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Thomas Kuhn’s Scientific Revolution Essay

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Updated: Feb 20th, 2019

This paper looks into four major ideas that are at the centre of Kuhn’s ‘Structure of Scientific Revolution’. The four basic concepts are paradigm, normal science, crisis and Inconsumerability. Through discussing the given concepts, the paper will delve into Kuhn’s belief with regards to progress in science.

Kuhn is credited for having changed the general understanding of progress in science. Traditionally, science was understood to involve a progressive linear movement or accumulation of insights. Contrarily, Kuhn illustrates that science is marked by dramatic shifts that are akin of violent revolution. It is only after a revolution that a stable phase follows; a conceptual world that is radically different from the initial one (Andersen, 2001, p. 25).

Kuhn successfully challenged the common notion that science is always objective. Scientific inquiry is not a purely independent venture (Ladyman, 2002, p. 98). Science is not purely objective because scientific inquiry does not happen in a vacuum. The scientists operate in a given setting and are affected or determined by their circumstances.

Further, their work is based on established theories and facts whose truthfulness is accepted on trust. For example, a researcher in ecology has to have certain assumptions. The methodology he or she adopts was developed basing on given assumptions. Further, as an individual, the researcher has influences on self and from the environment that impact on his or her interpretation of study results (Ladyman, 2002, p.122).

The researcher has to be clear about what he or she wants. Then, he or she chooses methods that will guarantee that he or she gets what he or she wants. There is a general bias in the working of the scientist; his or her efforts are geared towards ensuring he or she gets what he wants. This kind of concern changes the researcher from an impartial subject to a subject that is influencing towards achieving a given kind of result.

The different phases or conceptual states are what Kuhn referred to as paradigms. Scientists in a given paradigm hold to a given set of collective beliefs or agreements (Robert, 1952, p. 132). They share in a perception or general approach to problems or challenges that they tackle. Each scientific undertaking happens in the context of a given theoretical frame work. There are certain assumptions that inform scientific inquiry or work.

The assumptions or collective beliefs guide or form basis for kind of methodology adopted, data interpretation framework and general analysis schema. For example, psychologists researching on human behavior base their inquiry on given assumptions. If a researcher based the research on a behavioral as opposed to psychoanalytic approach, the data they collect and the basis on which the same is analyzed would definitely lead to different results or theories (Godfrey-Smith, 2003, p. 80).

According to Kuhn, it is the implicit paradigm assumptions that help distinguish sciences from other areas of study (Hoyningen-Huene, 1993, 169). The implicit assumptions of a paradigm act as criterion that is used in study or to validate study. The changes in the implicit assumptions lead to a paradigm shift.

All paradigm shifts, according to Kuhn, happen through a revolutionary process. The hall marks of scientific revolution are a radical shift in theory and fact bases. A paradigm shift is a radical change in the way science as a study and criterion for accepting scientific findings is modeled.

The phase between two revolutions or paradigm shifts is what Kuhn referred to as a normal science phase. Normal science according to Hoyningen-Huene (1993, 165) did not receive much attention or scrutiny until Kuhn developed his ‘structure of scientific revolutions’.

During the normal science phase, scientists’ efforts are geared towards the consensus in assumptions (Hoyningen-Huene, 1993, 169). All theories and established facts support the status quo and deviating findings are considered out rightly wrong. In common practice, any findings that do not conform to established consensus or that contradict the basic paradigm assumptions are ignored.

Instead of occasioning or triggering further research, such findings are considered as erroneous. Galileo’s findings, for example, were considered out rightly wrong because the basic assumptions based on Ptolemy’s theory was in line with the sun going around the stationary earth. Normal science is often shrouded in tradition and protected with a vengeance (Nickles, 2003, p. 143).

Changing the status quo meets a lot of resistance because people generally fear the unknown. Therefore, a shift from a science paradigm also meets a lot of resistance. The resistance is occasioned by the fact that new paradigm often goes against expectations (Hoyningen-Huene, 1993, 177). The tension resulting from choice between maintaining status quo and charting new ground causes was referred to, by Kuhn, as scientific crisis.

Science seeks to answer questions; however, scientific inquiry is ignited by a puzzle. The puzzle is a problem or incidence that can not be explained by existing assumptions. However, it is on the basis of the existing assumptions that the problem is analyzed. This paradox i.e. a problem that established assumptions have no explanations for but being investigated on the basis of the established assumption, is what Kuhn identified a crisis in scientific research (Nickles, 2003, p. 152).

Crisis in science occurs when occurrences, incidences or discoveries no longer fit into the schema of established theories (Godfrey-Smith, 2003, p. 83). Scientists can either use established assumptions to come up with a convincing explanation, the problem can be left for later scientists to deal with it or a paradigm shift occurs. A paradigm shift means that new assumptions that challenge old assumptions are created.

The old assumptions have become like the common sense and thus challenging them is like challenging the obvious. The majority will see the proponent of a new paradigm as either insane or really foolish. If the new paradigm garners a critical few; a paradigm war is in the offing. A battle in supremacy or over which view is right ensures. The battle is supposed to be intellectual but in some instances it goes physical.

Kuhn further raised objections against test by falsification; a method of testing theory that had been developed by Karl Popper. Popper’s view was that if a theory did not fit into existing schema or assumptions, then it was to be rejected. Theorists aimed at establishing theories or findings that would be universally accepted (Hoyningen-Huene, 1993, p. 170).

However, as Kuhn argues, such a method is inconclusive and non-rational. As already indicated, science investigates into puzzles that current theories do not explain. If the current theories and assumptions can not explain the puzzle, then it would not make sense to discard findings that would warranty departure from already established assumptions (Nickles, 2003, p. 144). Rather than discarding, it makes more sense to investigate further into the given findings.

Kuhn’s other contribution to the debate on progress in science was his rejection of ‘incrementalism’ (Robert 1952, p.132). He believed that scientific inquiry or progress does not necessarily lead to establishment of ultimate truths.

It is latently and occasionally implied in discourses that developments in science have led to discovery or establishment of the ultimate truth. However, looking into the array of gray areas and contradictions in science, one can not be convinced so. Ultimate truths are far from being established in many areas of scientific interest.

Commensurability in science refers comparability of theories (Ladyman, 2002, p. 117). If a theory can be compared thus judged conclusively based on established assumptions, the theory is commensurable. If a theory can not compare with established theories or guiding assumptions, such a theory is considered as incommensurable. According to Kuhn, scientific paradigms are not commensurable (Robert, 1952, p. 142).

Paradigm’s incommensurability is occasioned by the fact that change in paradigm is change in world view. Therefore, people in different paradigms can not compare their views because they base their theories on different world views.

Secondly, often when paradigm shifts occur in science, methodology is also affected (Bird, 2004). If a study is done basing on a different methodology, there is not much ground for comparing it with another done based on some other methodology. Further, even the jargon or concepts used by different paradigms differ in a big way.

The way concepts are related in one paradigm does not resemble another paradigm due to change in assumptions. Finally, Kuhn expressed that paradigm shifts happen after sometime. When a paradigm shift occurs, scientists’ training and even experience changes, which makes paradigms incomparable (Bird, 2004).

From the foregoing paragraphs, it is clear that Kuhn’s ideas were in themselves seeds for a paradigm shift. Traditionally, it was believed that science is progressive with one idea leading to another successfully until ultimate truths are established. Kuhn championed a shift in paradigm.

The new paradigm challenges the claimed objectivity in sciences and obsession with comparability with established theories or knowledge. According to Kuhn, science progresses in a revolutionary way. The resistance to change due to established consensus and expectations make change or shift in paradigm very hard. Those who seek new ways or acknowledge unpopular findings that do not support established assumptions are met with insurmountable resistance.

Reference List

Andersen, H. (2001). On Kuhn, Belmont CA: Wadsworth.

Bird, A. (2004). Thomas Kuhn. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Retrieved from file:///C:/DOCUME~1/Owner/LOCALS~1/Temp/thomas-kuhn.htm

Godfrey-Smith, P. (2003). Theory and Reality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hoyningen-Huene, P. (1993). Reconstructing Scientific Revolutions: Thomas S. Kuhn’s Philosophy of Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ladyman, J. (2002). Understanding Philosophy of Science. New York: Routledge

Nickles, T. (2003). Thomas Kuhn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Robert, K. (1952). Introduction to Philosophy of Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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