University of Cambridge > > Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science > Kuhn's education: Wittgenstein, pedagogy, and the road to structure

Kuhn's education: Wittgenstein, pedagogy, and the road to structure

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The theoretical edifice of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions rests on a very particular – and peculiar – account of what is involved in learning a theory by example. Normal science, anomaly, crisis, revolution, even the paradigm itself – each of these mechanisms driving scientific development can operate in the way that Kuhn suggests only insofar as theories and their applications are learned, not as sets of explicit rules or operational algorithms, but instead from a concrete and finite range of model puzzle solutions enshrined in textbooks and laboratory or classroom demonstrations. What is peculiar about this account of the learning of scientific theory through practical modes of instruction is that, despite the recent flourishing of historical studies in science pedagogy – many of which take Kuhn as their lodestone – few of Structure’s innumerable exegetes have noted how philosophically undermotivated and historiographically unsubstantiated the treatment of this topic is in Kuhn’s book. We see this most clearly in the chapter that presents the nerve of Kuhn’s argument about how normal science can function without collective agreement on rules: Chapter V – The Priority of Paradigms.

Drawing on Kuhn’s unpublished papers, I show that the all-important Chapter V – and Kuhn’s repudiation of rules in favour of paradigms – were very late additions to Structure. This apparently minor revision in the drafting process is illuminating in several respects. Kuhn’s enthusiastic endorsement of Wittgenstein’s discussion of an agent’s learning of words through exposure to finite sets of applications (with the implication that a family resemblance or overlap between speakers’ model examples of the application of a term would be enough to secure common meaning in the absence of rules) reflected the growing influence of the Philosophical Investigations on American philosophy and the human sciences in the 1960s. Importantly, however, Kuhn’s appeal to Wittgenstein was at variance with the sceptical surmises that colleagues such as Stanley Cavell took from the Investigations. Even more significant was Kuhn’s near total neglect of the historical study of the textbooks and pedagogical regimes that underpinned both normal and revolutionary science. Here I argue that Kuhn’s elaborate appeal to the idea of learning by example – in the absence of any systematic historical study of science pedagogy – can be explained by his acculturation in case-based pedagogy and the theory of general education at Harvard University during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Thus the hastily patched together remarks on Wittgenstein and training regimes in Structure’s Chapter V are, so I will claim, the shadow cast by Kuhn’s formative engagement with the case method at Harvard University.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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