The Structure of Scientific Revolutions | Study Guide

Thomas Kuhn

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The Structure of Scientific Revolutions | Chapter 1 : Introduction: A Role for History | Summary



Science students are ushered into their profession by training that includes the reading of various textbooks. Knowledge of facts and methods of inquiry are presented as accumulated developments. The consequent view of science is one of progression based on successive, orderly, and accumulated discoveries, innovations, and inventions, which contribute to a growing body of knowledge. Missing in this picture, however, is the context in which such discoveries are made, and the thinking of the investigators who made them.

Science students are inculcated in a particular worldview—a collection of research objects, as well as research definitions, standards, and methods. "Mature" sciences, such as chemistry, geology, and physics, have established paradigms, identifiable scientific achievements that direct practitioners' work in their field. Other sciences, such as economics and psychology, do not have the same maturity, and thus lack the same stability that has come to be expected of the others.

Because scientists defend the idea they know the nature of the world, they are unlikely to tolerate anomalies, observations that do not fit the current paradigm. In "normal science"—the period of activity during which scientists' work centers on solving puzzles—such anomalies are suppressed. A shift occurs, however, when anomalies accumulate, or one is significant enough to signal a change in the commitment to the paradigm. Such a change is referred to as a "scientific revolution."


This chapter neatly outlines Kuhn's theory of scientific revolution. The general outline of Kuhn's account of scientific change is a movement from pre-science—or pre-paradigmatic observation and data gathering—to the adoption of a paradigm and the activity of normal science, to anomalies that generate a crisis in the existing paradigm, to a revolution that ends with a new paradigm.

Most people think of science merely as a collected body of knowledge about the natural world, and scientists as the professionals who explain nature. Kuhn proposes another way to think about science, namely from a historical and analytical perspective. In other words studying the history of science analytically reveals some striking ideas. Kuhn's central insight about science and scientific development is it is not the result of steady progress as its depiction in a textbook would have us believe; instead, it is the product of revolution. This revolution is to be understood in terms of the psychosocial aspects of the scientists in the community in which they practice, which is only partly governed by rationally guided rules and procedures—what Kuhn calls "paradigms."

A paradigm is a model of thinking about the world. At any given time, science has a ruling paradigm under which its work is conducted and which is "sufficiently open-ended to leave all sorts of problems for the redefined group of practitioners to resolve." The paradigm effectively provides the scope and instructions for what Kuhn calls "normal science." In this sense either the earth as the center of the universe or the sun as its center can be a paradigm.

Without a paradigm scientific activity is perpetually incoherent. This is because there is no unified set of definitions and rules to guide it. In adopting the role of historian, one of Kuhn's primary aims is to understand how the process of paradigm generation occurs. Rather than simply read off scientific achievements as presented in science textbooks, Kuhn proposes to understand the historical context in which paradigms are created and upended. In other words how does the scientific community move from the earth is the center of the universe to the sun is its center?

Scientific education proceeds largely by inculcating the aforementioned results, along with the rules and methods that prescribe further activity. However, this is not only misleading as an account of how science works but is also misleading as it pertains to the rules and methods themselves. In other words one of Kuhn's central theses is the rules and methods prescribed by a paradigm, while internally coherent, are not absolute. The way a scientist studies the universe differs depending on whether the earth or the sun is its center.

This thesis is controversial. Most professionals and lay persons consider science to be both the accumulated knowledge of the natural world and a discipline that follows rigorous methods. These methods transcend both the community of practitioners and the era in which those practitioners do their work. Kuhn argues otherwise.

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