The Pitfalls and Possibilities of Following Koyré: The Younger Tom Kuhn, “Critical Historian,” on Tradition Dynamics and Big History

  • John A. Schuster


Late in his career, Thomas S. Kuhn practiced more as a philosopher of science than as a historian of science. However, his earlier work—leading up to TheStructure of Scientific Revolutions and during the majority of his tenure in the Princeton history of science group—focused on “mapping” the shape of the history of the physical sciences and on modeling the dynamics, or “motor,” of scientific traditions. This paper examines the younger Kuhn’s excursions in map and motor design. It views Kuhn as a “critical historian,” that is, a historian who constructs explanatory categories in order to apply them to large-scale narratives, evaluation of which can suggest modification of those guiding categories.

The younger Kuhn’s map and motor design was largely shaped by the work of his historiographical idol, Alexandre Koyré. Kuhn’s creative articulation of Koyré’s position explains his innovations concerning Scientific Revolutions (plural), his loosening of Koyré’s central category of “metaphysics,” and his invention of the crucial conception of “normal science.” Additionally, Kuhn’s devotion to Koyré explains some historiographical pitfalls and blind spots that bedeviled his historical work: for example, his ignoring early modern natural philosophizing as an institution and culture in its own right and his failure to capitalize on his correct insight into the nature of scientific discovery as the nonrevolutionary yet tradition-modifying core process in the sciences. The paper is concerned with Kuhn’s work as a critical historian and his legacy for younger historians, not with philosophical debates about his texts.


Thomas S. Kuhn Alexandre Koyré The Scientific Revolution Discovery Historiography of science Kuhnian normal science Kuhnian revolutionary science Metaphysics of science Experimental sciences Sociology of scientific knowledge Internalist/externalist debate 


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© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Unit for History and Philosophy of Science & Sydney Centre for the Foundations of ScienceUniversity of SydneySydneyAustralia

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