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Thomas S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

adamwebbApr 27, 2018, 2:15:38 PM

Thomas S. Kuhn was an American physicist, historian, and a philosopher of science. Kuhn earned a PhD in physics from Harvard in 1949. He spent three years as a Harvard Junior Fellow, in which he moved from physics to history, focusing on the philosophy of science.

While at Harvard, he taught a course in the history of science from 1948 until 1956. After leaving Harvard, Kuhn joined the University of California, Berkeley, being named Professor of the History of Science. While at Berkeley, Kuhn published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn joined Princeton University in 1964 as the M. Taylor Pyne Professor of Philosophy and History of Science. In 1979, Kuhn joined MIT as the Laurence S. Rockefeller Professor of Philosophy. He died in 1996.

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was originally published by the logical positivists of the Vienna Circle in the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science in 1962. Kuhn published a longer version of it that same year. Kuhn’s purpose of this text is to argue the accumulation of new knowledge does not move in a linear fashion in the transformation of scientific fields.

He states, “If science is the constellation of facts, theories, and methods collected in current texts, then scientists are the men who, successfully or not, have striven to contribute one or another element to that particular constellation” (Kuhn, p. 2). Kuhn continues, “Scientific development becomes the piecemeal process by which these items have been added, singly and in combination, to the ever growing stockpile that constitutes scientific technique and knowledge” (2).

Since Kuhn is approaching this topic as a historian, he claims that, as a historian, he has two tasks. The first task is to “determine by what man and at what point in time each contemporary scientific fact, law, and theory was discovered” (2). The other task is to “describe and explain the congeries of error, myth, and superstition that have inhabited the more rapid accumulation of the constituents of the modern science text” (2).

Citing Alexandre Koyré’s work in the area of writing on the history and philosophy of science, which, according to Kuhn, indicates “the possibility of a new image of science” (2-3). Kuhn asserts that the goal of his text is to “delineate that image by making explicit some of the new historiography’s implication” (2-3).

“Normal science, the activity in which most scientists inevitably spend almost all of their time, is predicated on the assumption that the scientific community knows what the world is like,” he states (5). Kuhn further asserts, “Normal science, for example, often suppresses fundamental novelties because they are necessarily subversive of its basic commitments” (5). “Normal science,” according to Kuhn, “means research firmly based upon one or more past scientific achievements that some particular scientific community acknowledges for a time as supplying the foundation for its further practice” (10).

He uses the term “paradigm,” which is a particular set of concepts, theories, methods, and standards that practitioners use to validate contributions to a field, to describe the structure in which normal science thrives in solving puzzles (11-12). Prior to the existence of a paradigm, a “pre-paradigm” exists where individuals’ activities and experiments are not guided by a well-defined paradigm (11-14). “The pre-paradigm period, in particular, is regularly marked by frequent and deep debates over legitimate methods, problems, and standards of solution, though these serve rather to define schools than to produce agreement,” he states (48).

Kuhn says, “When the individual scientist can take a paradigm for granted, he need no longer, in his major works, attempt to build his field anew, starting from the principles and justifying the use of each concept introduced. That can be left to the writer of textbooks” (20). Once a paradigm is established, scientists working in it follow rules, methods, and create models in which to learn from and apply in given situations.

He says, “Normal science does not aim at novelties of fact or theory and, when successful, finds none” (52). Kuhn continues, “Discovery commences with the awareness of anomaly, i.e., with the recognition that nature has somehow violated the paradigm-induced expectations that govern normal science” (53). When anomalies arise and persist, or are “prolonged,” within a normal scientific paradigm that scientists cannot solve, that can lead to a crisis in which change can occur.

“Both during pre-paradigm periods and during the crises that lead to largescale changes of paradigm, scientists usually develop many speculative and unarticulated theories that can themselves point the way to discovery,” he claims (61). Kuhn says, “Anomaly appears only against the background provided by the paradigm. The more precise and far-reaching that paradigm is, the more sensitive an indicator it provides of anomaly and hence of an occasion for paradigm change” (65).

“All crises begin with the blurring of a paradigm and the consequent loosening of the rules for normal research. In this respect research during crisis very much resembles research during the pre-paradigm period, except that in the former the locus of difference is both smaller and more clearly defined,” he claims (84).

One example Kuhn describes is the crisis of pneumatic chemistry addressed by Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier and Joseph Priestly during the 18th century (86). Other paradigm shifts were started with Newton and Einstein but took years to be accepted (86). In terms of astronomy and mathematics, Copernicus and his proclamation of a heliocentric universe led the way for the advancements from Galileo and Kepler. John Dalton’s law of multiple proportions in chemical compounds led to advancements in atomic theory.

Kuhn states, “Confronted with anomaly or with crisis, scientists take a different attitude toward existing paradigms, and the nature of their research changes accordingly” (91). In terms of “scientific revolutions,” Kuhn is describing the way in which scientists address anomalies that arise through discovery and how other scientists within their community respond to their discovery and findings.

Kuhn also presents the notion of “incommensurability,” having no standard of comparison, between scientific paradigms (4). He states three main areas in which incommensurability is portrayed between paradigms:

1. “[T]he proponents of competing paradigms will often disagree about the list of problems that any candidate for paradigm must resolve. Their standards or their definitions of science are not the same” (147)

2. “Since new paradigms are born from old ones, they ordinarily incorporate much vocabulary and apparatus, both conceptual and manipulative, that the traditional paradigm had previously employed. Within the new paradigm, old terms, concepts, and experiments fall into new relationships one with the other” (148)

3. “[T]he proponents of competing paradigms practice their trades in different worlds” (149)

For the third reason of incommensurability of scientific paradigms, Kuhn explains, “One contains constrained bodies that fall slowly [Aristotelian], the other pendulums that repeat their motions again and again [Galilean]” (149). He continues, “In one, solutions are compounds [Dalton], in the other mixtures [Berthollet]. One is embedded in a flat [Newtonian], the other in a curved, matrix of space [Einsteinian]” (149).

The prominent example of how paradigms are incommensurable that is commonly focused on in Kuhn’s text is the example of mass addressed in Newtonian and Einsteinian physics (Hacking, “Introduction,” xxx-xxxi).

In the second edition of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn added a “Postscript” section in which he addresses some of the criticisms of his text (173-208).

Kuhn states that the description of “the transition from the pre- to the post-paradigm in the development of a scientific field” provided in chapter two, “The Route to Normal Science,” “deserves fuller discussion” especially in the area “concerned with the development of the contemporary social sciences” (177-78).

Another criticism lies in Kuhn’s “one-on-one identification of scientific communities with scientific subject matters” (178). He defends his position on this matter, stating, “A paradigm governs, in the first instance, not a subject matter but rather a group of practitioners. Any study of paradigm-directed or of paradigm-shattering research must begin by locating the responsible group or groups” (179).

Some critics “have doubted whether crisis, the common awareness that something has gone wrong, precedes revolutions so invariably” as Kuhn shows in his text (180). Kuhn responds to this criticism, saying, “Nothing important in my argument depends, however, on crises’ being an absolute prerequisite to revolutions; they need only be the usual prelude, supplying, that is, a self-correcting mechanism which ensures that the rigidity of normal science will not forever go unchallenged” (180).

Margaret Masterson, a British linguist and philosopher, identified “at least twenty-two different ways” in which Kuhn used the term paradigm (181). Kuhn claims that a majority of those differences is “due to stylistic inconsistencies (i.e., Newton’s Laws are sometimes a paradigm, sometimes parts of a paradigm, and sometimes paradigmatic), and they can be eliminated with relative ease” (181).

He partially answers this criticism by saying that paradigms, parts of paradigms, or paradigmatic elements are constituents of the “disciplinary matrix” (181). Kuhn explains the reason for using disciplinary matrix, stating, “[‘D]isciplinary’ because it refers to the common possession of the practitioners of a particular discipline; ‘matrix’ because it is composed of ordered elements of various sorts, each requiring further specification” (181).

The disciplinary matrix consists of four components: “symbolic generalizations,” “the metaphysical parts of paradigms,” “values,” and “exemplars,” which are “the concrete problem-solutions that students encounter from the start of their scientific education, whether in laboratories, on examinations, or at the ends of chapters in science texts” (182-86).

Another criticism Kuhn notes is that he was “trying to make science rest on unanalyzable individual intuitions rather than on logic” (190). His response to this criticism is that if he is “talking at all about intuitions, they are not individual. Rather they are the tested and shared possessions of the members of a successful group, and the novice acquires them through training as a part of his preparation for group-membership. Second, they are not in principle unanalyzable” (190-91).

Questioning Kuhn’s incommensurability between paradigms, Kordig posits that it is too extreme and fails to explain the competition between scientific theories (Kordig, 1973). According to Kordig, paradigm shifts can be viewed by competing theories on a common plane of observation, which allows them to share “some observations” and “some meanings,” as well as a common plane in which the standards and norms between competing paradigms debate new theories (Kordig, 1973).

Field also questioned Kuhn’s notion of incommensurability, particularly with the definition of “mass” and what it might mean in a modern sense of post-relativistic physics (Field, 1973). Field’s contention is with “relativistic mass” and “real mass” in terms of “reference,” claiming that Newton’s use of the term “mass” is only “partially determined” on how he meant it to be used (Field, 1973). Thus, during a scientific revolution, a term such as “mass” might still refer to the same thing, except it may have experienced “denotational refinement” (Field, 1973).

Davidson argued that Kuhn’s claim that paradigms compete with one another is not “logical” and that “to make sense of the idea of a language independent of translation requires a distinction between conceptual schemes and the content organized by such schemes,” and, according to Davidson, “[N]o coherent sense can be made of the idea of a conceptual scheme, and therefore no sense may be attached to the idea of an untranslatable language” (Davidson, 1973-74, p. 123).

An important concept presented in Kuhn’s text is one that suggests that two scientists viewing the same phenomena in the world, but who hold two different theories, will see it differently. Fodor criticizes this notion as being incorrect, asserting the “interpretationalist hypothesis,” which suggests that while the two scientists hold different theories, they would still view the same phenomena but would interpret it differently (de Gelder, 1989, pp. 97-100).

On a closing note, in his “Introductory Essay” in the 50th anniversary edition of Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Hacking attributes him with forever changing how we view science (Hacking, 2012, p. xxxvii).


Bird, A. (2004). Thomas Kuhn. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Davidson, D. (1973–1974). “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme.” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association. 47: 5–20. doi:10.2307/3129898. JSTOR 3129898. In 1984, the essay became chapter 13 (pp. 183–198) of Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation, Clarendon Press. Expanded in 2001, Oxford University Press.

de Gelder, B. (1989). “Granny, The Naked Emperor and the Second Cognitive Revolution.” The Cognitive Turn: Sociological and Psychological Perspectives on Science, eds. Fuller, S., De May, M., Shinn, T., and Woolgar, S. Sociology of the Sciences Yearbook. 13. Springer Netherlands. pp. 97–100.

Field, H. (Aug. 1973). “Theory Change and the Indeterminacy of Reference.” The Journal of Philosophy. Columbia University. 70 (14): pp. 462–81.

Ferretti, F. (2001). Jerry A. Fodor. Rome: Editori Laterza.

Gattei, S. (2012) [2008]. Thomas Kuhn’s “Linguistic Turn” and the Legacy of Logical Empiricism. Incommensurability, Rationality and the Search for Truth. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing. p. 123.

Hacking, I. (2012). “Introductory Essay” in T.S. Kuhn’s T.S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Fourth Edition. The university of Chicago Press: Chicago, London.

Horgan, J. (May 1991). “Profile: Reluctant Revolutionary.” Scientific American: 40. Archived from the original on September 20, 2011.

Hoyningen-Huene, P. (2015). “Kuhn’s Development Before and After Structure.” Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions-50 Years On. Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science. 311. Springer International Publishing.

Kordig, C. R. (Dec. 1973). “Discussion: Observational Invariance.” Philosophy of Science. University of Chicago Press. 40: pp. 558–69.

Kuhn, T. S. (1962, 2012). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Fourth Edition. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, London.

Kuhn, T. S. (1977). The Essential Tension: Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change. University of Chicago Press. pp. 320–39.

Kuhn, T. S. (1987). “What Are Scientific Revolutions?” an excerpt from The Probablistic Revolution, Volume I: Ideas in History, eds. Lorenz Kruger, Lorraine, J. Daston, and Michael Heidelberger. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 7-22.

Lakatos, I., ed. (1970). Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge: Volume 4: Proceedings of the International Colloquium in the Philosophy of Science, London, 1965. Cambridge University Press. p. 57.

Stephens, J. (1973). “The Kuhnian Paradigm and Political Inquiry: An Appraisal.” American Journal of Political Science. 17: p. 468.

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