Kuhn’s Real Wrong Turning

Yafeng Shan

University College London

The significance of Thomas Kuhn in the history of the philosophy of science is somehow paradoxical. On the one hand, Kuhn was one of the most influential philosophers of science in the second half of twentieth century. On the other hand, there is little distinctively Kuhn’s legacy in the sense that most of Kuhn’s work has no longer the philosophical significance. Alexander Bird (2002) argued that the reason for this is that Kuhn took a direction opposite to that of the mainstream of the philosophy of science in his later academic career. Since 1970s, more and more philosophers became sympathetic to a naturalistic approach to philosophical issues, whereas Kuhn took a more linguistic/analytic approach. This is what Bird called Kuhn’s wrong turning. However, Bird did not articulate the reason why Kuhn made such a turning. In this paper, I aim to show that there is another wrong turning in Kuhn’s philosophy of science, and this turning underlies the turning in the approach pointed out by Bird. First I show that there is a change of the key term employed in Kuhn’s publication. One of Kuhn’s most novel contributions to the philosophy of science is his invention of the concept “paradigm” (as an alternative to “theory” to reflect and represent scientific knowledge) in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. However, since 1970s, Kuhn like other philosophers at that time, began using “theory” and “paradigm” interchangeably, and finally he never talked of “paradigm”. Second, I argue that the shift of Kuhn’s focus of the incommensurability from the semantic, methodological and cognitive aspects to the semantic aspect only in his later career is a natural consequence of the change of the key term from “paradigm” to “theory”. Moreover, I argue that it is Kuhn’s failure of exploring and articulating his novel concept “paradigm” makes the incommensurability thesis less plausible. Finally I argue that Kuhn’s turning from paradigm to theory well explains the change from a naturalistic approach to a linguistic one.