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Review - Kuhn vs Popper - Steve Fuller  

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This is a book you have to read very slowly. Not so much in order to extract every last drop of enjoyment, but because read at normal speed it rapidly becomes the sort of meaningless babble that Richard Dawkins is so good at attacking.

Much of what Steve Fuller says in comparing the two most widely lauded names in philosophy of science makes sense, but even so you can only read so much "malgré lui critics" and "relating to the sort of unactualised possibilities presupposed in the assignment of negative responsibility" without groaning and applying a cold compress. Fuller rightly points out some of the flaws in both Popper and Kuhn's approach (particularly Kuhn), though strangely never at the most obvious level that what Kuhn said (for instance) doesn't particularly reflect the realities of scientific development in the last 200 years. (Of course, he'd probably say "ah, but what is reality?")

Even so, this book missed a real opportunity to present what those involved in the various strands of history/philosophy/who-knows-whatology of science are trying to do in a way that the ordinary reader can find useful. (The author is too fond of the word "notorious", too. For instance in "Popper's notorious condemnation of psychoanalysis and Marxism as 'pseudo-sciences'". Why notorious? Surely psychoanalysis is a largely discredited pseudo-science, and Marxism isn't even close to anything understandable as science.)

The real problem, in the end, when you've waded through page after page on Heidegger and Nazi Germany or obscure epistemological argument is the desperate urge to cry "you've missed the point!" The whole attempt to analyze science is if it were some work of art misunderstands at the most fundamental level what science is all about. It has failings, fads and trends, certainly. But to take this approach to science seems on a par with going to see a great painting only to examine the brushstrokes or the composition of the pigment. Look at the picture, for goodness sake!

Having said that, if you want to understand why Kuhn is mentioned with such reverence by non-scientists (I first came across him when a military historian mentioned how wonderful he was), this is a very useful book. It serves its purpose very well, it's just not necessarily the purpose the author had in mind.

Only in hardback

Reviewed by Martin O'Brien

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Last update 05 June 2007