The incommensurability of iphones and staplers

Interesting piece on Thomas Kuhn chucking an ashtray at a graduate student. It’s witty, but not really funny, as I have an big issue with the author’s seeming bewilderment with the term “incommensurability.” The endnote in the article ignores (or is possibly completely ignorant of) how the term has a long history that predates Kuhn, in favor of extending a poor joke – and, also, that Kuhn’s use of the term is pretty straightforward with minor context clues.

For an example of incommensurability as Kuhn¬† uses it, there’s an iphone and a stapler on my desk.

These are incompatible technologies. You can’t staple an iphone (at least not with a Swingline – your local Home Depot has some that would, though) successfully, and you can’t place a call to a stapler or connect to it via Bluetooth. You could bang them against each other, but I’d be hard pressed to call that compatibility; the stapler is meant to staple pages, and the iphone’s many functions have nothing to do with staples.

However, an iphone and a stapler are not incommensurable. You can TRY to make them interact – staple the iphone (not recommended), call the stapler. The failure is highly probable, but you are not precluded from trying.

Let’s imagine, however, an iphone forever separated from a stapler by a heavy, thick stone wall. The stapler can’t physically get to the phone to try and staple it, and the iphone can’t get a signal to the stapler. They can be aware of each other’s existence, but that knowledge is trivial, as interaction is literally impossible and this makes mere incompatibility also trivial. In this situation, the iphone and the stapler are not only incompatible, but incommensurable.

That Kuhn uses this word to define the relationships between scientific paradigms says, therefore, quite a bit. He is also leaning upon the older definition that suggests a weighing or measuring between theories that is somehow  rendered impossible.

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