Thesis: Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions

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¶ … Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions: Comments from the Internet

Scientific development, and with it technological innovations, has been among one of the most powerful forces driving social and cultural progress since the beginning of recorded history, and indeed since prehistoric times. As the human understanding of the way in which the world works changes and progresses, it necessarily leads to new understandings to old problems, changes to perspectives brought to bear on a variety of issues, and -- perhaps most importantly -- new tools of observation that in turn create new understandings, pushing the cycle of scientific discovery ever (or at least usually) forward.

Science's role as described above has been basically understood for millennia, across many different and disparate cultures and time periods. It has only been relatively recently, however -- since the development of sociology as a branch of the soft sciences beginning in the nineteenth century and solidifying in the twentieth -- that the way in which science operates for and interacts with society has become a subject of scientific scrutiny. Given the rapidity of technological development during these centuries and the overwhelming influence science and technology now play in our daily lives, it is hardly surprising that scholars and scientific practitioners alike -- as well as all individuals simply concerned with the course of human history -- have shown an increasing interest in developing an objective and comprehensive understanding of the interaction between society and science.

Thomas Kuhn's groundbreaking work the Structure of Scientific Revolutions, first published in 1962, develops a fundamentally new and different way of understanding science and its progress -- both the forces underlying scientific growth and the effects that this growth and development has on the society that produces this science. Kuhn's masterful new theoretical understanding of science as a whole is far from the last word on the subject, however; though almost universally hailed as an extremely innovative and important text in the area of the sociology of science -- indeed, the book is cited by many as the foundational work of this specific sociological discipline -- it has, like any good scientific theory, sparked a large amount of debate within the scientific community. This paper will examine many of the critiques leveled against Kuhn's work in the internet community, along with a specific examination of Kuhn's concept of the paradigm.

General Critiques from the Web

One major criticism that has been raised regarding the arguments Kuhn makes in the Structure of Scientific Revolutions is that he is too sweeping and simplistic in many of his foundational assertions. Specifically, his assertion that scientific progress in inherently non-linear, working in a series of replacements rather than direct progressions (thus his use of the term "scientific revolutions") is a "caricature" of science, raising valid and realistic points but blowing them out of proportion, to the point that they obscure the real nature of science and scientific progress throughout the course of history (Mitra 2003).

Essentially, what is obscured in this view according to some of Kuhn's critics is the very important role that linear progression has played and still plays in the progression of scientific understanding and application. To suggest that Newtonian physics as been completely replaced by relativistic theory, for instance, would be completely false -- though there has indeed been a major shift in the understanding of physics due to Einstein's (and other's) contributions to the field, the entire scope of physics up to Einstein was not wiped out by his theories, but rather was expanded and altered in a clear progression from Newtonian models. Science, that is, has both linear and non-linear elements, and Kuhn's seeming obliteration of past and ongoing contributions presents a major red flag to many careful readers of his theories (Mitra 2003).

Another area for which Kuhn's these have come under attack is his concept of the incommensurability. Kuhn's concept of the paradigm shifts (discussed in detail later on) as the heart of scientific revolutions leads, according to Kuhn, to an inability to properly compare theories after the shift has occurred -- all points of reference have been altered by the paradigm shift. Many theorists, in the realm of philosophy and across many scientific disciplines, contend that points of reference and truth can still be ascertained and somewhat fixed despite semantic and referential changes (Bird 2004). Just as paradigm shifts do not complete change the course of scientific progression but retain some degree of their linear nature, Kuhn's critics reject the notion that paradigm shifts make theoretical comparisons impossible.

Other critics do not directly refute or question Kuhn's conclusions, but rather point to the myriad ways in which the book can be read and interpreted as perhaps befuddling and misleading, through no real fault of Kuhn's but still to the detriment of scientific understanding and cohesion within the scientific community. Kuhn himself apparently intended the volume to be read as a history of intellectual development, albeit a history with a profound departure in terms of the mechanisms identified as the bringers of change; the Structure of Scientific Revolutions is now used as a core text in a wide variety of disciplines, from philosophy and other humanities, through the soft sciences and well into graduate level theoretical courses for budding scientists of every stripe (Zoltan 2010).

The reader's perspective or background can have a great deal to do with their ultimate interpretation and application of Kuhn's concepts, and this is the point that many critics point to as a major flaw in, if not the work itself, at least the way in which the work is taught and understood. According to some of the tenets of the book itself -- namely that "our learning proceeds from our paradigm" -- coming to a single clear and comprehensive interpretation of the book is largely impossible, as different readers laboring under different assumptions and foregone conclusions will come away both with different interpretations of and different appreciations for the text (Eng 2001). Clarity thus becomes a major issue when attempting to ascertain what Kuhn's precise conclusions are, and even more so when attempting to apply his conclusions to an understanding of the world.

The Paradigm Concept

The central element of Kuhn's book is the concept of the paradigm, and more specifically the paradigm shift. Paradigms, according to Kuhn's conception of science and scientific discovery and progress, are the primary means by which inquiries and discoveries are made, and scientific understandings are reached (Kuhn 1996, pp. 42-6). This in and of itself is not especially controversial or disputable; if we are to understand Kuhn's use of the word "paradigm" to mean (quite simplistically) the general schema of underlying assumptions and perceived truths in a scientific community, then scientific inquiry and discovery must take place by definition within the boundaries of that paradigm. It is only when Kuhn begins to discuss the nature of paradigm shifts that the concept becomes less certain.

As evidence that paradigm shifts are the major markers of scientific progress, Kuhn outlines several scientific "revolutions," including the Copernican revolution that established a new understanding of astronomy. Though the Ptolemaic model was still able to explain the movements of the stars, discrepancies became more common, and correcting for these discrepancies in one instance led to the creation of discrepancies elsewhere (Forster 1998). Kuhn even insists that the Copernican model showed no greater accuracy than the Ptolemaic model, meaning that the crisis occurring within the Ptolemaic paradigm was the only real cause for the shift (Kuhn 1996, pp. 75-6). This is a major cornerstone piece of evidence for Kuhn's overall understanding of scientific progression as a series of such shifts.

The crisis factor is essential in creating a paradigm shift, according to Kuhn; without such crises, paradigms and theories are incredibly resilient and resistant to change (Forster 1998). Kuhn also explores the Newtonian revolution in physics -- particularly his innovations regarding an understanding of the nature of gravity -- and asserts that Newton's claims in his Principa did not really move science towards a better understanding of truth, but rather inhibited this to a large degree by creating a new paradigm -- i.e. A new and almost universally accepted theory -- that precluded the search for a mechanistic explanation for gravity, making an investigation for such an explanation incredibly difficult (Blunden 1998). Essentially, one untrue explanation replaced another, and did so in such a way as to obscure the untrue quality of the new explanation while exposing that of the old. Instead of a steady progression towards more refined truths and understandings, Kuhn takes this and other similar instances as evidence for paradigm shifts.

Effects for the Notion of Progress

It is completely understandable that Kuhn's assertions met and still meet with no small amount of opposition when the full implications of his paradigm shift concept are examined. Scientific discoveries, especially major and unexpected finds that lead to the rewriting and reappraisal of decades (or centuries) worth of work, are seen as part of a progression towards… [END OF PREVIEW]

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