The Structure of Scientific Revolutions | Study Guide

Thomas Kuhn

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The Structure of Scientific Revolutions | Chapter 13 : Progress Through Revolutions | Summary

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Summary

Does science progress? It is constantly changing, but does it advance in the ways most people think it does? Kuhn's account of science suggests there is no progress, only change. Yet progress occurs under a particular paradigm. Indeed, most people "tend to see as science any field in which progress is marked." In normal science, practitioners can do their work without first having to reevaluate their foundational assumptions and principles.

Moreover, the established set of values and practices provide a unified, and insular, culture. Consequently, choosing which research problems to tackle becomes a matter of identifying what is of interest, rather than what is most pressing in the larger society. Kuhn points out, for example, unlike other areas of study—such as music, history, and philosophy—a physics student does not read original text from the likes of Newton or Einstein. Instead, the student reads a synopsis of their findings, thereby equipping them both with the concepts and tools required for work in normal science, but also, perhaps paradoxically, to generate the crises that upend the existing paradigm. This method is paradoxical for two reasons. First, it would seem training under the existing paradigm would preclude crisis generation. Second, the obvious progress made during normal science appears to inexorably lead to its undoing.

In fields for which no paradigm suffices to address persistent problems—art, history, and philosophy, for example—it would seem there is no progress. Nothing is settled, either because the questions do not attach to an objective answer, or because the practitioners refuse to agree. The same questions, consequently, yield myriad inconsistent answers. In fields like astronomy and physics, on the other hand, paradigms are possible because objectivity does seem possible. Perhaps they are not socially constructed, but instead reflect at least a partial glimpse of the whole.

Analysis

One of the core values of scientific communities is the concept of progress. The scientific enterprise is thought to be one in which knowledge advances when new discoveries are made. The results of scientific achievements suggest progress. X-ray to Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machines, for example, reflect not just different knowledge from one era to another, but more of it.

Surely, within the context of normal science, progress is made in understanding the paradigm. Moreover, when a paradigm is replaced, the incommensurability of the two models does not automatically wipe out the memory of prior beliefs. One may say, for example, thinking about the contrasts between the two involves a duck-rabbit experience similar to the gestalt shift that occurs when the world is seen anew after the paradigm change. In other words scientists make progress in their school or discipline, even if the field itself does not. In this context Kuhn's preference for "evolution" over "progress" makes sense. Evolution happens; it is not directed or self-directed. The same thing can be said, then, about science. Once a paradigm is established, a goal or end is also established, thereby providing the infrastructure for progress during the course of normal science. One may recall Kuhn's previous point about the sort of random wanderings that happen pre-science, or before the introduction and acceptance of a paradigm. Consequently, the scientific enterprise as such is not attainable truth, or a path to perfection for science, but rather for the current paradigm. The paradigm, in turn, is a social construct.

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