The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Analysis

Thomas S. Kuhn

Form and Content

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas S. Kuhn has provided in essay form his views on the nature of the scientific endeavor. It is a subject that Kuhn believes is little understood by the general public, by students of science, and even by scientists themselves. In particular, he challenges the beliefs that the development of science has been linear and cumulative and that science is characterized by complete objectivity. These beliefs, he says, are propagated by contemporary textbooks and by many popular writings of scientists. In the preface, he describes the intellectual route by which he came to his views.

The circumstances surrounding and leading to Kuhn’s writing of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions involved personal and institutional elements. In the late 1940’s, Kuhn was a graduate student in theoretical physics at Harvard University. He has stated that during his years of studying physics he developed a strong interest in the philosophical aspects of science. As an advanced graduate student, he became a teaching assistant in a group of new science courses for nonscience majors that Harvard was developing at that time.

In the years immediately following World War II, the faculty of Harvard University came to the conclusion that the postwar generation of Harvard students needed to be more broadly educated than their predecessors had been with regard to their cultural heritage. A new set of “general education” courses were devised, which included science. It was thought that a...

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Knowledge of nature’s workings and the ability to put that knowledge to practical use depends upon the doctrine of empiricism, the development of ideas on the basis of experimentation and observation. This doctrine itself evolved from the declining reliance during the Renaissance upon Christian doctrine and the Bible to explain new phenomena and increasing emphasis upon human experience as a source of knowledge. During the early twentieth century, a group of logical positivists, including England’s Bertrand Russell and Austria’s Ludwig Wittgenstein, rejected all metaphysical doctrines and held that true knowledge comes from human experience alone, particularly via its most rigorously controlled form, the scientific method: the accumulation of data under controlled conditions, construction of theories on the basis of the data, and verification of theories by experimentation and observation in accordance with objective standards of logic. Although subsequent adherents to this school often called themselves logical empiricists and insisted that theories cannot really be verified, only falsified, the underlying assumption is that the history of science has been the unbroken accumulation of knowledge in an orderly, unified sequence.

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas S. Kuhn disagrees with the logical positivists almost completely. Although he also believed that scientists aim for an increasingly accurate understanding of nature, he found that a community of scientists, such as physicists or biologists, often goes through periods of divisive disagreement over theory and the nature of data. The final triumph of one faction of a scientific field over another involves the interactions of people. Science is a social process as well as a knowledge-gathering enterprise.

Kuhn concentrates on the structure of scientific development in order to offer a schematic explanation applicable not only to individual disciplines and subdisciplines but also to science as a whole. Kuhn concerns himself with only the pure sciences and not the social sciences or applied sciences, and he specifically addresses the cognitive (or epistemic) function of science. He does not explore science’s ultimate value or truth or its place in human culture.

The Cycle of Science

Science, however, does not automatically settle into a routine of scientific training followed by application of textbook-conveyed knowledge, especially when the discipline is new, Kuhn explains in the second chapter. History reveals many instances in which a discipline consisted of several schools of thought at odds with each other about basic conceptions. During the late Renaissance, for example, some astronomers held, following Ptolemy, that Earth was the center of the universe and everything revolved around it; followers of Tycho Brahe thought Earth was the center and the Sun revolved around it, but that everything else revolved around the Sun; and Copernicans placed the Sun at the center, around which Earth and the other planets revolved. All three schools derived their distinct cosmologies in ways generally compatible with the same mathematics and methods of observation. What distinguishes such rival schools, Kuhn proposed, is not that one is more or less scientific than another but that each has a view incommensurable with the others. Incommensurability, or untranslatability, is a key term in Kuhn’s philosophy: The basic conceptions of one scientific school do not correspond to those of another. When proponents of one school argue with those of another, the two sides are apt to talk past each other rather than communicate meaningfully.

Eventually, one theory prevails. Elaborated on and passed on by professional education, it provides succeeding generations of researchers with a shared set of assumptions, theory, facts, and methods with which to analyze new problems and phenomena. Kuhn termed this shared professional knowledge a “paradigm.” In the third through fifth chapters, he discusses the paradigm-guided pursuit of scientific knowledge. It inaugurates the mature phase of a science, during which normal, or routine, science reigns. Specialists agree on what constitutes an acceptable problem, how to go about investigating it, and how to fit data to established theory in solving it. Most scientists spend their entire careers...

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Textbooks and the Goal of Science

In chapter 12, Kuhn returns to the influence of science textbooks, which more than any other single influence imbue scientists with the traditional paradigm of their profession. Textbooks before The Structure of Scientific Revolutions implied that a paradigm was the logical outcome of the discoveries and hypotheses that led to it by ignoring those discoveries and ideas that did not contribute to it. Thereby, textbooks gave the appearance of continuity, which Kuhn calls “unhistoric stereotypes,” and obscured the revolutionary ferment that led to a paradigm.

In the final chapter, Kuhn takes up a related, troubling question: How can the development of science through revolutions, in which some degree of arbitrariness exists, be reconciled with the progress of science in uncovering useful truths about nature? Kuhn offers only the outline of an answer, admitting that much more study of scientific communities is required to settle the question. His discussion draws upon an analogy with Darwinian evolution. Just as there is no ultimate goal of biological evolution, according to Charles Darwin, so Kuhn suggests there is no goal for science. Instead, the equivalent of natural selection takes place from competition among rival schools of thought, a process that produces the fittest way to conduct science until something new in the environment of scientific evidence challenges it. Science grows increasingly articulated and specialized (the equivalent of...

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Additional Reading

Giere, Ronald N. Explaining Science: A Cognitive Approach. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. This book surveys the philosophical theories of science and includes an extensive review of Kuhn’s philosophy. Many of the discussions are largely developed from Kuhn’s concept of revolutions in science.

Horgan, John. “Reluctant Revolutionary.” Scientific American 264, no. 5 (May, 1991): 40-9. In an interview, Kuhn reveals his frustration with those who misused or misinterpreted his ideas about scientific revolutions. He discusses modifications he made to his theory, particularly in the definitions of “paradigm” and “incommensurability.” Horgan depicts both Kuhn’s personality and ideas with clarity.

Horwich, Paul, ed. World Changes: Thomas Kuhn and the Nature of Science. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1993. An introduction by the editor and essays by nine scholars discuss how Kuhn’s ideas differ from those of previous philosophers. The essays take historical or philosophical approaches in their arguments. In “Afterwords,” Kuhn comments on the essays, refining his views about incommensurability and defending himself against charges of relativism and antirealism.

Hoyningen-Huene, Paul. Reconstructing Scientific Revolutions: Thomas S. Kuhn’s...

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