The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
The Significance of Kuhn's Work
Kuhn's work is significant largely because it presents a compelling challenge to the
intuitive (and once dominant) conception of scientific progress. According to this
conception (advocated by the logical positivists), scientific progress is a
process. As scientists learn more and more about the world, as they acquire knowledge of
more and more facts, they make relevant adjustments in their theories. As a result, their
theories get better and better, closer and closer to a completely accurate characterization
physical reality. Kuhn claimed that this interpretation of the history of science is
wrong-headed. The history of science is a history of shifting "paradigms," where such
paradigms represent radically different conceptions of reality. Thus, scientific "progress"
is not a matter of
adjusting one's current theories to accommodate new knowledge. It is
rather a matter of altering one's basic conception of reality, and re-interpreting the
empirical data (observations) accordingly. As Kuhn suggests (p. 160), scientific progress
is not a matter of new knowledge replacing ignorance; it is a matter of new knowledge
replacing "knowledge of
another incompatible sort."
Study Questions 1-7 (from chapter IX)
(n.b. Many of the study questions cannot be answered on the basis of the excerpted
reading alone. However, they can be answered on the basis of the reading
the editors' commentary. So please read what the editors say about Kuhn's work.)
1. What is a scientific revolution?
In order to understand Kuhn's conception of a
scientific revolution, you must first understand his notion of a "paradigm," so let's start
with that. As the editor's of the text put it (p. 157), a paradigm is,
a set of theoretical assumptions, concepts, and commitments that define the
problems, methods, and solutions of scientific investigation.
Some examples of competing paradigms: Newtonian vs. Einsteinian conceptions of
space/time/mass; Geocentric (Ptolemaic) vs. Heliocentric (Copernican) models of the
universe; demonic possession vs. suppressed childhood experiences vs. chemical
imbalance models of mental illness.
Now let's turn to Kuhn's conception of a scientific revolution. As he puts it, a scientific
a noncumulative developmental episode in which an older paradigm is replaced in
whole or in part by an incompatible new one.
The key concepts
here, aside from that of "paradigm," are those of "noncumulative" and
"incompatible," so let's look at these, beginning with the latter. Successive paradigms are
different from one another.
Because different paradigms differ with respect to their "assumptions, concepts, and
commitments," they also differ with respect to their understanding of
methods, and solutions" of scientific investigation. Thus, one cannot operate