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the Complete Review
the complete review - philosophy

Kuhn vs. Popper

Steve Fuller

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To purchase Kuhn vs. Popper

Title: Kuhn vs. Popper
Author: Steve Fuller
Genre: Philosophy
Written: 2003
Length: 125 pages
Availability: Kuhn vs. Popper - US
Kuhn vs. Popper - UK
Kuhn vs. Popper - Canada
Kuhn vs. Popper - India
  • The Struggle for the Soul of Science
  • Includes a Glossary and Further Reading
  • The US edition has a Preface

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Our Assessment:

B+ : solid, tight, far-ranging survey

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist B 7/4/2003 .
Financial Times . 24/2/2005 A.C. Grayling
New Scientist . 6/9/2003 Ray Percival
TLS . 7/11/2003 Vincent Deary

  From the Reviews:
  • "It is perhaps admirable that Mr Fuller has clearly set out not to entertain but to exhort. If his book is lacking in urbanity, that is because it is what should properly be called a tract. (...) His book is too hurried to be an end in itself, and not thorough enough to convince sceptics of his point of view. (...) (H)is contrarian approach to Kuhn is certainly interesting, and his defence of Popper touching." - The Economist

  • "This is an eloquently written book, offering new and interesting perspectives on the moral and social ramifications of this debate." - Ray Percival, New Scientist

  • "By focusing on personality, Steve Fuller does his otherwise nuanced and informed analysis a disservice." - Vincent Deary, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In Kuhn vs. Popper Steve Fuller contrasts two influential 20th century philosophers and their work and legacies. Thomas Kuhn -- as the man behind The Structure of Scientific Revolutions -- remains a significant figure in the modern academy, with vast numbers of university students exposed to his work. Karl Popper has become a more secondary figure, and though he appears on the ascendant again, it is Kuhn who remains particularly influential in considering science.
       Fuller uses the Kuhn-Popper debate of 13 July 1965 as a springboard, though it doesn't offer quite the same dramatic confrontation that Popper's infamous meeting with Wittgenstein (recounted in the immensely popular Wittgenstein's Poker) had. It was less significant for the personal clash in that forum (which wasn't particularly impressive), but because it pitted two very different approaches and philosophies against each other, a debate -- "the most influential debate about science in the 20th century", Fuller calls it -- that Kuhn essentially won (in that his approach to science has become the dominant one) in an outcome Fuller finds to have been an unfortunate (and consequential) one.
       Fuller makes his personal opinion know from the first, admitting (at least in the new US preface -- though he doesn't much hide it elsewhere in the text either):

The more I have tried to make sense of Kuhn's words and deeds, the more I have come to regard him as an intellectual coward who benefitted from his elite institutional status in what remains the world's dominant society.
       In short chapters Fuller frames the debate, introduces the players (noting that the work of both -- but Popper, especially -- is more complex and ambiguous than generally acknowledged), and considers the implications of their approaches (real and theoretical). From why so few scientists concern themselves with many of these philosophical questions (while Kuhn's book has become central in other areas of academia) to the role of the university and the question of intellectual responsibility, Fuller covers a great deal of material. The writing is compact rather than dense, and fairly clear and approachable: it's serious stuff, but Fuller does well in making it accessible (and there's a glossary to help with some of the philosophical terms).
       Popper and Kuhn had very different views on science. Among other things, as Fuller puts it: Popper "held that science was much too important to be left to scientific discretion", while: "Kuhnian normal science was a politically primitive social formation that combined qualities of the Mafia, a royal dynasty and a religious order." Fuller stresses how conservative Kuhn's views are (and suggests why this is) -- noting also how The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is now read very differently than it was originally.
       Fuller also suggests why Popper's thought has been less successful in establishing itself -- including because of Popper's dialectical approach ("his deductivism was anti-inductivism, his liberalism anti-authoritarianism, his individualism anti-holism"), as well as the fact that followers tend to focus on certain aspects of his work, rather than the whole.
       Fuller is much more sympathetic to Popper's work, and the book usefully covers a broad range of it, suggesting its value (and some of the difficulties with it). Kuhn, on the other hand troubles him deeply, and he goes so far as to compare Kuhn's willingness "not to question the larger context" with Heidegger's attitude towards Nazism.
       Fuller obviously takes sides, which is fine, but his antipathy towards Kuhn is so strong that it slightly undermines the project as a whole: the bout was presented as Kuhn vs. Popper, but the T.K.O. came before the opening bell.
       This is a very interesting book, and a good introduction to some very important questions. Fuller's strong denunciation of Kuhn (who is presented as both intellectually and morally repellent) may come as something of a shock, but given the widespread uncritical acceptance (especially outside the sciences) of his thought, and the consequences thereof, it might be the necessary approach.
       A very good appendix on Further Reading is also helpful -- as, indeed, this book should seen as be a stepping stone, not a final statement. Fuller suggests as much as well in the US Preface, though the average reader might laugh when he writes:
I recommend that if you are interested in pursuing the issues raised in these pages, you should simply go to a library, or better still, one of the relevant archives. Archives are typically open for public inspection with advanced notice, and the archivists should be able to provide you with a catalogue of the items you can examine.
       Alas, even those living in major cities but without access to a university-affiliated library likely won't find most of the books he recommends for additional reading readily accessible, while the general reader is unlikely to be able to find or make the time to troll through archives (tempting as it sounds) .....

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Kuhn vs. Popper: Reviews: Steve Fuller: Books by Karl Popper under review: Other books about Karl Popper under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • Paul Feyerabend on the later Popper in his autobiography Killing Time
  • Feyerabend and Imre Lakatos make frequent mention of the old master while arguing For and Against Method
  • See Index of Philosophy books at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Steve Fuller was born in 1959. He teaches at the University of Warwick.

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© 2005-2021 the complete review

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