Authors: Thomas S. Kuhn

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American scientist, sociologist, and historian

Author Works


The Copernican Revolution: Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought, 1957

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962

Sources for History of Quantum Physics: An Inventory and Report, 1967 (with John L. Heilbron, Paul L. Forman, and Lini Allen)

The Essential Tension: Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change, 1977

Black-Body Theory and the Quantum Discontinuity, 1894-1912, 1978

The Trouble with the Historical Philosophy of Science, 1992

The Road Since Structure: Philosophical Essays, 1970-1993, with an Autobiographical Interview, 2000 (James Conant and John Haugeland, editors)


The scientist, sociologist, and historian of science Thomas Samuel Kuhn had a widespread influence on scholars’ understanding of the procedures of science and other cognitive disciplines. His second book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, was particularly influential; by the 1990’s, more than 600,000 copies had been sold, and the work continues to be cited in academic studies.{$I[AN]9810000960}{$I[A]Kuhn, Thomas S.}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Kuhn, Thomas S.}{$I[tim]1922;Kuhn, Thomas S.}

Thomas Kuhn was the son of an industrial engineer, Samuel L. Kuhn, and his wife, Minnette. Kuhn was educated at Harvard University, from which he received a B.S. in 1943, an M.A. in 1946, and a Ph.D. in physics in 1949. While he was nearing the completion of his dissertation, he was asked to teach an experimental college course initiated by the historian James B. Conant to instruct nonscientists in the physical sciences. Here Kuhn first encountered the history of science, and his examination of outdated scientific thought challenged his basic ideas about the procedures of science and impelled him to make a career change from physics to the history of science. He spent the next three years as a Junior Fellow in the Society of Fellows of Harvard University, and during this time he was able to pursue the interdisciplinary study of history of science and fields of interest as diverse as sociology, developmental psychology, the psychology of perception, and philosophy of language. A work by Ludwig Fleck inspired many of the ideas about the structure of science that led Kuhn later to write The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn taught history of science at Harvard until 1956, then at the University of California at Berkeley until 1964, focusing primarily on the history of physics. From 1964 to 1979 he taught at Princeton University. He married Kathryn Louise Muhs in 1948 and they raised three children before their divorce in 1978.

Kuhn’s philosophical understanding of science was germinating during these years. When asked to write a piece on scientific revolutions as a volume for the Encyclopedia of Unified Science, Kuhn produced The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the book with which his name is most often associated. The work, philosophical generalizations about the nature of science, was based on Kuhn’s previous studies of the historical events of science. After 1979 he moved to Cambridge, where he joined the faculty at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Kuhn’s proposal of a historical and sociological model for scientific epistemology in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions led to a controversy among philosophers of science. Kuhn used historical examples to support the idea that scientific discovery has a pattern similar to that of historical revolutions, taking place only after enough discontent has arisen with prevailing views to impel their overthrow and the development of new views. Kuhn questioned the logical positivists’ understandings of rationality, proposing instead that the authority of science is rooted more in the informed judgments of the scientific community than in some set of logical rules–“the scientific method”–applied impartially to data.

Kuhn noted that much of science is a matter of using past achievements and accepted theories to solve puzzles that arise. He calls this phase of science “normal science.” Over time there is an accumulation of puzzles, or anomalies, that seem to resist solution on the basis of current views. If difficulties with the current theories appear to the scientific community to be insurmountable, a period of “crisis” might result and fuel the search for new understandings. It takes quite a bit of contradictory evidence to dislodge a view from general acceptance; moreover, some new, competing view must be available as an alternative. The crisis may then result in a period of “revolutionary science,” during which competing views are examined and weighed for their ability to resolve the problems left unanswered by earlier views.

Kuhn claimed that this period of revolutionary science more closely resembled a historical revolution within the community of scientists, as a social group, than the logical solution of a mathematical problem. He explained that scientific discovery did not proceed in a straightforward manner, building only on previous discoveries, as it is presented in history texts; rather, rival theories and understandings lead to differences in the way observational data are perceived, experiments are designed, and results are interpreted. All scientific data are, in Kuhn’s words, “incommensurable” and cannot be judged simply by applying rules to neutral facts. In discussing understandings that compete with one another, gain widespread acceptance, and then act as the models and presuppositions for the next generation of scholars, Kuhn used the term “paradigms.”

Scientists argue among themselves about the merits of competing paradigms and eventually make a judgment as to which of the rival solutions best addresses the problems, provides the most significant and helpful view, and offers the best foundation for future research. With that a “scientific revolution” has taken place. Once the scientific community accepts a new paradigm, it can move back to a period of normal science.The term “paradigm” was rapidly adopted by scholars in diverse disciplines to name the theories and views that characterize a particular age of thought or a collective worldview. Equally quickly, the term sparked a lively controversy over its meaning, or meanings, in Kuhn’s work and over its applications. Some scholars pointed to the possibility that Kuhn had himself used the term “paradigm” very loosely. Others found his usage of the term consistent and helpful. Although admitting the ambiguity in his initial usage, Kuhn later explained that he uses “paradigm” in one sense to indicate “the entire constellation of beliefs, values, techniques, and so on shared by the members of a given community.” His second usage of “paradigm” means the more concrete models or examples used for solving problems. One definition is global, whereas the other points to a specific view of a specific scientific question.

For those who believe that the only alternative to an objective, rule-dominated procedure of rationality is a fall into total irrationalism, Kuhn’s work has seemed an anarchic attack on the soundness of scientific knowledge. Many have argued that Kuhn is either incorrect in his interpretation of historical events in science or sloppy in his philosophical generalizations. For those who have accepted a more sociological and historical understanding of the process of change in scientific paradigms, Kuhn’s work has provided an initial formulation from which fuller philosophies of knowledge have been developed. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions has had a remarkably wide influence in academia and, over time, in the wider community. In a sense Kuhn’s observations and the concepts he offered threw the scholarly community into a crisis. Much argument ensued about the nature of science and the possible application of his views to other fields of study.

Kuhn fostered a revolution in epistemology and offered a new model for the process of rationality. While others continued either to argue against his theory or to apply it to other disciplines, however, he himself gradually withdrew from the fray and returned to his main area of interest, the history of science. In later works, especially in his 1978 book, Black-Body Theory and the Quantum Discontinuity, 1894-1912, he focuses in great detail on the history of quantum mechanics.

Kuhn died in 1996 at the age of seventy-three. Discussions of his impact on a variety of disciplines nevertheless continue, evoking periodic reflections from him and keeping alive the controversy he initiated.

BibliographyGiere, 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 his 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 Philosophy of Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. The author “reconstructs” Kuhn’s theory of scientific development as articulated in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. His purpose is to clarify the fundamentals of the theory and end the confusion produced by the diverse interpretations of Kuhn’s vaguely defined terms. This volume is most helpful for readers familiar with the controversies produced by Kuhn’s book.Los Angeles Times Book Review, December 19, 1982. Contains important biographical data on Kuhn.Margolis, Howard. Paradigms and Barriers: How Habits of Mind Govern Scientific Beliefs. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. Margolis applies his own analysis of cognition to Kuhn’s concept of the paradigm shift. Specifically, Margolis finds that habits of mind, pervasive and normally beneficial, sometime pose barriers in the face of novel phenomena or theories. A paradigm shift occurs when the barrier is overcome and new habits of mind replace old. His argument, he insists, reveals that relativism has a limited role in the methods of science.O’Hear, Anthony. Introduction to the Philosophy of Science. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1989. O’Hear discusses Kuhn’s paradigm-centered theory at length and somewhat unsympathetically. He specifically compares Kuhn’s ideas with those of Karl Popper and examines the historical evidence upon which Kuhn relied. The book, which summarizes the philosophy of science as a whole, is readable and well-suited to readers new to the subject in general and Kuhn in particular.Thagard, Paul. Conceptual Revolutions. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992. Thagard bases his own theory of scientific revolutions on Kuhn’s ideas. He seeks to add a psychological and computational approach for analyzing conceptual transformations, hierarchies, combinations, structures, sources, and explanatory coherence. In so doing, he summarizes Kuhn’s work and shows its wide influence.
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