The Structure of Scientific Revolutions | Study Guide

Thomas Kuhn

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The Structure of Scientific Revolutions | Chapter 4 : Normal Science as Puzzle-solving | Summary

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Summary

A paradigm occasions normal science, and normal science is characterized as "puzzle-solving." A puzzle presupposes its solution. In other words the result of a scientific research puzzle is known in advance of its solution. Puzzles are contrasted, for example, with "the really pressing problems, e.g., a cure for cancer." These problems, Kuhn supposes, "may not have any solution." Puzzles, on the other hand, are not only solvable, but test a scientist's skill and ingenuity. Consequently, the path forward in solving a puzzle is not usually apparent.

Puzzles are worth solving, however. Indeed, solutions to multiple puzzles contribute to a paradigm's clarification. A scientist, Kuhn claims, is committed to the idea nature is orderly, and in such a way as reflected in the paradigm. This commitment is reflected in a "strong network" of "conceptual, theoretical, instrumental, and methodological" beliefs about what the world is like. Normal science does not aim at discovery, since normal science does not aim at novelty, and a novelty is a discovery. Instead, discovery is one of the features of a paradigm shift.

Analysis

Why does Kuhn think normal science is simply puzzle-solving? Consider what a puzzle is. First, it's a perplexity, or as Kuhn states, a research problem to be solved. One is confronted by phenomena one does not understand, either in the context presented, or in terms of the conceptual framework within which one makes sense of the world. Second, a puzzle presupposes a logical way to its solution—a puzzle is that which can be solved, given the application of a certain set of rules. Third, and related to the presupposition of the second point, a puzzle presupposes its answer in advance. In connection with characteristics two and three is the idea the puzzle's solution has to fit within a predefined set of acceptable types, determined by the rules and steps taken in the process of solving it. So, for example, the operations of an instrument enlisted in the service of puzzle-solving are to be explainable in terms of the paradigm.

One may consider a math problem as the sort of thing that provides the answer in advance. Thus, the execution of the solution is simply a matter of solving a puzzle. Although the logic example and math reference oversimplify the process, they provide the broad conceptual strokes of what Kuhn has in mind when he talks about results of scientific inquiry under a paradigm that is known in advance.

On the assumption the logic example makes sense, it should be clear Kuhn's claim is not itself as much of a puzzle as one might think. In other words one might ask, "If I know the result in advance, what is the point of engaging in the research project?" One answer is the research demonstrates, and thereby clarifies, the question presented by the paradigm. So, returning to the logic example once again, the question is, "How does one 'get' from the premises to the conclusion?" It is answered by the derivation, which provides a demonstration of the answer. That said, it is worth remembering the way forward in solving a puzzle is not immediately apparent. This is why Kuhn emphasizes skill and ingenuity are needed to determine how best to proceed. Additionally, paradigms include not only knowledge sets but also methods, so method discovery is equally valuable.

Kuhn's view is in stark contrast to those who claim scientists are continuously engaged in a critical endeavor, namely to question the results of previous investigations. This is, perhaps, the erroneous assumption at work behind the conception of testing hypotheses. Failed tests remain valuable as methodological refinements.

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