Circularity and Presuppositionalism, via Kuhn

This summer I’ve been waddling through Berger and Lockman’s The Social Construction of Reality and Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Both have fairly extensive ramifications for critical reflection on the nature of theologizing, and as soon as I finish Kuhn’s work I’ll offer a review of both works together here.

In any event, Kuhn touches on the nature of scientific revolutions and on the way in which one scientific paradigm is substituted for another. He points out that, when there are two fundamentally competing visions for the world or when the first principles are under fire, one doesn’t win the argument by appealing to the first principles in question. One can’t settle the debate by asserting, again and again, the veracity of one’s position. The question has been settled when a respondent has been persuaded by or has ultimately discarded the new vision.

It isn’t as though the brute existence of the world-as-it-is has made itself readily apparent to the audience such that they can immediately intuit which paradigm is correct. Rather, those hawking their wares have delicately (or indelicately, as the case may be) shown to those who would listen that their vision for the world better equips them to make sense of it. This inductive, risky method may or may not generate a convert; and the failure to do so cannot be attributed properly to a failure of the potential convert’s intellect. The method of persuasion (or, perhaps, the obstinacy of the hearer) prevented the change. In either case, the heart of the matter rests with the subjective appropriation or rejection of a new paradigm by virtue of subjective persuasion.

Kuhn writes,

… Like the choice between competing political institutions, that between competing paradigms proves to be a choice between incompatible modes of community life. Because it has that character, the choice is and cannot be determined merely by the evaluative procedures characteristic of normal science, for these depend in part upon a particular paradigm, and that paradigm is at issue. When paradigms enter, as they must, into a debate about paradigm choice, their role is necessarily circular. Each group uses its own paradigm to argue in that paradigm’s defense.

The resulting circularity does not, of course, make the arguments wrong or even ineffectual. The man who premises a paradigm when arguing in its defense can nonetheless provide a clear exhibit of what scientific practice will be like for those who adopt the new view of nature. That exhibit can be immensely persuasive, often compellingly so. Yet, whatever its force, the status of the circular argument is only that of persuasion. It cannot be made logically or even probabilistically compelling for those who refuse to step into the circle. The premises and values shared by the two parties to a debate over paradigms are not sufficiently extensive for that. As in political revolutions, so in paradigm choice — there is no standard higher than the assent of the relevant community.[1]


[1] Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  2nd ed. International Encyclopedia of Unified Science: Foundations of the Unity of Science, Vol. 2 Num. 2 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), 94.

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