The Structure of Academic Revolutions

Patrick Nagle, English 65, The Cyborg Self, Brown University (Fall 2006)

Science Studies questions the positivist narrative of linear scientific progress and increases in knowledge. This "textbook" narrative, as Thomas Kuhn called it in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, represents scientists throughout history "as having worked upon the same set of fixed problems and in accordance with the same set of fixed canons that the most recent revolution in scientific theory and method has made seem scientific." (138) Kuhn's account of science, as the title of his book claims, emphasizes the discontinuities in the history of science, which he says has shifted from one paradigm—comprised of theories, shared examples, instruments, and questions to be answered—to another, incommensurable paradigm.

Kuhn's work opened the door to critical histories of science and the production of knowledge, much as Jacques Derrida's "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences" served as a catalyst for poststructuralist literary theories. Kuhn's ideas about paradigms read like examples of Derrida's centered structures. Paradigms are "a fundamental unit for the student of scientific development, a unit that cannot be fully reduced to logically atomic components which might function in its stead." (Kuhn, 10) The center is similarly irreplaceable, "the point at which the substitution of contents, elements, or terms is no longer possible." (Derrida, 960) The paradigm shifts that have taken place in science require that we "alter the fundamental structural elements of which the universe to which they apply is composed." (Kuhn, 102) Similarly, the history of structure is "a series of substitutions of center for center, as a linked chain of determinations of the center. Successively, and in a regulated fashion, the center receives different forms or names." (Derrida, 960)

These works seek not only to explain the workings of the structures that exist or have existed, but to expose the "structurality of structure" (Derrida, 960) and reveal that structures work similarly despite their differences in center. Kuhn provides a science-based example of Derrida's "rupture" in the history of structure by demonstrating the unavailability of a transcendental signified — that is, of a stable paradigm throughout history — to science.

Bruno Latour's actor network theory, a product of science studies, similarly decenters the Kantian subject/object framework (understood sociologically as society/nature) in order to bring Science Studies out of its "blind alley." (276) He shows that theories of scientific knowledge have been a series of replacements for the subject position: " Philosophers and sociologists fought so violently to occupy the subject pole designated by Kant—the focus of the Sun in his Copernican Revolution—that no one realized that it did not make much difference whether the elected ruler was Kant's Ego, Durkheim's macro-Society, Foucault's epistemes, Dewey's praxis, Wittgenstein's language games, collectives of scientists, brains and neurons, minds, or cognitive structures—as long as this one ruler capitalized all the explanatory resources and had the object turning around it."


Works Cited

Last modified 18 December 2006