Back at the University of Bielefeld, I took a course on philosophy of science. I recall reading some Popper, Kuhn & Lakatos in class, and later some Feyerabend on my own. Still later, I discovered Reichenbach, whose positivist views all the other gentlemen rejected. Notably, the course was offered by the sociology department, because psychologists, then as now, don’t want to be bothered by philosophy of science. Most of us don’t reflect on it, or have a dim sense that we already do the right Popperian thing by rejecting (falsifying) null hypotheses left and right. There is a depth of ignorance here that is hard to contemplate.

Popper, or any of the other gentlemen listed above, would not recognize his views on how science progresses (or fails to) in the standard significance paradigm of psychological science. He would spin in his proverbial grave. The legendary Paul Meehl was both a psychologist and a philosopher of science (first of the Popperian, then of the Lakatosian stripe). His brilliance notwithstanding, each successive generation of graduate students is more likely than the previous one to ask “Paul who?”


As they all fade into collective oblivion, one forerunner may be experiencing a renaissance. Ludwik Fleck (1896 – 1961) portrayed science as a collective enterprise, in which much depends on the consensus of the scientific community and little on the ratiocinations of the individual scientist. It is easy to go from there to social construction and postmodern relativism. But Fleck was no slouch in the lab. He pursued his experimental agenda with patience and vigor, along the way finding the time to reflect on the big picture. When was the last time, Popper, Kuhn, or Lakatos ran an experiment? Not to mention Feyerabend. He would laugh at the thought even harder than you or I.

As a practicing bench scientist and reflector of the collective scientific enterprise, Fleck commands respect. As I am not qualified to render a subtle exegesis (I will return to less turgid prose in time) of Fleck’s intellectual achievements, I offer here, to whet your appetite, a selection of Fleck quotes from his Genesis and development of a scientific fact, first published in German in 1935. I quote from the 1979 U of Chicago Press edition.

p. 21: “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. 22: “Whatever is known has always seemed systematic, proven, applicable, and evident to the knower. Every alien system of knowledge has likewise seemed contradictory, unproven, in applicable, fanciful, or mystical.”

p. 27: “Once a structurally complete and closed system of opinions consisting of many details and relations has been formed, it offers enduring resistance to anything that contradicts it.”

p. 37: “As a physician I know that we cannot distinguish sharply between normality and abnormality. The abnormal is often only the enhancement of the normal. [. . .] Although the philosophy of Nietzsche has, for instance, a psychopathological motif, it generates social effects no different from those produced by a normally conditioned outlook on life. At any rate, once a statement is published it constitutes part of the social forces, which form concepts and create habits of thought. Together with all other statements it determines “what cannot be thought in any other way.” Even if a particular statement is contested, we grow up with its uncertainty, which, circulating in society, reinforces its social effect. It becomes a self-evident reality, which, in turn, conditions our further acts of cognition. There emerges a closed, harmonious system within which the logical origin of individual elements can no longer be traced.”

p. 38: “Cognition is therefore not an individual process of any theoretical “particular consciousness.“ Rather, it is the result of a social activity, since the existing stock of knowledge exceeds the range available to any one individual.”

p. 41: “Although the thought collective consists of individuals, it is not simply the aggregate sum of them. The individual within the collective is never, or hardly ever, conscious of the prevailing thought style, which almost always exerts an absolutely compulsive force upon his thinking and with which it is not possible to be at variance."

p. 92: “Direct perception of form [Gestaltsehen] requires being experienced in the relevant field of thought. [. . .] It is just this readiness for directed perception that is the main constituent of thought style.”

So you see, Fleck depicts the scientific community as an organism that perceives, judges, and remembers. Individual scientists are mere expressions of that organism. Fleck emphasizes the forces favoring consensus and conservatism. Is that not an inexorable drive toward homogeneity? Apparently not. Fleck continues:

p. 116: “Truth is thus made into an objectively existing quality. Scientists are accordingly divided into two classes; the “bad guys,” who miss the truth, and the “good guys,” who find it.”

So consensus is not perfect, as all practicing scientists know. There is always a minority report, though not as often about core assumptions than about marginalia. Still, if collective thought styles (Denkstile) hold such overpowering dominion over the contents of individual minds, how can anything ever change? Fleck, scooping Kuhn, had this to say:

pp. 28 – 29: “Every comprehensive theory passes first through a classical stage, when only those facts are recognized which conform to it exactly, and then through a stage with complications, when the exceptions begin to come forward. [. . .] In the end, there are often more exceptions than normal instances.”

And then the paradigm crashes and the cycle begins anew. Where do we stand today in psychology? What is the reigning Denkstil? There's something to re-fleck-t on.

Fleck, L. (1935). Entstehung und Entwicklung einer wissenschaftlichen Tatsache. Einführung in die Lehre vom Denkstil und Denkkollektiv. Benno Schwabe & Co.

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