Kuhn Explores Paradigm Shifts in Scientific Thought Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas S. Kuhn rejected models of the history of science that were based on progress or evolution in scientific thought. He asserted instead that the sciences underwent periodic revolutionary shifts in their underlying paradigms that could not be understood in terms of simple improvement or development. His analysis profoundly affected not only historians of science but also scholars in many other disciplines.

Summary of Event

The phenomenon of change in science that so fascinated Thomas S. Kuhn was a characteristic of his own life both before and after the publication of his greatest work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). Following his undergraduate and graduate education in physics at Harvard University, Kuhn changed—under the influence of his study of science’s past achievements and through the mentoring of James Bryant Conant—from a physicist into a historian of science. Although some scholars have explained the provenance of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions as an outgrowth of the political situation in Cold War America in general and at Harvard University in particular, Kuhn himself attributed the basic insights behind his book to an epiphany he experienced while studying Aristotle’s works on motion. Structure of Scientific Revolutions, The (Kuhn) Paradigm shifts Science, history of [kw]Kuhn Explores Paradigm Shifts in Scientific Thought (1962) [kw]Paradigm Shifts in Scientific Thought, Kuhn Explores (1962) [kw]Scientific Thought, Kuhn Explores Paradigm Shifts in (1962) Structure of Scientific Revolutions, The (Kuhn) Paradigm shifts Science, history of [g]North America;1962: Kuhn Explores Paradigm Shifts in Scientific Thought[07160] [g]United States;1962: Kuhn Explores Paradigm Shifts in Scientific Thought[07160] [c]Science and technology;1962: Kuhn Explores Paradigm Shifts in Scientific Thought[07160] [c]Historiography;1962: Kuhn Explores Paradigm Shifts in Scientific Thought[07160] [c]Philosophy;1962: Kuhn Explores Paradigm Shifts in Scientific Thought[07160] Kuhn, Thomas S. Conant, James Bryant Feyerabend, Paul

Kuhn came to realize that Aristotle Aristotle was actually engaged in perceptive ancient natural philosophy rather than erroneous modern physics. That is, the tendency to understand Aristotle through the lens of the present tended also to falsify the past. This insight transfigured Kuhn from a physicist who believed that the only valid science was being done by his contemporaries to a historian of science who believed that natural philosophers and scientists of previous centuries were, like modern scientists, engaged in a process of solving the puzzles of nature through sets of ideas shared by their respective communities.

Kuhn worked as a teacher in Harvard’s General Education in Science program, developed by Conant. The program centered on historical case studies, through which Kuhn became convinced that the proper way to understand science was through the particular philosophical and social contexts within which it developed, rather than through the distorting lens of present science. Instead of contemporary solid state physics, the subject of his doctoral dissertation, Kuhn focused his research on the physics, chemistry, and astronomy of the fifteenth through the nineteenth centuries. His first book, The Copernican Revolution Copernican Revolution, The (Kuhn) (1957), whose preface was written by Conant, was a detailed historical analysis of the many factors involved in the change from a geocentric to a heliocentric view of the universe.

The book appeared a year after Kuhn moved to the University of California at Berkeley, where he was a member of the philosophy department. There he had the opportunity to discuss his new ideas about scientific revolutions with such philosophers of science as Paul Feyerabend. Indeed, when Kuhn published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which he dedicated to Conant, it was as a monograph in the International Encyclopedia for Unified Science series, a series under the supervision of Otto Neurath and Rudolf Carnap, both prominent philosophers of science.

Although Kuhn hoped his book would interest philosophers of science, his primary purpose was to create and explore a new historiography of science, and the book’s first chapter emphasized his belief that paying attention to history could produce a decisive transformation of the way science should be understood. The subsequent twelve chapters contained an elaboration of his new vision of science, in which the scientific paradigm played a principal role. In the course of his book, Kuhn defined “paradigm” in various ways (one scholar has counted more than twenty different meanings of the term), but he stressed two chief clusters of meaning. In the first, a paradigm was a prototypical scientific achievement that provides a model for scientists to solve problems in their disciplines.

The second major definition of “paradigm” was a constellation of ideas, values, methods, and theories shared by a scientific community. In analyzing the phases of a science’s historical changes, Kuhn asserted that any given science begins with a pre-paradigmatic phase in which no consensus exists as to which ideas and methods are correct. This unsettling period of competing scientific models ends when an exemplary solution to the nascent discipline’s central problems convinces rival groups to adopt a common paradigm that serves as a guide for future research. The acceptance of this paradigm—including the acceptance of the implicit assertion that the problems it is capable of solving are indeed the central problems of the discipline—leads to what Kuhn calls “normal science.” Normal science is the usual state of affairs, a period during which scientists are largely in agreement as to the questions they seek to answer and the proper methods for answering them. Normal science is characterized by the articulation and consolidation of the paradigm, as its remaining puzzles are solved.

In Kuhn’s analysis, there comes a time when normal science gives way in a particular discipline to a revolutionary period, during which scientists are no longer in agreement as to how their discipline should function or what a legitimate question or answer look like. These revolutionary periods then end—sometimes with the reassertion of the validity of the old paradigm and sometimes with the creation of a new paradigm—and normal science returns. Kuhn, then, came to view the history of science as a history of paradigm shifts brought on by scientific revolutions. For example, the Copernican revolution in astronomy involved a switch from an Earth-centered to a Sun-centered paradigm.

Kuhn further argued that competing paradigms are essentially incompatible (or “incommensurable”) with each other, since each paradigm has unique methods, characteristic ways of handling observational evidence, and different ideas about the purpose and even the definition of its branch of science. Perhaps most important, each paradigm has its own unique theoretical language, so it is impossible for a scientist speaking the idiom of one paradigm to communicate successfully with a scientist speaking from within a different paradigm. This is particularly relevant when the two paradigms use precisely the same terms in mutually exclusive ways.

Kuhn believed that all scientific work was performed in the context of some kind of paradigm. Consequently, when a scientific community decides to reject one paradigm, it always decides to accept another. It cannot merely reject a paradigm in favor of no paradigm at all. The rationale behind such a rejection involves the comparison of both paradigms with each other and with the natural world—particularly those aspects of the natural world that seem most in need of explaining at the time.

In his examination of when and why a scientific revolution occurs, Kuhn introduced the notion of an anomaly as an observation, experiment, or idea that appears to contradict the accepted paradigm. However, he emphasized that the appearance of anomalies in a paradigm does not necessarily bring about a scientific revolution, since it is natural for scientists to encounter difficulties when they apply their ideas to nature. On the other hand, anomalies become more than the puzzles of normal science when they reveal a fundamental weakness or blind spot of the current paradigm. Value judgments play a key role in this process: All disciplines have blind spots, and anomalies are only potentially revolutionary if the particular weaknesses they reveal are interpreted at the time to be indictments of the paradigm. When this happens, the discipline moves from normal science into a revolutionary period.

Kuhn compared scientific paradigm shifts to political revolutions, since they both involve changing ideas and institutions in ways that are forbidden by the previous paradigm or regime. Furthermore, just as both reason and emotion play roles in political revolutions, so, too, scientific revolutions are never simply matters of reason, observation, and experiment. Scientific revolutions are often influenced by social, political, and religious factors.

Kuhn realized that in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions he was challenging a deeply entrenched view of scientific history as involving progress, but he was persuaded by his own study of history that the traditional interpretation of scientific development as linear and cumulative was wrong. He argued that scientific communities not only determine what constitutes a paradigm but also what is deemed to be progress. Since progress is tied to communities, no absolute measure exists for determining whether a shift from one paradigm to the next actually constitutes progress in any objective sense. Every paradigm has strengths as well as weaknesses.

Kuhn insisted on discussing several paradigms that were often maligned by his contemporaries, including Aristotelian natural science, the phlogiston model of chemistry, and the geocentric model of the solar system. In each case, he explained what had been useful about the paradigm, what specific problems the paradigm was capable of solving, and why the shift into the next paradigm should not simply be understood as a “better” model replacing an “inferior” model. For example, Sir Isaac Newton’s mechanics was a much better tool than was Aristotle’s for solving the problems dealing with motion prevalent in Newton’s time. However, Aristotle’s paradigm was extremely well suited for solving the problems that he and other thinkers cared most about during his era. Thus, Kuhn argued, while elements of cumulative progress do exist within periods of normal science, scientific revolutions do not achieve progress. They achieve only change, including change in what counts as progress.


The Structure of Scientific Revolutions generated exorbitant praise as well as devastating criticism, and it surprised both its author and its publisher by becoming the most successful academic book of the twentieth century. Through its twenty-five translations, it sold more than one million copies, an unusual publishing phenomenon for a complex scholarly work. Not only was it widely read, but it was also widely written about, producing more citations than any other twentieth century book. Like the scientific revolutions it sought to elucidate, it created a historiographic revolution of its own by fostering a new understanding of science that influenced both the natural and the social sciences.

Not all who read the book were enamored of its thesis. Paul Feyerabend, for example, called it “ideology covered up as history.” Some social constructivists saw it as “the most radically misread book in history,” and others chided it for spreading the intellectual disease of “paradigmitis,” which they said led scholars to apply Kuhn’s analysis to fields to which it was grossly unsuitable. Despite these caveats, academics in such widely divergent fields as sociology, education, science policy, art, theology, and philosophy of mind adapted the Kuhnian paradigm of paradigms to their own disciplines.

Many individuals in the social studies of science view Kuhn as their founding father. They and others see The Structure of Scientific Revolutions as a landmark in intellectual history. In the years after the publication of his second book, Kuhn went on to make important contributions to the history and philosophy of science, but none of his later work approached the previous book’s influence. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn succeeded in capturing the communal (and therefore the conventional) nature of the scientific enterprise, thereby demonstrating that scientific knowledge is fundamentally shaped by the fact that it is produced through a human endeavor. It can therefore never be simply, timelessly, and objectively valid. This was perhaps his most radical, controversial, and influential insight. Structure of Scientific Revolutions, The (Kuhn) Paradigm shifts Science, history of

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bird, Alexander. Thomas Kuhn. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000. Analyzes Kuhn’s ideas both historically and from the perspective of modern philosophies of science.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fuller, Steve. Thomas Kuhn: A Philosophical History for Our Times. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. An excoriation of Kuhn’s theories of science by an ardent social constructivist.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gutting, Gary, ed. Paradigms and Revolutions: Applications and Appraisals of Thomas Kuhn’s Philosophy of Science. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1980. A compendium of articles largely devoted to investigating Kuhn’s influence on various fields.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hoyningen-Huene, Paul. Reconstructing Scientific Revolutions: Thomas S. Kuhn’s Philosophy of Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989. A multifaceted philosophical critique of the origin and development of Kuhn’s views on scientific change, with an excellent bibliography of his writings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nickles, Thomas, ed. Thomas Kuhn. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. An introduction to Kuhn’s life and work via a variety of articles exploring the implications of Kuhn’s ideas in areas ranging from philosophy to feminism.

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