Thomas Kuhn’s “The structure of scientific revolutions” 60th anniversary

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In 1962, Thomas Kuhn’s «The structure of scientific revolutions» was first published. It became a milestone in the history of science, as its influence also reached society’s view of scientific activity. This is a book that fascinates me, which I read while I was an undergraduate student, and when I decided to do a PhD it was in the top of my mind.

In the first place, I’ll go through the background of the historical-scientific scene behind the publication of «Structure» . Kuhn was born in Cincinnati, and –as this specialist tell us- he had a “liberal” education. He then moved to Nueva York, where he met James B. Conant, who would later become the first scientist to be president of the University of Harvard. Conant’s work there was considered as “transformative ” in that university. Conant had participated as chair of the Manhattan Project and of the National Defense Research Committee, (NDRC) Kuhn was trained as a physicist, and obtained his PhD in Harvard, in 1949. In his mission to transform Harvard, Conant asked Kuhn to teach humanities undergraduates how science worked In this task, Kuhn became more and more interested in the history of science. He was always interested in “talking to philosophers”

Book cover of the 50th anniversary edition of “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, by Thomas Kuhn

At that time, the future of the United States was closely related with science, and Kuhn was part of that push from Conant, who thought that “leaders should understand the value of true science, and to protect it from the changing popular tastes”. External and internal factors of science were considered as separated by the traditional curricula. . On the other hand, there was a general thought that leaders should be formed in the humanities and should also learn what was going to be the engine of progress. Thus, as president of Harvard, Conant wanted to generalize the teaching of science to non-scientists, and for this he asks Kuhn to give a course/seminar that would later be the basis of his essays and book.

Kuhn tried to break with the vision of scientific progress as linear and cumulative; and with a “bright future” associated with science. National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) en 1940, y se convirtió en su presidente en 1941). The Second World War had showed that this future was tied to initiatives such as the atomic bomb. As James Marcum mentions in this video, Kuhn makes of science an institution open to historical movements (min 55:48). This is why some refer to Kuhn’s “historization of sciencie”. Consequently, Kuhn taught this courses but later Harvard denied him tenure, so he moved to Berkeley University, where he met Stanley Cavell and other influential thinkers. Therefore, as Marcum explains: «science was not advancing towards a bigger understanding of the world but it was rather getting away from paradigms that no longer worked».

So, before talking about paradigms, and science according to Kuhn, would be important to clarify that from a social science perspective, and very often, one from Latin America, Kuhn’s “historization” of science is matched with a “socialization” of such practice. From my point of view, this thought aims at making science relative to a paradigm or “position”, closer to an ideology. This is a wrong interpretation of Kuhn. For instance, some in Argentina emphasize the role of “persuasion” between scientists, regarding the competition of paradigms or adoption of a new theory, as if this was a question of beliefs. On the contrary, even though Kuhn shed light over social and psychological aspects of the scientific practice, his focus was on research as a trade. Science, for Kuhn, was about abilities and capabilities of those involved in it. This is why he based his essays on how physics worked according to his experience: that was his trade..

Now I’m going ti summarize the main assumptions/arguments of the book.

The path to normal science

Before talking about this figure let’s remember that Kuhn influence in public opinion in the ‘60s, and this was due to the phrase “paradigm shift”. Even though Kuhn’s use for this phrase was limited to the scientific activity, it became the paramount to establish a disruptive state in almost any area of modern life. The paradigm shift refers to the psychological aspect of science, that Kuhn associated to a sort of «gestalt», according to which scientists from different paradigms saw phenomena (even when were based in the same data) in different ways, and talked different languages. We’ll go back to this later. Therefore, this popularization in social discourse of the “paradigm shift” (in spanish is “change”, as shift would be more like a “turn”); was reflected for example in culture magazines such as The New Yorker: you could attend a cocktail, a dentist appointment or a friends’ gathering and the phrase «paradigm shift» would be part of the conversation..

But “paradigm” wasnt’ invented or introduced in the history of science by Kuhn, but had roots in the times of Aristotle; it certainly was Kuhn’s use of it which marked that science did not progressed through an accumulation of inventions and individual accomplishments, but rather, by revolutionary breaks that turned up-side down the trade of science and re-configurated it to its practitioners

The figure (with arrows above) shows that for Kuhn before the instauration of a paradigm, the scientific activity was chaotic, and the scientific community would look to different data to explain different facts. Then, it would adopt a paradigm, as, for example, the one from Copernicus, Newton, Lavoisier, Einstein, and so on; depending on the discipline or field (Kuhn explains these authors and shift through the book). At this point, a period of normal science is established for the scientific community. But, what this “normal science” imply? (Normal science)? That the “business” of the scientific community is mainly puzzle solving, to which, already counts with theories, tools and ways of answering. Namely, innovations are suppressed as they threat the normal functioning of this puzzle solving activity following an already established paradigm. As Alexander Bird adds in the video, normal science involves an agreement among scientists of the theories and tools that enable their daily trade. Such anomalies could be caused by an experiment that would go wrong, by the introduction of a new technology, among others that could affect the way in which experiments are conducted. When anomalies accumulate and the scientific community can no longer handle them (answer to them), is when a revolutionary period in science starts, and the prevalent paradigm enters into a crisis.

In this period Kuhn concern is the communicational break that scientists could suffer from the lack of a paradigm. He denominates this problem as one of incommensurability, also a word which origin was greek geometry, and for which he exchanged a lot of letters with Paul Feyerabend, to whom he met in Berkeley. Incommensurability («without a common measure »), referred to how the concepts of a theory couldn’t be reformulated with the new paradigm Elements from a theory that explained certain data could have no language to be explained in one from a different paradigm. It is important to note, however, that in the stage of crisis and revolution

paradigms coexist, meaning, simultaneously, scientists would have new ways of explaining new data, but others would remain using the old ones. This is why agreement and consensus was so crucial for Kuhn, and such a key milestone for a new period of normal science.

Sin embargo, una de las críticas que se le hizo a Kuhn, y a Structure después del ’62, era la cantidad de acepciones diferentes sobre qué era efectivamente un “paradigma”. One of the main critics to Kuhn’s Structure were the 22 different meanings of paradigm that he had coined or developed through the book. So in 1969 he adds a «Postscript» to Structure in which he widens the meaning of paradigm to a circularcircular definition: «a paradigm consists of what the members of a scientific community share, and, conversely, a scientific community consists of men that share a paradigm» (Kuhn, 2012, p. 175). Therefore, a paradigm is much more than theories and tools; it involves a constellation of basic agreements, commitments and values that sum up the way in which a specific scientific community sees the world, and works towards its understanding. Thus, it is not about science as a big scientific community, but as different, specialized –by disciplines and even subdisciplines- numerous scientific communities. Escpecially, physics, in which trade Kuhn based his theory

This poscript is interesting because it shows Kuhn’s interest in giving more centrality to the scientific cpommunity and its functioningn in order to undrstand paradigms. This last theme was getting more attention and interest from Kuhn, and he thought that he had not developed it enough in Structure. Is not so much that scientific revolutions define science advancement or “progress”, but they re-orient a scientific community in knowing which problems are worth researching and redefine that way their trade


Kuhn, T. (2012). The structure of scientific revolutions. 50th Anniversary edition. The University of Chicago Press.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Dan Schneider (2017) Video Interview #170: Thomas Kuhn Con Alexander Bird, James Marcum y Steve Fuller.

Image by vía El Nacional

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