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Humanist Archives: April 6, 2023, 7:39 a.m. Humanist 36.514 - being popular

              Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 36, No. 514.
        Department of Digital Humanities, University of Cologne
                      Hosted by DH-Cologne
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        Date: 2023-04-05 14:04:02+00:00
        From: Willard McCarty <>
        Subject: paradigms and a great book

Those here with interest in what was happening in the broader 
intellectual environment when digital humanities began will have 
read Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962)
As Ian Hacking wrote in the 'Introductory Essay' to the 50th 
Anniversary Edition (2012), "Great books are rare. This is one. Read 
it and you will see." He advises the reader to skip his bit and go 
straight to Kuhn's text, but most of us, I suspect, won't do that. 
It's a fittingly great introduction.

More than a decade has passed, and now we have Steven Shapin's review 
of The Last Writings of Thomas S. Kuhn: Incommensurability in Science
(2022), which tells the personal story. "The tragedy of Thomas Kuhn's
life was to have written a great book", he begins, and then we get the 
details. What interests me in this tragedy is the real peril of being
popular, or more accurately, of having one's ideas fit the moment perfectly 
and writing so well that they can be in that moment easily misunderstood,
as Kuhn's were. None of us is likely to write a book that sells 1.7 million
copies and is translated into 42 languages, so we're unlikely to be in
any danger, however well we write. For us, I suppose, it's the striving to be 
popular that is the danger, and what that does to the writing of what one has 
to say.

I think you can see it all in Kuhn's first sentence: "History, if viewed as a 
repository for more than anecdote or chronology, could produce a decisive 
transformation in the image of science by which we are now possessed." 
Wow! Especially if one realises that "we" are we, "now" is now, "the 
image of science" he was talking about is still to be reckoned with and 
"possessed" names the condition.

Shapin's review is "Paradigms Gone Wild", London Review of Books 45.7,
for 30 March 2023.

Willard McCarty,
Professor emeritus, King's College London;
Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews;  Humanist

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