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Thomas Kuhn and the T. S. Kuhn Archives at MIT

After I completed a book on Thomas Kuhn, the author of Structure of Scientific Revolutions, I thought I knew a lot about him. In my book, I argue that Kuhn’s recent, less frequently read work is key to understanding his views. Then I began to look in detail at Kuhn’s past and the influence his early work had in fields other than philosophy of science. I came across an intriguing and unexpected remark by Thomas Walker, a political scientist, in Perspectives on Politics. Walker reports that “while feeding his pet monkeys in Princeton Thomas Kuhn remarked how social scientists regularly misappropriated his idea of paradigms.” Pet monkeys? I had to know: How many pet monkeys did Kuhn have in his office?

Around this time, I began conducting research in the Thomas S. Kuhn Archives at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Special Collections Library has about 26 file boxes of letters, lecture notes, drafts of papers, and other documents, which Kuhn gave to the Library after he retired. I had visited the collection twice before, for week-long visits, but in 2015-2016, with a Visiting Scholar appointment in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at MIT, I had four months of regular access to the collection. This was fantastic!

These papers, lectures notes, and letters are valuable resources for reconstructing Kuhn’s thought-processes and testing our pet hypotheses about what did and did not influence Kuhn as he wrote one of the most original and influential books of the 20th century. There is, for example, a notebook he used in the late 1940s, documenting what he was reading and his thoughts on what he was reading. Along with reading W. V. Quine, A. J. Ayer, and Bertrand Russell, he read Max Weber. There is also a letter from the early 1950s from Philipp Frank, one of the original members of the Vienna Circle, on the prospects of assembling some sort of group of academics to foster sociological studies of science. Kuhn’s detailed response to Frank was never posted. And there is a series of quite warm letters written in the 1960s between Kuhn and Margaret Masterman. Masterman is famous for two reasons. She was present at the famous meeting of the Moral Sciences Club at Cambridge in 1946 where Karl Popper was the invited speaker, and Ludwig Wittgenstein allegedly threatened Popper with a fireplace poker over some sort of philosophical disagreement. And, in the 1960s, while hospitalized, Masterman counted all the different ways in which Kuhn used the term “paradigm” in Structure. She counted 21 different uses of the term! No wonder the term proved to be so fertile.

Also included in the Archives is a vast collection of letters between Kuhn and many readers of Structure—psychologists, sociologists, scientists, students, businessmen, etc. There are, for example, exchanges with two economists who would later win “Nobel Prizes in Economics,” Wassily Leontif and George Stigler. The exchange takes up the question of whether the cycle of development that Kuhn claims describes the development of the natural sciences accurately describes what happens in economics. There are also many letters from adoring fans expressing their appreciation for Kuhn’s insights, and some wanting to share their own (perhaps equally insightful!) ideas with him. What is remarkable is that Kuhn responded to so many of these letters.

Image credit: Portrait of the philosopher of science Thomas Samuel Kuhn by davi.trip. CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Kuhn’s lecture notes are also quite intriguing. Some are collected together on small cards, meticulously outlining the path of his projected lecture. Thumbing through a few sets of these I gained some insight into why he took so long to complete the manuscript for Structure, and why he never managed to complete his final much-anticipated book. On the back of a number of cards are very critical remarks about how the lecture went, including remarks about what he would not do again next time. He held himself to the highest standards. At times, they seemed paralyzing.

The variety of items in the collection is astounding. There are documents about his salary at various institutions (he was paid $25,000 at Princeton in 1969), grants applications, invitations to speak, etc. All of these provide valuable insight into the nature of the person who has made paradigm changes a part of our way of thinking about science and thought in general.

I am convinced that these resources may be the key to redirecting scholarship on Kuhn and his influences. Currently, many scholars writing about Kuhn and the development of his ideas are examining the influences of the broader culture in which he worked, on the quite plausible assumption that we all are products of our cultural milieu. Clearly, for example, Kuhn was influenced by the Cold War, especially given his close relationship with James B. Conant, then-President of Harvard, who was himself involved in the war efforts in the Second World War. To use an out-dated term, these are externalist histories. But Kuhn was himself committed to writing internalist histories. In a reflective turn, we stand to gain some deep insight into the author and his thoughts if we examine with greater care the intellectual influences on Kuhn.

Incidentally, I didn’t find anything about the monkeys in the archives. There is no mention of them in the correspondence I have read. There is not even a receipt for food. Fortunately, though, I had the opportunity to pursue the question of the monkeys with Kuhn’s daughter, Sarah. There was only one monkey. Walker’s remark was just hyperbole. But apparently, at some point, the monkey went to live with Wittgenstein’s niece. Thus there is still much to learn about the elusive man who gave us the notion of paradigm change.

Featured image credit: Lessons by kubiwka. CC0 via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. David

    Someone referred to Kuhn in an obituary as ‘a master of the universe’ – an evocative description of such a remarkable and influential thinker. Thank you for this insight into the more personal influences on his life and work.

  2. Mohan Matthen

    Great post! Thank you so much, Brad

  3. Evan Hadkins

    Read Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge.

  4. Grant Barber

    New book by Errol Morris, The Ashtray (Princeton U Press) might be of interest: addresses Kuhn’s anti-realism as challenged by Morris and others during grad school. Title comes from an ashtray that Kuhn reportedly threw at Morris in frustration during an argument.

  5. K. Brad Wray

    Thanks David.
    I am glad you enjoyed it. Kuhn is a fascinating thinker.

  6. K. Brad Wray

    Thanks Mohan,
    I am glad you liked it.
    Best wishes

  7. Stephen Goranson

    In a Los Angeles Review of Books review of Errol Morris, The Ashtray: The Man Who Denied Reality, Philip Kitcher says an incomplete last book by Kuhn will soon be published. Do you have any information on that?

  8. K. Brad Wray

    Kuhn’s last book is to be published by the University of Chicago Press – it is just a matter of time. The manuscript was incomplete when Kuhn died in 1996. So do not expect a final polished statement of Kuhn’s views. The archives at MIT, though, do contain a number of referees’ reports from the NSF, as Kuhn applied for a grant to have the time to finish the project. These reports are quite insightful. They make clear that many senior people in the field had high hopes for the project. The best statement of Kuhn’s final views is to be found in the papers in The Road since Structure, edited by Conant and Haugeland.

  9. K. Brad Wray

    I have read The Ashtray. It is entertaining at points, but there is reason to believe that it is a partial picture of what happened between Kuhn and Morris. While working in the archives at MIT I did see evidence that Kuhn genuinely supported Morris, even as Kuhn recognized their differences. I recall that when Morris originally published parts of the Ashtray on the New York Times website, Kuhn’s daughter corrected him about the brand of cigarettes he said Kuhn smoked. Such details matter little when you are just telling a dramatic story. But they do raise questions about the veracity of the tale told.

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