Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996) unleashed “paradigm” on the world
by John Horgan,
, May, 1991, pp. 40-41
“Look,” says Thomas Kuhn.
The word seems to signal that Kuhn thinks his listener has misunderstood him, or is in danger
of doing so, and he, Kuhn, is going to try--probably in vain--to set the terribly complicated record straight.
Kuhn utters the word
Look,” he says again.
He leans his gangly frame and long face forward, and his big lip, which ordinarily curls up amicably at
the corners, sags.
“For Christ’s sakes if I had my choice of having written the book or not having written it, I would choose to
have written it.
But there have certainly been aspects involving considerable upset about the response to it.
“The book” is
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
, commonly called the most influential treatise on how science does (or
does not) proceed.
Since its publication in 1962, it has sold nearly a million copies in 16 languages, and is still fundamental
reading in courses on the history and philosophy of science.
The book is notable for having spawned that trendy term “paradigm,.”
It also fomented the now trite idea that personalities
and politics play a large role in science.
Perhaps the books’ most profound argument is less obvious:
Scientists can never
understand the “real world” or even--to a crucial degree—one another.
Given this theme, one might think that Kuhn, a 68-year-old professor of philosophy and history of science at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, would have expected his own ideas to be misunderstood.
But he still seems pained by
the breadth of misunderstanding, by persistent claims, for example, that he thinks scientists are “irrational.”
“If they said
‘arrational,’ I wouldn’t have minded at all,“ he remarks with no trace of a smile.
Kuhn’s fear of compounding the confusion over his work has made him a bit press-shy.
Although he finally agrees to talk to
about his career (after unburdening himself of the fact that in 1964 this magazine gav
review I can remember”), he must point out the pitfalls of the exercise.
“One is not one’s own historian,” he warns, “let alone
one’s own psychoanalyst.”
Kuhn nonetheless traces his view of science to a single “Eureka” moment in 1947.
He was working toward his doctorate in
physics at Harvard University when he was asked to teach some science to undergraduate humanities majors.
Searching for a
simple case history that could illuminate the roots of Newtonian physics, Kuhn opened Aristotle’s
and was astonished at
how wrong it was.
How could someone so brilliant on other topics be so misguided in physics?
Kuhn was pondering this
mystery, staring out of the window of his dormitory room (“I can still see the vines and the shade two thirds of the way down”)
when suddenly Aristotle “made sense.”
Kuhn realized that Aristotle’s views of such basic concepts as motion and matter were totally unlike Newton’s.