“The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” by Thomas Samuel Kuhn

Thomas Samuel Kuhn, an American intellectual is known for his extensive research in the philosophy of science, and his special contribution in developing important notions revolutionized the understanding and study of science after he wrote his best-known book, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” (SSR) in 1962. In this book, Kuhn emphasized that science does not develop consistently in a linear accumulation of knowledge, but there are regular and periodic revolutions, often referred to as the newly coined “paradigm shifts”, due to which the nature of scientific inquiry in the given field of reference is transformed abruptly.

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He implied that there are three stages in which the development of science is broken up, of which the first one is “prescience”, which lacks any paradigm. “Normal Science” is the next stage of scientific development, whereby scientists consistently attempt to broaden the central paradigm by puzzle solving techniques. Consequently, several anomalies and results are experienced and there is a crisis necessitating the formation of new paradigms that imbibe the new and old results into a single framework which Kuhn referred to as ‘revolutionary science”, which is the third stage in the development of science.

In due course, SSR created a lot of interest amongst philosophers and academicians and became a widely accepted academic book. In this book, Kuhn paints a picture of the development of science that is very unlike what was ever done before.

Till the time this book was written there had not been any account of carefully considered and theoretically explained developments in scientific changes. Till then the major belief was that science develops with the addition of new learning to what is already present and that scientific facts hitherto were universally accepted as a rule. Kuhn approaches the history and development of the philosophy of science by focusing on concepts such as ideas prevailing at the given time, intellectual options and strategies available, lexicons and terminologies known and used, not linking modern modes of thought to historical factors and stressed on the fact that the evolution of scientific theory stems from unconventional ways of dealing with the subject matter of science.

Having given examples in history to substantiate his findings, Kuhn went on to examine the Copernican revolution that has been referred to as the most well-known example of revolution in scientific thought. Given Ptolemy’s theory that the earth was stationary with other planets encircling it, the thought propounded by Copernicus that the sun was at the center with the earth and other planets encircling it, was rejected by his contemporaries.

Kuhn too agrees with them since he says his theory lacked any credibility. He stresses that the thought of the Earth and other planets encircling and revolving around the Sun was considered to be authentic only after it became a paradigm shift with the introduction of the idea of motion by Galileo, because as Aristotle also argued that it was a fundamental property of nature that for the motion of any object to be sustained it must continue to be pushed with a force or energy. Given the levels of knowledge of those times, this implied sensible and reasonable thinking and hence implying that a paradigm shift has occurred.

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This paradigm shift creates an aspect in the history of science whereby an established framework of thought has been brought about. All phenomena that had till now been unexplained will now be answered and clarified by this established framework of thought.

Kuhn believes that most scientists spend their time in various processes of solving such puzzles with utmost dedication and without giving up, with encouragement being received from previous breakthroughs in the efforts and experiments of the scientific community. Kuhn refers to this ongoing process as “normal science”, and further clarifies that as scientists pursue such goals, anomalies arise because of further discoveries in their experiments, and more insight is received on anomalies in the established paradigms. However, he asserts that scientists will not lose faith in the established paradigm until conclusive alternatives are available and will continue with their efforts tirelessly to gain further insight in their search for better alternatives.

Kuhn further states that in any group of scientists during a given period, there will always be some who are more creative and daring than the rest and who will constantly endeavor to make way through the situation of any crisis created by anomalies in paradigms and that this implies that they are engaged in revolutionary science.

They explore different alternatives which may have been long held as desirable possibilities, and such efforts will be opposed by the majority of the scientific community and this is considered normal by him since at any given time there will be conservative and bold individuals that characterize the world at large. If the new paradigm is acceptable by the masses it will gain credibility and a paradigm shift will be said to have occurred.

According to Kuhn, a matured science experiences different phases of normal science and revolutions whereby the key theories, values, metaphysical assumptions, and instruments are kept intact that permit the cumulative generation of the solution to puzzles and problems.

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But in a scientific revolution, there is a change in the disciplinary matrix to allow the solution of more serious anomalies that had been disturbing the previous and preceding period of natural science.

Chronologically Kuhn differentiates between the three phases by saying that the first phase consists of the pre paradigm phase in which there is no consensus about any theory being established as a result of the ongoing scientific studies. Once there is a consensus amongst scientists on the choices of the methods, terminologies, and the kinds of experiments being done that lead to further insights into the subject matter, the second phase of normal science sets in and is considered to be a period of crisis due to absence of conclusive evidence of the existence of desired circumstances.

Until there is consensus about inconsistency in the present paradigm this period will continue and once there is a sign of the anomalies wearing out due to scientific discoveries setting in a new paradigm, the period of revolutionary science begins. Kuhn says that these cycles may be repeated several times although it is not considered to be a healthy practice.

The transition from one paradigm to another does not occur very fast and rapidly. The paradigms that precede and succeed others are very different from each other and mostly don’t have any similarities and almost entirely change the outlook and viewpoint of people after the paradigm is established. It may entirely change terminologies, how scientists view the subject matter and the rules that are used to ascertain the authenticity and viability of the theory. Kuhn considered problem-solving as being the main element of science, and that for any paradigm to be considered worthy of being accepted by the scientific community, it ought to have the potential to resolve present outstanding problems that have so far not been solved.

Kuhn’s book is elaborately written in 13 chapters and he gradually builds upon the need to study scientific inquiries, why and how does science progresses, and what is the nature of such progress. He deeply delves into the examination of issues relating to paradigm shifts, normal science, and the procedures leading to a state of revolutionary science in the context of experiences and learnings of scientists that are carried out in the ultimate interest of mankind. The book begins with the formulation of some assumptions to lay the foundation for his discussions in the book. He goes on to describe how paradigms are created and how they contribute to scientific inquiries and research activities. He talks about the route to normal science and its nature in chapters 2 and 3

respectively and takes on chapter 4 by using natural science to solve existing problems in society through research using conceptual, theoretical, instrumental, and methodological means. Chapter 5 gives insight into how rules derive from paradigms and how paradigms can guide research activities even in the absence of rules. In chapters 6 and 7 Kuhn delves on how scientific discoveries and theories trace paradigm changes resulting from new theories and inventions which are primarily brought about by the failure or obsoleteness of existing systems and theories to solve problems prevalent due to crises that may be the cause of hardships to people.

In chapter 8 Kuhn examines how scientists respond to different anomalies to coordinate effectively between theory and nature to ward off crises and it is here that he uses the term “extraordinary science” to explain how the process of paradigm shift takes place.

Chapter 9 talks about why he calls a paradigm change a revolution and what are the functions of such a revolution in bringing about scientific change. In chapters 10 and 11 he gives details of how the world itself changes with the change in paradigms and concludes that such changes are in effect additions to scientific knowledge. Chapter 12 traces the transformation of the groups towards adaptability to new paradigms and the difficulties encountered during such changes. Finally, chapter 13 is the last chapter of his book where Kuhn concludes how in the face of several such revolutions, why and how science progresses and examines the nature of its progress.

Modern scientists are of the view that SSR has created a question mark on the ability of science given the impression created that knowledge of science is dependent on the historical circumstances and prevailing culture of groups of people and scientists instead of specific definable systems. Many scientists believe that Kuhn’s work has brought about confusion in the understanding of demarcation between scientific and non-scientific methods of the two systems. However, the concepts of the book have been patronized by several disciplines in addition to those that encompass the history and development of science.

In due course and over the years, Kuhn’s SSR has come to be criticized by various sections of the scientific community in the interpretation of his theories of the history and philosophy of science. His work met with widespread criticism from a large section of the philosophers mainly because at almost the same time several other developments in the studies of philosophy opened new avenues of alternative theories and thinking, thus providing impetus for further disagreement with Kuhn’s SSR.

The criticism was firstly based on the argument that Kuhn’s arguments on the development of science are not entirely accurate and secondly, that his notion of incommensurability is too much hyped about and that it is not too big a problem to delve into such deep-rooted philosophical interpretations. Despite all the criticism, Kuhn’s work has been very influential both within and outside the philosophical world and has been an important stimulus to science studies and in the study of the sociology of scientific knowledge.

Unquestionably Kuhn was amongst the most influential philosophers and historians of science in the twentieth century, his most noteworthy contribution being the ending of logical positivism. His anti-rationalist and relativist stands were so revolutionary that his supporters and detractors acknowledged the existence of a Kuhnian paradigm of “historical philosophy of science” that flourished in new departments that were formed in history and philosophy of science.

Bibliography

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn 1962.

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