Love of All Wisdom

Paradigms in philosophy

by on Jun.22, 2014, under Analytic Tradition, Epistemology, Metaphilosophy, Natural Science, Social Science

Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was a groundbreaking work that changed the way the world thinks about natural science. Kuhn claims that science works not as a steady, additive accretion of knowledge, but as through periods of specialized knowledge accumulation within one paradigm that (every so often) is displaced by a genuinely novel revolution that overthrows the existing paradigm.

It has sometimes been noted that social scientists and philosophers are much more likely to read Kuhn than natural scientists are. I don’t think this is necessarily because natural scientists are less likely to believe Kuhn’s historical account, but because they are less likely to see the history of their discipline as relevant to their current activity. For my part, I do not (yet) know the history of natural science well enough to know how accurately Kuhn’s description fits it. But it’s worth thinking about how Kuhn’s description applies outside the natural sciences he studied, to the humanities and social sciences.

Kuhn is known for applying the concept of a paradigm (pronounced pair-a-dime). For Kuhn, paradigms are “universally recognized scientific achievements that for a time provide model problems and solutions to a community of practitioners.” (We may leave aside the “scientific” word for the present discussion. If by “scientific” one understands only the natural sciences, then the social sciences and humanities could not have paradigms by definition, but I see no reason to restrict the meaning here; we may take “scientific” in the sense of the German wissenschaftlich, systematic knowledge.) The key phrase to me here is universally recognized. The first principles of a paradigm are a set of assumptions, shared across those working in a paradigm, that make the building of specialized knowledge within that paradigm possible.

The importance of this universal recognition implies that not every perspective is a paradigm, for Kuhn. Nor does Kuhn’s account quite match up with Ken Wilber’s, where what constitutes a paradigm is simply “a practice to bring forth a series of experiences”. Rather, a paradigm must be more widespread and support the accumulation of specialized knowledge.

This definition allows Kuhn to note a historical and sociological distinction between those scholarly disciplines that have acquired paradigms and those that have not. When a discipline has no paradigm, its practitioners write books aimed at general educated audiences, assuming a relatively small specialist vocabulary (like Darwin’s Origin of Species). Once they acquire a paradigm, however, a discipline’s practitioners instead primarily write highly specialized and technical articles, aimed entirely at other practitioners. Their books for general audiences are primarily textbooks – introductory works simplifying the higher-level scholarship in order to bring audiences up to a speed where they can understand the technical articles.

Most of the natural sciences, on this account, had no paradigm in 1600 but have one now. In the social sciences and humanities, on the other hand, it is instructive to distinguish between those disciplines that now have paradigms and those that do not. There cannot be said to be a paradigm in religious studies, in history, or in comparative literature. There, scholars continue to make their names with books, and there is little agreement on method. But there is a paradigm prevalent in neoclassical economics (and a slightly different one in Keynesian economics). There is a paradigm in linguistics, associated above all with the name of Noam Chomsky. There is even a paradigm of sorts in analytic philosophy, one focused on precision of argument as the assumed standard by which philosophy is to be judged. The substantive conclusions are up for grabs to some extent (although one will have great trouble arguing for theism or right-wing politics), but the method is taken for granted.

There was a paradigm of this sort, too, in medieval Christian theology. Plato, Aristotle and the Hebrew Bible and New Testament set the expectations for what everyone else would follow. Like Darwinian biologists or Chomskyan linguists (whom they influenced), the theologians were able to take a great number of assumptions for granted and advance ever more detailed and subtle inquiry within that framework of assumptions. The medieval scholastics are often ridiculed for their specialized, abstract technical inquiries, but one could make the same criticism of theoretical physicists.

What does this all mean for cross-cultural philosophy? This is a field that has no paradigm, and it would be difficult to establish one. That hasn’t stopped Wilber from trying, and there are a few who do take his work as paradigmatic, but their output is largely disappointing. It can be frustrating to work in a field without a paradigm, because one must continually be arguing to one’s first principles. If anyone were to read my dissertation, my encyclopedia article on Śāntideva, and my recent Journal of Buddhist Ethics article, they would find that each one has a preliminary section on the nature of Śāntideva’s texts, one that looks rather repetitive. (Those who think there is such a thing as self-plagiarism outside the context of graded coursework might well accuse me of it.) But these repetitive sections were necessary to establish the appropriateness of studying “Śāntideva” as an author – a basic point without which none of these inquiries could have proceeded. A paradigm would have been nice as a way of taking this point for granted and allowing me to use that space for more substantive inquiries.

There is also something quite appealing about a field with no paradigm: it is much more open. Determination is negation; by establishing the first principles of what is accepted in a field, one thereby cuts off certain other lines of inquiry as not acceptable. It has long been clear to me that I could never have done anything like the work I want to do within the limits of analytic philosophy. So there is a certain excitement and freedom that comes with the absence of a paradigm. The danger of a paradigmless field, though, is one visible in the works of a Richard Rorty, where philosophy is explicitly viewed as simply a matter of ever-expanding conversation without truth as a referent. The activity may turn out to be pointless. And so in many such fields it is often worth trying to establish a paradigm, create a model of work that others can then take as first principles. Wilber has tried to do so and I think he has failed. But that shouldn’t stop the rest of us from trying.

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