Kuhn – The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

KuhnThomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, U of Chicago Press, 1962 (1996).

In this small but influential book, Kuhn tries to perform two tasks at the same time: writing a history of science and making a theory on scientific revolutions. In some sense, the latter could be a result of the first task, but reversely, his revolutionary historiography provides a new vision on the history of science. Though his ultimate goal is to investigate and theorize the structure of scientific revolution, his argumentation would be only a hypothesis without the exemplary historical episodes integrated with his theory.  

Kuhn’s investigation on scientific revolution and paradigm theory might be articulated and summarized in several ideas and procedures following his arguments:

1)     Science does not develop by the accumulation of individual discoveries and inventions. The idea that science (or society) develops based on accumulated knowledge or material culture is still a common sense. While this teleological view have been dominating modern thinkers and scientists, a kind of relativism, which considers science (knowledge) as a discontinuous process, has been emerged and prevailed since mid twentieth century. Especially French philosopher Gaston Bachelard and his students Foucault and Althusser have used the concept of “epistemological break” to explain the discontinuity in the process of transition from the existing problematic to the new problematic, while interpreting the difference between early and later Marx. Although Kuhn only acknowledges having been influenced by Alexandre Koyré and other French thinkers, Bachelard’s idea of epistemological break must have impacted on him.  

2)     Science changes revolutionarily by the shift of paradigm. Paradigm is a model for the particular scientific community and a theoretical pattern shared by professional scientists through commitment and consensus. The transformations of paradigms are scientific revolutions and “the successive transition from one paradigm to another via revolution is the usual developmental pattern of mature science”(12). “To be accepted as a paradigm, a theory must seem better than its competitors, but it need not, and in fact never does, explain all the facts with which it can be confronted”(17-8).

3)     Process of Scientific revolution.

a.       Scientific community (normal science) has the logic of self-defense against fundamental novelties through professional education system (textbook etc.) which is the main apparatus of reproduction of current condition.

b.       Normal science cannot resist long if there are repeated anomalies which cannot be explained by the traditional assumption.

c.       Scientific revolution is the process through which the logic of self-defense or the assumption of the scientific community is broken down (crisis) and transits to a new model.

d.       Thus professional commitment through verification procedures shifts to the new paradigm which solves the problem (puzzle) that scientists engaged in.

e.       Paradigm shift includes the change of scientist’s world view.

f.        In the aftermath of revolution, paradigm comes to be invisible or resolved into the background (textbook…).

g.       Circular repetition, not accumulation.

Among other arguments he is making in this book, two issues are intriguing me the most:

1)     Scientific revolution accompanies changes in scientific imagination.

    “… Copernicus, Newton, Lavoisier, Einstein… Each of them necessitated the community’s rejection of one time-honored scientific theory in favor of another incompatible with it. Each produced a consequent shift in the problems available for scientific scrutiny and in the standards by which the profession determined what should count as an admissible problem or as a legitimate problem-solution. And each transformed the scientific imagination in ways that we shall ultimately need to describe as a transformation of the world within which scientific work was done. Such changes, together with the controversies that almost always accompany them, are the defining characteristics of scientific revolution”(6).

    This reminds me of Charles Taylor’s concept of “social imaginaries”: “the ways people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations.”[1] Scientific imagination, like a social imaginary of scientific community, is the way that individual members (professional scientists) understand their environment, equipments, experiments, and themselves in the world (community) they belong to. “Led by a new paradigm, scientists adopt new instruments and look in new places. Even more important, during revolutions scientists see new and different things when looking with familiar instruments in places they have looked before”(111).

2)     Parallelism between political revolution and scientific revolution.

    They operate in the same way: when the existing system (political institutions or scientific communities) is not working properly, things come to a crisis. Then the community has to choose a solution between competing paradigms. “As in political revolution, so in paradigm choice – there is no standard higher than the assent of the relevant community. To discover how scientific revolutions are effected, we shall therefore have to examine not only the impact of nature and of logic, but also the techniques of persuasive argumentation effective within the quite special groups that constitute the community of scientists”(94).

    What is required during the scientific revolution is nothing but the concept of “hegemony” used by Gramsci to explain the maintenance of political domination by people’s spontaneous consent, not by the coercion by the state. If the new paradigm is not persuasive enough to give consent, there might be no breaking out of revolution.

Given those two issues above and the process of scientific revolution which has repetitive-circular structure, Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolution has begun by severing itself from the perspective which sees the realm of science as the evolutionary process of a certain absolute knowledge (in Hegel’s sense) or the relentless process of self-accumulation. The most remarkable achievement that Kuhn has made is, not by seeing science from the perspective of knowledge itself but by reflecting upon it in the problem of society, i.e. scientific “community” consists of individual scientists and reproductive system, to acknowledge that science is not exceptional from the social and political rules. However, he does not want to see science (different from politics, philosophy or art) as permanent permutation between new and old competing paradigms, without any progress. Rather, he seems to believe “scientific progress” in any way. But for me it looks impossible to think progress in science which is separated from social and political progress. How can we call it progress if it is not accumulative?


[1] Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries, Duke UP, 2004 (2007), p.23.

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