Term Paper: Thomas Kuhn's Book the Structure of Scientific Revolutions 3rd Edition

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Thomas Kuhn's book - the structure of scientific revolutions 3rd edition

Thomas Kuhn's very influential book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, proposes a model or a pattern for the evolution of science throughout the ages. Kuhn makes use of specific concepts and of a careful structuring of the book in thirteen chapters that treat, in turn, of the basic aspects of the progress of science in time.

First of all, Kuhn (1996) introduces the notion of "normal science," that is, according to him, the science that bases its research on previous research which is recognized as valid by a scientific community. (p.10) It is the structure of normal science is what the book proposes to investigate. Furthermore, Kuhn (1996) argues that the most salient aspect of scientific evolution in time is the fact that science does not progress through leaps or through unrelated sets of investigations. On the contrary, scientific research is always conducted under a paradigm, or, to put it differently, all research is based on previous scientific data. The scientific paradigm can be defined as a certain common pattern in scientific research, or a certain set of accepted world views that are held as true for a period of time. The paradigm is thus a set of common beliefs about the world, based on past research.

According to Kuhn (1996), there is scientific research without paradigms, but this a sign of immaturity in a certain scientific field. (p.11)When a scientific paradigm establishes itself within a domain it usually means that the respective scientific field has achieved a theory that successfully, although not completely, matches the observable natural phenomena. The way in which a paradigm imposes itself over other possible paradigms has thus two main characteristics in Kuhn's view: the paradigm is, first of all, sufficiently innovative and able to explain certain phenomena, so as to have a considerable numbers of adherents and, at the same time, it leaves room for further research, that is, its assumptions have to be valid enough to allow further developments from its premises. (p. 10)

Thus, the main premise for normal science is the existence of paradigms, that is, of consensus with regard to the phenomena under investigation. Also, science evolves through a series of paradigm shifts, that is, the old world-views are replaced by new world-views. This is why, according to Kuhn (1996), for some of the scientific phenomena the appearance of the first paradigm is also the appearance of first coherent or valid answer to its problems.

As the author exemplifies, optics did not have a paradigm before Newton, and therefore, did not make any consistent progress until after the seventeenth century.(p. 13) The lack of unity within a field of research or of commitment to the same assumptions is a clear evidence that no real progress has been made in a certain field.

Kuhn (1996) makes a point of emphasizing the fact that the notion of a paradigm is much more apt to describe the consensus existing at a certain time within a scientific field, than would be the idea that research submits to and obeys the exact set of rules. The author speaks of the priority of paradigms over rules, and argues that there can be consensus or agreement with regard to a certain scientific matter, but the scientists might, nevertheless, give a different account of the particular details that lead to a certain solution. (p.44)

Therefore, normal science agrees with respect to the problem-solutions, and not to the specific rules used to achieve these solutions. This is why the most important requisite for scientific progress is the existence of paradigms or consensus within a certain field, and these paradigms are always oriented towards the solutions offered, and not necessarily towards a set of applicable rules.

Thus, Kuhn defined a scientific paradigm as a certain widely accepted world-view, with respect to the specific solutions offered by theory to the natural observed phenomena. The importance of paradigm is easily noticed if we realize that, even when it proves as completely inaccurate, it still is the most innocuous token that a respective science has made real progress and has achieved maturity. Also, science always evolutes through paradigm shifts, that is through patterned not random changes in the world-views. A paradigm is therefore never abolished until a new one emerges to replace it.

The paradigm is thus the essential concept for theorizing scientific revolutions. Science evolves through revolutions, and the revolutions appear when an old paradigm is substituted by a new one.

The structure of scientific revolutions has as a primary division the scientific paradigm. According to Kuhn (1996), normal science is essentially puzzle-solving, that is, does not aim at achieving novelties, or at unexpected results. Even when research is directed towards the formulation of a new paradigm, the main concern is with the complex conceptual and instrumental frame that may be used to attain an outcome that is already foreseen. (p. 36)

That is to say that research in normal science is very similar to puzzle-solving: the picture of the particular phenomenon under investigation may be already known, but the most appropriate path that can lead to the solution is not known. Therefore, the scientist almost always focuses on the theoretical frame needed to explain an observable phenomenon.

Having understood this fact, Kuhn (1996) directs his analysis to the way in which scientific revolutions occur in this context of the puzzle-solving character of normal science. If normal science is not concerned with discovery or novelty primarily, then the question of how discovery actually arises should be posed.

To this, Kuhn offers a few very pertinent solutions. First of all, discovery and invention are the most important parts of scientific revolutions. In Kuhn's view, discovery is not, first of all, a sudden event, that has a very specific and unique date in time and an equally unique author or discoverer. Discovery may be sometimes a complex process and may very well have more authors.

The example that Kuhn (1996) gives of such a discovery as a complex process is the discovery of oxygen, which could be claimed by or attributed to at least three scientists: W. Scheele, Joseph Priestley and Lavoisier. The date is also uncertain, it can be 1774 or 1775, according to whether the discovery is credited to one or the other of the last two scientists. This uncertainty is possible because the two scientists either used the wrong assumptions or believed that they discovered something else. (p. 53)

Kuhn (1996) explains this by arguing that a discovery is not complete until both the fact that something is and a knowledge of what it is have been recognized. (p.55)

This makes discovery into a more complex process than it is usually considered. Also, the example Kuhn uses also reveals another essential fact about the nature of discovery: discovery essentially appears in the form if the acknowledgement of a certain anomaly in the structure of a paradigm. This can be proven with the example of the discovery of X-rays by Roentgen. This discovery was made precisely by noticing something which was wrong, or which did not fit the already known paradigm. (p.57)

The next important step in conceptualizing the structure of scientific revolutions is to account for paradigm change and inventions. Kuhn (1996) observed that new scientific theories or changes in paradigms occur when this awareness of anomaly generalizes and is acknowledge as a crisis in a certain scientific field.

This is noticeable in one of the major and most revolutionary paradigm shifts: the Copernican revolution. Before that, the astronomic model generally accepted for no less than a millennium and a half had been the Ptolemaic system, which accurately predicted planetary moves, but which was, nevertheless, extremely artificial and inaccurate in its theoretical frame.

Finally, Copernicus and some of his co-workers became aware that the paradigm accepted so far was not a valid one, and that astronomy was in a state of crisis. (p. 69)

Thus, according to Kuhn, scientific revolutions occur through a crisis and through the awareness of this crisis. However, it should be noted that this crisis is not over, or the paradigm is not rejected until a new coherent one has been formulated by scientists. Thus, the scientists do not look directly at facts in general to solve a crisis, but to further theoretical developments that could successfully replace the old theories. This is in Kuhn's account the specific response to crisis. (p.77)

After explaining the way in which paradigm shift occurs, it is necessary to explain the way in which or the criteria for accepting a new paradigm. The resolution of the new paradigm is determined, as Kuhn explains, through a competitive process which could be likened to that of natural selection in biology, as was theorized by Darwin. Thus, a new paradigm is established after it has passed the test when compared to the other available solutions at a certain time. (p. 171)

This is thus the structure of scientific revolutions in Kuhn's view: the… [END OF PREVIEW]

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