Perspectives on Science 9.4 (2001) 371-372
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Reconsidering the Legacy of Thomas Kuhn;
Joseph C. Pitt
Thomas Kuhn was one of the towering figures of the twentieth century. His work was immensely influential, even if it was often misunderstood. With his passing, it seems appropriate to step back and give some thought to his intellectual legacy. It seems particularly appropriate to do this in Perspectives on Science, where he was a member of our Board of Advisory Editors.
In March 2000, a conference, "Reconsidering Thomas Kuhn," organized by Roger Ariew, Richard Burian, and Joseph Pitt, was held at Virginia Tech. The conference was funded by the Matchette Foundation, the College of Arts and Sciences, the Departments of Philosophy, History, and the Center for Science and Technology Studies at Virginia Tech. The purpose of the conference was to try to obtain some perspective on the influence of Kuhn's work. We were not so much interested in analyzing his various views as in understanding how they affected the ways in which we do and understand the history, philosophy and social studies of science. It was also the case that we did not presume to think that there could or even should be one final assessment of Kuhn's writings. As is the case with all major figures, the debate will continue for some time as to the meaning of what Kuhn said and how it affected various disciplines and the ordinary ways we think. The conclusions will also change over time, depending on a number of circumstances. What the final verdict, if there is such a thing, will be, cannot be predicted. Some of the papers in this issue were presented in an earlier form at that conference, some were not.
But one thing is certain. Unlike the ideas of many writers, some of Kuhn's ideas have entered our common way of thinking about thinking about the world. "Paradigm", "paradigm change", and "normal science" are expressions used by individuals who have never heard of Thomas Kuhn [End Page 371] and, if they have, may not have read his enormously influential The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), which raises some interesting questions in themselves about the importance of ideas and their diffusion.
For the time being Kuhn's legacy seems secure. But just what is that legacy? The papers in this issue do not pretend to give an overarching answer to that question, but they do bring the issue to the forefront and they raise some important questions. Hopefully, they will initiate a longer term discussion.
Joseph C. Pitt is Professor of Philosophy and Head of the Department of Philosophy at Virginia Tech. He recently published Thinking About Technology (Seven Bridges Press, 2000) and is co-editor of the forthcoming Production and Diffusion of Publish Choice (Blackwells, 2003). He is currently working on a new project concerning the role of innovative instrumentation in scientific change.