The Perihelion Effect

Thomas S. Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions

SYNOPSIS: The book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” by Thomas S. Kuhn is a landmark in intellectual history that challenges the traditional view of the history of science. Kuhn critiques the dominant “logical empiricist approach” and argues that scientific advances cannot be viewed as isolated events, but as movements within what he defines as a paradigm. A paradigm, according to Kuhn, is a work or theory that defines and legitimizes problems and methods of a study field for future generations of practitioners. The majority of science, referred to as “Normal Science” by Kuhn, is focused on problem resolution within the paradigm. Kuhn argues that science advances in dramatic leaps due to a crisis of the prevailing paradigm, where anomalies in the existing framework of belief lead to the necessity for paradigm shift and a scientific revolution. This book provides a new and compelling view of the sciences, technology, culture, and history that link them.

Science historians have constantly quoted this book in their writings. In my classes, many of my professors used all of its clever phraseology. But I had this fantasy that when I sat down to read it, it would be one of those “What did I read for the previous hour and a half? -long pause-I can’t take it any longer! – faux philosophical- befuddled- overly thick – technical- “must do this for an assignment”- books. “A landmark in intellectual history,” according to the book’s promotional copy on the cover. “Sure,” I said to myself “Every pretentious book is a ‘landmark’. Finally, it was getting close to the deadline for this article, and I still hadn’t read it. “Well, let’s see about this ‘landmark,'” I thought to myself as I picked it up for the first time. I opened it and read the first paragraph quickly, thinking, “Not as rough as I anticipated.” Something strange started to happen. I read and read and read till my eyes watered and my head spun. The problem was that I couldn’t stop myself.

It was enlightening to read Thomas S. Kuhn’s work. Kuhn’s excellent and perceptive work shows the fundamental foundations of the challenge of creating a “history of science” as much more than a mere accumulation of facts. Whereas other publications on the issue have made their argument solely on abstract historicism or a factual hodgepodge of dates, Kuhn finds the fine balance of theory and fact. It would be impossible to categorize the work along typical academic lines. Because The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is more than just a historian’s, philosopher’s, or scientist’s book. Kuhn’s work is much more than that, because it is capable of bringing these disparate academic endeavors together in a coherent and compelling manner. Kuhn develops an altogether new view of the sciences, technology, culture, and history that link them. Kuhn begins his quest by criticizing the dominant “logical empiricist approach” of science history. He dismisses the concept of “laws” that govern history, claiming that such a strict concept is insufficient for a complete explanation. Kuhn’s appeal for revision is supported by the simple challenge of dating a scientific discovery. Was Einstein’s theory of relativity “created” when he authored his first theoretical articles on the subject or after he completed his final revision? Kuhn contends that such scientific advances cannot be viewed as isolated events, but rather as movements within what he defines as a paradigm.

The following chapters of Kuhn’s book show why the historical paradigm concept is superior to other traditional perspectives of scientific progress. As defined by Kuhn, a paradigm is a work or theory that “serves for a time to define and legitimize problems and methods of a study field for future generations of practitioners.” These rare publications, such as Aristotle’s Physica or Ptolemy’s Almagest, are sufficiently novel to garner a devoted following from other, frequently opposing, perspectives or beliefs. The paradigm provides solutions while leaving other details and problems available for group members to handle within its context. According to Kuhn, the majority of science is problem resolution. This is referred to as “Normal Science” by Kuhn. The fact that members of a scientific community do “Normal Science” activities such as smoothing off rusty edges of theory and refining that rough jewel indicates a paradigm’s maturity. In the absence of a fundamental paradigm, all observations within a specific discipline remain a random collection of facts with no essential link. As a result, the paradigm influences how these facts are handled and perceived by the entire scientific community. Pre-paradigm facts may be as accurate as post-paradigm facts, but they are not organized in any meaningful way. As a result, some of these data appear to be so dispersed that they are too complex to be integrated into any single hypothesis at all. Thus, Kuhn sees the paradigm as the driving force behind research and scientific progress, rather than the phenomena or fact-gathering activity itself. In his contrast between the procedures of regular science and paradigm building science, Kuhn has discovered something quite significant.

The majority of people who work in science work in conventional science. There are, by definition, relatively few people who can coalesce all of the standard scientific facts and lingering difficulties into a comprehensive paradigm. Is this to say that most scientists aren’t particularly bright, or that they are simply competent tradesmen at best? According to Kuhn, this paradigm-based theory does not lower the level of genius of the average scientist. Some of these people are actually pretty superior. They have a talent for the “problem solving” activity that normal science necessitates. There is no guarantee that the solution to any conventional science topic will be important or even intriguing, much like a puzzle. Rather, it is the solution to the puzzle that demonstrates the scientist’s intelligence. In fact, we may have even more regard for a scientist who has solved a very boring but complex paradigm problem. Rather than demoting the scientist, Kuhn’s research should give us new insight into the mind and character of such ordinary scientists. How else is the paradigm established if not through the typical scientific activity of gathering simple (or not so simple) facts? According to Kuhn, science only advances in dramatic leaps due to a crisis of the prevailing paradigm. Normal science, according to Kuhninan, proceeds in a peaceful obedience to the paradigm until it generates a fact or discovers a phenomenon that does not fit within the constraints of the existing framework of belief. Such scientific “anomalies” defy the expectations of the average scientist.

The emergence of such anomalies in multiple locations at around the same time indicates the necessity for paradigm shift and the impending revolution. The model of societal repercussions after a scientific revolution is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Kuhnian theory of science and scientific progress. That social result is a shift in world vision, and Kuhn maintains that such revolutions entail such re-orientations. But how far does such a modification go into non-scientific territory? Kuhn wonders, “Do we truly see different things when we gaze at objects (in the aftermath of the scientific revolution)?” Such answers, according to Kuhn, are both urgent and important. In reality, the final conclusion of this point is a direct outcome of his complete dedication to the concept of paradigm. According to Kuhn, the structure of the paradigm itself obscures as much reality as it reveals. When the idea of oxygen was finally developed, it ruled out many alternative approaches and explanations of events. Thus, Kuhn believes that with such theory standardization, the world view given the actual phenomena, all facts and observations fall inside the paradigm’s constraints. Kuhn is also eager to discuss the concept of scientific progress. The Kuhnian concept of progress is deserving of its own essay. According to Kuhn, scientific progress is defined as the ability to explain phenomena in more and greater depth. If theory can be altered to explain such facts, and if a society accepts such explanations as changes to its existing world view, there is no other option than to perceive this as progress. Kuhn, on the other hand, does not consider science’s “objective” as being to comprehend nature in its whole. Such an expectation contradicts the entire paradigm ideal. As previously said, science is merely the development of an explanation. It is not the reason. Kuhn considers such narrow-minded evolutionary theory to be naïve. Science cannot forecast the direction of its findings, nor can it predict its ultimate shape. Kuhn appears to believe that there is no unique solution to nature. Furthermore, no formulation is “better” than another, nor is any paradigm in and of itself superior. Such explanations, on the other hand, must be viewed in the perspective of appropriately accounting for the phenomenon as it is currently understood. Kuhn’s culturally relative viewpoint appears to be a good one, because it both retains a notion of progress (which he says western society tries to preserve) and provides respectability to prior views about science and the cosmos that it attempts to explain.

So here I am, at the end. “Fine, I was wrong, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions wasn’t completely terrible,” I think to myself now. However, the going was difficult. But if you stick with the book for a long, you’ll see Kuhn’s style and wit. Wit? Yes, I thought the book was excellent in its ability to be fully philosophical in the spirit of the Logical Positivists while avoiding their imposing tone of self-proclaimed brilliance. Kuhn’s numerous historical examples are directed at the uninitiated Historian of Science, which I appreciate. I guess now that I’ve finally read it, I can join the ranks of the privileged name droppers. However, rather than alienating the would-be-scholar with pompous references to the book’s importance, I believe I will inform him that the book is actually worth reading. To be honest, I believe I can say at least that. 

Joseph Schuster
Vassar College, 1986

Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, p.7 ibid., p.10 ibid., p.15 ibid., p.16 ibid., p.36 ibid., p.120 ibid., p. 171 ibid.





Joseph Schuster

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