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A Little More than Kuhn, and Less than Kind

Examining the headlines with The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in mind

by Mark Anderson

Oxfordians may have been surprised at the latest Shakespearean stories coming from the national media. Or at least a little embarrassed for the ever-declining state of Stratfordian scholarship. The recently rediscovered 1612 W.S. Funeral Elegy, for instance, may read like Cardenio-brand imitation Shakespeare and appear a closer relative to W.S.’s other printed work (the apocryphal plays Locrine (1595), The True Chronicle Histories of Thomas Lord Cromwell (1602) and The Puritaine (1607) than to The Winter’s Tale or Henry VIII. But to denizens of Stratford, this is Page One news.

However one feels about the 578-line poem—and some Oxfordians have argued for its canonization, albeit with rather elaborate chronological arguments— investigating why the Elegy or last November’s New Yorker article on Hamlet and Martin Luther are considered news can prove just as revealing as analyzing the stories themselves.

Fortunately, a comprehensive study of Stratfordian dogma in the twilight years has already been written. Thomas S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) might as well be titled The Structure of Shakespearean Revolutions for the author’s sagacity in illuminating the history of the authorship controversy. Quite a remarkable feat considering Kuhn never once mentions Shakespeare.

Now 76 years since J. Thomas Looney’s Shakespeare Identified first came into print, the revolution it set in motion—and the entrenched orthodoxy’s reaction to it—share many identifying traits with other intellectual revolutions in history (or what Kuhn terms “paradigm shifts”). Kuhn’s consideration of orthodox reactions to John Dalton’s atomic theory of chemistry or Nicolaus Copernicus’ heliocentric cosmology shows haunting relevance to the authorship debate and its reverberations in Shakespearean research today. Consider the 1612 W.S. Elegy. Since the Complete Works of W.S. constitute at least four printed texts—three of which remain apocryphal even to the most avid proponents of the Elegy— the first question to be broached is an obvious one: Why canonize one and leave three waiting at the doorstep? (It is a question, curiously enough, I have yet to see any article on the Elegy ask.) It certainly is convenient that a canonized Elegy would appear prima face to exclude Edward de Vere as the author, since he died in 1604 and the poem pays tribute to an individual who was killed in 1612.

Perhaps part of the reason a seven year-old story (Donald Foster’s book Elegy by W.S.: A Study in Attribution came out in 1989) now shares front-page column inches in the New York Times with Bosnia and the 1996 Presidential Campaign is the Elegy‘s utility in silencing the increasing number of heretics at the gate.

And that should come as no surprise to Oxfordians. The chronology has been and probably will continue to be the most visible site where the authorship controversy is staged.

The chronology, in fact, is what Kuhn would categorize as a rule. In Kuhn’s framework, rules restrict the number of solutions to puzzles encountered in one’s day-to-day research. Devise a solution that defies the chronology (i.e. the author stopped writing in 1604) and face hostility, censure or excommunication from the Stratfordian priesthood. Follow the rules for your professional advancement; defy the rules at your professional peril.

However, as Kuhn points out, rules are not fundamental to the discipline itself. They are merely guidelines established for the practitioners to conduct the problem-solving (“mopping-up operations” as he at times more cynically terms it) that constitutes nearly all research in any field.

Rather, if rules are the essence of a field, the paradigm is its quintessence. In the Copernican debate, the paradigm at stake involved the Earth’s station in the universe. In the present debate, the center of the literary universe is the thing. And who it is means more than just a face to put with a name. More abstractly, a paradigm might be defined, as Kuhn phrased it, as the “constellation of shared commitments” held within a particular field. (p. 181)

Considering scientific history within the context of paradigm shifts, then, Kuhn found common threads throughout the Western tradition. And that’s where the W.S. Elegy and rules like the chronology come in.

The importance of rules and rule-making, as Kuhn establishes, closely traces a paradigm’s approach to a crisis state: “Though almost nonexistent during periods of normal science, (debates over rules) recur regularly just before and during scientific revolutions, the periods when paradigms are first under attack and then subject to change… When scientists disagree about whether the fundamental problems of their field have been solved, the search for rules gains a function that it does not ordinarily possess.” (p. 48)

In addition, the prominence of Kuhnian rules like chronology may prove a useful barometer for gauging uncertainty in the Stratfordian camp. As Kuhn concludes, “Rules should therefore become important and the characteristic unconcern about them should vanish whenever paradigms or models are felt to be insecure.” (p. 47) Roughly translated, the more caulk you use, the closer you are to needing a whole new tub—and the touchier you are about the whole thing.

Of course, in the final stages of any theory, the patchwork of stopgap fixes and newfound rules makes quite a grotesquerie for observers outside the dominant paradigm. The Divine William, we are now told, wrote the Divine Elegy after he had finished The Tempest, his farewell to the stage. Perhaps in the same way in which he wrote Venus and Adonis to win friends and influence people, he composed the Elegy to establish his credentials at cranking out stilted, lifeless panegyrics. Or maybe he was just warming up for “Good Friend for Iesus SAKE forbeare To digg the dust encloased HERe…”

Curiously, Copernicus’ observations about the mishmash of theories propagated to keep the lumbering Ptolemaic ship afloat ring frighteningly true in the present context:

“It is as though an artist were to gather the hands, feet, head and other members for his images from diverse models, each part excellently drawn, but not related to a single body, and since they in no way match each other, the result would be monster rather than man. [Is he describing the Droeshout engraving here?—Ed.] So in the course of their exposition… we find that they have either omitted some indispensable detail or introduced something foreign and wholly irrelevant. This would of a surety not have been so had they followed fixed principles; for if their hypotheses were not misleading, all inferences based thereon might be surely verified.” (Thomas S. Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution, Harvard University Press (1966) p. 138.)

Stratfordians, it seems, have been cribbing like mad from the Ptolemaic prompt book.

When The New Yorker published David Remnick’s “Hamlet in Hollywood” feature last November 20, the theory it advanced—that the play was an allegorical biography of Martin Luther (cf. SOS Newsletter, autumn 1995, p. 3)—certainly gives Copernicus’ words new life. In fact, like an increased dependence on rules and methodology, the preponderance of seemingly arbitrary hypotheses within a paradigm also tends to foreshadow a crisis wherein the entire paradigm comes into question.

And the practitioners within the paradigm are rarely the ones doing the questioning. As Kuhn establishes, “By themselves they cannot and will not falsify (their) theory, for its defenders will do what we have already seen scientists doing when confronted by anomaly. They will devise numerous articulations and ad hoc modifications of their theory in order to eliminate any apparent conflict. Many of the relevant modifications and qualifications are, in fact, already in the literature.” (p. 78)

As if reading from Kuhn themselves, several New Yorker readers wrote in a month later to point out that the “new” theories covered in Remnick’s article were also advanced in a 1990 English Language Notes article and a 1973 Ph.D. thesis. Perhaps the most important aspect of the ad hoc modifications to a paradigm are their fleeting nature. While they may be vehemently defended during their fifteen minutes of fame, they also tend to be quickly dropped when the next big thing comes along. Kuhn observes, “The scientist in crisis will constantly try to generate speculative theories that, if successful, may disclose the road to a new paradigm and, if unsuccessful, can be surrendered with relative ease.” (p. 87)

Unfortunately, the solution is never as simple as sitting the two sides down at a bargaining table and hashing their differences out. The polemical nature of a debate between competing paradigms is as natural as the dogmatic claims made on both sides. Since a paradigmatic dispute is often about the most fundamental issues in a field, rarely can two parties find much if any common ground. Citing an example from the debate over what became Dalton’s atomic theory of chemistry, Kuhn spells out the inevitable nature of conflict in the paradigm game. “Neither side will grant all the non-empirical assumptions that the other side needs in order to make its case. Like Proust and Berthollet arguing about the composition of chemical compounds, they are bound party to talk through each other. Though each may hope to convert the other to his way of seeing his science and its problems, neither may hope to prove his case. The competition between paradigms is not the sort of battle that can be resolved by proofs.” (p. 148)

Attempting to solve the controversy with documentary evidence alone would appear to be folly too, for even in the most seemingly objective of pursuits, analytical “proofs” at times have to take a back seat to more aesthetic judgments. Before or in the early phase of an established paradigm’s crisis state, progress is made more through intuition than any pat process. That is, “Something must make at least a few scientists feel that the new proposal is on the right track, and sometimes it is only personal and inarticulate aesthetic considerations that can do that.” (p. 158)

Peering into the crystal ball, then, a revolutionary phase—as the authorship controversy appears to be entering—is typically resolved through patience and a lot of perseverance. As Kuhn concludes:

“…supporters’ motives may be suspect. Nevertheless, if they are competent, they will improve it, explore its possibilities, and show what it would be like to belong to the community guided by it. And as that goes on, if the paradigm is one destined to win its fight, the number and strength of the persuasive arguments in its favor will increase. More scientists will then be converted, and the exploration of the new paradigm will go on. Gradually the number of experiments, instruments, articles and books based on the paradigm will multiply. Still more men (this was written in 1962, after all), convinced of the new view’s fruitfulness, will adopt the new mode of practicing normal science, until at last only a few elderly holdouts remain. And even they, we cannot say, are wrong. Though the historian can always find men… who were unreasonable to resist for as long as they did, he will not find a point at which resistance becomes illogical or unscientific. At most he may wish to say that the man who continues to resist after his whole profession has been converted has ipso facto ceased to be a scientist.” (p. 159)

Meteors fighting the fixed stars of heaven may forerun the death or fall of kings. But a paradigm’s fall, fortunately, appears to be far more prosaic.

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