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In his work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn uses conceptual ideas to describe scientific revolutions. Even though Kuhn’s work has come under intense criticisms, he expounds his ides in a compelling style that makes them sensible. To understand Kuhn’s ideas, one would want to analyze some issues like the nature of ideas that people had at a particular time, the intellectual choices and schemes that were available at a time under investigation, the terminologies and languages that people used and many more issues.
Kuhn’s arguments seek to detach contemporary ways of thinking from historical influences. These ideas resonate well with non-linear form of history where scientific theories or any theory per se does not come from a linear accruement of constructs. On contrary, scientific theories result from a converting set of considerations and hypotheses.
However, it is logical that a scientific community cannot exist without basing its arguments on some perceived beliefs. According to Kuhn, “these beliefs form the foundation of the educational initiation that prepares and licenses the student for professional practice” (Kuhn 4).
Kuhn observes that these beliefs help students to understand the scientific profession in a better way. Kuhn rues the fact that people assume that scientists know everything about worlds and this is what he seeks to correct by introducing the concept of ‘normal science.’ So, what is scientific revolution according to Kuhn?
According to Kuhn, when any anomaly subverts the elemental dogmas of an existing scientific practice, there is a shift from scientific professionalism to shared premises or hypotheses. This shift is what Kuhn terms as scientific revolutions. Therefore, as aforementioned, scientific revolution is not a linear accruement of constructs, rather it is a collection of ‘shifts’ as explained by Kuhn. A precise description of these shifts would be “the tradition-shattering complements to the tradition-bound activity of normal science” (Baigrie 64).
These shifts bring with them new changes that are allowed as ‘new assumptions’ and these ‘new assumptions’ are paradigms, according to Kuhn. Additionally, these new assumptions come from reconstructing the existing assumptions and reconsideration of prior constructs. However, Kuhn notes that, this process of reconstructing and reconsidering assumptions and facts is tedious and time consuming; therefore, he offers a way of creating paradigms in the process of scientific revolution.
Earlier on, there was a mention of ‘normal science.’ Normal science, “means research firmly based upon one or more past scientific achievements, achievements that some particular scientific community acknowledges for a time as supplying the foundation for its further practice” (Kuhn 16).
These accomplishments must be new to appeal many bearing adherents for them to quit or not join other contending models of scientific body and they have to be open-ended with problems that these students will solve. Therefore, taking Kuhn’s definition of paradigms as ‘new assumptions’, these accomplishments qualify as paradigms. Moreover, for students to become part of this new scientific body or revolution, they examine and analyze these ‘paradigms’ for them to qualify as members of its practice.
Kuhn points out that, in these new scientific communities, there are few or no conflicts because, “students are mentored by researchers who learned the bases of their field from the same concrete models” (Kuhn 39). The eventual outcome will be a large group of people who are pursuing similar goals, governed by same rules to pursue a similar scientific study.
Additionally, because these paradigms are only familiar amongst this group of people, they formulate questions, come up with channels of research, establish the relevant areas of study, determine the best methodologies of research, and eventually contrive answers to the questions they have made.
Therefore, paradigms become essential in scientific revolution because, “no natural history can be interpreted in the absence of at least some implicit body of intertwined theoretical and methodological belief that permits selection, evaluation, and criticism” (Musgrave 289). A paradigm starts with collecting ‘mere facts’ upon which different scientists account for and construe similar phenomena differently. If then different people have different opinions concerning similar phenomenon, how do they come to an agreement?
Kuhn indicates that, with time, the different construes concerning similar phenomena vanish, and a pre-paradigmatic group emerges which pushes for adoption of a given set of rules often seen as facts. However, other interpretations persist resulting to competition leading to a kind of selection. “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” (Sharrock & Read 12).
The paradigm that wins the ‘competition’ overshadows the rest leading to their extinction. After these events, the adherents of the outstanding paradigm brands themselves ‘professions’ and they go on to publish journals, form professional bodies and finally claim a place in the academic world.
According to Shapere, “there emerges a promulgation of scholarly articles intended for and addressed only to professional colleagues, [those] whose knowledge of a shared paradigm can be assumed and who prove to be the only ones able to read the papers addressed to them” (383). Within no time, this phase becomes a scientific revolution as people shift from the previous understanding on a particular subject.
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After full adoption of a given paradigm, normal science then takes over. At first, a paradigm will be restrained in terms of exactitude and scope; however, normal science seeks to offer precision and broaden the scope of a paradigm through research based on past scientific studies on the same issue.
In other words, normal science is a prototype-based research entailing, “an attempt to force nature into the pre-formed and relatively inflexible box that the paradigm supplies” (Horwich 23). When people are working together to achieve a given goal, they are likely to disregard any anomalies that arise because they are enthralled by the new idea, and they want to see its success.
Normal science plays the role of problem solving in scientific revolutions. According to Bowler and Iwan, research functions to expose what is already known but it does this in advance (103). However, in a research, the ambit of expected results is narrow even though the possible results are numerous.
Therefore, any result that falls outside the anticipated ambit of outcome is termed as a failed research. Normal science here acts to gauge the ambit of anticipated results. Nevertheless, paradigms play significant role in determining normal science. The reason behind this observation is that, it is hard to state the traditions governing a given normal science.
In essence, during development of normal science, scientists are not governed by set rules; they learn new things and ideas through application. Therefore, a paradigm can indicate some set of traditions applicable in normal science. These traditions may converge without necessarily coexisting and Kuhn posits that, “a revolution produced within one of these traditions will not necessarily extend to the others as well” (69).
Nevertheless, some cases emerge exposing anomalies in both normal science and paradigms. By its nature, normal science does not focus at novelties of theory; actually, at best normal science may find no such novelty. However, this does not mean that these novelties do not exist. Researchers continually unearth new concepts through invention and discovery.
These discoveries expose anomalies in existing normal science. In some numerous cases, scientists realize that “nature has violated the paradigm-induced expectations that govern normal science” (Popper 59). After several efforts to fix these anomalies, scientists may fail to fix or explain them leading to what Kuhn calls a ‘crisis.”
“Crisis is the persistent failure to solve puzzles or anomalies of normal science as they should be solved” (Kuhn 79). After scientists realize an anomaly, they try to come up with new theories that would address the perceived anomaly sufficiently.
However, Kuhn observes that, crises are not as surprising as people would think because; scientists in their practice anticipate them. Failure to address an anomaly stems from discernable variance between facts (nature) and theory in society and as Kuhn points out, these failures are long recognized in scientific research. Acknowledging the existence of crisis helps to break theoretical stereotypes and allows application of extra data to form cardinal paradigms.
Normal science does not work to reconcile the differences between theory and facts. In any case, there is no scientific research void of counter-instances. Actually, Kuhn posits that, “Crisis is always implicit in research because every problem that normal science sees as a puzzle can be seen, from another viewpoint, as a counter-instance and thus as a source of crisis” (Kuhn 107). The good news is that, crisis are solvable through responding to them.
Concerning incommensurability, Kuhn observes that, “The normal-scientific tradition that emerges from a scientific revolution is not only incompatible but often actually incommensurable with that which has gone before” (103). This is true because a new paradigm calls for redefinition of the underlying normal science whereby some problems from this science are termed ‘unscientific’ or banished to other form of science altogether.
Sankey notes that, the above case stems from the fact that, “lexically, the new terms are not straightforwardly translatable, and the new paradigm leads to at least some incompatible predictions” (85). However, Kuhn’s definition of incommensurability leaves readers with many questions. For instance, does it mean there are no subjective touchstones upon which primitive entities can be allowed? “Surely, it is reasonable to demand that postulated entities can at least be measured” (Sankey 96).
Despite the many challenges that scientific revolutions go through, they progress from revolution to another. Normal science advances with time because it holds some salient features. For instance, different scientific communities study different paradigms and this diversity of ideas sustains scientific revolutions, if anything, scientific revolution progress is relative and the advancement lies in the eyes of the perceiver.
Moreover, progress may seem insignificant given the incompetent nature of paradigms to question the goals of other paradigms. Above all, scientists have developed tendency of defending their paradigms based on how important they are to society.
Kuhn uses conceptual ideas in describing scientific revolutions. People continually question existing scientific principles and when they realize an anomaly in them, they create a shift and form a new school of thought based on attacking the anomaly detected.
This result to new ideas, something that Kuhn calls paradigm, new assumptions. Numerous people join these new assumptions and build on them to establish a new paradigm. Eventually, different schools of thought emerge from this paradigm but one takes preeminence and roots out the others.
Normal science then takes over and moulds the new paradigm into a broad and precise field through research based on past studies. Nevertheless, anomalies arise in the established normal science and failure to address these anomalies leads to crisis, which is solvable through response. Kuhn insinuates that different paradigms are incommensurable due to lexicon differences among others. However, scientific revolutions stand test of time and progress from one phase to another the many challenges notwithstanding.
Baigrie, Brian. “Scientific Revolutions: Primary Texts in the History of Science.” Upper Saddle River: Pearson/Prentice-Hall, 2004.
Bowler, Peter & Iwan, Morus. “Making Modern Science: A Historical Survey.” Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.
Horwich, Paine. (Ed.) “World Changes. Thomas Kuhn and the Nature of Science.” Cambridge; MIT Pres, 1993.
Kuhn, Thomas. “The Structure of Scientific Revolution.” 3rd Ed. London; The University of Chicago Press, 1996.
Musgrave, Anne. “Kuhn’s Second Thoughts.” British Journal of the Philosophy of Science. 1971, 22(1): 287-97.
Popper, Kelly. “The Logic of Scientific Discovery.” London: Hutchinson, 1959.
Sankey, Honke. “Kuhn’s Changing Concept of Incommensurability.” British Journal of the Philosophy of Science. 1993, 44(2): 759-7.
Shapere, David. “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” Philosophical Review. 1964, 73(4): 383-94.
Sharrock, Walsh & Read, Rice. “Kuhn: Philosopher of Scientific Revolution.” Cambridge: Polity, 2002.