Thomas Kuhn: Paradigms Die Hard

Thomas Kuhn's book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, was a landmark publication.

Mystery abounds in our universe. Human attempts to grapple with the intricacies of our world, to correctly interpret nature's whisperings, to discern pattern in the muddle of our sense perceptions are ultimately just that--human attempts. If the role of scientists is to find harmony in place of cacophony and unity where we find discord, their endeavor must be necessarily less than perfect. Perhaps no modern thinker has better convinced us of this than Thomas S. Kuhn.

Was Kuhn's famous 1962 essay "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions"--intended for the now obscure International Encyclopedia of Unified Science--a radical and revolutionary manifesto liberating science from the cold language of Baconian logic? Or was it merely an essay that brought to the public arena what was often debated only in history of science conferences? Indeed, the essay was later translated into sixteen languages, and over one million copies have been sold--a very high number for such an intellectually rigorous book.

Even after Kuhn's death last summer, philosophers and scientists remain divided on Kuhn's essay and the nature of Kuhn's legacy.

While this article attempts to explicate Kuhn's ideas to readers who may be unfamiliar with them, it does not analyze the extent to which these ideas were truly original. Undoubtedly, Kuhn's essay depended somewhat on contemporary thinkers like Stephen Toulmin, N.R. Hanson, and Paul Feyeraband; previous scholars like Emile Meyerson, Alexandre Koyre, Kate Loewenberg, Helene Metzger, Anneliese Maier, and Ludwig Fleck; and even philosophers like David Hume. The exact connection Kuhn had with these thinkers is less important here than what he actually thought and how it affected the way we now think about science and the world.

The Making of A Revolutionary

Thomas Kuhn arrived at Harvard in the fall of 1940 as a freshman. He was already certain that he wanted to pursue a career in either math or physics. In an interview he gave to the Harvard Science Review in 1990, Kuhn remarked, "that theoretical turn of mind -- theoretical, ontological, cosmological ... that interest in fundamental problems; that was what drew me to mathematics and physics" (7).

But as an editor for the Harvard Crimson very much interested in literature, he was already expanding his mind into non-mathematical realms of knowledge: "I had the not uncommon problem of being reasonably good at and interested in things that went off on opposite directions" (7).

After he graduated, Kuhn worked for the Radio Research Laboratory and subsequently worked for the Air Force at the European Base in England, where he helped with intelligence problems. It wasn't until the summer of 1945 that he returned to Harvard to earn a Ph.D. in physics.

Attempting to reconcile the seemingly obvious flaws of Aristotle's Physics with Newtonian thinking for the class, Kuhn experienced an intellectual epiphany.

It was as a budding theoretical physicist in 1947 that Kuhn was asked by Harvard President James Conant to teach a General Education course that exposed undergraduate humanities concentrators to science. Attempting to reconcile the seemingly obvious flaws of Aristotle's Physics with Newtonian thinking for the class, Kuhn experienced an intellectual epiphany.

He suddenly realized that Aristotle's ideas were not "bad Newton," but different ways of looking at the same thing (2). The epiphany he enjoyed required fifteen years of thought and clarification before he actually articulated his ideas in the form of his now famous essay "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions." He says of the experience, "I sweated blood and blood and blood and finally I had a breakthrough" (2).

While at Harvard, Kuhn served on the doctoral thesis committee of Everett I. Mendelsohn, a graduate student in 1956-7. As a current Professor of the History of Science, Mendelsohn remembers Kuhn's "restlessness" in his field (5). It was quite clear that Kuhn was just beginning to formulate new ideas about the nature of the scientific endeavor.

What is a Paradigm?

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Thomas Kuhn

At the core of Kuhn's thoughts is the notion of "paradigms." While Kuhn cannot claim total credit for coining the word, no intellectual work popularized the word like "Structure" did. Though one source claims that Kuhn utilizes twenty-one implicit meanings for the word during the course of his long essay, Kuhn offers an initial definition that readers can easily hold on to as legitimate. Paradigms are essentially scientific theories or ways of looking at the world that fulfill two requirements: they must be "sufficiently unprecedented to attract an enduring group of adherents away from competing modes of scientific activity," and they must be "sufficiently open-ended to leave all sorts of problems for the redefined group of practitioners to resolve" (3).

Indeed, even in this initial definition, readers can already detect, through words such as "adherents," the manner in which Kuhn often presents his arguments. While his ideas may not be totally revolutionary in and of themselves, his language often portrays paradigms as cults and the battle between paradigms as quasi-religious wars.

For science to progress at all, Kuhn argues, paradigms must emerge that serve to unify scientists behind similar goals. "Men whose research is based on shared paradigms are committed to the same rules and standards for scientific practice. That commitment and the apparent consensus it produces are prerequisites for normal science, i.e., for the genesis and continuation of a particular research tradition" (3).

Pre-paradigm eras in scientific fields are early, often random, attempts to grapple with the mystery of nature, to impose comprehensible molds on natural phenomena -- in short, to establish some sort of paradigm by which to further not only understanding, but the potential for future understanding as well. Indeed, "early fact-gathering is far more nearly random activity than the one that subsequent scientific development makes familiar" (3).

In formulating new paradigms, Kuhn continues, social factors may affect how scientists choose to interpret the facts they directly glean from nature. A paradigm represents more than just a collection of known facts; it represents a plan of the universe through which they can at least temporarily look at the universe and further their research. In other words, once they have adopted a paradigm, they can then test the limits of its scope. Thus, while the paradigm is essentially based on observed facts, the ideas and creativity that go into articulating the paradigm may be the result of cultural or metaphysical notions.

Paradigms not only supply a theory on nature, but they also dictate methodological beliefs "that permit selection, evaluation, and criticism" (3). Once a paradigm emerges, the possibility for specialization and further development also emerges.

Textbooks, more than perhaps any other force in science, represent the bulwarks of existing paradigms. Students of science learn to deal with the world around them in the context of the paradigm they are taught. Ideally, students then grapple with the issues left unresolved within their paradigm and thus continue what Kuhn calls the enterprise of "normal science"--"an attempt to force nature into the performed and relatively inflexible box that the paradigm supplies" (3).

In dealing with nature through an existing paradigm, scientists are inherently conservative. They generally shun new theories that may shake their views of the world. According to Kuhn, however, this conservatism is not only inevitable, it is desirable: "By focusing attention upon a small range of relatively esoteric problems, the paradigm forces scientists to investigate some part of nature in a detail and depth that would otherwise be unimaginable" (3). Normal science is essential for fact-gathering that may help confirm, clarify, or even extend paradigms. They also help to match facts with theory, and they even help to make theories more acceptable by, for instance, making them more aesthetically palatable (3).

More fundamentally, normal science can be seen as puzzle-solving, where paradigms determine the parameters and rules for the puzzle. In other words, the paradigm sets the parameters in which scientists may view the world. Researchers must then attempt to solve the puzzles by looking for missing pieces and connecting them into a cohesive whole.

Where Paradigms Fail

This period of puzzle solving, however, is often disrupted by discovery, at which point scientists must call into question the rules by which they were solving the puzzle. Restated, "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" (3). Anomaly must emerge within the context of an existing paradigm--otherwise, scientists would be unable to even recognize it.

Such anomalies occur in many ways. Roentgen's discovery of X-rays, for example, was accidental. Since "X-rays were not prohibited by established theory" but "violated deeply entrenched expectations" (3), the accident quickly became discovery, which quickly changed the expectations that scientists had with their existing scientific equipment, which eventually changed the paradigm in which nuclear physicists operated.

When discoveries create crisis situations within a scientific community and push the limits of an accepted paradigm so much so that scientists begin to deem the paradigm untenable, the community must begin to look for alternative paradigms. Quite often, these "gestalt switches," as Kuhn refers to them, from paradigm to paradigm, divide the community into defenders of the existing paradigm and proponents of a new paradigm.

This breakdown of old paradigms and emergence of new ones is often assisted by social forces. For evidence, Kuhn looks briefly at the sixteenth century debate over Copernicus' ideas. While many were beginning to recognize the discrepancy between nature and the traditional Ptolemaic perception of astronomy, the social need for calendar reform and the rise of Renaissance Neoplanotism both contributed greatly to the downfall of the Ptolemaic paradigm and the emergence of Copernicus' new paradigm (3).

One important aspect of Kuhn's philosophy involves the idea that "the decision to reject one paradigm is always simultaneously the decision to accept another, and the judgment leading to that decision involves the comparison of both paradigms with nature and with each other" (3). Why is this the case? Kuhn points partly to social reasons: "To reject one paradigm without simultaneously substituting another is to reject science itself" (3). No scientist, almost by definition, would be willing to acknowledge that no possible paradigm could explain nature.

It is during these moments of crisis, though, that much of the creativity in science emerges. In attempting to articulate a new paradigm to replace a defunct one, scientists must draw on a myriad of ideas from various sources in order to reconcile fact with theory. Indeed, "like artists, creative scientists must occasionally be able to live in a world out of joint" (3). Kuhn further suggests that it is during "periods of acknowledged crisis that scientists have turned to philosophical analysis as a device for unlocking the riddles of their field" (3). Kuhn points towards the notion of thought experiments as a philosophical departure that facilitated the emergence of new paradigms during both Newton's and Einstein's times.

The excitement and fear inherent in crisis and paradigm break-down can perhaps best be seen through the eyes of one of the greatest scientists himself. Einstein wrote of his crisis, "It was as if the ground had been pulled out from under one, with no firm foundation to be seen anywhere, upon which one could have built" (3). This confusion often hastens the pace of discovery still further because scientists become more willing to stretch the limits of an already faltering paradigm.

Finally, Kuhn addresses the question of exactly who foments these crises. Kuhn suggests that young scientists or scientists new to the field are often the ones who instigate paradigm shifts. Unmolested by entrenched allegiances to any particular set of rules or a paradigm, these are the ones who are generally successful in challenging existing world views.

Toward a New Paradigm

When crises do occur, how do scientists go about comparing two paradigms? If both ask different questions and approach nature in different ways, what makes a better paradigm? Indeed, Kuhn suggests that proponents of two competing paradigms live in different worlds, and the language each group utilizes differs so that real communication between the two camps becomes difficult. In fact, Kuhn writes, "Just because it is a transition between incommensurables, the transition between competing paradigms cannot be made a step at a time, forced by logic and neutral experience" (3).

Max Planck echoes this sentiment in his Scientific Autobiography: "a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it" (3).

Rational judgments, however, can be made about the relative merits of two competing paradigms. New paradigms can often successfully argue that they have solved the problems that have led the previous paradigms to crisis. They may also predict phenomena that had been entirely unsuspected while the old paradigm prevailed.

According to Kuhn, perhaps more compelling and decisive than the previous two arguments for a new paradigm, "are the arguments, rarely made entirely explicit, that appeal to the individual's sense of the appropriate or the aesthetic--the new theory is said to be 'neater,' 'more suitable,' or 'simpler' than the old" (3). In his 1992 book Dreams Of A Final Theory, Steven Weinberg, Nobel laureate for his help in the description of the electro-weak force, agrees with Kuhn when he argues, "We believe that, if we ask why the world is the way it is and then ask why that answer is the way it is, at the end of this chain of explanations we shall find a few simple principles of compelling beauty" (8).

Indeed, Kuhn ultimately concludes that science depends on the somewhat erratic decision-making process that favors one paradigm over the other. "In short, if a new candidate for paradigm had to be judged from the start by hard-headed people who examined only relative problem-solving ability, the sciences would experience very few major revolutions." (3).

With one essay, he managed to capture the rebellious Zeitgeist of his generation and somewhat unwittingly turn the prevalent social angst of his time against even so sacred an enterprise as science itself.

It is difficult to think of any man who influenced the intellectual atmosphere of the last thirty years as much as Thomas Kuhn. With one essay, he managed to capture the rebellious Zeitgeist of his generation and somewhat unwittingly turn the prevalent social angst of his time against even so sacred an enterprise as science itself. His intellectual insights dispelled to a great extent the mythic aura that surrounded science in a technology-driven society.

Professor Mendelsohn remembers Kuhn's personality as "very intense." He would "pursue his points with vigor" and "not let go easily" (5). This passion for understanding the nature of man's connection to his surroundings must be contagious. Perhaps, it is not so surprising that his ideas swept across the intellectual landscape of a generation with as much energy as it did.

As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in The New Yorker, "That [Kuhn's] idea was intended to apply only to the natural sciences did not matter. It was so novel, so persuasive, and--upon the monograph's publication as a book, in 1970--so perfectly in the rebellious spirit of the times that it quickly became adopted as a kind of general theory of everything" (1).

Kuhn's ideas were indeed truly pervasive. In philosophy, history, sociology, economics, politics, and even religion, Kuhn's theory of paradigms changed the nature of the fields.

Perhaps Gladwell summed up Kuhn's legacy best when he wrote, "Kuhn will be remembered because he taught that the process of science was fundamentally human, that discoveries were the product not of some plodding, rational process but of human ingenuity intermingled with politics and personality--that science was, in the end, a social process."

-- Imran Javaid