Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Is the Time of Intellectual Revolutions Past?

A question came up in a seminar I'm team-teaching with a buddy in sociology.  Is it possible to have another "Copernican revolution," that is, an idea so revolutionary that it changes the general worldview?  Thomas Kuhn argues that we think in paradigms, sets of basic assumptions that structure rationality, that define our most basic concepts, tell us what kinds of questions can be asked, what kinds of answers are acceptable, and what kinds of methods must be used to get answers.  A revolution occurs when one way of understanding the world is rejected for another, when we see ourselves living in a different world furnished with different types of objects in completely different relations. 

The question is whether we have overarching paradigms now.  Have we become so overspecialized that we are intellectually splintered to a degree where sub-sub-sub-specialities have their own languages, concepts, and methods and cannot talk across each other.  If so, then we would have mini-shifts, but could never change the whole landscape.  The dominoes are so isolated that even if one tips, it can never reach any of the surrounding dominoes. 

Or is there enough connection at the edges?  Molecular geneticists do not meet with ecologists, but there remain joints connecting them.  Particle physicists and cosmologists are related more than the separate communities would suggest.  We may not see the connections, indeed the practitioners may not see the interdependence themselves, but it is there and if you replace one piece, you will see the ripples radiate out.

So, are intellectual revolutions still possible?