Incommensurable Incommensurabilities

As part of a project trying to unpack the epistemology of the market, I am reading through some overview texts on knowledge, philosophy of science, etc. Currently, I’m working through Zammito’s A Nice Derangement of Epistemes, which examines “post-positivism in the study of science from Quine to Latour”. In the chapter on Kuhn, Zammito mentions a bit about the origins of Kunh’s idea of “incommensurability“, the idea that scientific theories from different paradigms cannot be directly compared to see which is better. Here’s Zammito:

The thesis of incommensurability was enunciated simultaneously by Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend, colleagues at the time at Berkeley, in 1962. It arose out of conversations between them, but it does not follow that it ever had synonymous meaning even for the two of them. Indeed, there are grounds for the suspicion that they never shared the same idea of incommensurability. (p. 61)

I love it! Two big-shot philosophers/historians/whatnot of science come up with a similar idea, both naming it incommensurability, about the difficulty of comparing different theories from different traditions, but cannot themselves agree upon the definition of the term! In this case, don’t you think that strengthens the idea rather than weakening it?



  1. Thomas

     /  May 6, 2010

    In this strand, you might also want to read Hacking’s Representing and Intervening (1983), which does a good job of unpacking the term “incommensurability” in a short chapter.

    Since Hacking is equally interested (at least now) in the social and natural sciences, you might find it a good read. He even discusses Weber, at one point.

    • Representing and Intervening is literally next in my queue! I’ll keep an eye out for that chapter. Hacking’s later work is simply fabulous, I’m hoping this earlier, more straight philosophical stuff, will be as good.

      • Thomas

         /  May 7, 2010

        Besides his succinct and erudite prose, I think what I appreciate most about Hacking is his ability to take texts that would be presented as antithetical elsewhere, and find common ground.

        Too often, in my Sociology department at least, people will throw around labels polemically–“positivist”, for instance–and simply dismiss work that might force them to think a little bit outside of their comfort zones. To hear Hacking speak about having great respect for both Michel Foucault and Karl Popper is almost incredible!

        If you want to see Hacking’s philosophy of science used to a particular social science end, then perhaps look to Obsborne and Rose (1999) “Do The Social Sciences Create Phenomena? The Example of Public Opinion Research” BJS, 50:3, 367-396. It might be more ‘political sociology’ than ‘economic sociology’, however.

  2. “Do The Social Sciences Create Phenomena? The Example of Public Opinion Research” Sounds like a precursor to Igo’s Averaged American,

  3. Michael Bishop

     /  May 12, 2010

    Nice post. I agree there is some irony there. But to answer your last question very literally, two philosophers using alternative definitions of incommensurability does not really affect my opinion about the importance of incommensurability of paradigms.