The Structure of Scientific Revolutions | Study Guide

Thomas Kuhn

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The Structure of Scientific Revolutions | Chapter 8 : The Response to Crisis | Summary



A crisis is not required for a paradigm change; discoveries can precipitate them. A crisis often develops when a theory becomes increasingly complex in an effort to absorb myriad anomalies. Competing theories step in to resolve the crisis. In this way a crisis "loosens the rules of normal puzzle-solving in ways that ultimately permit a new paradigm to emerge." Indeed, since the normal rules do not apply to resolve the crisis, creativity comes to the fore as researchers work out new proposals. It is only when a viable alternative paradigm is available the existing one is replaced.

One question that arises in relation to anomalies is why some become the focus of a researcher's attention while others do not. At least three possible explanations exist. One is the anomaly "will clearly call into question explicit and fundamental generalizations of the paradigm." A second is practical problems, such as calendar reform under Ptolemaic astronomy, are unsolvable in the face of the anomaly. The third is the course of normal science itself transforms the anomaly into the source of a crisis.

Much work is devoted to revising the existing paradigm in such a way as to explain the anomaly. When the various articulations produce confusion and disagreement over the nature of the paradigm, a crisis ensues. The crisis can be managed in one of several ways. One is normal science addresses the crisis. A second is the crisis is deferred. A third is a new candidate emerges to compete with, and eventually replace, the existing paradigm.

There is no standard manner by which new paradigms emerge: "What the nature of that final stage is ... must ... remain inscrutable and ... permanently so."


Normal science continues to work to bring fact and theory into agreement. The tension implicit in scientific investigation is between the inevitable inconsistencies between fact and theory. Puzzles become potential crises if not resolved. The assumption is the paradigm can ultimately solve the puzzle, but this is not guaranteed. However, modifications in the paradigm show there is at least confidence a solution will be found and the conflict will be resolved. Failure to secure a solution is typically seen as a failure of the researcher, not the paradigm. This means, for an anomaly to precipitate a crisis, it must be significantly more problematic than the ordinary puzzle and it must extend beyond a single scientist.

Kuhn's focus on the people involved in the scientific endeavor, rather than the ideas themselves, generates some interesting results. Once an anomaly is identified by the community, there is increasing focus on it by eminent figures in the field, and more open disagreement occurs. Now the focus of scientific work is on a resolution to the problem, which results in an increasingly precise articulation of the anomaly. With this focus Kuhn shows how the participants shape the direction of the community at large. Another striking feature of this culture is, as Kuhn points out, these new paradigms emerge from researchers "either very young or very new to the field whose paradigms they change."

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