My Time at the LSE: Part 2

This is the continuation of My Time at LSE Part 1, which I wrote three months ago.

Note that I paid not a penny for my five years at the LSE; like everybody else in the UK at that time, if you got a place at university, your fees were paid by the government and you got a means tested grant to cover basic living expenses too. My parents were deemed rich, so I didn’t get the grant, and my dad refused to give me any money because I’d turned down the chance to go to Oxford. Anyway, I got a scholarship which matched it.

We should also note that in 1965, less than 5% of the UK population were enrolled in a university degree course. Today, those finishing a degree course in the UK find themselves in debt to the tune of around 30,000 pounds sterling, and over 35% of the population are doing a university degree course.

In 1965 I was half way through a B.Sc (Econ) degree at the London School of Economics, having made the philosophy of science my special subject. I talked a bit about the philosophy department of LSE in Part 1, and alluded to the famous confrontation between Kuhn and Popper which took place at Bedford College in July 1965. I was there, and I remember the electric, testerone-charged (no women were among the main protagonists) atmosphere which lasted from start to finish. In what follows, I rely on Steffano Gettei’s (2008) account. Quotes are from his account, but the colloquial was later reported in a 4 volume work (edited by Lakatos, I think) which he cites, which I’ve actually got somewhere in this damn room, but which for the life of me I can’t find right now.

The Debate

It was billed as The International Colloquial in the Philosophy of Science, and the provisional programme had Popper as chairman, and 2 main papers: Kuhn on Dogma versus Criticism, followed by Feyerabend (defending Popper) on Criticism versus Dogma. At the last minute Feyerabend said he couldn’t come (genuine ill health), and Watkins took his place.  The final programme was Popper as chairman and Kuhn and Watkins giving a joint paper on Criticism and the growth of Knowledge.  Lakatos had been very busy organising all this and handled the correspondence with Kuhn (furious at all the changes) with his usual cunning.

So we all trooped in and took our places in the audience. Everybody was there as they say, including Quine, who, as far as I remember, never said a word. We put up with all sorts of blather from all sorts of university big wigs and then here comes Kuhn. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (one of my favorite websites) says “His 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is one of the most cited academic books of all time”.  He  looked jaunty compared to Popper, but he read every word from his notes, hardly looking up.

Kuhn on Science

Kuhn starts by challenging Popper’s claim that scientists start with theories and then test them. Kuhn says scientists first assume a “constellation” of theories shared by the scientific community, and premise current theory as “the rules of the game”. Scientists try to solve puzzles, and current theory is required to define that puzzle and “to guarantee that, given sufficient brilliance, it can be solved”. Very occasionally, repeated failures to solve puzzles within the context of the paradigmatic theory leads to a revolution in science. So Popper, Kuhn says, “characterized the entire scientific enterprise in terms that apply only to its occasional revolutionary parts”; he overlooks the function of normal science, and

neither science nor the development of knowledge is likely to be understood if research is viewed exclusively through the revolutions it occasionally produces. …. A careful look at the scientific enterprise suggests that it is normal science, in which [Popper]’s sort of testing does not occur, rather than extraordinary science which most nearly distinguishes science from other enterprises”.

Next, Kuhn attacks Popper’s view that science consists of learning from our errors. Well, learning from errors can only happen in periods of normal science and Popper’s use of the term “error” to refer to theoretical systems of the past, like Newton’s mechanics, is thus wrong.


Kuhn then gets to the nitty gritty: Popper’s main idea of falsification. While Popper grants that conclusive falsification can never happen, he assumes that it can. “Having barred conclusive disproof”, says Kuhn, “he has provided no substitute for it, and the relation he does employ remains that of logical falsification”.  Logic, says Kuhn, doesn’t decide what scientists do when faced with falsifications here and there (anomalies); rather they are moved by values, and so we have to understand the history of science in terms of the sociology of the scientific community. Scientists don’t behave as Popper claims they do: they’re not influenced by individual refutations, but rather by a mass of anomalies which makes them doubt the ability of the current paradigm and switch allegiance to another paradigm that deals better with the anomalies.

The criteria with which scientists determine the validity of an articulation or an application of existing theory are not by themselves sufficient to determine the choice between competing theories.

So Popper’s mistake is to ignore the characteristics of normal research.

In particular, he has sought to solve the problem of theory choice during revolutions by logical criteria that are applicable in full only when a theory can already be presupposed,

that is, during periods of normal science when research is guided by a paradigm.

Finally, Kuhn reiterates his main thesis: explanation in science is sociological.

It must, that is, be a description of a value system, an ideology, together with an analysis of the institutions through which that system is transmitted and enforced.

While Popper rejects a sociological approach to science, his own approach has obvious signs of ideology and a system of values for science.

Counter Attack

Then came Watkins. A decent man, a decent academic, but out of his league when compared to the big guns. He later pointed me out in an identity parade which led to my arrest on criminal charges, but that’s another story. Here’s a version of his defence of Popper, which doesn’t give an indication of Popper’s typical interruptions of what he was trying to say.

Popper’s Reply

For Popper, science is always revolutionary because science involves the evolution of critical thought. Discovery of something is always a discovery against something else, because, as in the case of Christopher Columbus, it collides with a constellation of established prejudices. Copernicus overturned Ptolemy, Newton went beyond Galileo and Kepler, and Einstein beyond Newton. Such changes are not rare events but rather the usual condition of scientific activity: science grows as “a revolution in permanence”.

While there’s a need for some dogmatism (“if we give in to criticism too easily, we shall never find out where the real power of our theories lies”), this doesn’t justify Kuhn’s belief that a ruling dogma dominates over considerable periods. Right through history, we can judge theories by their openness to criticism, and if we say that any particular hypothesis in our theoretical system clashes with reality, well that is itself a conjecture, a new hypothesis that needs testing. And,of course, always the whole constellation of theories is put in question.

Now here comes the kicker, and the root of what is still the argument between rationalists and relativists.

Kuhn suggests that the rationality of science presupposes the acceptance of a common framework. He suggests that rationality depends upon something like a common language and a common set of assumptions. He suggests that rational discussion, and rational criticism, is only possible when we have agreed on fundamentals

Popper replies

“the myth of the framework” is a logical and philosophical mistake.

It is, says Popper, the argument of the relativist. While we are, necessarily in every moment prisoners caught in the framework of our language, theories, past experiences and expectations,

we are only prisoners in a Pickwickian sense: if we try, we can break out of our framework at any time. Admittedly, we shall find ourselves again in a framework, but it will be a better and roomier one; and we can at any moment break out of it again.

(Sorry, but I can’t help intervening here to say how splendid I find this.)

We can always be critical, and Kuhn’s contrary thesis (i.e. the incommensurability thesis, the idea that different frameworks are like mutually untranslatable languages) is a dangerous dogma – “the central bulwark of irrationalism”.

The “myth of the framework” exaggerates a difficulty into an impossibility; in fact these clashes are fruitful and not a dead end; they lead to progress.

Kuhn sees incommensurability as an insurmountable problem, but we only need to confront problems, not deem them insurmountable, label them incommensurable and set them aside.

Well that was it, more or less. The consensus was that Popper had won the day. I remember feeling jubilant, and leaving the hall with LSE supporters feeling similarly buoyed up. Lakatos promised to meet us in the nearest pub and didn’t show up. I don’t know what happened to Popper or Kuhn that evening, but they certainly didn’t have supper together.

I’ve given a sketch of the most important event in academic history that I ever witnessed. It was thrilling to be in the same room as such brilliant people; thrilling to feel the charged atmosphere, thrilling to follow the arguments, thrilling to feel that my side had won. But I was also very aware of all the nasty bits: the huge egos, the bitchiness, the trickery, the lack of humour. Thinking about it now, the sexism of the all male star cast is what hits me most. In the LSE philosophy department, the big shots were all men, and they relied on the work done by their research assistants who were mostly women. Shame on me, I can only remember their first names: Helen, Rosy, Ruth, Jill, Ann, Julie. None of them is mentioned in the 4 volume report.

What to make of it all? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: an evaluation of scientific theories doesn’t depend on psychological or social factors related to their authors. That this scientist was a drunk, that one paranoid, and the other believed in fairies, or that they were all locked in a laboratory and told not to come out till they’d solved the puzzle, has nothing to do with an evaluation of the theory in question.

Khun’s nightmare must be to see how his suggestion that science is governed by “paradigms” has been adopted by relativists to support some of the worst academic work to be published in the last 50 years. The sociology of science is a subject taught all over the planet, often by charlatans, and it’s led to a proliferation of obscurantist nonsense being hoisted on gullible students everywhere. As I only recently discovered, the term “paradigm” is now used extensively in MA TESL programmes to “explain” where various views of learning come from. I discuss this in my post on paradigms, and elsewhere I’ve pointed out that, unless you adopt a relativist epistemology, the sociology of science has nothing to say about how to judge the merits of competing scientific theories which try to explain the phenomena we examine. Nothing!

In the end, it’s the epistemological question that really divides Popper and Kuhn. Kuhn argues for incommensurability: it’s impossible to switch from one theory to another without a different theory of rationality. Popper believes (as do I, and as do all rationalists), in objective truth, best formulated in Tarski’s correspondence theory of truth. Scientific knowledge is seen as knowledge without a knowing subject and scientific progress is progress towards truth, that is, the growth of knowledge.

In the world of ELT, there’s a growing tendency among those of a postmodernist persuasion to abuse poor old Thomas Kuhn and to use his texts in support of their daft views. They adopt their own silly version of Kuhn’s ideas and their tilt towards relativism because they suggest “exciting” new ways of looking at language learning and teaching. But they show no signs of understanding what they’re talking about. The issue is incommensurability. It all hinges on that, it really does.

Next time: Feyerabend comes to the LSE and talks of incommensurability and cabbages and kings.


Gattei, S. (2008) Thomas Kuhn’s Linguistic Turn and the Legacy of Logical Empiricism. London, Routledge.

9 thoughts on “My Time at the LSE: Part 2

  1. thx Geoff great read : )
    for a nice (beginners) discussion of strong & weak relativism Anthony Kwame Appiah has a couple of sections in his book Thinking it Through (chapters 9.6 and 9.7)


  2. Interesting!
    Just for curiosity’s sake, are you aware of UofToronto’s Jordan Peterson’s ride through post-modernist hell?


      1. Hi again,
        He is a clinical psychologist who has gone head on with post-modernism. He has come center stage because he has been speaking out against Canadian legislature that will prescribe the use of alternative pronouns. This is part of the trans-gender debate. His real concern, however, is his commitment to the western rational tradition. He has made his lectures public and is getting a fair amount of attention (with over a million views by now). I think his stress on rational discussion agrees with your view. He is very tough on relativism. That far the similarities; his diagnosis differs from yours quite a bit. What seems interesting to me is that he puts his career on the line speaking up for rational discourse. If he is right in what he is saying, I tend to agree, it is increasingly difficult to speak one’s mind if not committed to a relativist/ post-modern worldview.



      2. Interesting! I agree with him 100% about the daft Canadian C-16 Bill, and with his main criticisms of postmodernists. But not with his views (the little I’ve read of them, anyway) on God, atheists, Marx, capitalism, and, I suspect, much else besides.


    1. He has been in a few Youtube videos talking about the pronoun issue, hasn’t he? I think it’s deeply disconcerting that anyone can say “I control what language you may use” and their opponents are slapped with an anti-discrimination law!


  3. Hi again,
    Ergo, “that far the similarities; his diagnosis differs from yours quite a bit.” I don’t think he is just talking fluff. He appeals to reason and where opinions differ, dialogue is the solution. I like it that way. (I think it is the way Voltaire handled Rousseau.) I am glad he has the guts to take on relativism.


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