Ronen, Ruth: "Incommensurability and Representation"


Model I
(the naive realist view)
Model II
(the anti-realist view; or how Kuhn is usually being interpreted)
Model III
(the realist view of Kuhn)
One Nature No nature outside theory Nature outside theory
Commensurability Commensurability Incommensurability

Kuhn was understood by most philosophers of science as assuming the irrelevance of empirical reality or of nature to the language of science. Yet if that was case, why should there be such a difficulty in assuming commensurability among scientific theories? All one would have to do is elaborate the propositional content of one theory so that this will be graspable by holders of another theory. If such was Kuhn's claim, we would end in Model II, while in fact his views are better represented by Model III.
Kuhn's own later reaction, as many of his critics noted, is inconsistent with earlier statements made in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. This inconsistency can partly be explained if we see Kuhn as distinguishing between the "realist" view of the scientist scrutinizing the predictive potential of his theory vis-a-vis nature, and the position of the philosopher who knows that translation is always and necessarily imperfect and compromised. In other words, Kuhn (1977) allows the possibility of seeing theories as referring schema yet remains incredulous towards the possibility of a neutral algorithm for choosing a theory. From within a given scientific paradigm, failure of communication cannot be solved by translatability since part of the differences between holders of different theories "is prior to the application of the languages in which it is nevertheless reflected". Translation can hence supply areas for penetrating from one theory to another, yet in a revolutionary process translation cannot illuminate theory change.
In his later work Kuhn, I would claim, puts more and more emphasis on the philosopher's point of view, describing imperfections of translation and of reference determination, and less emphasis on the point of view of the scientist which predominated in the earlier work. Kuhn (1977) claims that a theory change creates a communicational divide among supporters of the separate theories because of the imperfect linguistic mechanisms of reference and translation.1 In other words, Kuhn accentuates to a greater extent the role of language not as a symptom of difference between worlds but as an autonomous sphere, whereas his earlier work saw meaning change as a symptom of cognitive and ontological divergence. This change in where the split among theories is located can explain the much more marginal place incommensurability occupies in Kuhn's later conceptions.2

1. In a paper published in 1976 Kuhn claims that theory transformation can be represented as juxtapositions of elements from a traditional core with others drawn from more recent developments, and that "distinct theories do overlap in occasional important applications". Kuhn, Thomas S. (1976). "Theory- Change as Structure-Change: Comments on the Sneed Formalism." Erkenntnis 10, p.179-199. [RETURN]

2. Sankey Howard (1991). "Translation Failure between Theories." Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science 22:2, p.223-236. [RETURN]

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