Kuhn on the Greeks and scientific culture

A striking quotation from Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions:

“Every civilization of which we have records has possessed a technology, an art, a religion, a political system, laws, and so on. In many cases those facets of civilization have been as developed as our own. But only the civilizations that descend from Hellenic Greece have possessed more than the most rudimentary science. The bulk of scientific knowledge is a product of Europe in the last four centuries.” (2nd edition, pp. 167-168)

Two follow up questions:

Is Kuhn right?
If so, what about classical Greek culture enabled this great influence?

(The image is from Aristarchus, one of the great Greek astronomers, from a tenth-century CE copy of his manuscript.)

(Just for the record: I think Kuhn’s book is often good as cultural anthropology but very bad as philosophy.)

8 thoughts on “Kuhn on the Greeks and scientific culture

  • August 20, 2009 at 7:25 pm

    Yes, Kuhn is right on this point. The Greeks were the first to formalize logic (thanks to Aristotle). They were also the first to perform experiments. Eventually, that led to science.

    “An aeolipile (or aeolipyle, or eolipile), is a rocket style[1] jet engine[2] which spins when heated. In the first century AD, Hero of Alexandria described the device,[3] and many sources give him the credit for its invention.

    The aeolipile he described is considered to be the first recorded steam engine or reaction steam turbine.[4] The name – derived from the Greek words “aeolos” and “pila” – translates to “the ball of Aeolus”; Aeolus being the Greek god of the wind.

    A device called an aeolipile was described in the first century BC by Vitruvius in his treatise De architectura, however it is unclear whether it is the same device, or a predecessor, as there is no mention of any rotating parts.[5]”


    And yes, Kuhn was not a good philosopher. To him, one paradigm was as good as another.

  • August 21, 2009 at 7:40 am

    My friend Roger Donway, who sometimes seems to have read every book known to mankind, wrote this to me:
    “Have you read Alan Cromer’s Uncommon Sense: The Heretical Nature of Science? My books are packed for moving, but as I recall he argues that science emerged only from the culture of post-Socratic Greece because it—uniquely among traditional cultures—had the confidence that the truth could be arrived at by debate and argument. Had Greece known only the zero-sum Sophists (who thought the point of argument is winning, not truth) things might have turned out differently, for them and for mankind.”
    (Cromer’s book at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Uncommon-Sense-Heretical-Nature-Science/dp/0195096363/.)

  • August 22, 2009 at 12:43 am

    Kuhn expresses the common view that science (a.k.a. philosophy), as a distinctive enterprise, originates with the Greeks. And the more specific claim, one dating to Aristotle at least, is that science/philosophy begins in the several cities of Ionia (Miletus, Colophon, Ephesus, etc.) in the 6th century B.C. with a specific group of people, often called the Milesian School (Thales, Anaxagoras, Anaximander, etc.). For this reason Miletus has been called the birthplace of the modern world.

    Many people have tried to identify the specific conditions that led to these developments, and a Real Historian could outline that literature much better than I could, I’m sure. But I’d like to recommend one book — one that I consider by far the Best Book No One Has Ever Heard Of. It is “Night Sky at Rhodes” by Stephen Toulmin: a beautifully written philosophical travel account of a trip through Ionia seeking to answer this very question: what was it that caused science to begin here and nowhere else, and at a specific moment in history. (Should I give away his answer?)

    I’d also like to recommend a denser study of the same question, but from a narrower angle: “Money and the Early Greek Mind” by Richard Seaford. It’s worth noting that 6th-century Ionia was the focal point for more than the origin of science: pretty much within 100 years in this one very small region: Western science was born; Western theater was invented; the Greek temple was invented as a distinctive architectural structure, one we still use 2500 years later; and also, coins were invented. Money had been around for at least a thousand years, but coinage, like science, was a distinct invention of this narrow space-time slot: the Ionian cities in the 6th century B.C.

  • August 22, 2009 at 7:03 am

    RJO: Thanks. I’ve just ordered the Toulmin and Seaford books. Please do go ahead and spoil the ending for us, though.

  • August 25, 2009 at 6:21 am

    Kuhn as a cultural anthropologist is about right, I think of him as a sociologist and student of the diffusion of innovations in the scientific community.

    Popper traced the spirit of science, that is, the tradition of criticism within a school (instead of rigidly propagating the doctrine of the school) to the pre-Socratics. http://www.the-rathouse.com/CRBacktoPresocratics5.html

  • September 17, 2009 at 11:26 am

    It was once assumed (by Popper, Kuhn and others) not only that rational science originated with the Greek philosophic schools, but that the belief systems of prehistoric hunter-gatherers were dominated by superstitions and irrational beliefs. Hunter-gatherers were believed to have acted on the basis of exceedingly limited information, much of that information being wrong. These assumptions led to an apparent paradox in understanding human evolution: the brain evolved both in size and in neurological complexity over some millions of years. A fully modern brain had evolved at a time when all humans were hunter-gatherers. Yet the same brain that has been adapted for the needs of hunter-gatherer subsistence, today deals with the subtleties of modern mathematics and physics.

    This apparent paradox may be resolved if it is assumed that at least some of the first fully modern hunter-gatherers were capable of scientific reasoning, and that the intellectual requirements of modern science were, at least among the most intelligent members of hunter-gatherer bands, a necessity for the survival of modern hunter-gatherer societies. The first creative science, practiced by possibly some of the earliest members of a.m. Homo sapiens who had modern intellects, may have been the art of tracking. The art of tracking is a science that requires fundamentally the same intellectual abilities as modern physics and mathematics. This, at least, is the hypothesis I propose in my book “The Art of Tracking: The Origin of Science” (1990).

    Louis Liebenberg

  • December 6, 2010 at 8:16 pm

    I have been trying to find a copy of The Art of Tracking: The Origin of Science. Can you help me?

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