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History of Political Economy 35.3 (2003) 566-569

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Thomas Kuhn: A Philosophical History for Our Times. By Steve Fuller. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. xvii; 472 pp.

Steve Fuller's impressive and provocative study of the origins, publication circumstances, short-term impact, and longer term significance of Thomas S. Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962; 1970; hereinafter cited as SSR) may come as a surprise, even a shock, to some social scientists, as it has to this reviewer.

I first learned about SSR in 1963 from Ronald Coase, who had been a Fellow at the Behavioral Sciences Center at Stanford University while Kuhn was there. I was one [End Page 566] of a handful of historians of economics who warmly welcomed Kuhn's book in the 1960s and early 1970s, as providing an original and illuminating standpoint from which to survey and interpret the entire history of the subject. That history was already becoming swamped by conventional piecemeal studies of great (and sometimes not so great) economists and other thinkers, books, ideas, doctrinal schools, and economic policy episodes. Against this background, Kuhn's grand design had obvious attractions. There was, of course, a healthy skepticism toward ambitious general theories of history. But Kuhn offered suggestive new hypotheses within a stimulating developmental framework that was too flexible to become a restrictive straitjacket, yet substantial enough to seem applicable to the evolution of economic ideas and the eventual emergence of economics as an academic discipline. Admittedly Kuhn had maintained that his historico-philosophical theory was designed to account for developmental patterns in the natural sciences only, and, within that group of disciplines, only (or mainly) physics and chemistry. Yet hadn't many economists claimed that their subject was the most "scientific" of the social sciences? Moreover, soon after SSR appeared, any urge to scholarly self-restraint disappeared as specialists from a remarkable range of academic fields—some, like art history, far removed from the natural sciences—jumped on the bandwagon, declaring their commitment to "Kuhnification" and displaying clear symptoms of the virus "paradigmitis" (these are Fuller's semi-mocking terms). Much of the earlier part of Fuller's book is designed to explain how and why this enthusiasm became so widespread. When the century ended, almost a million copies of SSR had been sold, and "it remains one of the most highly cited works in the humanities and the social sciences, and certainly one of the few major works in these fields that have been received sympathetically by natural scientists" (1).

Like his first book, The Copernican Revolution: Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought (1957), SSR was written while Kuhn was teaching (for fifteen years) in Harvard's General Education in Science curriculum, which helps to explain the ambitious subtitle of the earlier volume. The curriculum "was devoted to education, not original research . . . . That Kuhn's preparation for writing Structure was more the classroom than the archives, is revealed by its nonthreatening prose style, which contains relatively little technical language, and, for that matter relatively few footnotes to other authors, no matter how much they may have influenced him" (31). Specialist readers of SSR frequently commented that the book "is quite thin on matters in their own field of expertise, but truly enlightening in some other field, one in which they have long had an interest, but could not locate a suitable point of scholarly intersection. It might be said that Structure has a philosopher's sense of sociology, a historian's sense of philosophy, and a sociologist's sense of history" (32). Fuller therefore calls SSR a "servant narrative" (emphasis in original), for it "garnered many grateful users but few devoted followers" (31, 32).

Unhappily for Kuhn, he was denied tenure at Harvard in 1955, after unusually lengthy deliberations. Two years earlier, his most influential backer and mentor, J. B. Conant, formerly president of the university, atom bomb administrator, and chief [End Page 567] architect of the General Education in Science program, had left to become United States high commissioner for Germany...


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