The Structure of Scientific Revolutions  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), by Thomas Kuhn, is an analysis of the history of science. Its publication was a landmark event in the sociology of knowledge, and popularized the terms paradigm and paradigm shift.

Contents

History

The work was first published as a monograph in the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, then as a book by University of Chicago Press in 1962. (All page numbers below refer to the third edition of the text, published in 1996). In 1969, Kuhn added a postscript to the book in which he replied to critical responses to the first edition of the book.

Kuhn dated the genesis of his book to 1947, when he was a graduate student at Harvard University and had been asked to teach a science class for humanities undergraduates with a focus on historical case studies. Kuhn later commented that until then, "I'd never read an old document in science." Aristotle's Physics was astonishingly unlike Isaac Newton's work in its concepts of matter and motion. Kuhn concluded that Aristotle's concepts were not "bad Newton," just different.

Synopsis

Basic approach

Kuhn's approach to the history and philosophy of science has been described as focusing on conceptual issues: what sorts of ideas were thinkable at a particular time? What sorts of intellectual options and strategies were available to people during a given period? What types of lexicons and terminology were known and employed during certain epochs? Stressing the importance of not attributing modern modes of thought to historical actors, Kuhn's book argues that the evolution of scientific theory does not emerge from the straightforward accumulation of facts, but rather from a set of changing intellectual circumstances and possibilities. Such an approach is largely commensurate with the general historical school of non-linear history.

Historical examples

Kuhn explains his ideas using examples taken from the history of science. For instance, at a particular stage in the history of chemistry, some chemists began to explore the idea of atomism. When many substances are heated they have a tendency to decompose into their constituent elements, and often (though not invariably) these elements can be observed to combine only in set proportions. At one time, a combination of water and alcohol was generally classified as a compound. Nowadays it is considered to be a solution, but there was no reason then to suspect that it was not a compound. Water and alcohol would not separate spontaneously, but they could be separated when heated. Water and alcohol can be combined in any proportion.

A chemist favoring atomic theory would have viewed all compounds whose elements combine in fixed proportions as exhibiting normal behavior, and all known exceptions to this pattern would be regarded as anomalies whose behavior would probably be explained at some time in the future. On the other hand, if a chemist believed that theories of the atomicity of matter were erroneous, then all compounds whose elements combined in fixed proportions would be regarded as anomalies whose behavior would probably be explained at some time in the future, and all those compounds whose elements are capable of combining in any ratio would be seen as exhibiting the normal behavior of compounds. Nowadays the consensus is that the atomists' view was correct. But if one were to restrict oneself to thinking about chemistry using only the knowledge available at the time, either point of view would be defensible.

The Copernican Revolution

What is arguably the most famous example of a revolution in scientific thought is the Copernican Revolution. In Ptolemy's school of thought, cycles and epicycles (with some additional concepts) were used for modeling the movements of the planets in a cosmos that had a stationary Earth at its center. As the accuracy of celestial observations increased, the complexity of the Ptolemaic cyclical and epicyclical mechanisms had to increase in step with the increased accuracy of the observations, in order to maintain the calculated planetary positions close to the observed positions. Copernicus proposed a cosmology in which the Sun was at the center and the Earth was one of the planets revolving around it. For modeling the planetary motions, Copernicus used the tools he was familiar with, namely the cycles and epicycles of the Ptolemaic toolbox. But Copernicus' model needed more cycles and epicycles than existed in the then-current Ptolemaic model, and due to a lack of accuracy in calculations, Copernicus's model did not appear to provide more accurate predictions than the Ptolemy model. Copernicus' contemporaries rejected his cosmology, and Kuhn asserts that they were quite right to do so: Copernicus' cosmology lacked credibility.

Thomas Kuhn illustrates how a paradigm shift later became possible when Galileo Galilei introduced his new ideas concerning motion. Intuitively, when an object is set in motion, it soon comes to a halt. A well-made cart may travel a long distance before it stops, but unless something keeps pushing it, it will eventually stop moving. Presumably, Aristotle argued, this is a fundamental property of nature: in order for the motion of an object to be sustained, it must continue to be pushed. Given the knowledge available at the time, this represented sensible, reasonable thinking.

Galileo put forward a bold alternative conjecture: suppose, he said, that we always observe objects coming to a halt simply because some friction is always occurring. Galileo had no equipment with which to objectively confirm his conjecture, but he suggested that without any friction to slow down an object in motion, its inherent tendency is to maintain its speed without the application of any additional force.

The Ptolemaic approach of using cycles and epicycles was becoming strained: there seemed to be no end to the mushrooming growth in complexity required to account for the observable phenomena. Johannes Kepler was the first person to abandon the tools of the Ptolemaic paradigm. He started to explore the possibility that the planet Mars might have an elliptical orbit rather than a circular one. Clearly, the angular velocity could not be constant, but it proved very difficult to find the formula describing the rate of change of the planet's angular velocity. After many years of calculations, Kepler arrived at what we now know as the law of equal areas.

Galileo's conjecture was merely that — a conjecture. So was Kepler's cosmology. But each conjecture increased the credibility of the other, and together, they changed the prevailing perceptions of the scientific community. Later, Newton showed that Kepler's three laws could all be derived from a single theory of motion and planetary motion. Newton solidified and unified the paradigm shift that Galileo and Kepler had initiated.

Coherence

One of the aims of science is to find models that will account for as many observations as possible within a coherent framework. Together, Galileo's rethinking of the nature of motion and Keplerian cosmology represented a coherent framework that was capable of rivaling the Aristotelian/Ptolemaic framework.

Once a paradigm shift has taken place, the textbooks are rewritten. Often the history of science too is rewritten, being presented as an inevitable process leading up to the current, established framework of thought. There is a prevalent belief that all hitherto-unexplained phenomena will in due course be accounted for in terms of this established framework. Kuhn states that scientists spend most (if not all) of their careers in a process of puzzle-solving. Their puzzle-solving is pursued with great tenacity, because the previous successes of the established paradigm tend to generate great confidence that the approach being taken guarantees that a solution to the puzzle exists, even though it may be very hard to find. Kuhn calls this process normal science.

As a paradigm is stretched to its limits, anomalies — failures of the current paradigm to take into account observed phenomena — accumulate. Their significance is judged by the practitioners of the discipline. Some anomalies may be dismissed as errors in observation, others as merely requiring small adjustments to the current paradigm that will be clarified in due course. Some anomalies resolve themselves spontaneously, having increased the available depth of insight along the way. But no matter how great or numerous the anomalies that persist, Kuhn observes, the practicing scientists will not lose faith in the established paradigm for as long as no credible alternative is available; to lose faith in the solubility of the problems would in effect mean ceasing to be a scientist.

In any community of scientists, Kuhn states, there are some individuals who are bolder than most. These scientists, judging that a crisis exists, embark on what Thomas Kuhn calls revolutionary science, exploring alternatives to long-held, obvious-seeming assumptions. Occasionally this generates a rival to the established framework of thought. The new candidate paradigm will appear to be accompanied by numerous anomalies, partly because it is still so new and incomplete. The majority of the scientific community will oppose any conceptual change, and, Kuhn emphasizes, so they should. In order to fulfill its potential, a scientific community needs to contain both individuals who are bold and individuals who are conservative. There are many examples in the history of science in which confidence in the established frame of thought was eventually vindicated. Whether the anomalies of a candidate for a new paradigm will be resolvable is almost impossible to predict. Those scientists who possess an exceptional ability to recognize a theory's potential will be the first whose preference is likely to shift in favour of the challenging paradigm. There typically follows a period in which there are adherents of both paradigms. In time, if the challenging paradigm is solidified and unified, it will replace the old paradigm, and a paradigm shift will have occurred.

Three phases

Chronologically, Kuhn distinguishes between three phases. The first phase, which exists only once, is the pre-paradigm phase, in which there is no consensus on any particular theory, though the research being carried out can be considered scientific in nature. This phase is characterized by several incompatible and incomplete theories. If the actors in the pre-paradigm community eventually gravitate to one of these conceptual frameworks and ultimately to a widespread consensus on the appropriate choice of methods, terminology and on the kinds of experiment that are likely to contribute to increased insights, then the second phase, normal science, begins, in which puzzles are solved within the context of the dominant paradigm. As long as there is general consensus within the discipline, normal science continues. Over time, progress in normal science may reveal anomalies, facts which are difficult to explain within the context of the existing paradigm. While usually these anomalies are resolved, in some cases they may accumulate to the point where normal science becomes difficult and where weaknesses in the old paradigm are revealed. Kuhn refers to this as a crisis, and they are often resolved within the context of normal science. However, after significant efforts of normal science within a paradigm fail, science may enter the third phase, that of revolutionary science, in which the underlying assumptions of the field are reexamined and a new paradigm is established. After the new paradigm's dominance is established, scientists return to normal science, solving puzzles within the new paradigm. A science may go through these cycles repeatedly, though Kuhn notes that it is a good thing for science that such shifts do not occur often or easily.

Incommensurability

According to Kuhn, the scientific paradigms preceding and succeeding a paradigm shift are so different that their theories are incommensurable — the new paradigm cannot be proven or disproven by the rules of the old paradigm, and vice versa. The paradigm shift does not merely involve the revision or transformation of an individual theory, it changes the way terminology is defined, how the scientists in that field view their subject, and, perhaps most significantly, what questions are regarded as valid, and what rules are used to determine the truth of a particular theory. The new theories were not, as the scientists had previously thought, just extensions of old theories, but were instead completely new world views. Such incommensurability exists not just before and after a paradigm shift, but in the periods in between conflicting paradigms. It is simply not possible, according to Kuhn, to construct an impartial language that can be used to perform a neutral comparison between conflicting paradigms, because the very terms used are integral to the respective paradigms, and therefore have different connotations in each paradigm. The advocates of mutually exclusive paradigms are in an invidious position: "Though each may hope to convert the other to his way of seeing science and its problems, neither may hope to prove his case. The competition between paradigms is not the sort of battle that can be resolved by proof." (SSR, p. 148). Scientists subscribing to different paradigms end up talking past one another.

Kuhn (SSR, section XII) states that the probabilistic tools used by verificationists are inherently inadequate for the task of deciding between conflicting theories, since they belong to the very paradigms they seek to compare. Similarly, observations that are intended to falsify a statement will fall under one of the paradigms they are supposed to help compare, and will therefore also be inadequate for the task. According to Kuhn, the concept of falsifiability is unhelpful for understanding why and how science has developed as it has. In the practice of science, scientists will only consider the possibility that a theory has been falsified if an alternative theory is available which they judge to be credible. If there isn't, scientists will continue to adhere to the established conceptual framework. If a paradigm shift has occurred, the textbooks will be rewritten to state that the previous theory has been falsified.

See also




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