The Role of History in Kuhn’s Philosophy

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The third edition of Kuhn's SSRApproaches in the history and theory of psychology have been moving apart for some time. The latest article with relevance to this divergence, published in the Fall 2007 issue of Perspectives on Science, examines the roles of each in science more generally. This is achieved through an analysis of Thomas Kuhn’s changing metaphilosophical position concerning the proper relationship of one to the other, first articulated in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

I reconstruct Kuhn’s model of scientific change presented in Structure as having the logical status of a Weberian explanatory theory; the philosophy of science and the history of science were of equal importance in its development and defense. However, Kuhn’s metaphilosophical position changed in the 1990s, when he gave primacy to philosophy over the history of science in response to the challenge new sociology of science presented to his views…. Kuhn’s project in his last writings was to develop epistemology and metaphysics capable of withstanding relativism and of selecting cognitive internal historiography as the appropriate historiography for the philosophy of science. I sketch the contours of this project which Kuhn was unable to complete in his lifetime. (Mladenovic, 2007, p. 261)

It would be interesting to see how these ideas could be applied specifically within psychology. But, of course, Kuhn thought of psychology as a proto-science. Does that make the parallels suggested in this piece irrelevant to the philosophy of our science? Or can it be used as a “thought piece” to inspire new variations on an old theme? Some thoughts to put this in context are offered below.

Hoyningen-Huene's RSRIn his excellent history of Kuhn’s intellectual development, Reconstructing Scientific Revolutions, Paul Hoyningen-Huene (1989/1993) critiques the methods of “old” histories of science. It was to this which Kuhn responded:

The heart of early historiography of science’s contemporary bias can be discerned in its criterion of historical relevance, which reflects its substantive interest in the current state of science. Only those products of science deemed permanent, complete by the standard of contemporary science, are factually relevant. This judgment projects three components of the present into history. For one, it describes past science using contemporary scientific concepts, the possible historicity of which is thereby forcibly ruled out. Furthermore, it takes the questions of contemporary science as constant, thus bracketing the potential contextual dependence of research agendas. Finally, it denies those guiding standards of science which regulate the acceptability of answers to scientific questions any possibility of historical change. (p. 18)

He then provides an outline of the “new” historiography, catalyzed in part by Kuhn’s early work:

From roughly 1955 to 1970, this new tradition rapidly gained momentum, especially in North America, becoming increasingly institutionalized and professionalized. This tradition, too, may be characterized by a statement of its criterion of historical relevance, which in turn becomes plausible in light of the new tradition’s overarching goal. This goal consists in achieving for the historiography of science what historicism did for other fields of cultural scholarship as early as the nineteenth century: a departure from the contemporary perspective in favor of historicity. Such a departure requires that more recent scientific knowledge be disregarded as far as possible, for only in this manner can we “display the historical integrity of [past] science in its own time” [Kuhn, 1962/1993, p. 3] or “analyze an older science in its own terms” [Kuhn, 1962/1993, p. 167ff]. Toward this end the historian’s task is

to climb inside the heads of the members of the group which practices some particular scientific specialty during some particular period; to make sense of the way those people practiced their discipline. [Kuhn, 1979, p. 122]

It follows that this historiography’s legitimate objects of study are scientific fields in the same disciplinary and epistemic extensions in which they were explored by actual scientific communities. [Hoyningen-Huene, 1989/1993, pp. 19-20]

More recently, some criticisms of this “new” historiography were provided by Ben Lovett, both in his article published in History of Psychology (Lovett, 2006) and in the column recently posted at HTNet (Lovett, 2007). It will be interesting to see how this discussion continues to evolve, as peer commentaries are posted there.

Of course, comments are welcome here too.


Works Cited

  • Hoyningen-Huene, P. (1993). Reconstructing Scientific Revolutions: Thomas S. Kuhn’s Philosophy of Science (A. T. Levine, Trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1989).

  • Kuhn, T. S. (1979). History of Science. In P. D. Asquith and H. E. Kyburg (Eds.), Current Research in Philosophy of Science (pp. 121-128). Ann Arbor: Edwards.

  • Kuhn, T. S. (1993). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (3rd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1962).

  • Lovett, B. J. (2006). The new history of psychology: A review and critique. History of Psychology, 9, 17-37.

  • Lovett, B. J. (2007). The New History of Psychology: Why Reform the Reformers? History and Theory of Psychology Student Network. Available online at

  • Mladenovic, B. (2007). “Muckraking in History”: The Role of the History of Science in Kuhn’s Philosophy. Perspectives on Science, 15(3), 261-294.

Related coverage at AHP:

  1. Piaget & Kuhn

  2. “New Ways in History, 1966-2006

About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.