History of Science: Whiggism Gone Wild
Excerpted from an edited transcript of “Ideology and Theories of History,” the first in a series of six lectures, given in 1986, on the history of economic thought.
The Whig theory of the history of science is very similar, of course, to the Whig theory of the history itself. The Whig theory of history of science was dominant until the 1960s. (It probably still is dominant in high school textbooks.) It essentially said that science, the growth of knowledge, is an onward-and-upward, step-by-step approach, from the year zero to now.
What are the implications of that? One implication is that you don’t have to read a history of science unless you’re an antiquarian. If you’re a physicist in 1986, there’s no point in reading some physicist from 1930; unless you’re interested in the special conditions of what happened to him, you don’t learn anything from it.
In other words, you never lose any knowledge. The theory is that, every step of the way, science patiently tests its assumptions and premises; it discards those that turn out to be unacceptable, false, and adds those that are acceptable. Everybody’s always patiently testing their axioms, steadily advancing. Therefore, there’s no loss of knowledge.
The current textbook then incorporates all the best of everything from the year zero to the present. This is the theory, at any rate. Here, the famous Kuhn doctrine I think comes in very neatly, the famous paradigm theory of Thomas Kuhn from The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He effected a revolution in the history of science.
Kuhn has caught a lot of flak on his philosophy of science, which he claims he doesn’t really have. I think he’s not interesting as a philosopher; he is interesting as a historian and a sociologist of science, asking, How did science actually develop? And essentially what he says is that this linear, step-by-step stuff isn’t the case. First of all, nobody ever tests their basic axioms, ever. That’s of course obviously true. That’s of course obviously true. Once an axiom (or a “paradigm,” as he put it, a set of basic beliefs) is adopted, people just apply it. Now, various peripheral matters or “puzzles,” he calls them, come up, but anybody who challenges the basic paradigm is considered not a scientist. Not that he’s refuted, I think, just out of the dialogue: he’s had it.
So this pegs on for a while until various anomalies pop up until the theory begins obviously to fail in explaining a lot of stuff, and then there’s a crisis situation, as he calls it, where confusion and competing paradigms come up. If some new paradigm can solve these puzzles better, it then begins to take over and establishes a new paradigm, and they forget all the rest of the stuff.
Now, he is alleged to have said that no paradigm’s any better than the other. I don’t think that’s true. But at any rate, the interesting thing, what happens here is that you lose knowledge. Even if this paradigm’s better than that, often stuff gets lost along the way. One example is, of course, Greek fire. We didn’t know until very recently what Greek fire was. We now know it’s like flamethrowers, but we only found tha
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