The Structure of Scientific Revolutions | Study Guide

Thomas Kuhn

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The Structure of Scientific Revolutions | Chapter 11 : The Invisibility of Revolutions | Summary



Paradigm shifts are not considered to be revolutions. Instead, they are generally thought to be additions to the cumulative—and largely coherent—body of scientific knowledge. Moreover, scientific textbooks, as Kuhn previously pointed out, present the history of accomplishments in such a way as to render scientific revolutions invisible. Popular and philosophical works modeled on the accomplishments presented in these textbooks also serve to present the image of science as cumulative progress.

The significance of scientific textbooks to the image of science, both for the student and the lay person, cannot be overstated. These are the primary, if not the only, resources that present the history and activity of science and the scientist. As the primary pedagogical tool, these textbooks are the authority on, and the vehicle for the perpetuation of, normal science.

As paradigms change, textbooks are rewritten in such a way as to incorporate the new paradigm into the succession of developments. As a result, they obscure the nature of the revolution and the scientist's role in it. More specifically, they overlook the historical aspects of scientific developments, effectively rewriting the events by removing them from their historical context. They retroactively rewrite the events as part of a cumulative series, and "the result," Kuhn writes, is a "tendency to make the history of science look linear or cumulative."


Kuhn's account of the psychology of gestalt shifts helps to explain why paradigm shifts are largely invisible. Another component of this explanation is the way these shifts are presented both to members of the scientific community and those outside it. Moreover, these presentations occur after the shift, the revolution that triggers the new edition of the relevant textbook. The invisibility of the revolution is a sort of whitewashing of history, although calling it such is not intended to imply some sort of nefarious intentions on the part of the textbook's author.

Nevertheless, according to Kuhn, this erroneous history also results in the denial of revolutions as a significant function in scientific activity and development. In other words presenting scientific developments as a series of individual discoveries and invented theories, which collectively serve as a link in the chain of scientific progress, obscures the revolutions and misleads those who defer to the text's authority.

It is worth noting the unidentified shift from quantity to quality. In other words science—physical science, at least—is a quantitative activity. Scientists measure nature in one way or another. However, much of Kuhn's focus is on the qualitative aspects of the scientific process, particularly in the form of the attitudes and dispositions of the community of practitioners. These inevitably influence the entire scope of scientific activity, although scientists make every reasonable effort to eliminate their influence and are understandably riled at accusations to the contrary.

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