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Murray Rothbard and Thomas Kuhn

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05/01/2020

Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) had a great influence on Murray Rothbard’s An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought. (Incidentally, this is my favorite of Rothbard’s books—it’s enormously learned and insightful.) This at first seems surprising. Though people differ about what Kuhn meant, many take him to deny that science gives access to the real world. Truth is relative to a “paradigm,” another much disputed word. But Rothbard not only accepts scientific realism, he says that Austrian economics provides knowledge that is necessarily true. How can Rothbard accept Kuhn on the history of science but maintain his realism unscathed? For him, there is no problem. He rejects Kuhn’s philosophy but accepts much of what he says about the history of science.

Rothbard explains the situation in this way:

The continual progress, onward-and-upward approach was demolished for me, and should have been for everyone, by Thomas Kuhn’s famed Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn paid no attention to economics, but instead, in the standard manner of philosophers and historians of science, focused on such ineluctably “hard” sciences as physics, chemistry, and astronomy. Bringing the word “paradigm” into intellectual discourse, Kuhn demolished what I like to call the “Whig theory of the history of science”. The Whig theory, subscribed to by almost all historians of science, including economics, is that scientific thought progresses patiently, one year after another developing, sifting, and testing theories, so that science marches onward and upward, each year, decade or generation learning more and possessing ever more correct scientific theories. On analogy with the Whig theory of history, coined in mid-nineteenth century England, which maintained that things are always getting (and therefore must get) better and better, the Whig historian of science, seemingly on firmer grounds than the regular Whig historian, implicitly or explicitly asserts that “later is always better” in any particular scientific discipline. The Whig historian (whether of science or of history proper) really maintains that, for any point of historical time, “whatever was, was right”, or at least better than “whatever was earlier”. The inevitable result is a complacent and infuriating Panglossian optimism. In the historiography of economic thought, the consequence is the firm if implicit position that every individual economist, or at least every school of economists, contributed their important mite to the inexorable upward march. There can, then, be no such thing as gross systemic error that deeply flawed, or even invalidated, an entire school of economic thought, much less sent the world of economics permanently astray. Kuhn, however, shocked the philosophic world by demonstrating that this is simply not the way that science has developed. Once a central paradigm is selected, there is no testing or sifting, and tests of basic assumptions only take place after a series of failures and anomalies in the ruling paradigm has plunged the science into a “crisis situation”. One need not adopt Kuhn’s nihilistic philosophic outlook, his implication that no one paradigm is or can be better than any other, to realize that his less than starry-eyed view of science rings true both as history and as sociology. But if the standard romantic or Panglossian view does not work even in the hard sciences, a fortiori it must be totally off the mark in such a “soft science” as economics, in a discipline where there can be no laboratory testing, and where numerous even softer disciplines such as politics, religion, and ethics necessarily impinge on one’s economic outlook (An Austrian Perspective, vol. 1, pp. ix–x)

In a lecture he gave in 1986, Rothbard elaborates with characteristic force on what he accepts from Kuhn and what he rejects:

Kuhn has caught a lot of flak on his philosophy of science, which he claims he doesn’t really have. I think he’s not interesting as a philosopher; he is interesting as a historian and a sociologist of science, asking, How did science actually develop? And essentially what he says is that this linear, step-by-step stuff isn't the case. First of all, nobody ever tests their basic axioms, ever. That’s of course obviously true. Once an axiom (or a “paradigm,” as he put it, a set of basic beliefs) is adopted, people just apply it. Now, various peripheral matters or “puzzles,” he calls them, come up, but anybody who challenges the basic paradigm is considered not a scientist. Not that he’s refuted, I think, just out of the dialogue: he’s had it.

So this pegs on for a while until various anomalies pop up until the theory begins obviously to fail in explaining a lot of stuff, and then there’s a crisis situation, as he calls it, where confusion and competing paradigms come up. If some new paradigm can solve these puzzles better, it then begins to take over and establishes a new paradigm, and they forget all the rest of the stuff.

Now, he is alleged to have said that no paradigm’s any better than the other. I don’t think that’s true. But at any rate, the interesting thing, what happens here is that you lose knowledge. Even if this paradigm’s better than that, often stuff gets lost along the way. One example is, of course, Greek fire. We didn't know until very recently what Greek fire was. We now know it’s like flamethrowers, but we only found that out when we invented flamethrowers.

In 1900 nobody knew what Greek fire had been. Another example of course was the Stradivarius violin varnish, which nobody can duplicate, because you can’t test everything, can’t figure out the composition—secret formulas, in other words, which get lost.

These are obvious, blatant examples. A friend of mine in the history of science says there are certain laws of 18th-century optics that we’ve forgotten. We know less about certain areas of optics than they did in the 18th century. At any rate, when we get to the social sciences and philosophy, this is much more true.

By the way, another thing I should say is that the old guys never change, they don’t shift to the new paradigms, usually. The old guys will stick to it until they die. The people who adopt the new paradigms are the younger people—graduate students, college students who are not intellectually locked into the old paradigm.

A famous example of that is Joseph Priestley, the late-18th-century libertarian and physicist, who discovered oxygen, and refused to believe it was really oxygen. He was so locked into the Phlogiston theory that he said it's only dephlogisticated air. He refused to acknowledge the implication of his own invention, his own discovery. Incredible. At any rate, this is very typical.

I’d like to say a little bit more about Kuhn’s philosophy. His relativist views depend on very controversial philosophical positions. He supported a strong version of “meaning holism,” according to which the theoretical terms of a science can’t be defined outside a particular theory. For example, “mass” in Newton’s physics means something different from “mass” in Einstein’s. Also, observation is so theory laden that advocates of different theories see the world differently. No neutral description of the world enables one to say that a theory is closer to the truth than its predecessor.

But is Kuhn correct? It seems counterintuitive to say that because Newton and Einstein had different theories about space and time, they literally saw different worlds. There is no good reason to accept Kuhn’s exaggerated claims. Two good criticisms of Kuhn’s views are D.C. Stove’s Popper and After: Four Modern Irrationalists and Israel Scheffler’s Science and Subjectivity.

One objection to Rothbard’s views will probably have occurred to some readers. If science develops in the way he says it does, by one group of thinkers supplanting thinkers they have failed to convince, doesn’t this make truth in science relative after all? But this doesn’t follow. Truth and universal agreement aren’t the same thing. If other people reject what you claim is true, it may be a good idea to check over your reasoning. But if your reasoning holds up, you shouldn’t change your mind. Austrian economics holds up very well under this test.

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Contact David Gordon

David Gordon is Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute, and editor of The Mises Review.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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