No principle of theory proliferation need be invoked to explain the transition to crisis and revolution, because unanimity of values will nonetheless produce the multiplicity of views that brings on the transition from normal to revolutionary science. Variability in the application of uniform values produces variability in theories during normal science.
Kuhn, Normal Science, and the Academic Sociologists
Feyerabend’s comments about sociologists’ uncritical embracing of Kuhn’s views are well founded. While Kuhn faced a veritable fusillade from philosophers of science, he was received with unrestrained euphoria by American academic sociologists. Monsieur Jourdain, the parvenu in Moliere’s comedy, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, had aspired to write prose, and was delightedly surprised, when he was told that he had been speaking prose for more than forty years without knowing anything about it.
Moliere’s play has its analogue in contemporary American academic sociology save for the absence of any comedy. The prevailing opinion among researchers in the more mature scientific professions is that sociology is merely a pretentious parvenu with a literature of platitudes expressed in jargon. Academic sociologists have longed to demonstrate the manifest scientific progress that the more mature scientific professions have routinely exhibited in their histories. Consequently like Monsieur Jordain, sociologists were delightedly surprised when Kuhn effectively told them that they have been theorizing about the conditions for scientific progress for years without knowing anything about it. Sociologists did not have to be told how to practice Kuhn’s doctrine of enforced consensus; it had long been an accepted practice endemic to their profession. They had only to be told that social conformism is a new philosophy of science that produces progress. Specifically they believed he had told them that his sociological thesis of normal science describes the conditions for the transition of social sciences from “preparadigm” status to “mature” status.
In several places in his writings Kuhn maintains that the social sciences are immature sciences, because they do not have consensus paradigms that enable them to pursue the puzzle-solving type of research that characterizes normal science. In his “Postscript” in Structure of Scientific Revolutions he states that the transition to maturity deserves fuller discussion from those who are concerned with the development of contemporary social science. Not coincidentally none were more concerned with such a transition than the professionally insecure and institutionally retarded sociologists. And ironically as the custodians and practitioners of the theory of consensus and conformity, none have thought themselves more professionally and institutionally suited for such discussion. Thus the paradox: notwithstanding the mediocrity of their own science’s accomplishments, sociologists deluded themselves into believing that they are experts in the practices of normal basic-scientific research.
Warren O. Hagstrom’s The Scientific Community (1965) represents a paradigmatic example of Kuhn’s influence on sociologists. This book written by a sociologist and referenced later by Kuhn in support of his own views, is a study of how the forces of socialization by professional education and of social control by colleagues within a scientific community, operate to produce conformity to scientific norms and values. The concepts of socialization and social control are as fundamental to sociology as the concepts of supply and demand are to economics. Just as Kuhn attributed institutional status to the prevailing paradigm, so too, Hagstrom identifies the norms and values of science with currently accepted substantive views, and he therefore says that substantive disputes in a scientific community are a type of “social disorganization”. “Disorganization” is as pejorative a term in sociology as “depression” is in economics. Hagstrom identifies his theory as a functionalist theory, and in functionalist sociological theory social disorganization is viewed as symptomatic of a pathological condition known as institutional disintegration.
Hagstrom mentions two types of social-control sanctions that operate in the scientific community to produce the requisite conformity to the norms and values. They are firstly refusal to publish papers in the professional journals and secondly denial of opportunity for occupational advancement such as tenure. Kuhn and Hagstrom are a mutual admiration society unto themselves. Hagstrom acknowledges Kuhn’s influence in his preface, and he references and quotes passages from Kuhn in several places in the book, particularly where Kuhn discusses professional education in mature sciences. And Kuhn in turn later references Hagstrom’s book in “Second Thoughts” and in the “Postscript” in support of his theses.
Kuhn’s influence on sociologists was manifested in the sociological journals also. Shortly after Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions there appeared a new sociological journal, Sociological Methods and Research. In a statement of policy reprinted in every issue for many years the editor states that the journal is devoted to sociology as a “cumulative” empirical science, and he describes the journal as one that is highly focused on the assessment of the scientific status of sociology. One of the distinctive characteristics of normal science in Kuhn’s theory is that it is cumulative, such that it can demonstrate progress.
In “Editorial Policies and Practices among Leading Journals in Four Scientific Fields” in Sociological Quarterly (1978) Janice M. Beyer reported her findings from a survey of the editors of several academic journals. These interesting findings reveal three significant differences between the editorial policies of the journals of the physics profession and those of the sociological profession. They are:
(1) the acceptance rate for papers submitted to sociological journals is thirteen percent, while the rate for physics journals is sixty-five percent;
(2) the percent of accepted papers requiring extensive revision and then resubmitted to referees is forty-three percent for sociological journals and twenty-two percent for physics journals; and
(3) the percent of accepted papers requiring no revision is ten percent for sociological journals and forty-six percent for physics journals.
The scientist who is not a sociologist may reasonably wonder whether sociologists are really as professionally ill-prepared to contribute to a professional scientific literature as these findings would indicate, or whether there is something Orwellian in this enforced practice of extensive revision of purportedly scientific findings as a condition for publication. In fact both conditions obtain.
But Beyer explains her findings in terms of Kuhn’s thesis of normal science, and attributes the reported differences in editorial practices to differences in paradigm development. She states that sciences having highly developed paradigms use “universalist” criteria for scientific criticism, which she defines as the belief that scientific judgments should be based on considerations of scientific merit, where “merit” in her text is described as conformity with a consensus paradigm. Understood in this manner, universalism is just an imposed conformism that is indifferent to the distinction between contrary evidence and the contrary opinions of author, editor and referees.
Ironically the outcome of the self-conscious attempt to make sociology a “mature” science practicing normal science with an enforced consensus paradigm was something quite different than what Kuhn’s philosophy had described. Kuhn’s philosophy described a consensus paradigm that is empirical, so that it can produce anomalies which initially are ignored, but which eventually accumulate and spawn revolutionary alternative theories. But as exhibited in Appendix II of BOOK VIII in this web site, what has actually happened is that sociologists impose social controls upon the members of their profession, in order to enforce conformity – not to an empirical theory, but to a philosophy of science, notably the German romantic philosophy introduced into American sociology by Talcott Parsons. This philosophy, which Parsons brought to Harvard University from the University of Heidelberg in Germany, where he was influenced by the views of Max Weber, was to supply the philosophical foundations for his “functionalist” sociology, or at least for his own variation on functionalism. Even though his functionalist sociology has now waned, Parson’s romantic philosophy with its social-psychological reductionism to “motivational analyses” continues to haunt American academic sociology.
Not only did the sociologists get things mixed up, when they adopted a philosophy instead of an empirical theory for their consensus paradigm, they furthermore got things backwards. While the natural sciences rejected positivism and then moved forward to the post-positivist philosophy of contemporary pragmatism, sociologists rejected positivism and then moved backward to the pre-positivist philosophy of romanticism. This contrast has its origins in the different histories of physics and sociology. Sociology is a new science with no noteworthy empirical accomplishments to supply its academic culture with precedent. Physics on the other hand has a long and glorious history of accomplishments; the historic scientific revolution started with the astronomy of Copernicus and was consummated with the celestial mechanics of Newton. When the twentieth-century revolutions in physics, namely relativity theory and quantum theory, revealed the inadequacies in the early positivism, the physicists did what they had previously found successful: they embraced the pragmatically more successful theory on the basis of its empirical test outcomes alone, rejected the semantics and ontology described by its predecessor, and attempted to cope with the anything-but-intuitive or commonsense semantical interpretation and ontology of the radically new physics. Furthermore in the twentieth century this practice had become sufficiently routine that the physicists were able to recognize and articulate these reactions.
It took the philosophers of science, however, decades to recognize the physicists’ practice of basic research by articulating the new systematic philosophy of language, which today defines the contemporary pragmatist philosophy. The contemporary pragmatist philosophy of science fundamentally differs from both positivism and romanticism, because both of these latter include semantical and ontological considerations in their criteria for scientific criticism. They differ between one another only about which types of ontology they will accept: the positivists (i.e., behaviorists) reject all “mentalism” in social and behavioral science, while the romantics require reference to subjective views and values. The contemporary pragmatists on the other hand subordinate all semantical and ontological commitments to the empirical adequacy of the scientific law or theory, a view now known as “scientific realism”, even if some such as Kuhn view empirical criticism to be less conclusively decidable than do earlier philosophers such as Popper. And the result of subordinating semantics and ontologies to the outcomes of empirical criticism is that the semantics and ontologies change as science develops. Science is indeed “subjectless”, as Popper said.
Ironically the philosophy of science that the contemporary sociologists impose upon their membership is not only anachronistic but is also at variance with the philosophy that Kuhn uses for his philosophical interpretation of the history and dynamics of science. The followers of Parsons accepted Weber’s verstehen concept of social science law, whereby empathetic plausibility that that they find makes theories “convincing” is the principal criterion for scientific criticism. Whatever one may think of Kuhn’s solution to the problem of scientific belief and the thesis of the consensus paradigm that constitutes his solution to this belief problem, the issue of freely ignoring empirical anomalies in normal science becomes moot, when there can be no empirical anomalies. The verstehen criterion reduces scientific criticism to what one or another particular critic finds intuitively acceptable, empathetically plausible, or otherwise comfortably familiar and “convincing”, however covert or idiosyncratic to the particular critic. It reduces criticism to quarrels about intuitions; empirically adequate work is rejected out of hand, if it doesn’t “make substantive sense” according to the intuition of the particular critic.
Sociologists’ institutional criterion may be contrasted with empirical criticism in modern physics. When modern physicists were confronted firstly with Einstein’s relativity theory and then with Heisenberg’s indeterminacy relations, their profession in each case decided to accept the new physics, because it is more empirically adequate in spite of the fact that it is anything but intuitively familiar or platitudinous. This is not possible even today in American academic sociology, and consequently sociologists can make no distinction between contrary empirical evidence and contrary intuitive opinion.
Parsons had never referenced Kuhn, and probably never read him; he had his own agenda for sociology long before Kuhn. The enforced consensus about Parson’s sociology may be explained in part by the appointment of Parsons to the presidency of the American Sociological Association (ASA). In his The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology (1970) the sociologist Alvin W. Gouldner, Max Weber Research Professor of Social Theory at Washington University, St. Louis, observed that Parsons used this position to influence the appointments to other executive positions in the ASA including most notably both the ASA’s Publications Committee and the position of editor of its American Sociological Review. Gouldner reports a “continuity-convergence ideology” that produced a blanketing mood of consensus that smothers intellectual criticism and innovation.
However, no conspiracy theory involving Parsons could adequately explain the sociologists’ willingness to adopt his distinctive “functionalist” sociology and its associated German romantic philosophy of science. The doctrinairism of the American sociological profession and its receptivity to Parson’s romanticism is firstly explained by the thesis of the functionalist sociological doctrine itself. The central thesis of his functionalist doctrine is that social controls producing conformity to a consensus of views and values explain the existence of social order in any group. And this in turn implies that failure to conform is dysfunctional in a pejorative sense of being disorderly even to the extent of threatening complete disintegration of the group. Advocates of Parsons’ functionalist sociology could not easily escape the inclination to apply these concepts to their own profession with Parsonsonian functionalism itself serving as the consensus view, and to persuade themselves that Kuhn’s theory of the development of empirical science is a logical extension of the Parsonsonian functionalist sociology. Thus contemporary academic sociologists not only believe that social conformity to a consensus paradigm in the scientific community functions to produce social order in the profession, thanks to Kuhn’s philosophy they also believe that it functions to produce scientific progress.
Secondly Kuhn’s theory made its appearance at an opportune time. Lundberg’s initially popular positivist program for American sociology had waned, because it never got beyond the stage of a programmatic proposal, and years earlier Parsons had launched his distinctive functionalist sociology from the prestigious platform provided by his faculty position as chairman of the sociology department at Harvard University. When Kuhn’s sociological thesis of progress in science appeared, the parvenu scientific profession seeking acceptance among the empirical sciences was predisposed to impose some progress-producing consensus paradigm. The outcome of this combination of Parsonsonian romanticism and Kuhnian “normal science” has been a chimerical science, a romantic “folk” sociology that is about as normal as the gothic caricature of science depicted by Shelley’s character, Victor Frankenstein – a romantic grotesque fully deserving the epitaph “American Gothic” sociology.
As it happens, American Gothic sociology seems to have become the appalling specter both to prospective sociology students and to sociology students’ prospective employers. In its Science and Engineering Doctorates the National Science Foundation (NSF) has released statistics revealing a thirty-nine percent decline in the number of doctoral degrees in sociology earned annually in the United States since 1976. This compares with a nearly seven percent growth in doctorates for all sciences during the same period. The NSF also reports that the median age of receipt of the doctorate in social science is between thirty-two and thirty-three years. And since the post-World War II “baby-boom” years of rising aggregate number of births did not end until 1961, it is clear that American academic sociology has been in decline during a period in which the pool of potential students has been rising. Thus sociology’s decline is not merely a demographic phenomenon circumstantial to the history of the profession. It is the result of a pathological condition intrinsic to the American sociological profession’s institutional values, normative standards, and research practices.
More recently in “Education for Unemployment” Margaret Wente reported in the Globe and Mail (15 May 2012) that there are currently three sociology graduates for every sociology job opening, and she concludes that sociology students have been “sold a bill of goods”. And later (1 January 2015) she lamented sociology professors who are fooled into thinking they might have a shot at the ever-shrinking tenure track, and who if successful will be “masters of pulp fiction”. For those who have gone into debt to earn the sociology Ph.D., the credential is a white elephant and the debt he is carrying is a dead horse. Any student who assumes heavy financial debt for a doctorate is tragically naïve.