Clerestory

The Winners Write the Textbooks

November 14, 2021

The historian of science Thomas Kuhn (1922–1996), whom I recently introduced, argues that a tell-tale sign of a mature science is the appearance and usage of textbooks. He thinks that science is exceptional among disciplines in the extent to which textbooks are used.1

He begins this argument in Chapter XII of Structure (“Progress through Revolutions”). Science is unique in the degree to which it is “insulated” from outside criticism. This is partly thanks to how it is taught:

The effects of insulation from the larger society are greatly intensified by another characteristic of the professional scientific community, the nature of its educational initiation. In music, the graphic arts, and literature, the practitioner gains his education by exposure to the works of other artists, principally earlier artists. Textbooks, except compendia of or handbooks to original creations, have only a secondary role. In history, philosophy, and the social sciences, textbook literature has a greater significance. But even in these fields the elementary college course employs parallel readings in original sources, some of them the “classics” of the field, others the contemporary research reports that practitioners write for each other. As a result, the student in any one of these disciplines is constantly made aware of the immense variety of problems that the members of his future group have, in the course of time, attempted to solve. Even more important, he has constantly before him a number of competing and incommensurable solutions to these problems, solutions that he must ultimately evaluate for himself.

In other disciplines, practitioners are aware of the fundamental debates, and the whole history of problems they have solved or attempted to solve. Often to be a part of the discipline means engagement with primary sources. He’s also implying that primary sources are full of the eccentricities and interests which are inseparable, in primary sources, from the minds of individual authors.

Kuhn says this doesn’t happen in science.

Students of philosophy obviously read philosophers that are hundreds or thousands of years old. But scientists are not generally taught about anything other than current theories, and perhaps the most recent change to that theory. They don’t study the older theories in detail. Chemists don’t study phlogiston theory, astronomers don’t learn the Ptolemaic system, and physicists don’t learn Aristotelian physics.

At most, they know of them. They certainly are not trained to apply the old theories.

I plan to argue that when scientists do pick up a primary source, this has something to do with the literary merits of the author — as in the particularly intense case of Darwin.

Kuhn continues, noting how long textbooks are used in science (emphasis mine):

Contrast this situation with that in at least the contemporary natural sciences. In these fields the student relies mainly on textbooks until, in his third or fourth year of graduate work, he begins his own research. Many science curricula do not ask even graduate students to read in works not written specially for students. The few that do assign supplementary reading in research papers and monographs restrict such assignments to the most advanced courses and to materials that take up more or less where the available texts leave off. Until the very last stages in the education of a scientist, textbooks are systematically substituted for the creative scientific literature that made them possible. Given the confidence in their paradigms, which makes this educational technique possible, few scientists would wish to change it. Why, after all, should the student of physics, for example, read the works of Newton, Faraday, Einstein, or Schrödinger, when everything he needs to know about these works is recapitulated in a far briefer, more precise, and more systematic form in a number of up-to-date textbooks?

Science, then, has a strong tendency to rewrite its own history, and to substitute theory for the practice that produced the theory. Science replaces the map with the territory, or at least hides part of its own creative process. This, for Kuhn, is no bad thing; it is much faster to learn a country’s layout from the map than it is to explore it yourself as a cartographer. But of course all map-making faces trade-offs of representation.

Kuhn also implies that science is more convergent than other disciplines, in that it teaches everyone the same things. Kuhn takes this argument much further in a lecture he gave in 1973, called “Objectivity, Value Judgment, and Theory Choice.” I recorded a reading of that lecture here.

Kuhn calls “normal science” those periods when science is progressing by applying the currently dominant paradigm. During those periods, scientists receive a rigid training in the paradigm from textbooks.

In describing this rigidity, he offhandedly makes a stunning comparison:

Without wishing to defend the excessive lengths to which this type of education has occasionally been carried, one cannot help but notice that in general it has been immensely effective. Of course, it is a narrow and rigid education, probably more so than any other except perhaps in orthodox theology. But for normal-scientific work, for puzzle-solving within the tradition that the textbooks define, the scientist is almost perfectly equipped.

He repeats the comparison between science and theology in Chapter XI, “The Invisibility of Revolutions”:

Furthermore, though the point can be fully developed only in my concluding section, the analysis now required will begin to indicate one of the aspects of scientific work that most clearly distinguishes it from every other creative pursuit except perhaps theology.

Science and theology, for Kuhn, are both creative pursuits, but critically, they are also extremely narrow.

A few pages later, he emphasizes that science rewrites history, and that this is adaptive:

For the moment let us simply take it for granted that, to an extent unprecedented in other fields, both the layman’s and the practitioner’s knowledge of science is based on textbooks and a few other types of literature derived from them. Textbooks, however, being pedagogic vehicles for the perpetuation of normal science, have to be rewritten in whole or in part whenever the language, problem-structure, or standards of normal science change. In short, they have to be rewritten in the aftermath of each scientific revolution, and, once rewritten, they inevitably disguise not only the role but the very existence of the revolutions that produced them. Unless he has personally experienced a revolution in his own lifetime, the historical sense either of the working scientist or of the lay reader of textbook literature extends only to the outcome of the most recent revolutions in the field.

Although this next section repeats bits of the above argument, it’s important enough to quote in full, because he is essentially arguing that scientific traditions do not exist in historical terms, but only in retrospect.

Textbooks thus begin by truncating the scientist’s sense of his discipline’s history and then proceed to supply a substitute for what they have eliminated. Characteristically, textbooks of science contain just a bit of history, either in an introductory chapter or, more often, in scattered references to the great heroes of an earlier age. From such references both students and professionals come to feel like participants in a long-standing historical tradition. Yet the textbook-derived tradition in which scientists come to sense their participation is one that, in fact, never existed. For reasons that are both obvious and highly functional, science textbooks (and too many of the older histories of science) refer only to that part of the work of past scientists that can easily be viewed as contributions to the statement and solution of the texts’ paradigm problems. Partly by selection and partly by distortion, the scientists of earlier ages are implicitly represented as having worked upon the same set of fixed problems and in accordance with the same set of fixed canons that the most recent revolution in scientific theory and method has made seem scientific. No wonder that textbooks and the historical tradition they imply have to be rewritten after each scientific revolution. And no wonder that, as they are rewritten, science once again comes to seem largely cumulative.

Sound familiar? This is quite similar to the thread I’m working on in whether there was a West, and especially in How the West Was Spun, about rewriting history to make the present appear to be the telos of the past.

It’s not just science that does this:

Scientists are not, of course, the only group that tends to see its discipline’s past developing linearly toward its present vantage. The temptation to write history backward is both omnipresent and perennial. But scientists are more affected by the temptation to rewrite history, partly because the results of scientific research show no obvious dependence upon the historical context of the inquiry, and partly because, except during crisis and revolution, the scientist’s contemporary position seems so secure. More historical detail, whether of science’s present or of its past, or more responsibility to the historical

I’ll save a longer discussion for tomorrow. The point about “writing history backward” is critical.

I covered some of this stuff in my Kuhn thread. For example, on paradigms and textbooks, or the section on the invisibility of revolutions.


  1. This was certainly my experience in studying literature; I had a textbook as a freshman in high school, but not thereafter, and certainly not by the time I was studying literature as an undergraduate. I can imagine some of the social sciences might use textbooks as an undergraduate, and as Kuhn argues, the natural sciences use them for much longer.

Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.