Sunday, October 17th, 2010
It might have been Kant who came up with the idea that the world doesn’t impose its meaning on us, we impose our meaning on the world. Call it a priori knowledge, paradigms, archetypes, narratives, frames, etc. It’s all the same basic thing. It’s the notion that we all have a preconceived lens through which we process the world.
One of the best expositions of this I’ve read is Thomas Khun’s Structure of Scientific Revolution. In this book, Khun describes his paradigm concept, in which science takes place within the scope of a certain “grand unified theory” of how the world works relative to a particular field:
An apparently arbitrary element, compounded of personal and historical accident, is always a formative ingredient of the beliefs espoused by a given scientific community at a given time…Normal science, the activity in which most scientists inevitably spend almost all their time, is predicated on the assumption that the scientific community knows what the world is like. Much of the success of the enterprise derives from the community’s willingness to defend that assumption, if necessary at considerable cost. Normal science, for example, often suppresses fundamental novelties because they are necessarily subversive of its basic commitments.
Like the choice between competing political institutions, that between competing paradigms proves to be a choice between incompatible modes of community life. Because it has that character, the choice is not and cannot be determined merely by the evaluative procedures characteristic of normal science, for these depend in part upon a particular paradigm, and that paradigm is at issue.
What Kuhn calls “normal science” takes place within the bounds of a particular paradigm. Indeed, science itself only emerges when there is a shared paradigm to which virtually all practitioners subscribe. The existence of a paradigm doesn’t mean it will last forever. Indeed, much of Kuhn’s work deals with the accretion of anomalies paradigms can’t explain, leading to a scientific crisis that ultimately results in switching to a new paradigm, such as the move from Newtonian to Einsteinian physics. (I believe Kuhn’s book, which was published in 1962, popularized the term “paradigm shift” as a shorthand for describing this, though I’m not sure the phrase actually occurs in the work).
The pre-scientific age is characterized by rival camps with various competing world views that are often philosophical in form. It doesn’t take much reflection to see that when it comes to understanding the function cities and what makes them successful, we are still in that pre-scientific phase.
In 2008 economist Joe Cortright did a study for CEOs for Cities called City Success: Theories of Urban Prosperity that examined no fewer than 18 different theories about urban success. These range from business climate to distinctiveness to industry clusters. Clearly, there is no consensus yet.
The other problem is that this question of urban success is fundamentally normative. It concerned with the type of communities we want to have and the type of world we think we should live in. Unlike describing the behavior of light, there’s little agreement on what urban success looks like. In that regard, it’s unsurprising there’s little consensus on how to get there.
Indeed, the very theories of success that are promulgated often leave the distinct impression that the strategy itself is actually the goal. In the “Sustainable City” theory that Cortright identified, I can’t help but wonder if its advocates see sustainability less as a means to success than as something they want to do in any case. Dittos for the “Business Climate City” or other matters. We argue in favor of policy based on both moral grounds and utilitarian ones. Unsurprisingly, people who claim their policies are right invariably also claim they will bring the greatest benefit. Isn’t the universe wonderful?
Given this situation, it’s unsurprising that various camps of urban policy advocates spend most of their time talking past each other. They inhabit entirely different worlds. What we at best hope for at the moment is at least some awareness of the true state of affairs, so that we don’t see all others who don’t share our own convictions as unscientific savages, but rather as fellow grovelers for the truth in a “hundred schools of thought” age in which a true science of cities has yet to emerge.
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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.