George Walford: The Ideological Structure of Revolutions

Thomas S. Kuhn’s book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (2nd Edition, University of Chicago Press, 1975) does a lot to destroy the image of scientists as coldly rational creatures free of prejudice. Before an experimental result can carry any meaning it has to be set against a picture of the world (or that part of it the discipline covers), and the meaning of the result varies with the background chosen; a change in weight after burning carries one meaning with, the phlogiston theory and a different one without it, fossils say one thing to the Darwinian and another to the biblical fundamentalist. Kuhn investigates the way in which one such world-picture comes to be displaced by another. He finds that for most scientists, even those working in the more rigorous disciplines, the choice of a framework by which to interpret their results is not itself a rational decision based on investigation and critical thinking but rather – well, the comparison that forces itself into the mind is with fashion in costume. Not the annual changes but rather the longer-lasting styles that accompany the-successive generations. The fathers wear collars, ties, hats and lounge suits, the sons flannel trousers and tweed jackets, the grandsons jeans and sweaters, and none of them have any reason for the choice except that that is what is being worn. In much the same way, Kuhn maintains (though without using this parallel) each generation of scientists has a ‘paradigm’ by which its experimental results have to be interpreted. He defines paradigms as:

universally recognized scientific achievements that for a time provide model problems and solutions to a community of practitioners. (p. viii)

The scientists who play an active and critical part in substituting one paradigm for another form a small minority; most investigators retain, throughout their working lives, the framework of interpretation that ruled during their formative years.

This presents an obvious parallel with one of the major themes of systematic ideology, namely that the people of a modern advanced society form themselves into two ideological classes. The first, and much the largest, is the eidostatic. As the name implies, this group tends not to be dynamic in its thinking but to comply with the conventions; in economic affairs it accepts or supports authority, hierarchy, and competition; on the political stage it appears as the right wing together with the great body of politically uncommitted people. The other, group is the eidodynamic. This is active in political thinking, tending to criticise and oppose the conventions; it criticises authority and hierarchy and works to establish co-operation in economic affairs. It appears on the political stage as the socialist, communist and anarchist movements. Each of these classes extends over the whole of the economic pyramid, drawing its members from rich and poor. (Each of them, also, is sub-divided into three major ideological groups, but here we speak only of the two great classes).

Thomas S. Kuhn does not speak in these terms, but his concept of scientific revolutions shows these two classes appearing in the field of physical science. The frameworks or world-pictures accepted by the different disciplines he calls ‘paradigms,’ and normal science, which occupies most workers in any field, consists in providing further support for theories within the paradigm and rendering them more precise. But no paradigm exactly fits all the evidence; anomalies accumulate, and eventually an investigator better able to handle novelty than the others, a Newton, Einstein, Freud, Darwin… introduces a new paradigm which succeeds in integrating the anomalies, or doing so in a more satisfying way than the previous one. The innovations arouse resentment, Kuhn going so far as to say that each substantial novelty has to wait for acceptance until one generation of workers in the relevant field has been replaced by another.

The conception provides a model which might well tempt political revolutionaries, not only by conforming to their view of the way social changes occur in general but also as a pattern for their own intended revolution; they often remark that only a generation brought up in the new society will be able to appreciate its full potential. But when the movement Kuhn presents is taken in the light of what has been established (tentatively at least) by s.i. certain limitations appear, indicating that this model, quite apart from its smaller scale, does not in fact meet the requirements for the proposed social revolution. The occurrence of Kuhnian revolutions in science provides no support for the proposals advanced by political revolutionaries.

Kuhn’s two categories of scientists (those pursuing normal science and the innovators) are located, by their respective modes of thinking, the first within our eidostatic group and the second within the eidodynamic, and use of these concepts enables us to see just how superficial, ideologically, these scientific revolutions have been. Although producing enormous effects upon society they have not entailed any deep changes in the ideological structure of the scientific community. The new generation of scientists, although accepting the new ideas put forward by the revolutionaries, is yet displaying the ethos not of revolution but of tradition. It, like its predecessors, is accepting (what has now become) the authoritative view and working to render it more secure and precise. The new generation in its turn resists future attempts at revolution.

The successful revolutionaries come to be accepted as great figures, supreme authorities in their respective fields. The earlier ones – Harvey, Newton, Galileo and Copernicus for example, and perhaps Darwin too – tend to be no longer seen as having been troublesome agitators even in their time, but rather as sensible people who pointed out something their predecessors had overlooked. After all, who doesn’t know that the earth goes round the sun, that the blood circulates in the body, that men and women are descended from monkeys? The eidodynamics still stress the revolutionary content in the achievements of the great innovators but the eidostatic majority – which is not to be equated with the uneducated but includes the majority of academics and physical scientists – has accepted their work in a version shaped by its own assumptions, turning them into establishment figures whose pronouncements are to be accepted much as, formerly, those of their predecessors.

This points the distinction between ideas, in the sense of specific beliefs, and the broad assumptions which, in their sets, form the bases from which the great ideological distinctions arise. The scientific revolutionaries and the normal workers come to hold many of the same particular ideas – about natural selection, or the circulation of the blood, or the role of the unconscious mind in governing behaviour – but on more general issues, such as the parts properly to be played by authority and by independent critical thought in determining which beliefs should be held, their behaviour shows them to differ after the revolution as before. In Walby’s terms, the content of their thinking changes without affecting its form.

Other events commonly described as revolutions also display this pattern. The railway, the internal combustion engine and aviation all produced revolutions in transport and did so without affecting more than the superficial and particular ideas of the overwhelming majority of those using them. Their original introduction indicated the presence of the eidodynamic ethos, but each of them depends for its successful functioning upon the predominance of the eidostatic, upon normal (that is to say non-revolutionary) science and technology and also upon the continuing presence of an established society working largely by rote to provide a steady supply of trained people and of material resources. In many other fields, in housing, household equipment, entertainment, communications and sport, in philosophy and education, one revolution succeeds another, each of them altering the ideas of those concerned but not affecting their deeper assumptions.

This pattern does not meet the requirements of the political revolutionaries, for it leaves the general body of the people in the eidostatic condition, attached to economic individualism and political collectivism and the dominant / submissive tendency, while the object of the revolutionaries is to secure general adoption of the contrary principles. The society they seek would have economic collectivism (common ownership of the means of production), political individualism (freedom of speech, publication and assembly, and full use being made of them), and no institutionalised domination of some people or groups by others. After each great social upheaval the successful revolutionaries settle down to the long slog of converting the majority to the new ways. No matter what methods they use (and some of those that have been tried hardly bear thinking about) the outcome invariably remains within the same limits. The general body of the people change their particular, superficial ideas without altering their deeper, more general assumptions and the long-term behavioural tendencies expressing these. They come to speak of their country as socialist or communist, they work under managers instead of independent entrepreneurs, they receive part of their reward for work directly as services instead of money to be exchanged for these, and they accept management of the national industry and finances by committees receiving salaries instead of capitalists getting profits. But they consistently refuse to put the material welfare of the community before more personal benefits, or to undertake the relatively independent thinking required for a grasp of socialist, communist or anarchist ideas; they maintain the economic individualism and political collectivism of the eidostatic. When the Russian authorities needed to arouse their people against the German invaders they did not declare a crusade in support of The Socialist Sixth of the World but proclaimed The Great Patriotic War.

(One interesting side-issue here is that the behaviour of some of the greater scientific revolutionaries emphasises the limitations of the view that would reduce ideological features to personality traits. Of the people most responsible for three of the biggest intellectual upheavals of modern times, Darwin spent most of his life as a semi-invalid recluse, Einstein came close to fitting the stereotype of the absent-minded professor, and Freud displayed the personality of the traditional Victorian paterfamilias, doing his best to squash independent thinking among his followers).

The persistence of the majority in clinging to their former ideologies has the effect that revolutionaries, in whatever field, can hope to gain acceptance for their ideas only by establishing domination. For scientific or academic revolutionaries this may be a position carrying authority – perhaps a particular appointment – and for political revolutionaries control of the state. From that point on they face a constant choice between relaxing the drive towards further innovation and securing what has been gained (that is, returning to the eidostatic mode) or risking further advances, which will have to be made against resistance from the eidostatic majority. Stalin has been accused of betraying the revolution; it was rather his determination to continue it, whatever the cost, that led to the horrors in Russia in the 1930s, including the greatest of all man-made famines. Not all revolutionaries maintain their impetus to this extent, though the Chinese communists were not far away from it, and even Stalin, faced by the German invasion with the need to gain support from the people, was forced back into an eidostatic stance. Ideology, as we have noted before, is a behavioural trait rather than an ontological one. The view that a person either is or is not a revolutionary, in much the same lasting way as they belong to one sex or the other, does not agree with the evidence.

An important aspect of the relationship between eidostatic and eidodynamic appears when one asks what is meant by saying a theory is scientific. Whatever the complete answer may be, it has to include the condition that the theory be accepted by the community qualified to express an opinion, for it would be absurd to hold that (for example) a theory in nuclear physics rejected by the community of scientists engaged in that discipline was scientific, or that one accepted by the community was not. By this standard most, if not all, of the great innovations were unscientific when first introduced, for only a minority of the workers in the field accepted them. That is to say, it is the eidostatics who establish a theory as scientific; it is they, and not the innovating minority, who decide the success or failure of a proposed revolution in science. Similarly, it is the eidostatic majority that decides the future of social revolutions. The Russians, and just behind them the Chinese, are finding themselves forced to accept this. Kuhn’s scenario does not agree with the expectations of the political revolutionaries but it does, better than those expectations, fit the course that revolutions, in social affairs and in science too, have so far followed.

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THE ADVERTISING for a recent horror film included the phrases:


Sounds like the landed gentry.

from Ideological Commentary 33, May 1988.