Thomas Kuhn's the Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Article excerpt

LISA J. ROBERTS [*]

In the preface to The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn cites as unifying many of his studies a problem-structure and orientation including "the way in which the experimental bases of a new theory are accumulated and assimilated by men committed to an incompatible older theory" (SSR p.ix). [1] This phenomenon contributed greatly to the movement in Kuhn's career from physics, to historiography, to more philosophical issues concerning the nature of scientific development itself. As the result of his studies, Kuhn emphasized the role of community in scientific "development." He challenged the brick-to-building metaphor endorsed by normal science textbooks, suggesting instead that scientific progress occurs in the form of revolutions and does not follow an uninterrupted linear path, as traditional schoolbooks would lead us to believe. These scientific revolutions erupt not as the direct result of the emergence of new data, but only after a scientific community embraces a new model in place of an o ld one. Kuhn identified these "universally recognized scientific achievements that for a time provide model problems and solutions to a community of practitioners," as "paradigms" (SSR p.x).

As the pool of scientific knowledge grows in quality as well as quantity, documenting who did what and when becomes more difficult beyond just recognizing and ordering the "scientific" aspects of what we have long since dismissed as myth or superstition. Historians attempting to refine our knowledge of scientific history encounter many problems as they evaluate past events based on current knowledge. Contemporary methods of historical research have given way to problems in categorizing inventions and discoveries, while they further call into question the concept of development-by-accumulation assigned to scientific process. The simple piling up of facts as a means of documenting scientific chronology ignores a very important factor in scientific progress -- the community of practitioners involved. Thus, Kuhn argued for a new method of historiography which addresses a theory of scientific revolutions.

Kuhn states clearly the fundamental objective of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions as that of "urg[ing] a change in the perception and evaluation of familiar data" (pp.x-xi). He exemplifies his scientific paradigms by re-evaluating "normal science" -- particularly that of physics -- which he defines as "research firmly based upon one or more past scientific achievements, achievements that some particular scientific community acknowledges for a time as supplying the foundation for its further practice" (p.10). Kuhn's theory of scientific revolutions represents the "tradition-shattering complements to the tradition-bound activity of normal science" (p.6), namely the orientations which contribute to a community's acceptance or rejection of a new theory. Traditional historiography would have one believe that scientific progress relies on the discovery of facts, or of truth, and that any number of scientists presented with the same problem will obtain the same "factual" solution. Not so, said Kuhn. The proba bility of "accurate" research results may depend on the scientist's proper use of the scientific method, but it also depends on his social-scientific orientation: Does he define a swinging pendulum by the laws of gravity or by those of motion? Today, anyone with a basic knowledge of science would acknowledge both, but years ago one theory clashed incommensurably with the other. Thus, devotion to one paradigm or another involves more than empiricism; it depends on the community to which a practitioner belongs.

In Chapter I of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn overviews his theory of paradigms and offers a rationale for the remaining twelve sections of the book. Chapter II anticipates the inevitable role of incommensurability. In Chapters III, IV, and V, Kuhn expands upon the function of normal science and the "conceptual boxes" that accompany it. …