The Scientific “Paradigm Shift” Celebrated on its 50th Anniversary


Nicolaus Copernicus in "Conversation with God" by Jan Matejko (1872)

“One of the most influential books of the 20th century… [Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions] singlehandedly changed the way we think about mankind’s most organized attempt to understand the world.” — The Guardian [1]

First published in August 1962 by the University of Chicago Press, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn (1922-1996), a Harvard-educated physicist, has become one of the most influential works in the history of science and one of the most cited academic books of all time [2]. It has sold over 1.4 million copies, which The Guardian calls “for a cerebral work of this calibre… Harry Potter-scale numbers.” This month, a 50th anniversary edition of Kuhn’s book was published with a new introduction by philosopher of science Ian Hacking [3]. The book is also being recognized at conferences of scientists, historians, and philosophers across the world. To see what made Kuhn’s book so influential, one must consider its earth-shattering ideas. From the book’s jacket:

With The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn challenged long-standing linear notions of scientific progress, arguing that transformative ideas don’t arise from the day-to-day, gradual process of experimentation and data accumulation but that the revolutions in science, those breakthrough moments that disrupt accepted thinking and offer unanticipated ideas, occur outside of “normal science,” as he called it. [4]
 

Kuhn termed these breakthrough moments “paradigm shifts” and in so doing changed the way we think about science. Despite the brilliance of Kuhn’s catchphrase, “paradigm shift” today the world is more often than not employed outside its original scientific context (especially by businesspeople and marketers). Before Kuhn, science was viewed, “together with a heroic narrative of scientific progress as ‘the addition of new truths to the stock of old truths, or the increasing approximation of theories to the truth, and in the odd case, the correction of past errors’” according to John Naughton in The Guardian. These previous explanations of science came off as inadequate to Kuhn, who began to consider how ancient philosopher-scientists like Aristotle arrived at the conclusions they did within their limited knowledge. Kuhn said in an interview:

The question I hoped to answer was how much mechanics Aristotle had known, how much he had left for people such as Galileo and Newton to discover. Given that formulation, I rapidly discovered that Aristotle had known almost no mechanics at all… that conclusion was standard and it might in principle have been right. But I found it bothersome because, as I was reading him, Aristotle appeared not only ignorant of mechanics, but a dreadfully bad physical scientist as well. About motion, in particular, his writings seemed to me full of egregious errors, both of logic and of observation. [5]
 

Kuhn realized that, because older paradigms, or scientific frameworks, like Aristotle’s were flawed and limiting, in order to be surpassed, they had to first be abandoned and shattered. For example, Copernicus and Galileo could not have proposed the heliocentric model of the universe within the flawed geocentric framework of Aristotle and Ptolemy. Similarly, Einstein could not have discovered relativity within the bounds of Newtonian physics. The analogy of “stepping in and out” of scientific and philosophical world views—common in many academic disciplines today—as opposed to simply accumulating theories and knowledge, essentially began with Kuhn. Kuhn’s conception of the paradigm shift marks a major turning point in the history of ideas—a point of self-consciousness about the workings of intellectual communities and human minds more generally.

Kuhn criticized most scientists for staying in the realm of “normal science” and only trying to fill gaps in the current body of scientific knowledge. Instead, he suggested that it might be more fruitful to step out of one’s limiting paradigm and explore scientific problems from new angles. This kind of self-awareness has since become ingrained in many academic disciplines. One scholar writes,

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions did a gestalt flip on just about every assumption about the who, how, and what of scientific progress… The book still vibrates our culture’s walls like a trumpet call. History of science may not have become exactly what Kuhn thought it should, but The Structure of Scientific Revolutions knocked it off its existing tracks. [6]
 

Whether or not you’ve actually read it, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions has had such a powerful impact on our culture that it likely influences the way you think in significant ways. As the book’s publisher describes it, “A good book may have the power to change the way we see the world, but a great book actually becomes part of our daily consciousness, pervading our thinking to the point that we take it for granted, and we forget how provocative and challenging its ideas once were—and still are. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is that kind of book” [4].

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is available for purchase on Amazon.com.


Attribution

[1] “Thomas Kuhn: the man who changed the way the world looked at science,” John Naughton, The Guardian

[2] “Thomas Kuhn,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

[3] Thomas S. Kuhn. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: 50th Anniversary Edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012.

[4] The University of Chicago Press

[5] “What Are Scientific Revolutions?” Thomas Kuhn

[6] “Shift Happens,” David Weinberger, The Chronicle of Higher Education

Images via: My Grey History


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