Kuhn’s misreading of Popper

Kuhn wrote an essay for the Schilpp volume on Popper which appeared in 1974 and it was published in Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge (eds Lakatos and Musgrave) which appeared earlier (in  1970) due to delays in production of the Schilpp volume.  The Lakatos and Musgrave collection was the fourth in a series of books reporting the proceedings of a major conference at Bedford College in London in 1965. Musgrave made  some amusing comments on the conference (and related matters), see link at the bottom of the post.

Kuhn’s paper  at the conference is the foundation of the book. Feyerabend and Lakatos were supposed to deliver papers in the same session but their papers were not available in time and so John Watkins  wrote a paper at short  notice. Popper, Pearce Williams and Stephen Toulmin participated in the discussion and wrote short papers for the published proceedings. Others contributed later – Margaret Masterman in 1966, followed by  Lakatos and Feyerabend,  and Kuhn’s reply to the commentators. The North Holland Publishing Company published three volumes of papers but was not prepared to wait for the long-delayed fourth volume and it was published by Cambridge University Press (it became a best seller).

Something that is rarely mentioned is that the papers by Watkins and Toulmin which follow the  lead paper by Kuhn comprehensively demolish Kuhn’s supposedly radical and exciting ideas, although Toulmin noted that  by that time, almost a decade on from the publication of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,  Kuhn had walked away from most  of the ideas that accounted for the excitement generated by book when it first appeared.


Kuhn advanced four criticisms or complaints about some of Popper’s “locutions”. The use of the term “locutions” is a warning sign that we may be subjected to the kind of verbal sparring that became widespread under the influence of Wittgenstein in his second phase. It is often a signal that the writer is about to  engage in earnest and scholarly argumentation (or explication) that elaborately misses the point of the work by work that is under examination.

The four suspect locutions are treated in the four sections of the paper.

Locution 1A scientist, whether theorist or experimenter, puts forward statements, or systems of statements, and tests them step by step. In the field of the empirical sciences, more especially, he constructs hypotheses, or systems of  theories, and tests them against experience by observation and experiment. From the opening chapter of the Logic of Scientific Discovery.

Kuhn found this odd because, for him,  there is one sort of hypothesis that scientists do not repeatedly test, this is  the way that the individual research connects to the corpus of accepted knowledge. So “the scientists must premise current theory as the rules of his game” (p 4). It seems that Kuhn simply cannot understand the critical spirit whereby any aspect of the scientific enterprise might in principle be subjected to criticism and revision.

” To turn Sir Karl’s view on its head, it is precisely the abandonment of critical discourse that marks the transition to a science.” (p 6)

The critical attitude does not mean that every scientists should be constantly engaged in critical scrutiny of everything, it just means that they should be prepared to follow problems where they lead, which may be across disciplinary boundaries, into philosophy or even to the first principles of the discipline. Sensitivity to problems is the key.

Locution 2. The essays and lectures of which this book is composed, are variations upon one very simple theme – the thesis that we can learn from our mistakes. From the Preface of Conjectures and Refutations. With emphasis on “we can learn from our mistakes”.

As Watkins pointed out in his reply to Kuhn, addressing his comments to Popperian “locutions” resulted in a deal of distortion of the meaning of Popper’s original text. This especially applies to the  Kuhn’s perception of mistakes. Possibly because Kuhn did not take on board non-justificationism and the conjectural theory of knowledge, he regards “mistakes” as Bad Things that reflect poorly on the people who make them. In the words of Watkins “He seems unable to allow that Popper was using the word ‘mistake’ in a cheerfully guilt-free sense with no suggestion of personal failure, rule-transgression etc.” (p. 26, footnote 3)

For Kuhn, “A mistake is  made at a specifiable time and place by a particular individual…The individual can learn from his mistakes only because the group whose practices embody those rules can isolate the individual’s failure in applying them”. (11)

He did not grasp the idea that the mistakes that concerned Popper were in theories (scientific theories that are false, or theories that are unhelpful, like  theories of sovereignty in politics) or in proposals and practices  (where they are unhelpful or confusing).  Individual culpability and weakness have nothing to do with it.

Locution 3. Sir Karl Popper describes as ‘falsification’ or ‘refutation’ what happens when a theory fails in an attempted application, and these are the first of a series of related locutions that again strike me as extremely odd.  Both ‘falsification’ and  ‘refutation’ are antonyms of proof. They are drawn principally from logic and from formal mathematics…invoking these terms implies the ability to compel assent from any member of the relevant professional community. (Kuhn, 1970, 13).

Kuhn went on to explain that Popper was well aware of the problematic nature of adverse evidence and the capacity of scientist to protect their theory by means of ad hoc hypotheses and the like. He cited Popper’s LSD p 50 statement that no conclusive disproof of a theory can ever be produced.

Having barred conclusive disproof, he has provided no substitute for it, and the relation he does employ remains that of logical falsification. Though he is not a naïve falsificationist, Sir Karl may, I suggest, legitimately be treated as one. (ibid. 14).

Kuhn did not understand that Popperian criticism is not supposed to instantly dispatch defective theories, it is to identify problems that call for more work. It is all about maintaining standards of criticism.  That has a “negative” function to  eliminate false theories that have been effectively criticised and superseded by better theories. Criticism also has a positive or creative function to open up new problems that are the growing points of science. As noted above regarding the first locution, sensitivity to problems and “the gift of wonder” are the beginning of  imaginative thinking.

Locution 4When he rejects ‘the psychology of knowledge’, Sir Karl’s explicit concern is only to deny the methodological relevance of an individual’s source of inspiration or an individual’s sense of certainty (ibid p 22). Kuhn went on to draw a distinction between individual psychology and common elements induced by nurture and training in the psychological make-up of the licensed membership of a scientific groupThough [Sir Karl] insists that he is writing about the  logic of  knowledge, an essential role in his methodology is played by passages which I can only read as attempts to inculcate moral imperatives in the membership of the scientific group…We shall not, I suggest,  understand the success of science without understanding the full force of rhetorically induced and professionally shared imperatives like these [referring to a statement by Popper which Kuhn placed in italics “If we have made this our task (understanding the world with the help of laws and explanatory theories), then there is no more rational procedure than the method…of conjecture and refutation”. ] …Institutionalised and articulated further, such maxims and values may explain the outcome of choices that could not have been dictated by  logic and  experiment alone. The fact that passages such as these occupy a prominent place in Sir Karl’s writing is therefore further evidence of the resemblance of our views. That he does not, I think, ever see them for the social-psychological imperatives that they are is further evidence of the gestalt switch that still divides us deeply. (22)

This shows that Kuhn, like most of us before Jarvie’s book on the republic of science, did not pick up Popper’s “social turn”  to pay attention to the rules of the game of science (although that should have been clear enough in 1935 and 1958) and it was even clearer in chapter 23 of The Open Society and the section on the institutional analysis of scientific progress at the end of The Poverty of Historicism.

Popper over-reacted to the call for a psychological or sociological approach with a strong negative response when he could have replied that he got there first, in a more helpful manner by drawing attention to the  social  and institutional aspect of science and the importance of the rules, norms and conventions of scientific and scholarly practice.  He could have added that his theory of  metaphysical research programs also was a better formulation of “paradigm theory”  because it called for  investigation of  assumptions that can  cause trouble but are kept out of sight because they are  supposed to be either sacred (shared imperatives) or unspeakable nonsense (metaphysics in the eyes of the positivists). In fact the elements of the MRP are essential ingredients of the “social” or “psychological” situation and there are times when they need to be subjected to critical analysis.

Musgrave interview (re Bedford College conference).

A line of thought to be elaborated in another post.

The error that Lakatos and Kuhn shared in their efforts to criticize Popper was the failure of their SITUATIONAL ANALYSIS to take account of the problem situation in the philosophy of science in the 1920s and 1930s,  to understand how Popper formulated the problems and how he responded to them. Incidentally the paradigm of good SA is Stanley Wong’s Chapter 2 (see  previous post). Maybe Joe Agassi’s historiography is the model,  it came to Wong by way of Larry Boland.

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3 Responses to Kuhn’s misreading of Popper

  1. Andrew Crawshaw says:

    Hey, this is good; I just read this article again yesterday, I am glad you have put a reply to it up.

    I hear that Popper replied to this article but misunderstood Kuhn in turn as a theorist who did not believe in progress.

    Do you know anything about this?

  2. Rafe says:

    Thanks Andrew, I don’t have time to read Popper’s reply right now but I seem to recall that it was not one of his best efforts, he said he had not been fully aware of the extent of normal science and he deplored it. But I thought from his lectures that he was well aware during the 1950s of the danger of Big Science.

    I don’t recall what he said about Kuhn’s position on progress.

  3. Henkt Tuten says:

    Both Popper and Kuhn were clever guys.
    It’s not a matter of misunderstanding, more a matter of 2 models

    have a look at

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