Debates Over Big and Small

In a class yesterday, someone pulled a “that’s basic Kuhn” on me. Granted, I prefaced my first comment to the class in a somewhat antagonistic mode, stating that I was now inclined to append DNA to the list of concepts co-opted as metaphor from science by social theory (along with Relativity and the Uncertainty Principle), to poor effect. My orneriness has gone so far that I’ve been occasionally substituting “philosophy” in place of “theory” in terms such as “social theory,” “critical theory”, and even “media theory.” I think to myself, where exactly is this supposed “empiricism” (of Marx and others), and is this “theory” falsifiable? Of course, to raise the principle of the falsibility of theory is to betray my sympathies with Karl Popper, who debated with Thomas Kuhn on the nature of change in science. Kuhn is evidently a favorite of many critical philosophers because he, rightly, points out the role of “received beliefs” (assumptions) inherent to a scientific paradigm. Marxists also like him because of the perceived sympathy of a scientific paradigm shift with social revolt.

In any case, I’m struck by how similar this supposed debate between Popper and Kuhn is to the debate between Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould over gradual versus punctuated equilibrium. I’m fond of all of these authors and their approaches and don’t see any necessary contradictions.

(I wonder if in evolution of language, and chain letters, whether instances exhibit gradual or punctuated transitions?)

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