Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, first published 50 years ago, is one of the few classics I tell students in pretty much all my classes they have to read before they leave college, whether or not it’s assigned in one of their courses. It contains important lessons, especially for economics, of radical paradigm shifts and the fundamental incommensurability among different theories and approaches.
David Weinberger [ht: eo] retells one of the great stories about Kuhn:
To overstate it: The scientists hated incommensurability because it seemed to imply that science makes no real progress, the philosophers hated it because it seemed to imply that there is no truth, and the positivists hated it because it seemed to imply that science is based on nonrational decisions.
And, apparently, Kuhn grew to hate being challenged about it, at least according to a story told by the documentarian Errol Morris, who as a graduate student at Princeton studied under Kuhn:
“I asked him, ‘If paradigms are really incommensurable, how is history of science possible? … Wouldn’t the past be inaccessible to us? Wouldn’t it be “incommensurable?”‘
He started moaning. He put his head in his hands and was muttering, ‘He’s trying to kill me. He’s trying to kill me.’
And then I added, ‘ … except for someone who imagines himself to be God.’
It was at this point that Kuhn threw the ashtray at me.”
Back in the day, those of us studying radical economics (at the University of Massachusetts Amherst) didn’t throw ashtrays but would taunt the students in neoclassical programs (like Harvard and MIT) by asking, “brother, can youse paradigm?”