Deborah Coen

Modern Intellectual History, April 2012


Bilingualism was Kuhn’s solution to the problem of relativism, the problem raised by his own theory of incommensurability. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, he argued that scientific theories are separated by gulfs of mutual incomprehension. There is no neutral ground from which to judge one theory fitter than another. Each is formulated in its own language and cannot be translated into the idiom of another. Yet, like many Americans, Kuhn never had the experience of moving comfortably between languages. “I’ve never been any good really at foreign languages,” he admitted in an interview soon before his death. “I can read French, I can read German, if I’m dropped into one of those countries I can stammer along for a while, but my command of foreign languages is not good, and never has been, which makes it somewhat ironic that much of my thought these days goes to language.” Kuhn may have been confessing to more than a personal weakness. His linguistic ineptitude seems to be a clue to his overweening emphasis on the difficulty of “transworld travel.” Multilingualism remained for him an abstraction. In this respect, I will argue, Kuhn engendered a peculiarly American turn in the history of science. Kuhn’s argument for the dependence of science on the norms of particular communities has been central to the development of studies of science in and as culture since the 1980s. Recent work on the mutual construction of science and nationalism, for instance, is undeniably in Kuhn’s debt. Nonetheless, the Kuhnian revolution cut off other avenues of research. In this essay, I draw on the counterexample of the physician–historian Ludwik Fleck, as well as on critiques by Steve Fuller and Ted Porter, to suggest one way to situate Kuhn within the broader history of the history of science. To echo Kuhn’s own visual metaphors, one of the profound effects of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions on the field of history of science was to render certain modes of knowledge production virtually invisible.

View the paper hereRise, Grubenhund: On Provincializing Kuhn