Front Page Titles (by Subject) Kuhn and Historical Truth - Literature of Liberty, July/September 1978, vol. 1, No. 3
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
Kuhn and Historical Truth - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, July/September 1978, vol. 1, No. 3 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
This work is copyrighted by the Institute for Humane Studies, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, and is put online with their permission.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Kuhn and Historical Truth
“T.S. Kuhn's Theory of Science and Its Implications for History.” American Historical Review 78 (1973): 370–393.
Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions and his description of how scientific research communities pursue truth pose searching questions for history. How is history as a knowledge seeking-discipline affected by the normative implications of Kuhn's philosophy of science (i.e., his sociological interpretation of validity as the evolving consensus of any particular research community)?
Kuhn's critics, such as Karl Popper and Imre Lakatos, fear that a social consensus standard of truth ignores an ideal logic of scientific justification—and its access to an objective natural order—that should serve as a firm standard of truth. Kuhn's champions demur and see the transition from a transcendent objectivity to a socially grounded objectivity as neither capricious nor irrational. Kuhn's view of progress in knowledge resembles Holmes's view that law (science) is what judges (scientists) say it is. This historicization of knowledge need not be irrational since law (science) as a part of culture partakes in culture's rational and moral standards. Kuhn does account for the validity of knowledge within a developmental and relativist perspective. But a partial truce to the warring sides in this debate might ensue if we carefully distinguish the historical sociology of scientific knowledge from the philosophy of scientific justification.
Can history, as a discipline, profit from Kuhn's concern for the relation of tradition to change and from his notions of “normal science,” “anomaly,” “crisis,” rival research “paradigms” and paradigm-shifts? What complicates this question is history's status (in Kuhn's terms) as an immature “proto-science.” Such an immature “science” is constantly in “crisis” without any solid consensus around a recognized paradigmatic research tradition. Aside from the obligation to be “reasonable,” there is little agreement in the historical community as to the nature of “good” history. But Kuhn would neither urge historians to ape such mature “hard sciences” as physics, nor replace narrative history with the “covering-law model” of hypothetico-deductive explanation.
How then is validity in historical explanation achieved? “Who should decide what to the relative satisfaction of whom” within the research community of history? Kuhn's reliance on community consensus for developing and validating knowledge resembles a Darwinian natural selection of theories, or a free market in ideas that produces a spontaneous order and emergence of truth. Would Kuhn admit, however, that professional research communities can make mistakes? Has he successfully avoided the need for a normative, objective standard of validity by concentrating on rival social constituencies? However these questions are resolved, it remains true that no work of historical scholarship will be regarded as “successful” unless it wins a consensus; that is, unless it persuades professional readers that (1) its questions are valid and comprehensible; (2) its sources are relevant to the inquiry; and (3) its analysis of sources is “rational” in the sense that the author's beliefs about human nature and historical causality are shared by his colleagues.
Many more issues are raised concerning valid historical knowledge, historical methodology, and the behavior of the professional community of historians in the light of Kuhn's ideas. These issues may be investigated in the extensive bibliographical footnotes of this article. Criticisms of Kuhn may be found in Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave, eds., Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge (Cambridge 1970); differences between Kuhn and Popper appear in David Bloor, “Two Paradigms in Scientific Knowledge?” Science Studies 1 (1971): 101–115. Other important studies include: J.G.A. Pocock, Politics, Language and Time (New York 1971); Hayden V. White, “The Tasks of Intellectual History,” Monist 53 (1969): 619; and Stephen Toulmin, “Rediscovering History: New Directions in Philosophy of Science,” Encounter (January 1971): 53–64.