New insights on the origins an social role of Kuhnian concepts

Ludwik Fleck: Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact*

Fleck uses history of the medical concept of syphilis to show the historically‑conditioned nature of all knowledge. The figure is a syphilitic nobleman, by Albrecht Duhrer.

A review essay [1]

Dieter Wittich
University of Leipzig (GDR)
Translated by Henry F. Mins

In 1935 the Basel publishing company and bookselling firm of Benno Schwabe and Co. published a 150‑page book with the title, Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact: Introduction to the Theory of Thought Style and Thought Collectives [Denkstil und Denkkollektiv]. The book had been completed the previous summer. Its author, Ludwik Fleck, was a Polish physician and scientist who headed the bacteriological laboratory of the sickness fund in Lvov (Lemberg) during the 1930s and also had the experience from "several years of working in the venereal disease section of a large city hospital" [2]. In addition to this book, Fleck published a number of papers on bacteriology and immunology in important medical journals [3]. Thus he was not only an experienced physician but also a scientist active in several fields and with a strong interest in theory.

Fleck's medical investigations finally led to a concern with questions of scientific theory and the theory of knowledge, with which he first became acquainted in their logical positivist versions. Positivism was influential in the university of his city in the 1930s when many internationally‑recognized logic studies of the Warsaw‑Lemberg school were closely related philosophically with the Vienna Circle current of thought. Even before then, however, Fleck must have had more than a superficial knowledge of the positivist orientation in scientific theory and the theory of knowledge since he came out as an opponent of it not later than 1930.

His first main objection to the positivism of the time was that it ignored the history of human thought, an ignorance that stood in profound contradiction to Fleck's knowledge and experience as a scientist. "Biology taught me," he wrote, "that a field undergoing development should be investigated always from the viewpoint of its past development. Who today would study anatomy without embryology?" [pp. 20‑21]. Precisely this mode of procedure is required in order to understand today's science objectively. "It is nonsense to think that the history of cognition has as little to do with science as, for example, the history of the telephone with telephone conversations. At least three-quarters if not the entire content of science is conditioned by the history of ideas, psychology, and the sociology of ideas and is thus explicable in these terms" [p. 21]. For Fleck, "Concepts are not spontaneously created but are determined by their 'ancestors,’” and, from the historical nature of knowledge, he would "argue that there is probably no such thing as complete error or complete truth" [p. 20]. For these and many other reasons an "epistemology without historical and comparative investigations is no more than an empty play on words or an epistemology of the imagination" [p. 21].

Fleck's second main argument against the positivism of the time was its gross disregard for the historical, collective nature of human knowledge. Even for reasons of language alone, cognition "is the result of a social activity" rather than "an individual process of any theoretical 'particular consciousness' . . . since the existing stock of knowledge exceeds the range available to any one individual" [p. 38]. Individuals can perform the act of knowing only within a specific cultural milieu, within the framework of a specific "thought collective." The social character of any knowledge also appears in the fact that "scientific activities" always have a recognizable "social structure" [p. 42], and in many other ways. Thus Fleck arrives at the conclusion: "Every epistemological theory is trivial that does not take this sociological dependence of all cognition into account. . ." [p. 43].

Thirdly, Fleck's criticism of the positivism of the time relates to its shallow empiricism. In opposing this, he constantly stressed how the theoretical reacts on the empirical and the observed, seeking to substantiate this concept with many facts. "Consequently," he observed, "it is all but impossible to make any protocol statements [Proktokollsätze] based on direct observation and from which the results should follow as logical conclusions" [p. 89].

Fleck's insight, that the fundamental presuppositions and assertions of the positivism of his time are incompatible with actual scientific research and its history, enabled him to develop a number of hypotheses for understanding the history of science and the nature of scientific research. The most important are:

1) A scientific collective is characterized above all by an historically determined "thought style" which is common to all its members.

2) The thought style specific and characteristic for a scientific collective at any time puts its stamp in a basic way on all of its research activity.

3) Once formed, thought styles and the theories corresponding to them have a "tendency to persist." Consequently, every scientific thought collective passes historically through two phases: a) one in which the thought style, once formed, leaves its imprint on all research activity (because of its "tendency to persist"); and b) one in which the thought style gradually breaks down and is replaced by a new one.

4) Since any scientific investigation practices a definite thought style, training for science consists necessarily in training for the thought style obligatory in the scientific community concerned.

We now proceed to a closer examination of Fleck's fundamental concepts: "thought style," "tendency of theories to persist," and "training for science," the objects corresponding to these concepts, and the way in which they operate as Fleck saw it.

Thought style, for Fleck, is always a collectively formed "intellectual mood" or attitude which manifests itself "as the readiness for directed perception and appropriate assimilation of what has been perceived" [p. 142 and cf. p. 104]. The direction of the perception is essentially determined by the ideas dominant in a thought collective, corresponding to its mental attitude. Fleck sought to prove this assertion in many ways, in particular from the history of medical ideas on syphilis. Here, as in scientific work [sic], he concludes: "The dependence of any scientific fact upon thought style is therefore evident" '[p. 64]. For the thought style followed at a given time dominates the “active elements" of knowing, which Fleck distinguishes from the "passive" (objective) elements. The two elements cooperate so closely in the process of knowing that they "cannot be separated from each other completely either logically or historically" [p. 95]. Even though the formation of individual results of thought already bear the imprint of the thought style, their distribution within the thought collective is again subject to the action of the thought style. For example, he says: "Words which formerly were simple terms become slogans; sentences which once were simple statements become calls to battle" and thus attain the "socio‑cognitive value" specific for the style of the given thought collective [p. 43]. The domination of individual thinking by a collective thought style is such that the individual "is never or hardly ever, conscious of the prevailing thought style," although that style "almost always exerts an absolutely compulsive force upon his thinking and with which it is not possible to be at variance" [p. 41].

According to Fleck, the tendency to persist possessed by scientific theories and by "systems of opinion" in general, which are arrived at by a definite thought style, is manifested in their enduring immunity to any deviant assertions: "Once a structurally complete and closed system of opinions consisting of many details and relations has been formed, it offers constant resistance to anything that contradicts it" [p. 27]. This "is not so much simple passivity or mistrust of new ideas as an active approach which can be divided into several stages: (1) A contradiction to the system appears unthinkable. (2) What does not fit into the system remains unseen; (3) alternatively, if it is noticed, either it is kept secret, or (4) laborious efforts are made to explain an exception in terms that do not contradict the system" [p. 27]. Deviations are seen by adherents of the classical school "as technical mistakes to be simply passed over in silence or rejected" [p. 93]. To a certain extent the collective thought style is always imbued with a "harmony of illusions" [p. 28] for, he says: "What we feel to be an impossibility is actually mere incongruence with our habitual thought style" [p. 48]. Conversely: "Good work, done according to style, instantly awakens a corresponding mood of solidarity in the reader. It is this mood which, after a few sentences, compels him to regard the book highly and makes the book effective. Only later does one examine the details to see whether they can be incorporated into a system, that is, whether the realization of the thought style has been consistently achieved and in particular whether procedure has conformed to tradition (= to preparatory training). These determinations legitimatize the work so that it can be added to the stock of scientific knowledge and convert what has been presented into scientific fact" [p. 145]. As a result: "The thought style, developed in this particular way, made possible the perception of many forms as well as the establishment of many applicable facts. But it also rendered the recognition of other forms and other facts impossible" [p. 93]. To this extent, discovery is "inextricably interwoven with what is known as error" [p. 30]. Moreover, "The more developed and detailed a branch of knowledge becomes, the smaller are the differences of opinion" [p. 83]. Fleck concludes that: "Cognition proceeds in this and no other way. Only a classical theory with associated ideas which are plausible (rooted in the given era), closed (limited), and suitable for publication (stylistically relevant) has the strength to advance" [p. 30]. It follows that no style of thought can permanently suppress the matters of fact that are not in agreement with it. "In the end there are often more exceptions than normal instances" [p. 29], and we have the "bursting" of one thought style with the formation of new one. [Editor's note: Wittich here refers to p. 9. of German‑language edition; no passage has been found in the English‑language edition describing the process by which a transformation of thought style occurs.]

In Fleck's view, scientific training has an essential function in the tendency to persist of a thought style and systems of opinion consistent with it. "Any didactic introduction to a field of knowledge passes through a period during which purely dogmatic teaching is dominant. An intellect is prepared for a given field; it is received into a self-controlled world and, as it were, initiated," with the textbook serving as a sort of "catechism" [p. 54]. In this connection, Fleck ascribes an important role to popular science and, even 40 years ago, deplored its epistemological deficiencies [cf. pp. 112‑116].

It is easy to see that many of the concepts made familiar by Thomas S. Kuhn clearly resemble those put forward decades earlier by Fleck. For example, Kuhn's doctrine of the paradigm has a close parallel in Fleck's concept of thought style; what Kuhn designates as the "theory‑charged" nature of observations was similarly stressed by Fleck; Kuhn's distinction between normal and revolutionary phases in the development of science is at least very closely adumbrated by Fleck; both have almost identical views as to the role of scientific training, and of textbooks particularly, in preserving and furthering the practice of an established thought style or paradigm. It is true that these assertions have nothing sensational about them. Kuhn himself, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions [Chicago 1970, p. vii], referred to Fleck as a thinker whose work "anticipates many of my ideas." Further, W. Stegmüller, for decades head boy and keeper of the Grail in Germany for a variant of positivism, has only recently learned (from the example of Ludwig Fleck) that his renunciation of positivism, published in 1973, did not need a Kuhn to bring it about as he had believed.

L. Schäffer [4], reporting the Stegmüller conversion, cites other bourgeois philosophers (besides Fleck) to show that the historical and social dimensions of scientific work had been known and discussed long before Kuhn. Unfortunately, Schäffer himself "overlooks" the authorities most important for his purpose, namely, K. Marx and F. Engels. Many of the ideas found in Fleck and Kuhn on scientific research and its history were expounded by Marx and Engels much earlier and on a sounder philosophical basis; moreover, here the ideas were not a matter of chance but were rooted in the structure of their philosophical thought. That any state reached by science can be understood epistemologically only if seen in its historical movement, that the history of a science presents revolutionary and evolutionary stages, that science is social in nature and is in a necessary connection with society as a whole, with the practical‑material basis in particular—is there any Marxist who does not know that these insights have been known at least since Engels' Dialectics of Nature and that they are supported there by copious material? [5]. Furthermore, Marx and Engels developed these findings philosophically on a much more solid basis than Fleck and Kuhn. For example, Fleck and Kuhn, while correctly stressing the social character of scientific work, are content with documenting this merely by pointing to striking instances. Yet Karl Marx gave the basis for this as early as 1844: "But also when I am active scientifically . . . then my activity is social because I perform it as a man. Not only is the material of my activity given to me as a social product (as is even the language in which the thinker is active), my own existence is social activity" [6]. And Marx had already derived the fact that his "own existence is social activity" from the social character of the material production on which the entire process of mankind's life and history is based.

It is not my purpose to start a dispute over priority, over whether Marx, or Engels, or Fleck, or Kuhn, or anybody else was the first to see certain connections between scientific research and history. I wish rather to point out how much difference there is among them in the basis given for properties of science that they all noted, and which hence were conceived differently.

A further question of fact should be considered. To some people, just beginning to find their way out of the metaphysics of traditional positivism, a concept such as the "theory‑charged nature" of observations may seem an intuition of almost epoch‑making significance. At best they will see Karl Popper's so‑called searchlight theory [the view that science itself throws new light on things] as a "milestone" on the road to this appreciation. They must certainly have no knowledge of a statement such as: "The senses have therefore become directly in their practice theoreticians" [7], an insight published by Marx in 1844.

Undoubtedly, thoughts expressed by Marx and Engels, often in quite general terms, sometimes only in the margin of discussion with a different orientation and, of course, within the limits of 19th‑century science and its history, could often be elaborated by Fleck and Kuhn in more detail and more comprehensively in the light of the results and the experience of many more decades of scientific research. My concern is the consideration and appreciation of the historical achievement in the contributions of Marx and Engels toward the philosophical understanding of objects in the theory and history of science. I will show, from the case of Fleck and even more so from the case of Kuhn, that superficiality in philosophical thinking and ignorance of the history of philosophy, in places where philosophical understanding is required, led each of them to ideological Weltanschauung positions that undermine their aims and achievements in the theory of science [8]. This is why we have to take Schäffer's "oversight" so seriously and cannot pass over it as just the usual attitude towards Marxism of bourgeois thinkers.

We return to the views of Fleck and Kuhn concerning historical connections in the theory of science. Having seen how similar their views are in many respects, the question arises: What made it possible for Kuhn to become the center of a much respected and much discussed movement of bourgeois thought, a movement hailed as a "new approach" compared to positivist‑oriented traditional theory of science, whereas 30 years earlier Fleck was hardly noticed [9] and soon quite forgotten? To explain this, we must consider the positivist‑impregnated state in which Kuhn found the theory of science. This traditional theory of science, generally accepted until the sixties, was labeled by Hilary Putnam in 1960 as the "received view" in an article with the provocative title, "What Theories Are Not" [101. Later, Stegmüller referred to it as the "statement view" and the "micrological mode of consideration" [11]. Theory of science had lost itself more and more in constructing and reflecting on models of science that gradually revealed, even to their advocates, two basic defects:

1) Not only were these models inadequately oriented to actual scientific research but their sweepingly formal character stood in the way of any penetrating view of the actual content of scientific theories, the origin of such content, its formation and practice. "Positivist theory of science, confined for the most part to study of the logical characteristics of theory, hypothesis, scientific law, explanation and prediction, never gets down to the specific content and contributes little to our understanding of the phenomenon, science" [12]. Accordingly, the practicing researcher and even more the practicing research collective could hardly find answers to these questions in the received view (or even expect to find them), though such questions of the theory of science presented themselves to scientists with ever greater frequency and urgency in connection with the nature of their specific theoretical tools, the organization and planning of their work, and the practical application of their results. The received view was belittled as "uninteresting" [13], and D. Pears went so far as to call it a "crude theory, interesting only for its footnotes" [14].

2) The received view also suffered from internal difficulties, contradictions, and absurdities which, despite decades of effort, the positivists have been unable to eliminate. Serious defects in the philosophical and theoretical foundations of traditional positivist‑oriented theory of science were revealed by the efforts of its own adherents:

— to find a secure basis for all knowledge within the idealization itself (the so‑called "protocol sentence" problem);

— to reduce all the concepts and assertions of science to those of physics (the so‑called physicalism problem);

— to find especially a criterion making it possible to present any philosophical proposition as non‑scientific (the so‑called "sense criterion" problem);

— to reduce completely the specific quality of scientific theories to their empirical basis (the so‑called “empiricism" problem);

— to interpret cumulatively the relation of a more developed theory to its predecessors, i.e., trying to deduce the predecessors logically from the more developed theory (the so‑called "cumulation" problem).

Until about 1960, the received view, because of its positivist mode of procedure and the impregnation of its content with positivist ideas, continued to perform an ideological service for bourgeois class interests because it deliberately refrained from theoretical examination of the basic structures of social life in general and capitalism in particular. It was thereby inhibited from considering the social determination of all scientific work, including that under capitalism. The closely related subjective­idealist and relativist tendencies implicit in the received view provided an ideological opening to influence people so that capitalism and its science would appear to them naturally superior, compared to a way of thought with materialist, dialectical and critical content that is damaging to capitalist ideology.

So long as the received view could be considered scientifically attractive or at least theoretically sound, its ideological influence increased. In the end, however, it became hard to conceal the fact that the received view was in a desperate state, its ideological usefulness seriously impaired both theoretically and practically. Hence, the bourgeois ideological interest in this theory of science could only tend to decline, no matter how faithfully and well the received view had served its class ideologically in previous decades.

A further factor was that scientific research, especially in the natural sciences, had become of great practical importance throughout the world, including the capitalist sector, with major economic, political and military impact in the universal struggle waged today between socialism and capitalism for the future of mankind. The bourgeois system, though neither willing nor able to dispense with the ideological influence provided by the received view, nevertheless objectively requires that its theory of science supply more energetically the theoretical advances that provide a basis for practical procedures to make capitalist science more effective. This includes the organization and planning of scientific work, as well as the development of bold theories and the training of a new scientific generation capable of thinking and acting creatively for capitalism. Bourgeois thinkers have long since posed this task for the theory of science. For example, L. Krüger, editor of the German edition of Kuhn's book The Essential Tension, wrote: "since the survival of mankind depends on it [science] which requires rapidly growing expenditures, it must be at least in part planned. The relation of science to society and politics, and their history, has thus become an inescapable theme" that calls, among other things, for "theoretical ideas of the 'mechanism' by which science develops" [15].

These, more or less, are the conditions under which Kuhn, through his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, was able to launch, within the bounds of bourgeois theory of science, the well‑known movement against the received view. These conditions must be viewed as a whole if we are to understand why it is precisely Kuhn who got and is getting so much attention. The point is that a mere denunciation of the theoretical defects of the received view, which (aside from Marxist criticism of it) Ludwik Fleck had already performed in part, could hardly have sufficed to make positivism abandon one of its favorite offspring.

Kuhn's ideas and initiatives promised three things: a) a theoretical analysis of the distressing condition into which traditional positivist‑oriented theory of science had fallen, with the reasons for its fall; b) the gradual erection of a theory of science that meets the needs of 'capitalist‑dominated science today more comprehensively, more consciously, with a better theoretical foundation and greater practicality than the received view could; and c) conservation or even reinforcement of the bourgeois ideological potential inherent in the received view.

As a trained physicist and experienced historian of science, Kuhn vigorously demonstrated the deep discrepancy between the theoretical content of the received view, on the one hand, and the objective needs of modern capitalist research, on the other [16]. He was able to point out two main sources, within the framework of bourgeois theory of science, for the impotence of the received view, namely, its general neglect of both the social character and the historical character of scientific work. Kuhn developed a series of hypotheses in the history of science which take into account the social and historical dimensions of scientific research, reflecting closely research procedures as they really occur or have occurred in history. In this way, he provoked methodological discussion of how (under capitalism) a theoretically grounded and practically useful science can, should, or must be conducted [17]. Yet, despite all his theoretical innovations contrary to the received view, he managed not only to conserve the ideological content of this traditional positivist‑oriented theory of science but also to increase its actual or potential social influence, since the new approach, with which that content was now linked, grew in scientific standing or interest. Only because Kuhn accomplished the last task was he able to win the eminence in bourgeois thought that he enjoys today.

Much of what has been noted here about Kuhn could, at least in its trend, be said about Fleck as well. There are clear parallels between Fleck and Kuhn in their Weltanschauung and ideological conceptions. For this reason, it must be the changed historical situation of capitalism that provides the decisive reason why it was Kuhn and not Fleck who initiated so powerful a movement within bourgeois thought.

Permit me to make a tentative historical comparison as follows: Fleck had the ill fortune of trying to reform the original positivist theory of science at a time when the bourgeoisie was first becoming aware of the great ideological potential in this child of theirs and had hardly begun to exploit it. Ludwik Fleck could not but fail, as Otto Liebman would certainly have failed in 1840 if he had begun then instead of in 1865, with his sensational book Kant und die Epigonen, to recast the work of the Königsberg philosopher as Neo‑Kantianism. Kuhn, on the other hand, had the good fortune of being a "Liebmann" for the traditional positivist‑oriented theory of science because historically he operated at a time when the bourgeois system had the objective need for such a reformer.


* Introduction by Thomas S. Kuhn. Edited by Robert K. Merton and Thaddeus J. Trenn. Translated from German by Fred Bradley and Trenn. University of Chicago Press 1979. 191 pages + index. Hardcover $17.50.

† This essay, based on the original 1935 Basel edition of the Fleck book, has been slightly abridged from D.Z.f. Philosophie 26 (1): 15‑113; 1978. But page numbers here refer to the 1979 English‑language edition.

1. This essay is revised from a lecture given 11 June 1977 at an international colloquium on "Philosophy—Science—Weltanschauung: Conditions and process of formation of scientific and world‑view generalizations," on the occasion of the 450th anniversary of the Phillip University in Marburg (West Germany).

[Editor's note: Since Wittich's essay is based on the 1935 Basel edition of Enstehung und Entwicklung einen wissenschaftlichen Tatsäche, Enfürung in die Lehre vom Denkstil und Denkkollektiv, new material included in the 1979 Chicago edition will be mentioned below in bracketed comments, appended to the author's notes.]

2. Much effort has not enabled me to get much biographical information on Ludwik Fleck. What is given here was taken from the Fleck book [p. 22] and from L. Fleck and O. Elster: "On the Variability of Streptococci," Z.f. Bakteriologie, Parasitenkunde und Infectionskrankheiten, 125 (3/4): 180; 1932. [See also the Biographical Sketch appended to the English‑language edition.]

3. Cf. Note 2 (above) and L. Fleck, "On Reactions, Pseudoreactions and Complementary Protection Procedures," Z.f. Immunologie, vol 94, 1938.

4. Cf. L. Schäffer, "Theories—Dynamic Complements: Remarks on Kuhn, Steeg, Stegmüller," Z. f. philosophische Forschung, 31(l); 1977. Here Schäffer criticizes, with reason, the impression produced by W. Stegmüller in Theorie und Erfahrung (West Berlin/Heidelberg/New York 1973) to the effect that it was only through Kuhn that he became aware that his previous (positivist) position had serious defects such as neglecting the historical development of theories. Stegmüller has since become an adherent of Kuhn and seeks to improve on Kuhn's ideas, making such statements as ". . . analysis of the structure of the sciences also includes analysis of the structure of development" [p. 6].

5. Cf. H. Bernhardt, "Friedrich Engels' Dialectics of Nature and Its Significance for the History of Natural Science," in NTM. Schriftenreihe f. Geschichte der Naturwissenschaften Technik und Medizin, 1; 1977.

6. Karl Marx: "Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844" in Marx‑Engels Collected Works, New York 3: 298; 1975.

7. Ibid., p. 300.

8. An article on this topic will appear in an early issue of this journal. [Cf. Wittich, "Hobbled Dialectics," D.Z.f. Philosophie 26: 785‑797; 1978.]

9. So far as I know, reviews of Fleck's book appeared in Germany only in two publications, one not a philosophical journal (Carl Haeberlin, Deutsche medizinische Wochenschrift 63: 244; 1937) and the other preaching a Nazi‑vulgarized monism (Prof. Dr. M. H. Baege, in Monatshefte f. Wissenschaft, Weltanschauung und Lebensgestalt (founded by H. Schmidt, Jena) 12: 380f.; 1937). Both reviews spoke favorably of Fleck's work, stressing particularly his notion of the collective nature of scientific work. However, neither review was capable of even indicating Fleck's concepts in theory of science, philosophy and the history of philosophy. I have found only one review of Fleck's book in a professional philosophical journal: H. M. Féret, in Revue des sciences philosophiques et théologiques (Paris 1937, No. 26). [For a larger bibliography of reviews, see pp. 163‑165, 191 of English‑language edition.]

10. Cf. H. Putnam, "What Theories Are Not," in Logic, Methodology and Philosophy of Science: Proceedings of 1960 International Congress. E. Nagel, F. Suppe, A. Tarski, eds., Stanford 1962.

11. Cf. W. Stegmüller ref. 4 (p. 2).

12. W. Beyer, "On New Trends in Modern Bourgeois Theory of Science," in Protokollband der 6. Arbeitstagung zu Fragen der marxistisch‑leninistischen Erkenntnistheorie, Leipzig 1977.

13. Stegmüller, ref 4, p. 3.

14. D. Pears, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Munich 1971, p. 36.

15. In the foreword of T. S. Kuhn, Die Entstehung Des Neuen, L. Krüger, ed. (Frankfurt a. M. 1977, pp. 11f.).

16. Cf. T. S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago 1970), esp. pp. 1, 137 ff, 202; T. S. Kuhn in Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, ed. by Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave (Cambridge Univ. Press 1970), pp. 1, 231; and T. S. Kuhn, The Essential Tensions (Chicago 1977), esp. pp. 3, 105, 127, 165.

17. Cf. also W. Lefèvre, "On the Kuhn Controversy," in SOPO. Sozialistische Politik, 40: 62 f.; June 1977.

Editor's Comment: On Fleck Versus Kuhn

There is another historical aspect that may help explain why Fleck was ignored while Kuhn gets attention from the establishment. In the 1979 foreword, Kuhn seeks to put distance between himself and Fleck by rejecting the concept of "thought collective," pleading instead for the formulation of thought processes strictly in terms of "individual psychology" [pp. x‑xi]. Following the same philosophical bent, Kuhn in 1965 went out of his way to agree with Karl Popper in denying the scientific content of Marxist historiography, at the same time claiming that his historical approach (by which he lumped Marxism with psychoanalysis and, by implication, with astrology) was superior to Sir Karl's approach [Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge (Note 16), pp. 7‑8]. Note how far this separates Kuhn politically from Fleck who, in the repressive Poland in the 1930s, for an example of collective thinking chose to compare "the effects of terms such as 'materialism' or 'atheism,' which in some countries at once discredit their proponents but in others function as essential passwords of respectability" [p. 43]. (This book could not be published in Poland because Fleck was a Jew, and the year it came out he was dismissed "as an anti-Jewish measure" from the bacteriological laboratory he had headed [p. 150]). Mark Kac, who, as a graduate student in Poland during the 1930s, met Fleck at university gatherings, reports that Fleck was much respected by a Marxist‑oriented faculty member (private communication).

A philosophical gulf between the two is also revealed in the different ways they treat the category of truth. Kuhn, in his effort to refute the charge of relativism, struggles vainly to escape from the confusion of a positivist formal approach in which a theory or a paradigm is (logically) either true or false (cf. Structure of Scientific Revolutions, pp. 168‑173]. Fleck, on the other hand, matter‑of‑factly asserts its relative nature: "there is probably no such thing as complete error or complete truth" [p. 20]. The difference in the materialism of their philosophical outlooks may reflect the fact that Fleck was a hands‑on practitioner of science while Kuhn switched to history of science in graduate school.

From such evidence, one may question the extent to which Fleck belongs in the same category as Kuhn, for whom the characterization as reformist seems more apt since his whole thrust has been to save the idealist formulations while seeking to remedy the methodology. To see Kuhn as a reformer, however, does not imply a simplistic rejection of his historically‑based concepts such as paradigm and scientific community, since these have already proved useful to practitioners of science. What is needed is materialist interpretation of what is valid in Kuhn's methodology, together with criticism of his idealist formulations from the standpoint of Marxist theory of knowledge.

For the purpose of criticizing Kuhn, it is very worthwhile to read Fleck who, without benefit of Marxist terminology, provides nevertheless an excellent description of science as a special form of consciousness.

And This Comment From Irving Adler

Wittich begins well by showing that some of Fleck's concepts anticipated Kuhn, that Marx and Engels anticipated Fleck, and that Marx and Engels put these concepts into a unified setting on a strong philosophical basis. However, I find the rest of the essay feeble. Here Wittich raises the interesting question: Why did Kuhn become the center of an influential movement while Fleck was hardly noticed and soon forgotten? However, Wittich's attempted answer, that Kuhn wrote at a time when the bourgeoisie needed his theory, has these serious weaknesses:

1) It makes it sound as though a bourgeois executive committee chose a theory that would be useful to it.

2) It is unsupported by any significant evidence.

3) It ignores the fact that most scientists have little or no interest in philosophical questions and are completely uninvolved in the discussion of Kuhn's theories.

4) It ignores this question: How much of the attention given to Kuhn is a consequence of the accident that Harvard had as president a chemist (Conant) who, because of personal interest, strongly encouraged the study of history of science at the university.

5) It ignores the fact that Marxists, especially in England, prepared the ground for increasingly serious attention to history of science: Did not Kuhn's views, just as Popper's, develop in relation to and as a reaction to the views of Bernal, Hogben, Haldane, etc.?

History, the Matrix of Logic

The concept "historical" means objective reality in a state of motion and development. The concept "logical" means the necessary connection of thoughts reflecting surrounding reality in man's consciousness.

The historical [in knowledge] is primary to the logical, which reflects the former . . . The logical does not fully coincide with the historical . . . The logical must not and cannot reproduce all [the] zigzags of history. Its sole objective is to reflect the necessary changes, the necessary tendency to pass from one qualitative state to another . . . The logical thus reproduces the historical that is free of fortuity. Engels stressed the agreement between the logical and the historical when proceeding from the abstract to the concrete. He wrote: "The chain of thought must begin with the same thing with which this history begins, and its further course will be nothing else but the reflection of the historical course in abstract and theoretically consistent form; a corrected reflection but corrected according to laws furnished by the real course of history itself . . ." —A. P. Sheptulin, Marxist‑Leninist Philosophy. Moscow. Progress 1978, pp. 168‑70.

Practice as the Cure for Mysticism

Social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which mislead into mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice. —Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach No. 8. In Marx, Engels, Lenin, On Dialectical Materialism. Progress, Moscow 1977, p. 31.

SOURCE: Wittich, Dieter. “Ludwik Fleck: Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact,” Science and Nature, no. 4 (1981), pp. 3-14.

Science and Nature, Table of Contents, issues #1-10 (1978-1989)

Vienna Circle, Karl Popper, Frankfurt School, Marxism, McCarthyism & American Philosophy: Selected Bibliography

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