Summary Thomas Kuhn Structure of Scientific Revolutions

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Summary of Thomas Kuhn's

The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions:
Note: this essayhas been saved from Doxa and thus uses MLA style foot notes, the (00) at the end of statements is not a foot note number but a page number in Kuhn;s book. 


Before Summarizing Kuhn, a couple of basic things need explaining. Many people have trouble understanding what a "cultural construct" actually is. The best example I've heard is a very simple one. I once heard a professor giving a talk. She said that at a restaurant where she once ate, the rest room doors did nt say "Men" or "Women." They said nothing to indicate which was which, all they had was a picture of a crab and picture of a butterfly. Yet, no one ever went in the wrong door? How is it that everyone just automatically understood that crabs are masculine and butterfly are famine? There is no particular reason to think of crabs as masculine, or butterfly's as feminine, except that they each fit the general "feel" for what we think those words indicate; the crab is hard and tough and stubborn, the butterfly is soft and floats along in beauty. These trigger chains of cultural references that give us an indication without having to be told. That's because they trigger cultural references.

A Cultural Construct, then, is a reference based upon culturally appropriated symbols and signs which is nested in a complex set of ideas, and which is given completely through cultural assimilation, not through genetics or instinct. Cultural constructs are ideas about the the world, or about feelings, or about the way we look at things, that are given by culture and that change from culture to culture.

Science Not Cumulative Progress

Because the "cultural construtivist school" has said that science is a social or cultural construct (really the same thing) this has been understood to mean that "science is wrong," or "science doesn't work." He is not saying that Science doesn't work, but he is saying that science is not cumulative progress. The old image of the scientist faithfully stacking one fact upon another, facts patiently gathered from totally objective and therefore totally true observations, is old hat and has to be replaced. Sorry to break the news to the reductionist, but the concept of "progress" is, itself, a cultural construct. There is nothing in nature called "progress." That is a Western notion that comes to us through philosophy and is not strictly speaking, a scientific term. Scientists don't record in their experimental observations "I found the progress in my subject matter." Progress is social and cultural, and it is a relative notion. When we perceive we are making progress it is always at the expense of someone else's notion of progress.

Due to the nature of paradigm shifts, science does not stack up facts one upon another until x amount of progress is achieved. Science regularly wipes the slate clean and starts over on new paradigms and each new bust of "progress" has to be judged relative to many factors, such as it's social effects.

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Revolutionary development

Kuhn theorizes that scientific revolutions develop cognitively through the acquisition and refinement of paradigms (vi). Scientific disciplines, in their early stages, struggle to unify themselves around a single paradigm, such as the mechanical model of the universe. Once having achieved a single paradigm, however, the discipline orients its professional growth, theoretical study, and research priorities around the preservation of the paradigm. Contradictions to the paradigm (anomalies), are treated as puzzles to be solved, and are absorbed into the paradigm. It is only when the discipline fails to solve certain anomalies over time that a sense of crisis emerges, new theories are proposed, and a new paradigm is accepted. This development marks the nature of scientific "revolutions."

Kuhn developed this theory as an alternative to the former historiographical model, the major inadequacy of which was its tendency to view scientific development as a series of obstacles overcome by the accumulation of knowledge, bit by bit, in the face of error and superstition (2). Kuhn interjected an anthropological method into the history of science, but, in using the notion of a "paradigm" he drew upon Piaget's theory of cognitive childhood development (vi).Kuhn first constructs a description of "normal science," "research firmly based upon one or more past scientific achievements...that some particular scientific community acknowledges for a time as supplying the foundation for its further practice" (10).

The Nature of Paradigms

Scientific achievements constitute a paradigm when they meet two criteria:

1) they must be solid and foundational enough to draw researchers away from other models and other approaches;

2) they must be open-ended enough to allow for further problem solving to continue;

in this way, paradigms guide research priorities and dictate a set of shared rules within the scientific community (10). Kuhn likens the development of a paradigm to a judicial decision in common law, it is always open to further elaboration (23). The procedure of "normal science," then, amounts to what he calls a "mopping up operation," or attempts at fine tuning (24).

Meanwhile, the discipline itself grows up around the paradigm. Research priorities are set, new instruments are developed with the paradigm in mind, and the discipline incorporates or weeds out that which does not lend itself to the needs of the paradigm. This process entails what Kuhn calls "paradigm based research" (25), fact-gathering operations, experiments and observations, based upon the accepted facts of the paradigm, oriented around prediction according to the paradigm (27). This fact-oriented nature of paradigm based research constitutes the procedures of "normal" scientific activity. That is to say, after the establishment of a paradigm, "normal science" consists of the attempt o "mop-up" or solve puzzles, to make the anomalies fit the paradigm (35). Anomalies are not treated as "counter instances," that is, they do not count against the paradigm, but are treated as mere "puzzles," to be solved through further research. Only a solution within the paradigm is treated as "scientific," only that which is in accord with the paradigm is presented as a real scientific question worthy of research, all else is "metaphysics" (37).

In chapters VI through VIII Kuhn elaborates upon the assumptions of the community with regard to paradigm-based research. Chapter six deals with discoveries in particular. Discoveries are made all the time, but it is only when they help to elucidate the paradigm that they are regarded as significant. Paradigm shift results from discovery when anomalies cannot be incorporated into the paradigm, and further elaboration of fact is required. Until that time, a discovery is not a "scientific fact" (53). In other words, data contrary to the expected outcome is not, a priori, a discovery, a fact, or anything but a mishap, until it is either solved as a puzzle within the paradigm, or the paradigm itself is replaced with a new paradigm. In order to demonstrate this point, Kuhn details the historical problems involved in the "discovery" of oxygen.

Three different researchers claimed to have discovered oxygen at different points in time: Scheele, Priestly, Lavoisier. Each found some aspects of oxygen, but no one researcher can be said to have discovered oxygen on a given day (although all three were working in the 1770s) (54).The point Kuhn is making is that discovery is cumulative process of conceptual assimilation against the background of the paradigm (55). But, the actual paradigm shift is not cumulative, it does not just happen after a certain number of new findings pile up. Scientists do not simply record data, and the data does not simply happen to include new discoveries; discoveries are anomalies, and thus, they are only truly known as "discoveries" in retrospect, in relation to the new paradigm (56). Priestly and Lavoisier had basically the same results in discovering oxygen, only Lavoisier was able to fully see what had happened in producing oxygen. The major point is that paradigms constitute the scientific world, and the shift from one paradigm to another is a shift, for the researcher, from one world to another. Rigid acceptance and enforcement of the rules is essential, even to the exclusion of new theories. This is not necessarily norrow-minded professional "climate of opinion," but a necessary means of guiding research priorities. It is only against the background of the paradigm that anomaly is known.The more precise the paradigm, the greater the ability to find anomaly, and fewer are the distractions for researchers (65).


Chapters VII and VIII are pivotal chapters because they set up the notion of crisis and allow Kuhn to prepare to talk about revolutions in science. It is through crisis that new paradigms emerge, when old paradigms fail to solve the growing anomalies. At this point, even though Kuhn does not state it in this manner, one can see a developmental process, or stages of cognitive formation; from discovery, to theory, to paradigms (67). Anomalies don't just pile up until one day a new paradigm emerges, they are incorporated into the existing paradigm, or dismissed as an unscientific, but over time, a sense of crisis emerges when the paradigm fails consistently to solve a "puzzle," or a type of problem. Eventually, new theories emerge from a sense of crisis and a new paradigm is substituted for the old. a classic example is astronomy. The Ptolemaic system lasted for a long time without crisis because it was reasonable, and it satisfied astronomers. Over time, however, problems solved in one area were often found to show up in another, until it was observed that the complexity of the system was growing much faster than its ability to accurately disclose information about the heavens. Eventually, the Copernican system was offered in its place (68-69).

Dilemma in Nature of Science

There is a dilemma in the nature of science itself. On the one hand, counter-enstances cannot be seen as counting against the paradigm, because they are always turning up, and the paradigm is essential as the basis for shared rules of the community of science. On the other hand, a paradigm without anomalies (counter-enstances) fails to produce research questions and ceases to be an important area of scientific work (79). There is, therefore, a tension between anomaly and paradigm, which must be preserved. "Tension" may be a good description because counter-enstances must arise, but they cannot count against the paradigm, not until a new paradigm is ready to replace the old one. This is a crucial concept because it constitutes the nature of a scientific revolution (90).

Scientific Revolutions: Paradigm Shifts

In chapters IX and X Kuhn discusses scientific revolutions. Kuhn compares scientific revolutions to political revolutions in two important ways:
1) both grow out of a sense of crisis,

and galvanize themselves when segments of the community come to feel that existing institutions no longer function to resolve the problems which they are expected to solve;

2) revolutions "aim to change institutions in ways that the institutions themselves prohibit" (93).

The choice between paradigms is a choice between "incompatible modes of community life" (94). The clash of paradigms entails a circular debate, in which one must enter the inner logic of the new paradigm in order to understand the nature of it, but no reason can be given from outside the paradigm why the opponent should enter the circle. Each paradigm is used to argue in its own defense (94). In order to settle a paradigm debate, one must go outside the normal course of science. Kuhn argues that paradigm debates are like debates about values, they can only be settled through a system of value, not of fact (110). In the case of science, the value would be that which is placed upon answers to certain questions, those which demand new paradigms, those that are solved by the old.

Moreover, paradigms are even more fundamental than values because they constitute the world of our understanding. A paradigm shift is a world view shift (111).In Chapter XI Kuhn takes up a discussion of textbooks. Scientific textbooks are written from the perspective of the current paradigm and orient the student to an interpretation of the world and the discipline based upon the current paradigm. "More than any other single aspect of science, that pedagogic form has determined our image of the nature of science..." (143). Kuhn calls this chapter "the invisibility of revolutions." After the revolution, the "new" paradigm is fact, the revolution goes away and its findings become "normal science."In Chapter XII, Kuhn takes up his famous debate with Karl Popper over the nature of scientific verification. Popper believed that there could only be falsification, no phenomenon could be positively verified.

To take up this philosophical position, and then to try and justify it through appeal to its "scientific" nature, is to misunderstand the nature of science itself. Science is not a totally objective endeavor capable of yielding 100% truth Science is a human endeavor and, thus, is limited to human cultural constructs. One of the major culturally constructed positions of science is the notion of the paradigm shift. Science works according to paradigms. One model, the paradigm, explains the nature of the world in a given area. An example of how paradigms have changed is that of the chemical vs. the mechanical model. In the 15th and 16th centuries some thinkers thought that the world worked by chemical correspondence, the laws of alchemy. This notion gave way to the view of the universe as a big machine, and that has been transformed into the view that the universe is like a giant organism. At each stage along the way, the paradigm shifts and the facts of the old paradigm become anomalies under the new. Conversely, observations which were made before the shift which were viewed as merely anomalous (observations which contradict the paradigm) become "facts" under the new. Perhaps the major historian of scientific thought today is Thomas S. Kuhn who worked out the theory of paradigm shifts in TheStructure of Scientific Revolutions [University of Chicago Press, 1962].

1) Paradigm not chosen based upon factual data

Kuhn argues that anomalies are normally absorbed into the paradigm and explained way as anomalous. Hence, when supernatural effects happen, and if they cannot be explained by scientific means they are thought of as "unexplained." Scientists do not, and cannot declare them as "miraculous" just because they cannot find a naturalistic explanation. For this reason, paradigm shifts are not the result of passionless rational argument and are not predicated upon "fact" nor can they be. Rather, they are the result of a change in sociological factors. This is so because the system which makes one set of data "facts" as opposed to "unexplained anomalies" is the thing under dispute.

2) Science not cumulative progress

A sense of urgency builds until the paradigm shifts as the old paradigm collapses under the weight of so many anomalies. He uses the analogy of political revolution precisely because of its sense of urgency and disorder. The notion of a urgent need to change, a great struggle fought on other than rational basis is the point of the whole thing. The major conceptual changes which happen in science are not the result of cumulative progress, and are not brought about through disinterested and rational discussion of the facts, and they are not predicated upon "scientific proofs." Granted all of these things are involved, but all they can function as is a regulator concept for the debate. The real change comes through a shift in perception, and thus, it scientific knowledge is not a cumulative endeavor.Thomas S. Kuhn(d. 1995)Kuhn himself tells us:

"scientific revolutions are here taken to be those non-cumulative developmental episodes replaced in whole or in part by a new one..." (Thomas kuhn The Structure of scientific Revolutions, 92). "The choice [between paradigms] is not and cannot be determined merely by the evaluative procedures characteristic of normal science, for these depend in part upon a particular paradigm, and that paradigm is at issue. When paradigms enter as they must into a debate about paradigm choice, their role is necessarily circular. Each group uses it's own paradigm to argue in that paradigm's defense...the status of the circular argument is only that of persuasion. It cannot be made logically or even probabilistically compelling for those who refuse to step into the circle." The Structure of Scientific Revolutions(94)In section X we shall discover how closely the view of science as cumulating is entangled with a dominate epistemology that takes knowledge to be a construction placed directly upon raw sense data by the mind. And in section XI we shall examine the strong support provided to the same historiographic scheme by the techniques of effective science pedagogy. Nevertheless, despite the immense plausibility of that ideal image, there is increasing reason to wonder whether it can possibly be an image of science. After the pre-paradgim period the assimilation of all new theories and of almost all new sorts of phenomena has demanded the destruction of a prior paradigm and a consequent conflict between cometing schools of scientific thought. Cumulative anticipation of unanticipated novelties proves to be an almost nonexistent exception to the rule of scientific development.The man who takes historic fact seriously must suspect that science does not tend toward the ideal that our image of its cumulativeness has suggested. Perhaps it is another sort of enterprise.

Kuhn-- Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 96. Kun was not a Christian. He represents the more rational end of a movement in academia, in some cases very much opposed to Christianity, which was big in the '80s and '90s: Postmodern social constructivism.The cultural constructivists realized that science is just another human endeavor, and as such it is not the essence of "objective fact." Rather, it is assigned a cultural role in our agreed upon definitions of fact.There are precursors to Kuhn among the great 20th century historians of science, who, while they did not say exactly the same thing, and while they did not develop a theory of change of scientific revolutions along the lines of developmental psychology, did observe that science is a social movement, that it develops along certain hap hazard lines which involve development of ideas from detailed work and the inability of former paradigms (though they did not use the term) to withstand repeated contradiction.These are contemporaries. Westfall is still writting as far as I know, and was a contemporary of Kuhn's (both began careers in 50s or early 60s). Collingwood and older contemporary and wrote in the 40's.

Two such thinkers were, R.G. Collingwood: The Idea of Nature. London, NY: Oxford, 1947, and Richard Westfall. The Construction of Modern Science, (Cambridge University Press 1971)Collingwood looks at major eras of scientific advancement beginning with the Greeks.He begins with a description of relation of developments between philosophy and Science which sounds a lot like Khun.

(A.) Paradigm shift.

(B). Three periods when idea of nature gained focuss:

(1) Greeks.

(2) Renaissance

(3) Early modern.

That is where the p. shift comes in, though he doesn't use the phrase. But he says it is not that a detailed and abstract view of nature is worked out as a whole then people take it and go out to do science with it (intro p. 1) nor is it that a period of thought is followed by a period of investigation. But,

"in natural science, as in economics, or morals, or law, people being with details. They begin by taking individual problems as they arise. Only when this detail has accumulated to a considerable amount do they reflect upon the work they have been doing and discover they have been doing it in amethodical way, according to principles of which hither to they have not been conscious...the detailed work seldom goes on for any length of time without reflection intervening. This reflection ...upon the detailed work: for when people become conscious of the principles upon which they have been thinking or acting they become conscious of something which in these thoughts and actions they have trying, though unconciously to do--namely to work out in detail the logical implications of those principles. To strange minds this new consciousness gives a new strength namely new firmness in their approach to the detailed problems."

Richard Westfall, The Construction of Modern Science. (Cambridge University Press 1971).Westfall examines the two major themes which dominated scientific revolution of 17th century. The Platonic-Paithagorian tradition, emphasizing nature and as geometry, cosmos constructed by mathematics, and the Mechanical and Philosophical model: nature as huge machine, sought hidden mechanism to find order. These two major forces represent paradigms essentially and the struggle between these schools resolved itself in argument and in social spheres. The Scientific revolution was social phenomenon. Westfall believes ideas following own internal logic was central element in foundation of modern science. This is essentially one example of a social construct reading of early modern science.

Obvious Objection

The obvious objection that most people make is going to be that scientific facts work. Things fall down instead of up, if you combine an acid with a base you get a certain relation, and mater interacts with mater regardless of what we think out it in our culture. All of these points are very true. But that's not really the point. Kuhn and most of the social constructivists are not disputing the "facts" of science There is an extreme school called the "hard project" that tries to put up epistemological road blocks to all scientific facts, but that's not the point here. The point is the big picture. The major assumptions and biases we make about the world based upon the way we interpret and understand scientific fact; and the use made of that by those who use science to hide their ideological agendas. Based upon cultural assumptions and biases about the reading of scientific fact we assume that there is nothing beyond the material realm, that all is explained by science and there is no need for God. But that is a paradigm and could easily change with changing social situations. The major point of the argument is: there is no scientific basis for concluding that there is no God. 

The Social Constructivist Movement:

Evidence of new paradigm shift

Taken together with Kuhn, on face value, these two works form the basis for a cultural analysis of scientific fact-making. Kuhn forms the general theoretical landscape which Shapin and Schaffer help to fill out in greater detail. Neither of these works claims a disruption of the stability found in historical narrative, much less a deconstruction of truth or logic as stable categories. Although, as will be seen, Lukes argues that Kuhn comes dangerously close to doing so (and, one might argue, so do Shapin and Schaffer). Both works require an historical understanding of their subject matter. Both lay bare the process of making scientific fact; it is not a matter of simply discovering how things work, but of manipulating (and being manipulated by) a cultural understanding of how things work. Yet, without a historical understanding, there is no sense to either work. Both are dependent upon conventional understandings of chronology, and upon conventional notions of historical event such that one can say "this is what happened, and this is why." Kuhn's examples wouldn't make sense without the notion that three different people worked on the problem of oxygen throughout the 1770s, and after that time, one of them actually discovered something. Nor would Shapin and Schaffer's notions make sense if one examined the events in textual isolation, with no regard for historical context or event. What would be the point of saying that Hobbes was written out of the history of natural philosophy, if the text is all that mattered? If the text itself is history, the history of natural philosophy never included Hobbes.On the face of it, the claim that chronology is meaningless seems like an absurd idea, yet, there are those within the postmodern and social constructivist camps who make this claim: i.e. Derrida, Baudrillard, Benhabib, and to some extent Foucault (Rosenau, 63).
Moreover, it is more common for the constructivist position in general to find the content of scientific discovery challenged, and to find categories of truth and logic ascribed purely to social agents and cultural understanding rather than any sort of stable, universal categories. "Criteria of truth, or logic, or both, arise out of different contexts and are themselves variable...[they are] relative to particular groups, cultures, communities" (Lukes, 231). "In this view," [postmodern social constructivism] "the whole point of the sociology of scientific knowledge is that there is no such thing as an accurate representation of an external and objective reality" (Fuchs, 11). "Nor do these [skeptical] postmodernists view history as periods of time that unfold with regularity, that can be isolated, abstracted, represented, described in terms of essential characteristics...they reject history as reasoned analysis focused upon the general or the particular because both assume 'reality,' `identity,' and `truth.'" (Rosenau, 63).

Since about 1996 the fortures of Postmodernism have fallen. Almost as soon as Kuhn died major dennounciations of and attacks upon his work began. He was at the summit of fame and fortune int he last two decades of his life, he is now largely forgotten and rejected. Part of this is due to the guilt by association from lumping him in with the more radical Postmodernists. Once the stigma of being "no longer in fashion" wears off, I believe that he will be resurrected and will come to be seen as a great thinker. His theories need revising and re-work, but I'm convienced they hold the key to the best understanding of the natrue of science.

What Does This Tell Us?

What Kuhn tells us that is of crucial importance for understanding the relation between science and religious belief, is that science is not all knowing. It is not a replacement for religion, it is not an objective means of probing to the depths of the meaning of life or of being human.It is a human activity, it has a relation to social paradigms and is socially constructed. As such it is not a "truth detector." We can discover the workings of the physical world, and that can, at times, correct our misimpressions about the nature of God, but it cannot tell us that God does or does not exist, and it cannot take the place of God.