The Structure of Scientific Revolutions | Study Guide

Thomas Kuhn

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The Structure of Scientific Revolutions | Context


Intersection of Science and Humanities

The philosophy of science is concerned with metaphysical (reality beyond the senses), epistemological (philosophical theory of knowledge), and ethical issues involved in the scientific enterprise. The etymology of science reveals enterprise is fundamentally one of acquiring knowledge of the nature world—of the way things are, how they came to be, and how they will be in the future. Consequently, a philosopher of science will ask questions such as, "How do instruments influence perception?" and "What rules should guide experimentation?" The philosophy of science also has sub-subjects, such as the philosophy of biology and the philosophy of physics.

The family connection between philosophy and science can be traced to the ancient Greeks. What is now called science began as philosophy, as thinkers such as Thales of Miletus laid the conceptual groundwork for inquiring into the origin and nature of things. These thinkers asked and answered questions about the fundamental elements of the universe, the origin of the universe, and the nature of change. These answers were not simply speculative guesses, but the result of empirical observation and rational thought.

Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–22 BCE) was the first thinker to codify a system of logic, which was intended to provide rules for demonstrating truths gleaned from observations. His biological and physical theories are examples of his systematic approach to knowledge.

English philosopher Francis Bacon (1561–1626), French philosopher René Descartes (1596–1650), German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716), and German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) were among a number of thinkers working on scientific problems and topics in such a way that philosophy and science—now discrete academic disciplines—were not distinguishable. Indeed, English scientist Isaac Newton (1643–1727) was considered a natural philosopher, the term science not yet having come into fashion.

Although the disciplines of science and philosophy were eventually recognized as two separate fields, the areas of overlap and cross-pollination of ideas were not. Advances in formal logic, for example, served not only to elucidate scientific accomplishments but also to guide scientific method. So, for example, Descartes proposed a rationalistic approach that sought to eliminate false ideas, while British philosopher John Stuart Mill's (1806–73) methods of determining causal relations adopted an empirical process of correlation and elimination. Karl Popper (1902–94), one of Thomas S. Kuhn's contemporaries, developed a theory of falsifiability. Any genuine scientific theory, he argued, must be falsifiable in principle. Rival hypotheses were eliminated by the failure to meet this standard.

Aristotelian Legacy and the Development of Kuhn's Thought

During World War II (1939–45), Kuhn served as a junior researcher in radar in Europe for the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development. After the war, Kuhn returned to Harvard as a doctoral student, and developed a friendship with Harvard President James B. Conant (1893–1978), who was also the director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development.

While working on his doctorate, Kuhn taught classes in the history of science. At Conant's request, Kuhn presented a series of lectures on 17th-century theories of mechanics. In researching for these lectures, Kuhn became interested in understanding how Newton had come to develop the laws of motion. More specifically, he was curious about why this development had occurred when it did—long after it was clear Aristotle's theory of motion was incorrect.

Aristotle's philosophy reflected a teleological view of the universe. In it everything has a final cause, or telos, an end toward which it strives. For Aristotle this final cause—or purpose—explains why a thing is what it is and why it behaves the way it does. For example, Aristotle could explain the motion of a rock falling to the ground based on the rock's internal properties. More specifically, the rock falls because it naturally moves toward its proper state, at rest, and its proper place, the ground. Aristotle used "motion" to describe a variety of changes.

Aristotle's teleological framework held sway for centuries, mainly because it had been embraced and promoted by the increasingly powerful Catholic Church. Indeed, Aristotle's view—compatible as it was with church doctrine—was deeply integrated into the academic system. Thus, a teleological worldview dominated the earliest stages of what would become the Enlightenment era, a period that saw the development of science and the scientific method. This world view was so dominant thinkers from the 15th to the 18th centuries—such as Copernicus, Galileo, and many others—had to modify, recant, or hide theories that disputed this view.

Isaac Newton's account of motion was radically different, however. Newton believed motion is not merely the change of state in a substance, but is itself a state. It would seem thinkers such as Galileo and Descartes had already recognized Aristotle's account was erroneous, but Newton devised an alternate approach. Kuhn's efforts in trying to make sense of Aristotle's Physics led him to elucidate this alternate approach.

In his preface to the 1977 collection of essays, The Essential Tension: Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change, Kuhn remarked how his method of reading Aristotle led to his "first scientific revolution." He began thinking about the "global ... change in the way men viewed nature and applied language to it." Although Aristotle's view is incommensurable with Newton's, Kuhn came to believe it could still legitimately be understood on its own terms. Consequently, rather than evaluating Aristotle's theory as accurate or inaccurate, since these terms are applied using conceptual and linguistic structures from another framework, it can simply be appreciated because it is different. This proved to be the starting point for Kuhn's work on paradigm shifts and scientific revolutions.

Scientific Revolution and the Implications of Structure's Thesis

Scientists work in communities within a specific culture and period in time. According to Kuhn's argument, the results of their work either solve puzzles within the existing conceptual framework, which he calls a paradigm of science, or contribute new questions. If the work continually produces data that can be explained within the existing worldview, model, or paradigm, then a permanent "normal" state of science can occur. In other words no further revolutions are needed to push the scientific enterprise toward a new paradigm.

Such a situation might signal the end to science as such. This is not to say Kuhn thinks science will have achieved its goal of answering all of nature's questions. This is because, if a given paradigm simply defines the conceptual and linguistic frameworks within which scientists conduct their work, it does not explain the fundamental nature of reality. Nor can it provide answers to metaphysical questions. Moreover, if this is the case, then no scientific theory is more or less correct than any other.

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