Where is Kuhn Going?: A Comment on Driver-Linn (2003)


Christopher Green

Department of Psychology

York University

Toronto, Ontario M3J 1P3



To be published in American Psychologist.

2004 by the American Psychological Association.


Driver-Linn (2003) presented an interesting, but ultimately too-comforting, account of why psychologists have almost continuously invoked Kuhn since the 1970s to justify a wide array of the discipline's historical developments and epistemological proclivities. She argued that Kuhn's pluralism, his naturalism, and especially the familiar stage-wise "feel" of his theory appeal to psychologists and (although she did not say so explicitly) appear to sanction aspects of psychology's theoretical situation that many other philosophies of science would have seen as signs of scientific immaturity, or worse.


Perhaps the more pressing questions, however, are whether psychologists should feel comforted by Kuhn's theory -- whether it is in any significant way applicable to the situation in psychology or just a convenient cover story -- and whether it is true of any scientific discipline at all. A fair amount of recent research in the philosophy and history of science that Driver-Linn did not address has led to a substantial reassessment of Kuhn's philosophy and his position in the philosophy of science. This work has not made it into the psychological literature as yet, but it calls into serious question much of what psychologists have traditionally believed Kuhn's position to be vis--vis other influential, but much less psychologically-comfortable philosophical positions. Friedman (1999), for instance, has shown that Kuhn's philosophy constitutes a conceptual continuation of the work of the logical positivists. Compare, for instance, Kuhn's position on the role of paradigms in science to the late position of the leading logical positivist Rudolf Carnap, who argued that one could only say whether or not a given statement was true from within a pre-specified technical "language" -- no truth tout court (see also Richardson, 1997, 2003).


Even more interestingly, Fuller (2000) has recently argued that Kuhn's position on science was, contrary to what most believe, highly conservative, having emerged in the context of the cold war during which he acquired much of his intellectual training (and as is hinted at by the close relationship, as Driver-Linn noted, Kuhn had with Harvard president and US atom-bomb administrator James Bryant Conant). Fuller (2003) argued further that the roles in which Kuhn and Karl Popper are commonly cast in history and philosophy of science education (especially of the cursory kind that psychologists often receive) are exactly the reverse of what they should be: Popper was "the radical," the socialist, the advocate of an open society and of "bold conjectures" that fly in the face of accepted truth; Kuhn was "the authoritarian" who found it acceptable that scientific communities are mostly inward looking and only venture outside the confines of their historical tradition (the "paradigm") when it is visibly collapsing around them (see also Hacohen, 2000)


As Fuller put it, "the Popperians suspected that Kuhn's peculiar, even duplicitous, attitude toward the history of science was designed to do double duty -- to shore up science's noble image of autonomous inquiry in the face of its greater involvement in politics, the economy, and scientific regulation.... In this respect Conant and Kuhn continued the Platonic tradition of promulgating different truths according to mental preparation... as a means of stratifying and stabilising a pluralistic society" (Fuller, 2003, p. 36).


More than Driver-Linn's assertion that psychologists were drawn to Kuhn for the fairly technical reasons of his pluralism, naturalism, and "stage-wise-ism," it seems to me that they were drawn to him primarily as a promising way to break through of the alliance between behaviorism and logical positivism that seemed to grip much of the discipline through the 1960s (though see Smith, 1986, for a trenchant reassessment of that coalition as well). Kuhn's youth and his apparent radicalism fit with the values of the 1960s and appealed to the psychologists of the 1970s. The fact that his work pertained only to physics and was never intended to apply the social sciences did little to dissuade them. (Fuller (2003, p. 224) holds Taylor (1971) responsible for first "misapplying Kuhn to legitimate the social sciences.") If the most recent scholarship on Kuhn's account of science is correct, psychologists may have unwittingly exchanged the reality of epistemological radicalism for the mere illusion of it.



Driver-Linn, E. (2003). Where is psychology going? Structural fault lines revealed by psychologists' use of Kuhn. American Psychologist, 58, 269-278.


Friedman, M. (1999). Reconsidering logical positivism: A collection of essays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Fuller, S. (2000). Thomas Kuhn: A Philosophical History for Our Times. Chicago: University of Chicago Press


Fuller, S. (2003). Kuhn vs. Popper: The struggle for the soul of science. London: Icon Books.


Hacohen, M. (2000). Karl Popper: The formative years, 1902-1945. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Richardson, A. (1997). Carnap's Construction of the World: The Aufbau and the Emergence of Logical Empiricism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Richardson, A. (2003). Narrating the history of reason itself: Friedman, Kuhn, and a constitutive a priori for the twenty-first century. Perspectives on Science, 10, 253-274.


Smith, L. D. (1986). Behaviorism and logical positivism: A reassessment of the alliance. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.


Taylor. C. (1971). Interpretation and the sciences of man. Review of Metaphysics, 25, 3-51.