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
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Date: 2023-04-05 14:04:02+00:00
From: Willard McCarty <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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
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.
Professor emeritus, King's College London;
Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews; Humanist
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