Why 'Liberals' Could Benefit from an Introduction to Thomas Kuhn

It is because every individual knows little and, in particular, because we rarely know which of us knows best that we trust the independent and competitive efforts of many to induce the emergence of what we shall want when we see it.
                                                                        --F.A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty

The current political atmosphere in America is exceedingly poisonous.  But it is not conservatives who call for censoring or “canceling” people on the other side. Rep. Maxine Waters told her followers to get in people’s faces and drive them from the public square.  Angry “liberals” scream at Republicans in restaurants as they try to eat.  The mild gay conservative Andy Ngo was beaten into brain damage for the unforgivable sin of filming an “Antifa” demonstration.  The usually measured Barak Obama reminded his followers that one does not take a knife to a gunfight and called members of the “tea party” movement, “tea baggers,” a homosexual slur. Joe Biden said he wants to take Trump behind the gym and “beat the hell out of him.” A few days before the crucial 2021 Virginia governor race, Democrat James Carville stated that he “hates” people like the Republican challenger, GlennYoungkin.  Should a conservative like Trump tell his supporters to “fight like hell,” it is an “insurrection,” the “end of democracy” itself!  When, however, “liberals” use the same language (or even worse), they and their media allies issue a collective “yawn.” After all, liberals are defined as the “tolerant” ones.  Everyone (in the “liberal” bubble) can see that conservatives are the real problem.

One objective measure of the difference in hostility between “liberals” and “conservatives” is that, according to the 2016 nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute poll, “liberals” are at least three and a half times as much as conservatives to block or “unfriend” someone on social media over political disagreements. Twenty-eight percent of liberals surveyed said they removed someone from their social media groups because of political disagreements compared with 8 percent of conservatives and 11 percent of “moderates.”  It used to be normal in America for people on both sides of the aisle to affirm with pride that they can completely disagree with what someone says but resolutely defend their right to say it.  No more!  “Liberal” commentators like CNN’s Brian Stelter now argue that there is no need to present “both sides” of an issue because there is only one side, namely theirs.  What has happened to these people?

The answer is that many “liberals” are no longer real liberals. For a variety of reasons, including a one-sided educational system and a one sided “news” media, “liberals” feel entitled to dictate what others must believe.  Bari Weiss, herself a liberal journalist, wrote in her 2020 resignation letter from the New York Times that a lot of “liberal” “journalists” believe that they possess the truth and that it is their job to disseminate that truth to the unenlightened masses.

 In fact, “liberals” could benefit from the point in Thomas Kuhn’s famous 1967 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn argues that reasoning of the sort that gives rise to the great scientific revolutions, for example, the transition from the earth-centred Ptolemaic system to the sun-centred Copernican system does not take the nice neat logical form most people had thought. Prior to Kuhn, one assumed that the Ptolemaic and Copernican sides debated their positions until, eventually, the weight of the evidence-based rational argument in favour of the sun-centred Copernican model became overwhelming, resulting in the concession by the Ptolemaic camp – but that is not what happened.

Kuhn points out that each side in the great scientific debates have a paradigm, a fundamental model that shapes the way they reason and even the very way they “see” the facts. In the case at hand, the Ptolemaic side was certain they were right because the observational evidence is decisively on their side. The Copernicans claim that the earth moves around the sun but even a child can see with their own eyes that the earth stands while the sun moves. Since the Copernicans require one to deny what one sees in favour of some abstract viewpoint remote from the observed facts, the Copernican view does not even make sense to the Ptolemaic astronomers. 

            As Kuhn’s book puts it, the two opposing paradigms are “incommensurable.” They are so different they cannot even agree on the meanings of the terms of the discussion. Further, since each evaluates the other by reference to its own paradigm, the outcome of the debate is already settled before it has even begun.  Each side is, in effect, arguing in a circle. Since the Copernican view literally makes no sense from the Ptolemaic perspective, there is nothing that the Copernican can say to convince them (and vice versa). As a consequence, the historical debate was not settled when the Copernicans simply won the rational argument. For, it is not so much that the Copernican’s proved their view as that they persuaded people to change their paradigmatic ways of arguing and even of “seeing” the facts.

Although Kuhn developed his views in connection with scientific reasoning, his ideas have been applied in other areas.  Each moral or political camp has a paradigm that in incomprehensible to its opponents.  Contemporary “liberals” can “see” the “insurrection” on Jan. 6, 2021.  It is right there on the tapes CNN puts on the nightly “news”.  If the conservatives cannot “see” it they must be stupid or evil or both.  In fact, however, the concept of an “insurrection,” like the concept of the movement of a heavenly body, is heavily theory-laden concept.  Whether something is an “insurrection” or merely a riot caused by a disorganized bunch of fools who believed they had been cheated in an election is not something that can be settled by looking at video clips on a “news” channel.  There are a great many conditions that must be satisfied if something is legitimately to be called an “insurrection.” Thus, the belief that such matters are so obvious that those who hold different opinions must be mentally or morally flawed is as solid as the Ptolemaic astronomer’s belief that they can “see” that the Sun moves around the Earth.  In fact, people tend to “see” what their paradigm determines that they “see.”

The recognitions that human affairs are fraught with uncertainty and that each of us is highly fallible should convince people that their anger and intolerance is completely unjustified.  One of the great discoveries of democracy is that individual human beings, no matter how intelligent or well-educated, need the corrective of a free and fair discussion between opposing viewpoints as the best means to reach the truth.  The return to anger, intolerance and “one-sidedness” is a return to a pre-democratic authoritarian mindset in which the human race had not yet emerged from its adolescence.  It is also the admission that one cannot win a fair argument.

Richard McDonough (B.A. Pitt, 1971; Ph.D. Cornell, 1975), lives in Singapore where he has taught university courses in philosophy, psychology and occasionally physics and writing, for 34 years. 

Image: Davi.trip, via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

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