THOMAS KUHN’S STRUCTURE OF SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTIONS: A CRITIQUE

ANIL MITRA PHD, COPYRIGHT © 1994, UPDATED 2002
REFORMATTED
June 2003

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CONTENTS

1.       Kuhn’s Caricature of the History of Science  2

2.       Kuhn’s Achievements  3

3.       Summary of Kuhn’s argument  3

Pre-paradigmatic periodic  3

Normal or paradigmatic science  3

Boundaries of normal science  4

Crisis period  4

New paradigm   4

Kuhn’s characterizations of scientific revolutions  4

4.       Evaluation of Kuhn’s contribution  5

The positive content 5

Anticipation of the content 5

Negative and ignored content 5

5.       Detailed account of Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions  6

Introduction: A Role for History  6

The Route to Normal Science  6

The Nature of Normal Science  6

Normal Science as Puzzle Solving  6

The Priority of Paradigms [over sets of rules] 7

Anomaly and the Emergence of Scientific Discovery  7

Crisis and the Emergence of Scientific Theories  7

Response to Crisis  7

Nature and Necessity of Scientific Revolutions  7

Revolutions as Changes in World View   7

The Invisibility of Revolutions  7

The Resolution of Revolutions  7

Progress through Revolutions  8

Latest Revision, Copyright, Document Status  8


1.                Kuhn’s Caricature of the History of Science

Kuhn argues that scientific “progress” is not linear. New theories and paradigms are not continuations of old ones but replace the old ones and are discontinuous and incommensurable with them. Criticism of earlier science must be made through the eyes of the contemporary. The new ones arise due to the bulk of evidence against the old becoming intolerable; they become paradigms as they become accepted by younger scientists and as the older ones die. Kuhn implies that an active field of science is productive because it is an accepted paradigm. That before him the received notion of the history of science was the Baconian one of linear, directed, empirical, incremental process. That puzzle solving in the paradigm amounts to clever exercises and this constitutes scientific activity in the periods of normal science in between the periods of revolution when paradigms are being replaced. That those not working within the paradigm “are not scientists”

This is a caricature. Progress has linear and non-linear elements – it is the linear version that is the whipping boy of critics who hate all constructive endeavors. Further, we must distinguish numerical progress from progress as a value: here, progress is a priori numerical and may be, according to some one a posteriori valuational. However, such valuation is external and not at all intrinsic. New paradigms are breaks and incorporate elements of the old. Incommensurability is a function of psychology of resistance rather than epistemic. As an undergraduate in India in the 1960’s – I was not exposed to Kuhn till I came to America; I made the acquaintance with his work around 1984 – I had read some of the great works by Archimedes, Galileo, Newton, Maxwell, Einstein, Dirac, Schrödinger, Heisenberg and others; and I had also read some works on the philosophy of science especially Rudolf Carnap and Carl Hempel… and arrived at the nonlinear development of science, of its non-Baconian elements and all this as naturally evident rather than requiring some kind of analysis… also, as documented by Donald Campbell, such evolutionary notions occur in print as early as 1828. The idea of scientific revolutions the idea of difficulty of communication between two world views – all this was familiar and thus I have difficulty understanding what was novel about Kuhn’s work. As noted I understood the difficulty of communication but do not at all agree with incommensurability. From evolution, linear progress is a non-sequitur; evolution branches and on a given branch there is before and after that do not correspond to intrinsic value; across branches there is no intrinsic comparison: that one species has another for food is not superiority except according to some external account; and increase in complexity or increase in intelligence are not intrinsic values. There is no intelligence in the abstract; it is always contextual although it seems to be perfectly general from within the community of agents. I can understand why Kuhn was thought to be novel and why he would appeal, especially to individuals in some fields. Kuhn sets up a paper tiger: the text book accounts and the group thinking of American science [which due to its very power would be conservative.] Paradigms are accepted also because they are productive - scientifically in being predictive and explanatory, and technologically. Older paradigms may remain productive: of technology, of interpretations, tests, concepts, and limiting cases in their domain of validity for the newer ones… and their continuance is not, therefore, due to their incommensurability. If paradigms of science are essentially incommensurable to one another they must also be refractory to the historian of science - else the incommensurability is merely contingent. At all times - just read the literature - there are individuals with neo-paradigmatic ideas who in the time itself are collegial but who, only in retrospect, are regarded as non-scientists. Real science stands in multi-dimensional, multi-modal context… in contrast to the Kuhnian and the Baconian. “Normal science” as an absolute, rather than as a tendency, is the science of the herd. The Kuhnian paradigm of paradigms is possible only after the mass professionalization of science, the standardization of text books that parallels the standardization of language and grammar, the existence of a herd, it is only possible in the 20th century, especially in America [this is parallel to the popularity of Derrida / Foucault / deconstruction that continues on in America in the 1990’s long after these viewpoints became marginalized in France and the continent.] The neo-paradigmatic ideas become incorporated due to opportunity [counter-evidence regarding prevailing paradigms] and productivity

What accounts for the “success” of Kuhn’s work? 1. It fit the paradigm of relativism dominant at the time in sociology and anthropology. 2. It appealed to non-scientists and scientists in the “soft” sciences who may have been envious of the success of the physical and biological sciences. 3. It appealed to some scientists in the hard sciences. Part of the appeal is the validity of the non-linearity of scientific process. It may appeal to some as the assumption of a superior stance. He appeals to both guilt and narcissism. 4. It is putative in that it is successful - and being putative is a non-linear effect in which small causes [in this case other than originality and validity] are amplified

2.                Kuhn’s Achievements

In the previous section I was reacting to the phenomenon of Kuhn. Kuhn made a number of actual contributions

He emphasized the paradigm as a useful though not absolute operative principle in the process of science

He did some interesting historical investigations representative of work of a group of individuals circa 1950 at MIT and Harvard

He mistook textbook history for received opinion. It is only the “herd” who held textbook history as the history

He rallied forces against the perverted science as absolute as Baconian as over humanities idea; this was and is good

He thoroughly agitated the evolutionary epistemologists and the school of micro-sociology of science. This agitation was not, of course, thoroughly due to Kuhn but it remains true that Kuhn is a key figure of the dialectic in epistemology c. 1950 – 1996. [Thomas Kuhn: 1922 – 1996]

3.                Summary of Kuhn’s argument

Pre-paradigmatic periodic

Characteristics similar to those of the crisis period

Normal or paradigmatic science

Consensual and directed

Programmatic, sanguinary... Elaboration of the fit between paradigm and nature: puzzle solving

Boundaries of normal science

Anomaly - discovery

Crisis: paradigm or theory untenable. Search for new paradigm

Crisis period

Non-paradigmatic, non-consensual, non-directed research, philosophy, foundations

Like the pre-paradigmatic period before science

New paradigm

Incommensurable with the old one... Persuasive articulation... Old schools and scientists die. Normal science again

Kuhn’s characterizations of scientific revolutions

Non-cumulative

The old paradigm as well as the associated program is dropped in whole or in part

Are necessary

Since unanticipated novelty can only mean that the old paradigm is wrong

Are changes in world view

… analogous to changes in Gestalt. The changes in view are not mere changes in interpretation - the changes in interpretation result from the change in paradigm

Seem invisible [to posterity]

… because the textbooks are written from the standpoint of the new paradigm in a way that suppresses [or subsumes fitting aspects of] history

There is linear, goal directed progress within normal science

… as in all mono-paradigmatic fields

Therefore science as a whole seems cumulative

… in retrospect, as cultivated by the textbooks

But paradigm changes are changes in “worldview”

… as evidenced by new standards, new “languages” - with old words - and, most fundamentally, by the new Gestalt brought to nature which results in the inability to communicate across paradigmatic boundaries

Therefore like Darwinian evolution, science as a whole is non-progressive

It is non-linear - not the result of a single line of process from origins to the present

Non-goal directed in that it is unanticipated and nature-directed

Non-cumulative in that the old paradigm and much of its program, methods and instruments are dropped

This may be seen in periods of crisis - marking breakdown of the old paradigm and before establishment of a new one; and in the manner of adoption of he new paradigm - amplification, persuasion, conversion… and “dying away of the old die-hards”

4.                Evaluation of Kuhn’s contribution

The positive content

Mechanism of crisis: precipitation and resolution

Analogy of the historicity of science with evolution

That science rewrites its own history

Psychology of paradigm shifts; that the paradigm is not completely defined by explicit prescription but also by a system of practices that are not fully articulated

Anticipation of the content

Mechanism of crisis - precipitation and resolution and analogy with history: Popper in the 1930s, Planck, numerous other scientists; the research of Donald Campbell into literature on the evolutionary nature of science; this literature dates back to at least 1828

Psychology of paradigm shifts: Planck, Poincaré, Einstein, and Hadamard... Gestalt school... Omits consideration of relation between “conversion” and group dynamics... Omits psychology of creativity... Substitutes for creativity, the group dynamics of the paradigm

Negative and ignored content

Existing and pre-existing awareness of the non-linear history of science

Textbook history as history

Ignores the unrecorded non-paradigmatic conversation… frequently admitted to by scientists

Incommensurability of paradigms is inferred from the fact that people can be stubborn and blind and sometimes intentionally so

Ignores the psychology of creativity, of the originators, at the time of the paradigm shift... Actually, he performs a trick. He mentions it and yet ignores it in evaluating the total psychology. This appears to be a standard Kuhnian argumentative device

From the above he deduces the relativism of paradigms - that new paradigms are no truer than old ones. I assume he also means that present paradigms are no truer than future ones

Uses Universalism as the only concept of progress and shoots down this cardboard concept

Implicitly identifies science as normal or normal + extraordinary science according to convenience. Does not make the possible mistake of identifying science with extraordinary science

Uses subtle condescension

His paradigm is the anti-progressive paradigm. His attachment to this paradigm is like that of the “die-hards” in their attachment of the old paradigms. He is criticizing the personality type and the style of inference that are most like his own

Although his views are one-sided he provides amplifications of his views; provides interesting, pertinent historical studies; provide some interesting “causal” relations in science. These do heighten awareness of the history of science. Were Kuhn less of a narcissist, he would be a better philosopher

5.                Detailed account of Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Introduction: A Role for History

History of science is a source of data for theories of knowledge

Scientific fact and scientific theory are not categorically separable

Discussion - He sets up false idols and straw men!

The textbook environment

The herd mentality

The Route to Normal Science

A paradigm defines a field of science - defines legitimate problems and methods for a field for succeeding generations because it is sufficiently unprecedented and persuasive to attract and enduring group from competing modes and is open ended enough to leave all sorts of problems. The paradigm results in the following transformations on the scientific community in field: from:

Pre-paradigmatic period

Post-paradigmatic period

Lack of consensus, a paradigm, a program, direction.

Presence of consensus, a paradigm, a program, direction

All questions including philosophy and foundations allowed

Only problems and methods of the program allowed.

Each researcher may write his own books that are accessible to wide audiences

Textbooks are written in the initial phase and serve as models for subsequent texts. The original publications are the monograph and the paper - specialized publications that are accessible only to specialists.

Table 1 Crisis and Paradigmatic Science According to Kuhn

The Nature of Normal Science

Extending and articulating the paradigm and its range of application. Kuhn describes this in some detail and classifies the areas of activity: determining facts, matching theory and facts, articulating theory [and then sub-classifies.]

Normal Science as Puzzle Solving

Nature of puzzle solving

Little focus on true / unanticipated novelty

Solution assured, rules known

Extends scope and precision of the paradigm

Motivation and appeal

The scientist, once engaged [whatever his motivation for joining the field] thinks “if only he is skillful enough, he will succeed in solving a puzzle which no one before has solved or solved so well”

The Priority of Paradigms [over sets of rules]

A paradigm is not defined by a set of rules [although such may be specified or attempts may be made to codify the paradigm]… rather a paradigm is defined by an institution and its set of practices which include:

§         Proper research methods and problems

§         Questions which may not be asked

§         The process of education and the textbook

§         The dynamics of success

The next two sections are interwoven

Anomaly and the Emergence of Scientific Discovery

Crisis and the Emergence of Scientific Theories

Normal science produces crisis

Response to Crisis

A period that looks like the pre-paradigmatic period… and is characterized by

§         Non-progressive etc

§         Numerous partial solutions

§         Accumulation of data is non-structured

Nature and Necessity of Scientific Revolutions

Nature: non-cumulative developmental episodes in which an old paradigm is replaced by an incompatible new one… a revolution

Necessity: unanticipated novelty can only result to the extent that the old pattern proves wrong and therefore real progress must be through revolutions

Revolutions as Changes in World View

Changes in Gestalt - a metaphor for changes in world view… an analogy that has been worked out in some detail in N. R. Hanson, A Picture Theory of Meaning, 1958. The metaphor falls short, however - “The scientist can have no recourse above and beyond what he can see with his eyes and his instruments”

Actual paradigm changes involve [but are not merely] changes in interpretation

The Invisibility of Revolutions

Kuhn means that revolutions are invisible as revolutions… that is, instead of being viewed as changes in worldview; they are seen as continuous with and cumulative upon prior science. This is brought about by the textbooks that are written after the revolutions, for functional reasons refer to only those parts of pre-paradigmatic science that contributed to the present, and therefore present the process as cumulative

The Resolution of Revolutions

The transition is made by younger individuals not so committed to the older paradigm by intense focus on the crisis producing problems

The reasons for the incommensurability are: disagreement over problems requiring resolution and standards and definitions of science; use of the old vocabulary with altered meaning that results in misunderstanding; the incommensurability of the paradigms that Kuhn likens to the sense of strangeness felt by an individual accepting the dominant world view of his own culture when visiting an alien culture

How does the group make the transition?

1. Testing of alternate paradigms arises due to crisis, 2. The number and strength of the persuasive arguments for some particular paradigm increase until it is seen as supplying and alternate that resolves the crisis in enough individuals, and 3. The “elderly holdouts” die

From Max Planck: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them se the light, but rather because its opponents die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it”

Kuhn: “The transfer of allegiance from one paradigm to another is a conversion experience that cannot be forced”

Progress through Revolutions

Kuhn denies the cumulative view of scientific progress applied to science as a whole

Kuhn’s relativism: older theories are not wrong; newer theories are not truer

There is obvious progress of a type within a paradigmatic endeavor but this is not so in crisis or pre-paradigmatic periods

He notes that the paradigm will tautologically seem like progress to its proponents. But, he implies that as a whole there is not progress because: 1. It is non-cumulative, 2. Newer paradigms are incommensurable with the old, 3. The new is unanticipated and therefore cannot be progress toward a goal

He admits that science does deepen but it also becomes specialized. I suppose he regards this as a canceling out. And, in this he is / was looking at a discipline and not science as a whole. Further some successor paradigms are deeper, of broader application, and more accurate within the domain of validity of he earlier

The remainder of the section is a rambling account of an analogy between science and Darwinian evolution focusing on the lack of directness. As in evolution, he says, there is no progress in science as a whole

It seems that on the human plane, progress is in the eye of the beholder. Further, it is not only dependent on the lens in his eye but also in his motivations and where he chooses to look… and where he consciously avoids looking. Any absolute notion of progress must depend on the eye of the universe… and to that science and philosophy assume we are not privy. Therefore, in the realm of Kuhnian argument, in the realm of epistemology and sociology we cannot conclude the existence or lack of progress

Kuhn asks why the evolutionary process should work, what must nature including man be like that science and evolution be possible at all. He concludes that the question “What must the world be like in order that we may know it - was not created by this essay… it is as old as science itself, and it remains unanswered”


Latest Revision, Copyright, Document Status

ANIL MITRA PHD, COPYRIGHT 1994, REVISED 2002, REFORMATTED June 4, 2003


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