Earlier this week, a cool Twitter thread happened, started by @_Varsha_Venkat’s query to historians about any pivotal, paradigm-shifting (for them) books they’d read
#twitterstorians, what is one book that changed how you looked at the discipline?
— elizabeth warren called me, me varsha (@varsha_venkat_) January 28, 2019
A great discussion broke out in the replies, as one would expect when a bunch of historians are asked about books. I learned all sorts of things: very few historians write as well as William Cronin did, for example, and a lot of the books that changed our view of the discipline weren’t in our specific subfields or areas of expertise. This was certainly the case for my selection:
Kuhn, Structure of Scientific Revolutions
— Kevin Gannon (@TheTattooedProf) January 28, 2019
When I thought about the books which were the paradigm-shifters in my own journey as a historian, it was the book which made “paradigm shift” an actual thing in our scholarly discourse that came immediately to mind. I first encountered Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions my (first) senior year as an undergraduate History major, where it was part of the reading list for a seminar on the Scientific Revolution I took with the professor who was also my undergraduate advisor. I still vividly remember the feeling, when it came time to read it during the semester, that Kuhn just made sense. Other students warned me that it was hard, it was boring, it was too dense, but for whatever reason, Kuhn’s framework and discussion just clicked for me. I was absolutely stoked for the class day in which we discussed the book; there was so much I wanted to say, to ask, to listen to, about this text.
Throughout my growth as a historian, I’ve been fascinated by theory. Theoretical constructs that explain, alter, or even repudiate our perspectives about the past are powerful intellectual tools; even those who disparage “theory” in favor of “just the facts” are still operating within a clearly-defined theoretical framework, no less powerful for being disavowed. The danger of course, is when theory becomes used as teleology, as with the (highly aggravating) deployment of “American exceptionalism,” for example, or when theories that didn’t originally intend to be deterministic are made that way by subsequent users and adherents (a plague amongst some practitioners of Marxist approaches to history). Kuhn’s work might be the best example of the power that theory has to help us understand the past, not only as those living in the past understood it, but in the type of scope and scale which would have been difficult–if not impossible–to comprehend on the individual level.
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions argues we can best understand these revolutionary moments (historically speaking) as “paradigm shifts.” This is different, Kuhn explains, than an appeal to the idea of an inexorable march of progress. With science, he warns, it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of seeing every scientific “advance” as an inevitable continuation of a process that’s been going on since we’ve had something we could call “science.” That logic basically says that as we learn more and get better technology and more people do science, then we get “discoveries.” In other words, it was only a matter of time (and better telescopes) before we figured out how the solar system operates. But historians have shown that’s not really how things went, and Kuhn is fully aware of that. The discoveries which are the stuff of scientific revolutions, he argues, don’t proceed in linear fashion, but rather occur as points of disruption and–initially, at least–objects of resistance.
Putting the “revolution” back into “scientific revolution,” Kuhn helps us see the truly radical nature of these new frameworks, especially in their fundamental critique of those already extant. These new frameworks arise out of “anomalies” which cannot be explained within the current “paradigm” in which scientific thought and practice is conducted. Kuhn uses the term paradigm to denote a “coherent tradition of scientific research,” one which “served for a time to implictly define the legitimate problems and methods of a research field for succeeding generations of practitioners.” There are historical moments where something happens that the existing paradigm cannot readily explain; this is the “anomaly” that–if sufficient in scope and import–can lead to a “scientific revolution.”
These anomalies don’t produce revolutions straightaway, though; they spark a “crisis.” Copernican astronomy was a response to the crisis produced by the inability of the Ptolemaic paradigm to account for observed phenomena which contradicted the basic agreements upon which that paradigm rested. Examples abound: “Thermodynamics was born from the collision of two nineteenth-century physical theories,” Kuhn points out, “and quantum mechanics from a variety of difficulties surrounding black-body radiation, specific heats, and the photoelectric effect.” In these and almost all the other cases Kuhn cites from the fifteenth century forward, “the awareness of anomaly had lasted so long and penetrated so deep that one can appropriately describe the fields affected by it as in a state of growing crisis.” This is an unsustainable state of affairs, and eventually the response is the creation of a new paradigm, one which can account for what initially appeared as anomalies in the older, and now clearly incomplete, paradigm. But this “paradigm shift” is most certainly the product of “crisis,” and all of the dislocations, anxiety, resistance, and dissonance that comes with it.
Kuhn’s theoretical construct, his identification of a process by which scientific revolutions happen, has proven remarkably durable and influential. Indeed, the explanatory power in his idea of a “paradigm shift” has led to other scholars appropriating the concept to explain disruptive processes and events in areas ranging from psychology to economics to art history to anthropology. It seems as if Kuhn was able to put words onto what had previously been an abstract, intuitive impression of how historical change occurs. And this is why I’ve been thinking about Kuhn a lot lately, and perhaps explains why Structure of Scientific Revolutions was in the front of my mind when the impactful books discussion broke out on Twitter. Last semester, in my History of Capitalism course, our concluding module was on the 2008 crash and the debate over alternatives to neoliberal capitalism, in which we identified an even more powerful embrace of the neoliberal model in the corridors of power throughout much of the West. My students had read some Hayek, some Friedman, and even ventured into a bit of von Mises’s stuff, and their frustration was remarkably evident. As one of them simply blurted out in the middle of a discussion, “this shit doesn’t explain today!”
I’m certainly not the first person to apply Kuhn’s theory to contexts beyond the particular scientifically revolutionary moments he discussed. But I have been wrestling for years with the dissonance between the explanatory models in economics and history, and our present day context. My student’s stark description–this shit doesn’t explain today–was a clarifying moment, and since then I’ve been wondering if we might not benefit from looking at our current US political moment as a Kuhnian-style crisis, wrought by the accumulation of anomalies within an unsustainable paradigm. Can we scale Kuhn up to interpret our current state of affairs in a way that brings both clarity and possible solutions to the conversation? I think we can. Moreover, I think we should.
Seeing our present moment as a crisis occasioned by the beginnings of a Kuhnian paradigm shift allows us to address the root causes of our difficulties in ways that move beyond the tired and lazy takes about how “polarized” everything seems to be. As any US historian can tell you, hyperpolarization is not just a recent phenomenon, even if it seems that way due to the obsessive coverage inherent in our 24-hour news cycle and saturated political media environment. Too many lamentations about polarization mistake the symptom for the disease. Through a Kuhnian lens, our hyperpolarization might be seen as a dual-faceted manifestation of resistance: resistance sparked for some by the inadequacy of our current paradigm to account for their present reality; for others, resistance to both the idea that a new paradigm is necessary and what that new paradigm might entail.
The current paradigm shaping our frameworks of governance, our economic landscape, and thus the very ways in which we see ourselves and our relations to others, is neoliberalism. Even the range of legitimate answers to such basic questions like “what motivates humans?” and “to what ends ought we to associate in a social contract?” are circumscribed by the neoliberal paradigm. Neoliberalism–a historically-conditioned, specific ideological paradigm, not the vague, catch-all pejorative it’s often used as–is so hegemonic in our mentalité that we end up like fish asked to describe water: unable to clearly describe the all-pervasive structures in which we spend our every moment. Beginning with the Mont Pelerin Society, intensifying with Milton Freidman and the Chicago School, achieving political dominance in the Reagan and Thatcher regimes, and continuing to shape public discourse at this moment, the neoliberal creed has fashioned itself as the paradigm par excellence of our time.
Neoliberal ideology has provided a set of tools with which its advocates have quite effectively dismantled and delegitimized the institutions that comprise the very soul of our society. While specific policy and initiative recommendations may embody differing regional and contextual flavors, there is a general consensus that unites the diverse array neoliberal thinkers and politicians. The key elements of this consensus are “free markets” and “free trade.” Neoliberals hold “a common belief in the power of ‘self-regulating’ free markets to create a better world.” Neoliberalism extracts the “individual freedoms” portion of regular old classical liberalism from its surrounding context of communal and reciprocal social obligations. Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, with its glorification of individual greed as the only sufficient motivation for human achievement is one expression of the neoliberal creed. The insistent refrain that “privatization” of public programs like social security–or public education–is the only way to ensure those programs work is another. Neoliberalism operates on a specific set of assumptions about motivation. Only the pursuit of self-interest, which is upheld as the true measure of rationality, is sufficient motivation for meaningful action. As David Harvey put it,
Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade…[It] holds that the social good will be maximized by maximizing the reach and frequency of market transactions, and it seeks to bring all human action into the domain of the market.
Aren’t these the phrases we hear so frequently in our political discourse that we treat them like background noise, like the HVAC system that runs in our classroom building all the time, but that we only notice when someone new to the area points out how loud it is? Entrepreneurs. Free Markets. Property rights. Free Trade. Who would question the inherent goodness of these things? After all, aren’t they they things that make our society work?
reflexively answering these questions in the affirmative is the creation of what Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval call “a certain existential norm” that neoliberalism has created in the West:
This norm enjoins everyone to live in a world of generalized competition; it calls upon wage-earning classes and populations to engage in economic struggle against one another; it aligns social relations with the model of the market; it promotes the justification of ever greater inequalities; it even transforms the individual, now called on to conceive and conduct him- or herself as an enterprise…this existential norm has presided over public policy, governed global economic relations, transformed society, and reshaped subjectivity.
There is no choice involved in whether or not one participates in this system; one cannot feasibly opt out of an existential norm. Our everyday lives and interactions unfold within structures built by neoliberalism in its guise as “everyday common sense.”
Except it’s no longer common sense. This shit doesn’t explain today.
Pointing to an assumed inherent goodness in “the market” to justify decades’ worth of stagnation or decline in Real Wages isn’t cutting it for most workers today. Talking about “efficiencies” to justify the ruthless and exploitative gig economy is not a reassurance to those caught within its vortex. Advocates of privatization swear that private enterprise can do what the public sector does better and cheaper, but those paeans to “free enterprise” ring hollow now that it’s abundantly clear that privatization of public services has operated as no more than a bald-faced scam, enriching crony capitalists and delivering a far worse outcome than the public sector ever did. Neoliberals like to argue against policies like Universal Basic Income by claiming that “free money” provides no incentive to work, and thus UBI would lead to an epidemic of sloth which threatens civilization itself. But that’s only true if money provided the sole motive for human activity; neoliberals project their own desires onto the rest of us. We were told that letting “job creators” pay less in taxes would lead to a re-investment in jobs and the US economy; the tax cut became law and companies continue to offshore themselves as the promised jobs remain illusory. Deficit scolds on the Right insist we can’t afford things like higher education funding or universal health care, but spend money like drunken sailors on shore leave when it comes to the defense budget. None of them ever ask if we can afford the invasion of another country, but medicare for all (which would cost but a fraction of what the US has spent in Iraq since 2012) would be the height of fiscal irresponsibility.
Who are you gonna believe: them, or your lyin’ eyes?
The neoliberal paradigm, never as whole as it wished itself to be, is now in crisis. It is evident to anyone paying attention that it cannot be sustained. We are at a juncture where, in Kuhnian terms, a paradigm shift is in the offing. It is a crisis point, resistance is multifaceted and all-pervasive. But, as Kuhn showed with scientific revolutions, a paradigm shift is often a messy and indefinite process. In other words, we may be in the process of exiting one paradigm, but it’s far from clear what the paradigm which replaces it looks like.
We might hazard some guesses, though. We could be shifting into a paradigm that replaces a market-defined ethos with ideas about racial superiority and inferiority as the chief determinants of how society and polity view individuals and their rights. The US election of 2016 and our current age of Trump might well be the birth pains of that new paradigmatic structure. Conversely, rejection of the neoliberal paradigm might lead–after the crisis passes–to a new set of structures, perhaps modeled on a Scandinavian-style hybrid socialism, where the welfare state is once again ensconced as the guarantor of basic human dignity in both economic and political terms.
Or, the paradigm shift we can see in the offing may be aborted. What if the Pope had decreed execution for Galileo? What if the growing willingness to repudiate the neoliberal paradigm sparks its defenders (who, we should be clear, have an enormous interest in maintaining its hegemony) to employ any means necessary to forestall opposition, to end the crisis by force? Can we look at things like Ferguson or Charlottesville and not see the determination of the ancien regime to maintain itself? After all, one of the most effective ways for those invested in the current paradigm to address the rising tide of anomalies is to suppress the anomalies, as opposed to entertain any questions regarding the paradigm itself.
We know now how scientific revolutions unfolded in response to the epistemic and empirical crises triggered by the existence of anomalies. We also know that even when there was a sense the old paradigm was giving way, there wasn’t consensus or even certainty about what would replace it. When the answers don’t make sense because the questions themselves are wrong, where does one go from there? Copernicus wasn’t the only one with a theory about how the solar system worked; ultimately his was the one vindicated, but only via a process characterized by anxious uncertainty and bitter resistance.
We don’t know now what the next historical moment will bring. It’s evident that the hegemonic sway of the neoliberal paradigm in the West is no more. But just because it’s not hegemonic doesn’t mean it isn’t powerful. If we theorize our moment as situated in a Kuhnian process of paradigm shift, we gain several important insights. First, we recognize that what are often characterized as causes of present day socio-political ills (polarization! anger! “identity politics!”) are actually just the symptoms. Seeing things like partisan rancor and polarization as signs of a crisis wrought by the failure of our current paradigm to account for most of our lived experiences allows us to discern the structural nature of the problem. Without an accurate diagnosis, there is no treatment.
Second, we understand that neoliberalism, while entrenched and fiercely protective of itself, is not a set of universal truths, but a historically-conditioned idological program that was the product of choices, not some historical inevitabilty. Contra Margaret Thatcher, there certainly are alternatives..
Third, we avoid falling into the teleological trap of thinking everything will just get better over time. Paradigm shifts are not linear, and we should well remember that a new paradigm might be worse than the one we’re shoving into the dustbin of history.
Finally, looking at our moment as a Kuhnian paradigm shift (one already underway, to boot) helps us remember the power of agency and continency. Marx was right in his claim that humans do not get to make their history in circumstances of their own choosing. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t choices to be made. After all, the neoliberal paradigm is itself the product of specific, conscious choices made by economic and political elites over the last six decades. Kuhn identifies a structure in which big-ticket historical events (like scientific revolutions) take place, but in a seeming paradox, the role of the individual matters deeply. Structural change is in many ways the sum total of individual decisions.
The best theories help us render the abstract tangible, to explain seemingly universal processes in historical particulars. By doing so, theories become not just clarifying, but empowering. Using Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions to examine the potentially revolutionary nature of our current historical moment is an assertion of power as well. If we name the processes at work, we put boundaries on them–as opposed to letting them seemingly stretch into infinite space. in defining those processes, we claim power over them. To understand a process is to be able to shape it. Awareness of that power and the motivation to use it are essential features of any progressive program going forward. A set of theoretical tools that helps us see the need for, and even begin to articulate, a new paradigm is one of our most valuable possessions.
-  In retrospect, this seems to be the moment where it became abundantly clear I would spend my life being an unabashed history dork.↩
-  It’s a long way from Marx’s famous declaration in the Eighteenth Brumaire that “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” and the claim that historical change is determined by economic factors. A set of constraints on the options available to historical agents is not the same thing as there being only one course of action available. But that’s a post for another day.↩
-  The best analogy I’ve heard to describe this complex set of vantage points that makes up historical perspective is to imagine how a person walking through a field would describe their environment, and then consider a person looking down on the area from an airplane thousands of feet in the air. Both would be describing the same terrain, but it’s in this combination of perspectives–granular and macro–where we find what historians do.↩
-  Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970 [orig. 1962]), 10.↩
-  Ibid., 52-76, quoted at 67.↩
-  A couple of the best treatments of our current moment are George Monbiot, How Did We Get into This Mess? Politics, Equality, Nature (New York: Verso, 2016) and Pankaj Mishra, Age of Anger: A History of the Present (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2017). Both are trenchant and thoughtful critiques. ↩
-  David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 2-3. ↩
-  Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, The New Way of the World: On Neoliberal Society, transl. Gregory Elliot (New York: Verso, 2013), quoted at 3.↩
-  Margaret Thatcher repeatedly asserted “there is no alternative” to the economic agenda she proposed as Prime Minister; so oft-used was this phrase that it became abbreviated “TINA.” ↩