The Structure of Scientific Revolutions | Study Guide

Thomas Kuhn

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The Structure of Scientific Revolutions | Preface | Summary



Kuhn outlines the origin and development of his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He traces his first relevant thoughts to the period when he was working on his doctoral dissertation at Harvard University. Having been asked to teach a course on physical science to nonscientists, Kuhn began reading outdated primary texts in the sciences. His newfound knowledge prompted his thinking about the nature of science.

Working as a professor in the history of science brought Kuhn into contact with ideas that further challenged and articulated his thinking. For example, Kuhn observed social scientists explicitly disagreed "about the nature of ... scientific problems and methods." Physical scientists did not exhibit such disagreements, but Kuhn relates he did not suspect members of these communities had established truths that eluded their counterparts in the social sciences. Instead, he posited the difference between them was the role played by paradigms. He referred to paradigms as "scientific achievements that ... provide model problems and solutions to a community of practitioners."


Of particular interest in the preface is Kuhn's description of his own revolution in thinking. Attempting to understand a book in its historical context not only helps the reader to clearly see the author's intent, but also prepares the reader for potential transformation. In Kuhn's case the thinking went from something like, "How could Aristotle have been so wrong?" to "Why would Aristotle take this view?" As soon as the latter question was asked, Kuhn was in a position to understand Aristotle in a way that would otherwise be unlikely. This type of thinking—i.e., situating a scientist in his or her moment in time—leads Kuhn to many of his conclusions and is described as cultural relativism.

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