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Thomas Kuhn and the paradigm shift – Philosopher of the Month

Thomas S. Kuhn (1922–1996) was an American historian and philosopher of science best-known for his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), which influenced social sciences and theories of knowledge. He is widely considered one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century.

Kuhn was born in in Cincinnati, Ohio, the son of Samuel Lewis Kuhn, an industrial engineer, and Minette Stroock Kuhn. He obtained his Bachelor of Science, Master of Science, and PhD in physics from Harvard University. While completing his PhD, he worked as a teaching assistant for Harvard President James B. Conant, who designed and taught the general education history of science courses. This experience allowed Kuhn to switch from physics to the study of the history and philosophy of science. From 1948 until 1956, Kuhn taught a course in the history of science at Harvard. Subsequently he taught at the University of California at Berkeley, then at Princeton University, and finally at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) where from 1982 until the end of his academic career in 1991 he was the Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Philosophy and History of Science.

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Kuhn challenged the prevailing philosophical views of the logical empiricists about the development of scientific knowledge and introduced the notion of the scientific paradigm. He argued that science does not progress in a linear and consistent fashion via an accumulation of knowledge, but proceeds within a scientific paradigm – a set of fundamental theoretical assumptions that guides the direction of inquiry, determines the standard of truth and defines a scientific discipline at any particular period of time. He used the term “normal science” to describe scientific research that operates in accordance with the dominant paradigm.

Khun believed that normal science can be interrupted by periods of revolutionary science when old scientific theory and method fail to address the problem or explain new phenomena, or when anomalies occur to undermine the existing theory. If the failure is perceived as serious and persistent, a crisis can arise, culminating in revolutionary changes of theory. A paradigm shift occurs when the scientific community adopts the new paradigm, which leads to the beginning of the new period of normal science. Khun also maintained that the new and old paradigms were ‘incommensurable’ and thus could not be compared.  Well known examples of paradigm shifts are the change from classical mechanics to relativistic mechanics, and the shift from classical statistic to big data analytics.

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions became an influential and widely read book of the 1960s and sold more than a million copies. It had a profound impact on the history and philosophy of science (and also brought the term “paradigm shift” into common use). It was also controversial since Kuhn challenged the accepted theories of science of the time.

Kuhn’s other important works include his first book, The Copernican Revolution (1957), The Essential Tension: Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change (1977), and Black-Body Theory and the Quantum Discontinuity: 1894–1912 (1978).

Featured Image credit: “Pink and purple plasma ball” by Hal Gatewood via Unsplash.

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