The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

by Thomas S. Kuhn
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 803

Although the title of Kuhn’s essay specifies revolutions, his presentation has a broader scope, namely, the nature of scientific enterprise. His perspectives developed from consideration of the sequence of steps, from ancient Greece to the present, that resulted in twentieth century physical science. His philosophy of science stems, primarily, from historical study. He has, however, also considered psychology and sociology and applied them to the scientific endeavor as a whole. His approach is an interdisciplinary one.

In each of the thirteen short chapters, a single idea is set forth, usually drawing heavily on examples from the history of physics, chemistry, or astronomy, as would be expected given the author’s background. Yet the examples are secondary in importance to the notions that they are being invoked to explicate. Although familiarity with the physical science being cited is very helpful to the reader, lack of such knowledge is by no means a complete barrier to comprehension of Kuhn’s points.

Two features which distinguish Kuhn’s writing on the philosophy of science are his belief that revolution (not evolution) marks the development of science and his introduction of a set of terms to characterize scientific activity. Some of these terms were given new or expanded meanings by Kuhn and became identified with a “Kuhnian” approach. They have been seized upon by some readers and applied in fields widely divergent from the physical sciences.

Kuhn’s thinking about the development of science may be briefly summarized. At most given times, scientists pursuing a “mature” science practice “normal science” and teach it to their students, initiating them and training them to carry on in the then-established tradition for their particular discipline. For sciences which have reached a state of “maturity,” a “paradigm” has been established by consensus among the practitioners. For Kuhn, the term “paradigm” refers to a situation in which all the currently known information in a field is accessible, suitable lines of investigation to extend that knowledge are recognized, and a collection of laws, theory, applications, and instrumentation constituting a “model” are accepted. In Kuhn’s view, before a science has reached mature status it is most often studied or investigated in relative isolation by scientists from a number of competing schools of thought and, in retrospect, would be viewed as being in a preparadigm state of development. During its preparadigm period, it cannot be regarded as being truly scientific because no consensus prevails.

To be an accepted member of a scientific profession at any given time, an individual is expected to accept and conform to the current paradigm, selecting appropriate problems to study. Kuhn regards such activity not as paradigm testing but as “puzzle solving” within the currently accepted paradigm.

Inevitably, such investigations reveal “anomalies,” that is, instances that cannot be fitted into the current paradigm. (Accidental discoveries are another source of anomalies.) The presence of anomalies threatens a crisis in the paradigm. Initially, in the face of anomalies, efforts are made to modify the current paradigm to accommodate the new information. When that cannot be done or when that has come to involve cumbersome and far-fetched elements, the time is right for the introduction of a new paradigm.

A scientific revolution occurs when a new paradigm gains wide acceptance. Yet a revolution cannot occur unless a new paradigm has been made ready. It may take decades for a new paradigm to become established within the majority of a scientific community, and some older scientists may go to their graves never having accepted the new paradigm for one reason or another.

Acceptance by a scientific community of a new paradigm, that is, a scientific revolution, involves many changes that are not immediately clear. For example, a new conceptual vocabulary is required, new theories must be developed, new problems posed for solution, old lines of inquiry abandoned as irrelevant, metaphysical ideas (often unarticulated assumptions) examined for tenability.

Kuhn considers successive paradigms to be necessarily different and irreconcilable, their respective adherents seeming to operate in different worlds which prevent any meaningful communication among them. Scientists, in Kuhn’s view, talk only to colleagues sharing the same paradigm and are usually insulated from other disciplines and from the public at large.

Kuhn recognizes the political connotations associated with the word “revolution” and does not shy away from its use, even noting some similarities between political and scientific revolutions—a point which brought him some criticism from scientists, many of whom prefer the word “breakthrough” to characterize marked changes in the course of the development of a scientific discipline.

Kuhn challenges the idea of what is typically regarded as scientific progress. In particular, he does not believe that each successive paradigm shift brings scientists closer to the “truth.” At most, science can be said to have progressed from previous stages but not toward an ultimate goal.

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