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Thomas Kuhn's Cottage
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Thomas Kuhn's Cottage

Books reviewed in this essay:

Fred d'Agostino, Naturalizing Epistemology: Thomas Kuhn and the Essential Tension (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010)

Edwin H.-C. Hung, Beyond Kuhn: Scientific Explanation, Theory Structure, Incommensurability and Physical Necessity (Hants: Ashgate, 2006)

Hanne Andersen, Peter Barker, and Xiang Chen, The Cognitive Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)

Forty-eight years after the publication of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, fourteen since the death of its author, Thomas S. Kuhn, and ten since the publication of the posthumous Road Since Structure (2000), the Kuhn cottage industry continues to produce. In preparing this essay review I read eight monographs published in the last five years, all explicitly about or inspired by Kuhn's history and philosophy of science, before settling on three I found representative of the dominant themes: the sociality of the scientific enterprise; the structure of scientific theories; and the cognitive content of scientific knowledge. No one familiar with recent trends in this cottage industry will be surprised to hear that there was not a single historical monograph in the bunch. It is interesting that this is so unsurprising, a fact to which I shall return later.

Fred d'Agostino's Naturalizing Epistemology: Thomas Kuhn and the 'Essential Tension' is the latest of several books in which this philosopher extends what he calls the "practical turn" (2) in contemporary epistemology—or more specifically, in Steve-Fuller-style social epistemology. It is included in this review because of the importance the author ascribes to Kuhn as a [End Page 369] pioneering figure in social epistemology, a status he traces back to the 1959 paper, "The Essential Tension: Tradition and Innovation in Scientific Research" (Kuhn 1977) and cemented by Structure and the road since.

Kuhn's original "essential tension" was strung between two conflicting yet complementary impulses in scientific enquiry: the traditional, conservative impulse to stick with time-tested solutions to familiar problems, and the innovative, risk-taking impulse to devote resources to new, untried solutions to unfamiliar problems. Whereas in the body of his 1959 essay Kuhn seems to have imagined this tension as instantiated within the mind of the individual scientist, who "must simultaneously display the characteristics of the traditionalist and the iconoclast," in a footnote he added, "strictly speaking, it is the professional group rather than the individual scientists that must display both these characteristics simultaneously … Within the group some individuals may be more traditionalistic, others more iconoclastic, and their contributions may differ accordingly" (Kuhn 1977, 227–228; d'Agostino 2010, 12). Successful science thus requires the distribution of risk-taking strategies through the community, what d'Agostino calls risk-spreading, further articulated in the Postscript to the second edition of Structure. Risk-spreading, in turn, requires both tradition and its iconoclasts. In d'Agostino's view, "Kuhn's collectivist approach to this tension has … brilliantly pointed the way toward a self-consciously social approach to epistemology."

But the real subject of d'Agostino's book is a second essential tension, a tension between the potential epistemic benefits of collective enquiry, as recognized by Kuhn, and the actual tendency of many sorts of group organization to foster conformity, stifling most kinds of beneficial risk-taking entirely. The potential benefits provide incentives toward the organization of collective efforts; but in practice, as empirical studies have shown, the resulting group structures frequently inhibit the very benefits (the "assembly bonus") they were meant to attain. That science has nonetheless often given rise to groups capable of realizing the assembly bonus is clear; how it does so is less clear. The later chapters of d'Agostino's book suggest a range of possible answers, some of which may point the way toward the assembly bonus of collective scientific enquiry to be realized in other kinds of social practice. We can hope.

While d'Agostino's study is wholly devoted to the collective aspect of the scientific enterprise, this facet of the Kuhnian legacy all but disappears in Edwin H.-C. Hung's Beyond Kuhn. It is not that Hung denies the existence or the importance of scientific communities, only that in reading the book it is possible to...