The end of revolutions

The last meeting of my Scientific Revolutions course was Monday. Following my usual last-day schtick, I put them in groups to reflect on what the course had been about. To give some context, here’s the blurb for the course:

Thomas Kuhn introduced the notion of a “paradigm shift,” something that has become part of our general vocabulary, and his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions marked a shift in the way that people think about science. This course begins with the state of science studies before Kuhn: the way that historians, sociologists, and philosophers thought about science. Then it takes a close look at Kuhn’s landmark book. Finally, it explores some of the reactions and consequences that Kuhn’s work had for science studies.1

Their discussions start out with long, careful sentences. After enough of that, just for fun, I ask them to distill it down to a slogan or bumpersticker. Suggestions included “Elaborate yet absurd philosophical ideas” and “Philosophers; they have ideas about science”.

The schtick also involves having students vote on which readings they felt were essential and which were dispensable. I pitch this as an input to next time I teach the course: Which should I absolutely keep and do again? Which should I replace with something else?

Here’s the tally:

George Sarton11
Robert Merton34
Carl Hempel63
Hans Reichenbach311
Karl Popper14
Norwood Russell Hanson4
Thomas Kuhn*
Heather Douglas32
Imre Lakatos47
John Worrall6
Steve Shapin72
Justin Biddle and Eric Winsberg35

The course pivots on Kuhn, so everyone gave that an upvote.

The dissing on Reichenbach is because they only read a few pages from him, where he poses the distinction between the context of discovery and the context of justification. Students counted as dispensable because they’d already read those ideas— without the terminology— in Hempel.

Many students wrote papers on Sarton or Popper, so I’m not surprised that those got many upvotes. I am surprised that there were no down votes for either, though.

I’m surprised by the mixed reaction to Lakatos, but my general impulse is to think that any author who splits the crowd that much must be worth reading.

  1. The syllabus is on my website.

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