Thomas Kuhn's View of Science

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  • Topic: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, History of science, Paradigm shift
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  • Published : April 13, 2013
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Thomas Kuhn’s View of Science
Peter Roberts

Thomas Kuhn was one of the most influential philosophers of science of the 20st century. Beginning his academic career in physics, he developed an interest in the history of science, which eventually saw him turn to the philosophy of science. His ideas were influenced strongly by the time he spent studying the works of historical scientists, such as Aristotle and Copernicus, in their original contexts. Kuhn were published his seminal work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962. Kuhn describes the work of scientists in a scientific field as being conducted under the banner of a ‘paradigm’, which he defined as “universally recognized scientific achievements that for a time provide model problems and solutions to a community of practitioners” 1 . Citing numerous historical examples, Kuhn explained science as working in two modes, which he termed normal science and revolutionary science. Normal science, said Kuhn, was the usual work of scientists, in solving puzzles and developing the paradigm under which they work. Normal science continues under the rules and methods dictated by the paradigm until a build up of anomalous observations or experimental results threaten to undermine the integrity of very science that introduced them. This state of crisis may result in the second mode of science, revolutionary science. Here, the prevailing paradigm is broken down and replaced by a totally new framework for conducting science, giving birth to a new paradigm. As this new paradigm gains acceptance among the scientific community, scientists undergo what Kuhn termed ‘gestalt switches’ and see the world in a completely new way. The scientist can be said to work in a completely different world than before, in such a way that successive paradigms cannot be qualitatively compared in any meaningful sense. They are said to be incommensurable. Kuhn’s ideas stood in stark contrast with those of Karl Popper, whose own philosophy of science centered not on allegiance to a scientific framework, but rather on attempts to refute the theories produced by science. Although Kuhn’s work has received criticism, his ideas marked a major turning point in the philosophy of science, and continue to be widely regarded as 1

amongst the most influential works of the last century.

Kuhn’s philosophy of science began to develop as he read the works of Aristotle, as part of an investigation into the development of the science of mechanics 2 . When read with the impression of a linear, ever progressing, and cumulative view of the development science, in Kuhn’s words, “Aristotle appeared not only ignorant of mechanics, but a dreadfully bad scientist as well” 3 . Kuhn began to suspect, considering Aristotle’s success in observing and describing many other phenomena, that the failure was not on Aristotle’s part to describe, but on the present day reader’s part to understand the description. Kuhn noted that Newton referred to motion as a state that indispensable particles of matter could attain. To Aristotle, however, matter was merely a substrate upon which certain qualities (for example, heat, texture, or colour) were imbued, and when he referred to motion, he was describing a change in these qualities. Motion of a falling rock was thus analogous to a seed growing into a tree or a sick person healthy, both believed to be the natural qualities that those bodies would attain, given time. The natural state of a falling rock, and other problems tackled by the Aristotelian scientist, were solved within this framework of understanding. Kuhn realised that Aristotle did not perform bad science, or even good science that was extended by Galileo and Newton, but science within a completely different ‘world’ than that of Newton. Kuhn turned his attention to understanding the role that a shared framework of understanding had on scientists.

Developing his ideas, Kuhn labeled this shared framework as a ‘paradigm’. Kuhn...
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