The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn

There are any number of informative reviews of this around, in case you need one of those. Try Manny’s or Stephen M’s. But if you already know what the book says, and chances are you do, then the best review you can read is Jason’s. What Jason does so well that I shan’t attempt it myself is explain how badly written the book is. So it isn’t just me – for a while there I was beating myself over the head, sure it was my fault that I could scarcely look at it without wishing I was a lemming. It’s the book’s fault. This book should be inspirational and to be fair, I was inspired by it, but only for a bit. By about half way through it was torture.

Jason says you just have to take it as it is an important book to read. Gee, though, I’d like to rewrite it. When you think of its enormous popularity – turgid, repetitive, appallingly structured book as it is – one can only wonder how it would do if it were readable.

To be fair, though, part of the reason it would be easy to do that now, is that it is now. When Kuhn was writing down his ideas, they were new, they needed new ways with words, new jargon. I guess when you think about it he was in exactly the position he describes in his book, the old ways don’t work and they need to be replaced with something. If we keep in mind as we read this book that this was the state in which it was written, read it from the perspective of this particular person writing fifty years ago, perhaps we can forgive, if not overlook, its shortcomings.

Two specific things concern me, since I have been asked. The first is that this is a history book with almost no references/citations. I don’t understand this. The other is the issue that actually the person we should be reading is Polyani, not Kuhn. In fact this makes me wonder about my defence of this being badly written partly because it was so new.

Ian Graye wrote this on goodreads in response to Jason (and I guess my) review.

While personally I don’t think there is any excuse for taking the boring option, I wonder whether we live in a time when the narrative has become more important or valued than the truth. Many scientists seem to want to prove the truth in a robust manner and leave the narrative and entertainment to those who follow. Mind you, a proof is a narrative, even if it’s boring.

But this is just silly. A history book doesn’t have to be badly written in order to be about the truth and to be robust. It is a fair generalisation (and only a generalisation) to say that scientists do not write as well as those with a humanities background, for whom it is an important skill. I think this is badly written because it is by a scientist.

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5 thoughts on “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn

  1. I’m surprised, Cathy. You and ol’ Tom are two of my favourite historians. What about his “way” troubles you so (other than the clunky structure of Structure)?

  2. Hi, cathy

    While I posted on Jason’s thread as a result of reading your link to his review, I wasn’t responding to any particular point in your review.

    When I referred to a scientist wanting to prove the truth, I was referring to those scientists who compose “proofs” that might take two or three pages, as Jason mentioned. They are presumably complying with a precise scientific method.

    They are not trying to be narratively interesting in an entertainment sense. However, a proof is a scientific narrative in a way. It is a step by step journey from hypothesis to proof of truth, which presumably excites some scientists, if not us.

    I agree that history books don’t have to be badly written. It would be silly to suggest this. Which is why I didn’t. I don’t think there is any excuse for taking the boring option.

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