The Cognitive Structure of Scientific Revolutions

I just finished a delightful (and fairly concise) book, The Cognitive Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Hanne Andersen, Peter Barker, and Xiang Chen (“ABC”, I’m told they’re called). These three have been working together for about ten years to create philosophical system to revive the essence of Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962).

Despite Kuhn’s huge, multi-discipline-changing influence, there weren’t (and aren’t) really any intellectual schools of philosophy, sociology, or history of science built around his ideas. Philosophers have never fully shaken free of the need to create a philosophy of science that can be used to demarcate science from non-science/pseudoscience and to categorically separate obsolete theories from reality/truth/currently accepted theories; Kuhn’s incommensurability threatened to make that simply impossible. Sociologists liked Kuhn, but wanted to take it further; only the most extreme advocates of the Strong Programme actually suggested that cognitive/intellectual/empirical/real-world factors were irrelevant altogether, but they generally attempted to explain as much of science as possible in terms of social structure and individual and group interests. Historians also liked Kuhn’s work, especially at first, but could not accept it as a general account of scientific development; historical counter-examples of gradual change are easy to find, like the Copernican revolution (ironically, the subject of Kuhn’s earlier work).

The premise of ABC’s book is that the mature version of Kuhn’s ideas (as opposed to the version in Structure) is historically justifiable and matches up well with developments in cognitive psychology that describe how humans make sense of the world. Revolutionary science happens when scientists (or scientific communities) have to disrupt the dynamic categorical hierarchies (called “frames”) by which they make sense of the world. They take the idea of frames straight from cognitive psychology (as developed by Lawrence W. Barsalou in the ’80s and ’90s), and supposedly they are a pretty good representation of the way humans actually think. Depending on the what aspects of the frames are disrupted, revolutionary change is science may or may not involve incommensurable theories. But incommensurability, in Kuhn mature philosophy and in the frame theory version here, is much less drastic than in Strucuture. In fact, by ABC’s analysis, the shift between geocentrism and heliocentrism did not involve incommensurability; the crux of the “Copernican revolution” was actually Kepler’s idea of orbits, which replaced the orbs (spherical shells) that provided the cosmological basis for Ptolemaic astronomers, Averroist astronomers, and Copernicus and his early adopters (who actually rejected his heliocentrism as well). Both revolutions and incommensurability, in this account, become matters of scale; it depends on how high up the hierarchy the disruptions occur.

Reading Structure was basically what got me into the history of science, and I’m hoping it comes back into fashion. I’ve periodically attempted to restructure the argument into a form that is actually defensible historically without being very very selective about which cases to apply it to. Mainly, this consisted of dividing up science into expansive hierarchies and finding revolutions of differing scale everywhere. Thus, it’s gratifying that the (only, as far as I know) science studies professionals who still take Kuhn seriously have fitted Kuhn to history and the realities of scientific practice by means similar to mine (though, obviously, in a much more sophisticated way, and with the support of some interesting empirical evidence).

ABC’s manifesto is found at the end of the book; they call out both philosophy and sociology for not following the methodology of history closely enough. Neither has lived up to David Bloor’s criteria for a satisfying analysis of science :

1. I would be causal, that is, concerned with the conditions which bring about belief or states of knowledge. Naturally there will be other types of causes apart from social ones which will cooperate in bringing about belief.
2. It would be impartial with respect to truth and falsity, rationality or irrationality, success or failure. Both sides of these dichotomies will require explanation.
3. It would be symmetrical in its style of explanation. The same types of cause would explain say, true and false beliefs. And,
4. It would be reflexive. In principle its patterns of explanation would have to be applicable to…itself. Like the requirement of symmetry this is a response to the need to seek for general explanations.

Like many people in science studies (including many who don’t adhere to the Strong Programme in general), I take these criteria to be axiomatic. History’s method of explaining science, which relies primarily on historical context, of course satisfies all four. But the scope of its generality is too wide… nothing conceptually separates the history of science from garden-variety history, and cognitive-intellectual content of scientific knowledge has no special status. Thus, the attraction of the theory-oriented approaches of philosophy and sociology. But, as ABC point out, philosophy and sociology have so far not created compelling theoretical approaches that leave enough room for historical context. ABC are convinced they’ve created such an approach, and I think they’ve convinced me. I’ll have to mull it over, but it’s tempting to try to frame my own research in terms of ABC’s reformed Kuhnianism.