Kuhn and Reigel: The Nature of Scientific Revolutions and Theory Construction in Nursing

By Antognoli-Toland, Paula L. | Journal of Theory Construction and Testing, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Kuhn and Reigel: The Nature of Scientific Revolutions and Theory Construction in Nursing


Antognoli-Toland, Paula L., Journal of Theory Construction and Testing


Truth does not change. We change, our perception of truth changes, our interpretation of truth changes. We even discover more truth. But ifit was true before--it remains.

--Author Unknown

Philosophies of science are regarded as one of the most significant forces influencing the direction of change and the emergence-of theory within a given discipline. Nursing is a discipline in search of a philosophical foundation. Evidence of this search is displayed in contemporary nursing literature as articles propose various philosophies of science for nursing from empiricism to constructivism (Newman, 1992; Norbeck, 1987; Riegel, Ornery, Calvillo, Elsayed, Shuler, & Siegel, 1995). In the pursuit of a philosophical foundation for nursing, the contribution of the revolutionary philosophy of science espoused by Thomas Kuhn (1970) deserves reflection. Kuhn's ability to articulate a more flexible and broader nature of theory construction facilitated the emergence of the human sciences, which includes nursing science.

The purpose of this article is to revisit the revolutionary philosophy of science illuminated by Kuhn (1970) and consider its influence on the development of theory in nursing. The generative philosophy of nursing developed by Riegel et al. (1995) is presented as an example of how Kuhn's belief system can give rise to philosophical adaptations in another discipline. The emergence of nursing theories with central ideas of holism, process-orientation, and self-transcendence from an earlier generation of theories reflecting the scientific medical model is also considered.

Significance of Kuhn's Writing

Prior to the appearance of Kuhn's book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in 1962, the notion of logical positivism predominated in scientific circles, particularly in the United States. Kuhn's (1970) philosophy of the history of science introduced the concept of paradigmatic revolutionary science. In so doing, Kuhn significantly influenced and subsequently displaced the positivistic interpretation of science as the basic understanding, this beginning the post-positivistic era.

Kuhn's (1970) philosophy of science represents a nonpositivist account of science and scientific change. The positivists with deductive methodologies limited researchable phenomena and disregarded the influence of values on science. For Kuhn, the dynamic of scientific growth involved the beliefs, practices and commitments of the scientific communities. Kuhn emphasized scientific knowledge as communal knowledge and addressed the role of socioloical analysis and value.

Twenty-five years later in the first of his postscript writings, Kuhn (1977) wrestles with defining and further clarifying one of the most controversial concepts of his philosophy, the paradigm. Critics vary in agreement about Kuhn's application of the paradigm concept, and many critics believe that because of Kuhn's vaugeness and contradictory stance on the concept in his postscript writings, the usefulness of his philosophy is limited (Gutting, 1980).

Undeniably, Kuhn introduced significant ideas and important contributions to the conception of science and is, therefore, acknowledged for recognizing dynamism in science and allowing values and beliefs a place in the scientific process.

Normal Science, Paradigms and Scientific Revolutions

Kuhn (1970) describes two types of science: normal science and crisis or revolutionary science. According to his paradigmatic view, normal science is an orderly, highly functional state firmly based upon the guiding principles acknowledged by a particular scientific community as scientific achievements. Normal science involves long periods of calm in which a community of scientists work to broaden and deepen the explanatory scope of a theoretical account based on a single set of fundamental beliefs (Gholson, 1985). It is intellectually isolated from influences outside the discipline, including the operating belief systems of other scientific disciplines and nonscientific (social) events and values. …

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