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

Thomas Kuhn

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» . On this regard, I’ll share this video with three of –let’s say- Kuhn experts: James Marcum (who did his phd at MIT and was Kuhn’s student), philosopher Alexander Bird – from the University of Cambridge, who wrote the  Stanford Encyclopedia on Kuhn- , and sociologist Steve Fuller from the University of Warwick, who wrote about Kuhn and Popper.

Great interview and discussion between Kuhn’s «experts» in 2017 around «The structure of scientific revolutions»

Kuhn was born in Cincinnati, and –as this specialist tell us- he had a “liberal” education, and then moved to Nueva York, where he met James B. Conant, who would later become the first scientist to be the President of the University of Harvard. Conant’s work in Harvard was considered as “transformative”, and he was also part of the scientific commitee of the Manhattan Project, and had also a key role in the National Defense Research Commitee -of the United States- in the ‘40s. 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”. In addition, he thought that leaders should be formed in the humanities and should also learn what was going to be the engine of progress.

Kuhn was trained as a physicist, and obtained his PhD in Harvard, in 1949, though he was always interested in “talking to philosophers”. In his mission to transform Harvard, Conant asked Kuhn to teach humanities undergraduates how science worked. 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. In this task he became more and more interested in the history of science.

Cover of «The structure of scientific revolutions», 50th edition

Internal and external factors that were part of science were considered as separated by the traditional curricula.  But, as James Marcum argues, Kuhn made of science an institution open to this historical movements (min 55:48). But what Kuhn does is trying to break with the vision of scientific progress as linear and cumulative; and with a “bright future” associated with science. The Second World War had showed that this future was tied to initiatives such as the atomic bomb, in which board Conant had participated (as chair of the Manhattan Project and of the National Defense Research Committee, NDRC), en 1940. 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 teaching and texts from Latin America 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.

The road 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.

One of the many cartoons by The New Yorker regarding the popularization of «paradigm shift»

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. At this point, a period of normal science is established for the scientific community. But, what this “normal science” imply?  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. But even when this period is named “normal” it doesn’t mean that it has no anomalies, but that these are not a threat to the existing paradigm. 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. Both Kuhn and Feyerabend were worried about how the meaning of concepts such as “mass” would change with a 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.

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 circular 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. This last theme was getting more attention and interest from Kuhn, and he thought that he had not developed it enough in Structure.References

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

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Dan Schneider Video Interview #170: Thomas Kuhn

Imagen destacada vía El Nacional


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