Stephen Turner describes “The Social Study of Science before Kuhn”

By Kristopher A. Nelson
in April 2012

1000 words / 5 min.
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Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions – in many ways established the modern field of science studies. Stephen Turner provides a brief, socioligist’s version of the lead-up to Kuhn’s seminal book. Here’s a quick summary of his key points: Bacon and Comte Turner begins with Francis Bacon’s “The New Atlantis” (1627). Although Bacon’s work was more political […]

Please note that this post is from 2012. Evaluate with care and in light of later events.

Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions — in many ways established the modern field of science studies. Stephen Turner provides a brief, socioligist’s version of the lead-up to Kuhn’s seminal book. Here’s a quick summary of his key points:

Bacon and Comte

Turner begins with Francis Bacon’s “The New Atlantis” (1627). Although Bacon’s work was more political theory than scientific article (“science” in its modern form did not yet exist, nor did “scientists”), he nonetheless put forward a theory of knowledge based on induction and articuled a view that valued the knowledge of experts — a knowledge based on experience rather than more traditional forms of authority (34). (What about Bacon vs. Edward Coke, proponent of common law and the rule of law?)

Blithly moving ahead to 1793 — when science had actually begin to emerge in a more recognizably modern form — Turner picks up the story again with Condorcet’s “promot[ion of] the idea that science was the engine of human progress.” Condorcet, says Turner, believed in science and its benefits, but also thought the “the production of these benefits required state action” (34).

Condorcet’s main focus of state action is education — but he acknowledged that the point of that education was to create “collective submission to reason and science.” Educated citizens would choose their “intellectual betters” as leaders — essentially a “regime of expert rule, with democratic consent” (35).

Saint-Simon and Comte

Turner argues that Saint-Cimon took the implications of Condorcet’s ideas — ”that social knowledge allowed for the replacement of politics” — and radicalized them (35). Saint-Simon believed in “scientists as the saviors of society,” and argued — in a pre-Marxist fashion — that “the rule of main over man would be replaced by the ‘administration of things’” (35).

Comte, secretary to Saint-Simon and the founder of the new discipline of “sociology,” turned Saint-Simon’s ideas into “Positivism,” a new philosophy of science and politics (35-36). Comte’s Positivism reject the “liberalism” of John Stuart Mill (and other English philosophers like John Locke) in favor of the rule of the expert (36). Science would provide the model “for overcoming the ‘anarchy of opinions’ by providing consensus” (36). The “authority of science,” he believed, ought to “be imposed on the ignorant, just as the dogmas of Catholicism had been so effectively imposed in the past” (37).

John Stuart Mill

In the mid-nineteenth century, Mill advocated “liberalism” — a political theory grounded in governance by discussion that invested power in the general public — as opposed to aristocrats, technocrats, or bureaucrats. But he was caught between his belief in free discourse as a model of liberal democracy, and his equally powerful belief that “the canons of induction lead to proven knowledge” (37). Mill never resolved this tension between lay decision-making and scientific truth-finding.

Pearson and Mach

Ernst Mach and Karl Pearson, writes Turner, are “transitional figures” between Comte and Communists theories of science of the 1930s (38). Both oriented science toward “efficiency.” Both were deeply concerned with ideas of consensus.

Pearson, in particular, believed in the power of the scientific method to “assure[] consensus without force” (38). But how can general citizens join this consensus? Again, like Comte, Pearson advocated both education and popularization — but only the experience of actually studying a small area of science closely could really inculcate the proper frame of scientific mind (39). If citizens could generally experience this too, it would “produce consensual politics without coercion” (39).

Science, Culture, and Politics

Do advances in science depend on cultural conditions? Or is science the “prime mover”? Philosophers like Alfred North Whitehead and socioligists like Sorokin and Max Weber saw Western civilization as enabling the growth of science, and not the reverse (40).

Early in the century, “efficiency” became the watchword, and scientific and engineering solutions were proposed as ways to resolve social issues. Otto Neurath and others argued that Socialism and the “planned economy” were scientific and efficient, and therefore both practical and desireable (40).

John Dewey promoted the experimental method as the best way to solve problems in human affairs, “replacing ‘custom’ and attachment to traditions, such as constitutional traditions” (40-41). But Dewey wanted the scientific spirit in politics, but not scientists themselves (41).

Max Weber dismissed the idea of scientists as technocratic replacements for politicians:

the qualities that make a man an excellent scholar and academic teacher are not the qualities make him a leader … specifically in politics (43).

The Impact of Marxism

Marxism itself was intended to be a scientific account of history and progress. After the Soviet Union began to put a version of Marxism into practice, early theoreticians in the USSR explicitly bound science to society, and argued that science itself was driven by “social formations and historical considerations” (43). For these theorists, “an autonomous realm of pure science was a sham and an ideological construction” (43).

Outside of the Soviet Union, “the Left” accepted the idea that science was not neutral — but also that rational, planned societies were the apotheosis of the scientific approach (44). During the Depression, many saw politicians — and democratic capitalism itself — as standing in the way of scientific progress (44).

Post-War Science Studies

Turner argues that the debate over the role of science in society was transformed after World War II for a variety of reasons:

The response of physicists to the Bomb, the coming of the Cold War, the betrayal of atomic secrets by scientists, the Oppenheimer case, the Lysenko affair (which finally discredited the Soviet model of science), and the rise of an aggresively anti-Stalinist Left transformed the debate (47).

The new, post-war world valorized science, but generally removed politics from explicit consideration — and the result was Thomas Kuhn’s seminal work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.