Great, if not greatest, thinker: Kuhn

I’ll make this the last post in my sub-series on “honorable mentions” for the prize of the world’s greatest thinker ever. We could of course go on forever, but I don’t want it to get tedious. So, the next post will present the runner-up, and the one after that, well, the world’s greatest thinker ever. And I promise that you’ll be surprised.

But today: Thomas Kuhn.

(Remember, the honorable mentions have all gone to great thinkers who made a simple yet non-obvious contribution to a circumscribed area of human endeavor.)

Area of Interest: The progress of human knowledge

Why great: Because he showed that (scientific) knowledge does not accumulate in a steady (linear) way, as common sense has it, but rather that it leaps ahead in sporadic upheavals or “revolutions”. This means that at any given time, society can be in one of three phases: before a crisis/revolution, when the world seems stable; during the crisis/revolution, when it appears to be anything but stable; and after, when the world looks completely changed.


It’s a pity that the sort of crisis/revolution/upheaval that Kuhn described has since become known as a paradigm shift, which must be the ugliest and corniest piece of jargon out there (along with leverage and core competency). But that shouldn’t distract from Kuhn’s amazing insight.

The default assumption for most people is that every scientist (thinker?) pushes ahead independently into new territory. Kuhn says No. Most scientists are “puzzle solvers” that try, conservatively, to corroborate whatever theory they have been taught. If evidence shows up that contradicts the theory, the scientist producing that evidence is blamed for getting it wrong.

But eventually, the contradictory evidence accumulates, and everybody panics. Then, some people start thinking outside of the box. A breakthrough occurs. We shift to a new understanding. Nothing is ever the same again. And a whole new set of gray mice in white coats gets busy corroborating the new theory.

This reminds me of the old debate in the field of evolution between the “creeps” and the “jerks”. In this context, Kuhn says, knowledge advances in jerks. Lesson: Don’t assume you’re wrong just because everybody else says so. (But don’t assume you’re right either.)

Incidentally, this also dovetails with Galenson’s theory about “young geniuses” and “old masters”: As Kuhn said,

Almost always the men who achieve these fundamental inventions of a new paradigm have been either very young or very new to the field whose paradigm they change.

(I don’t know why he said “men” instead of “scientiests” or “thinkers”. Applies to women just as well.)

Anyway, I could go on forever with the honorable mentions: Hayek, Burke, Aristotle, Laozi, …. But, as I said, just two more posts. Runner-up, then winner. The former will not be surprising, the latter most assuredly will.

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Brancusi, Einstein, simplicity and beauty

If non-conformity and “impudence” are the first ingredients in the astonishing creativity of a man such as Einstein, as I said here, are there yet other ingredients? Of course. And the most important, in my opinion, is an appreciation of simplicity.

More than most people I know, I yearn for simplicity in my life–on my desk, in my file folders, in my home decoration, in my writing, my sentences and of course my thoughts. Quite probably, that is because there is far too much complexity in all of these.

When I approach a new topic, as I did a years ago when I, who was a technophobe, took over the tech beat at The Economist, I first run it through my complexity/simplicity filter. At that time I came up with this.

If I had to choose a favorite sculptor, it might be Brancusi, who grasped simplicity as well as anybody. It is at heart an uncluttering. In Brancusi’s case, he strips a thing of all unnecessary detail in order to reveal its underlying form.

Simplicity is thus also a form of honesty. Once the underlying form of a thing is revealed, you know whether it has beauty or, in the case of writing, also substance. Some of you may recall my idiosyncratic way of reading, by copying and pasting a long document into my word processor, then deleting all extraneous detail as I go along. In effect, I force simplicity onto, say, a research paper. Often, this is how I realize that the boffin in question was a windbag and had nothing to say, hiding behind verbose complexity. Other times, I realize I have hit a treasure trove.

Back to Einstein. Isaac Newton in his Principia had already said that

Nature is pleased with simplicity.

Einstein extended his hunch, saying that

Nature is the realization of the simplest conceivable mathematical ideas.


I have been guided not be the pressure from behind of experimental facts, but by the attraction in front from mathematical simplicity.

What goes for sculptors, inventors, physicists and other forms of homo sapiens goes especially for writers.