Thomas S. Kuhn Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Departing from traditional philosophy of science, Kuhn argued that science does not evolve only by the steady accumulation of knowledge but also by periodic conceptual revolutions. He emphasized that in its pursuit of knowledge, science is a social process.

Early Life

Thomas Samuel Kuhn was born on July 18, 1922, in Cincinnati, Ohio. He attended Harvard College, where he earned a bachelor of science degree in physics in 1943. For the next two years, he worked for the Radio Research Laboratory in Cambridge, helping develop military technology for the United States Office of Scientific Research and Development. He continued his studies in physics, completing his master’s degree in 1946 and his doctorate in 1949. His dissertation, “The Cohesive Energy of Monovalent Metals as a Function of Their Atomic Quantum Defects,” prepared him as a specialist in solid-state physics, and he published three professional papers on physical and mathematical subjects. In 1948, he married Kathryn Louise Muhs. They had two daughters and a son.

While working on his dissertation in 1947, Kuhn began to study the history and philosophy of science. James Conant, then the president of Harvard, introduced Kuhn to the subjects, asking him to teach an experimental course for undergraduate nonscience majors on the history of science. As part of his preparation, Kuhn read the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s Physica (c. 330 b.c.e.; Physics, 1812). It puzzled him how the ancient philosopher could have so misunderstood the nature of motion and why generations of thinkers had taken his ideas so seriously. Suddenly, according to Kuhn, he experienced a “eureka” moment. To Aristotle, he realized, motion was only a special case of general changes of quality: The fall of a stone from gravity, like fog rolling in or a child’s growth, was not a state but a change of state. Aristotle’s views suddenly made sense. Kuhn further realized that theories become outmoded when scientists undergo a basic cognitive shift in how they view natural phenomena, as they did after the seventeenth century when, following Sir Isaac Newton’s first law of motion, they began regarding motion as a state in itself. This startling perception, Kuhn later said, made his jaw drop. It also seeded his career in philosophy.

Life’s Work

From 1948 to 1951, Kuhn was a junior fellow in the elite Society of Fellows of Harvard University. The fellowship allowed him to read further in science history, concentrating on physics. In 1951, he joined the Harvard faculty as an assistant professor of general education and the history of science. The same year, he delivered a series of lectures at the Lowell Institute in Boston. In his courses and lectures, he developed the idea that the history of science was not a steady, orderly accumulation of knowledge, as philosophers of science had long argued. Instead, Kuhn found periods of disorder, confusion, and rivalry in every branch of science. Science evolves discontinuously, he concluded.

More than a decade passed before Kuhn fully articulated his philosophical explanation for these discontinuities. First, he studied a specific discontinuity in depth: the Sun-centered model of the heavens proposed by Nicolaus Copernicus and its acceptance. Influenced by Conant and philosopher Stanley Cavell, Kuhn wrote his historical analysis while on sabbatical, with the help of a Guggenheim Foundation grant. The Copernican Revolution anatomizes the history of an idea in the tradition of Arthur O. Lovejoy’s The Great Chain of Being (1936), which Kuhn admired. He chose Copernicus’s work, he wrote, because it allowed him to trace how concepts in different realms of thought could merge to produce a new outlook on nature. Copernicus’s cosmological model began as a mathematical revision of Ptolemy’s Earth-centered model of the universe, published in the Mathēmatikē syntaxis (c. 150 C.E.; Almagest, 1948) and dominant in Western astronomy afterward. Copernicus’s De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (1543; On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, 1939) was the product not only of mathematics, Kuhn showed, but also of new analyses of motion, explorations of the Atlantic Ocean, and the Renaissance’s increasing emphasis upon human experience as a guide to knowledge. More important, Kuhn argued that for Copernicus’s theory to succeed, despite its greater simplicity than Ptolemy’s model, scientists had to undergo a fundamental realignment in their thinking. For example, they could no longer view Earth as central to the universe and therefore unique. Such entrenched assumptions underlaid Ptolemy’s theory as well as other Renaissance astronomical theories competing with Copernicus’s for acceptance. The realignment brought by the Copernican revolution had profound repercussions for theology and society and, therefore, was social as well as scientific, Kuhn held.

In the fall of 1956, Kuhn left Harvard to become a full professor at the University of California, Berkeley. He concentrated on a philosophical analysis of his historical studies and completed a manuscript while on a fellowship at Stanford University’s Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences during 1958 and 1959. After thorough revisions, it appeared as The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962, part of a series of philosophical monographs for the International Encyclopedia of the Unified Sciences.

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions lays out a schematic theory for the evolution of science in general and scientific specialties. It draws upon several famous historical examples, mostly from physics and astronomy, but more to illustrate Kuhn’s system than to substantiate it. The weight of his argument is abstract, logical, and epistemological rather than historical. Three key features of the argument attracted particular attention. First is the idea that science relies on paradigms, a term that Kuhn borrowed from linguistics. Grammatical patterns, called paradigms,...

(The entire section is 2512 words.)