Thomas Samuel Kuhn

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Thomas Samuel Kuhn (July 18, 1922 – June 17, 1996) was an American historian and philosopher of science who wrote extensively on the history of science and developed several important notions and innovations in the philosophy of science. More than a million copies of his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, were printed, and it became the most studied and discussed text in philosophy of science in the second half of the twentieth century. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions had far reaching impacts on diverse fields of study beyond the philosophy of science, particularly on social sciences. Key concepts Kuhn presented in this work, such as "paradigm" and "incommensurability," became popular beyond academics.


Kuhn was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, to Samuel L. Kuhn, an industrial engineer, and his wife Minette Stroock Kuhn. The family was Jewish on both sides, although they were non-practicing. His father had been trained as a hydraulic engineer and had gone to Harvard. When he was six months old, the family moved to New York City, and the young Kuhn attended progressive schools there, and later in the upstate New York area.

Kuhn entered Harvard University in 1940 and obtained his bachelor's degree in physics after three years in 1943, his master's in 1946 and Ph.D. in 1949. While there, primarily because of his editorship of the Harvard Crimson, he came to the attention of then Harvard president James Bryant Conant, and eventually gained Conant's sponsorship for becoming a Harvard Fellow. Conant would also be extremely influential in Kuhn’s career, encouraging him to write the book that would become The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (first ed. published in 1962).

After leaving Harvard, Kuhn taught at the University of California at Berkeley in both the philosophy and the history departments, being named Professor of the History of Science in 1961. In 1964, he joined Princeton University as the M. Taylor Pyne Professor of Philosophy and History of Science. In 1979, he joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as the Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Philosophy, remaining there until 1991.

Kuhn had entered Harvard as a physics major, intending to study theoretical physics. He did go on to get his degrees in physics. But as an undergraduate he took a course in philosophy and, although this was completely new to him, he was fascinated with it. He especially took to Kant. Later he would say that his own position was Kantian, but with movable categories.

Sometime around 1947 Kuhn began teaching what had before been Conant’s course, “Understanding Science.” This course could be thought of as an elementary course in the history and philosophy of science. This led Kuhn to begin focusing on the history of science. He also had his “Eureka moment”—maybe better called an “Aristotle moment”—in the summer of 1947. As a 1991 article in Scientific American put it, Kuhn “was working toward his doctorate in physics at Harvard …when he was asked to teach some science to undergraduate humanities majors. Searching for a simple case history that could illuminate the roots of Newtonian mechanics, Kuhn opened Aristotle's Physics and was astonished at how ‘wrong’ it was [when understood in Newtonian terms]… Kuhn was pondering this mystery, staring out of the window of his dormitory room… when suddenly Aristotle ‘made sense.’”

Concerning what he found in Aristotle, Kuhn wrote, “How could [Aristotle’s] characteristic talents have deserted his so systematically when he turned to the study of motion and mechanics? Equally, if his talents had so deserted him, why had his writings in physics been taken so seriously for so many centuries after his death? Those questions troubled me. I could easily believe that Aristotle had stumbled, but not that, on entering physics, he had totally collapsed. Might not the fault be mine, rather than Aristotle’s, I asked myself. Perhaps his words had not always meant to him and his contemporaries quite what they meant to me and mine” (The Road Since Structure, 16).

Kuhn reported that, in his window-gazing, “Suddenly the fragments in my head sorted themselves out in a new way, and fell into place together.” As the Scientific American article put it, “Kuhn … realized that Aristotle's views of such basic concepts as motion and matter were totally unlike Newton's… Understood on its own terms, Aristotle's Physics ‘wasn't just bad Newton,’ Kuhn says; it was just different.” This insight would go on to underlie most of his subsequent work in history and philosophy of science.

Kuhn was named a Guggenheim Fellow in 1954, and in 1982 was awarded the George Sarton Medal in the History of Science. He was also awarded numerous honorary doctorates.

Kuhn suffered cancer of the bronchial tubes for the last two years of his life and died Monday, June 17, 1996. He was survived by his wife Jehane R. Kuhn, his ex-wife Kathryn Muhs Kuhn, and their three children, Sarah, Elizabeth, and Nathaniel.

The Copernican Revolution (1957)

In his lifetime, Kuhn published more than a hundred papers and reviews, as well as five books (the fifth published posthumously). His first book—he had already published a few papers and reviews in various journals—was The Copernican Revolution: Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought (Harvard University Press, 1957), with a forward by Conant. This book began out of lectures he had given to the students at Harvard, and was completed after he went to Berkeley. It may be seen as a prolegomena to his later and most important, and far more influential, book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in that in Copernican Revolution Kuhn introduced a number of the points that would be further developed in the later book.

Kuhn emphasized that the Copernican Revolution “event was plural. Its core was a transformation of mathematical astronomy, but it embraced conceptual changes in cosmology, physics, philosophy, and religion as well.” The Copernican revolution, Kuhn clamed, shows “how and with what effect the concepts of many different fields are woven into a single fabric of thought.” And “…filiations between distinct fields of thought appear in the period after the publication of Copernicus’ work. …[This work] could only be assimilated by men able to create a new physics, a new conception of space, and a new idea of man’s relation to God. …Specialized accounts [of the Copernican Revolution] are inhibited both by aim and method from examining the nature of these ties and their effects upon the growth of human knowledge.”

Kuhn claimed that this effort to show the Copernican Revolution’s plurality is “probably the book’s most important novelty.” But also it is novel in that it “repeatedly violates the institutional boundaries which separate the audience for ‘science’ from the audience for ‘history’ or ‘philosophy.’ Occasionally it may seem to be two books, one dealing with science, the other with intellectual history.”

The seven chapters of Copernican Revolution deal with what Kuhn called “The Ancient Two-Sphere Universe,” “The Problem of the Planets [in Ptolemaic cosmology],” “The Two-Sphere Universe in Aristotelian Thought,” “Recasting the Tradition: Aristotle to Copernicus,” “Copernicus’ Innovation,” “The Assimilation of Copernican Astronomy,” and “The New Universe” as it came to be understood after the revolution in thinking.

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962)

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (first ed. 1962), Kuhn claimed that science does not evolve gradually toward truth, but instead undergoes periodic revolutions which he called "paradigm shifts." Ironically, this book was originally printed as a volume in the International Encyclopedia for Unified Science, which was conceived and published by the Vienna circle—the logical positivists. It is ironic because Kuhn seemed to be an arch anti-positivist (although that claim about him came to be doubted in the 1990s). The enormous impact of Kuhn's work can be measured by the revolution it brought about even in the vocabulary of the history and philosophy of science. Besides “paradigm” and “paradigm shifts,” Kuhn coined the term "normal science" to refer to the relatively routine, day-to-day work of scientists working within a paradigm, and was largely responsible for the use of the term “scientific revolutions” in the plural, taking place at different periods of time and in different disciplines, as opposed to a single "Scientific Revolution" in the late Renaissance.

Kuhn began this book by declaring that there should be a role for history in theory of science, and that this can produce a “decisive transformation in the image of science by which we are now possessed.” Moreover, the textbooks used to teach the next generation of scientists, offer “a concept of science … no more likely to fit the enterprise that produced them than an image of a national culture drawn from a tourist brochure or a language text” (p. 1). He also declared that “methodological directives” are insufficient “to dictate a unique substantive conclusion to many sorts of scientific questions” (3).

Next, Kuhn introduced his notion of “normal science” and said that it “means 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” (10). These achievements can be called “paradigms,” a term much used by Kuhn and a central point of Kuhn’s theory—for better or worse. Paradigms, according to Kuhn, are essential to science. “In the absence of a paradigm or some candidate for paradigm, all the facts that could possibly pertain to the development of a given science are likely to seem equally relevant” (15). Moreover, “no natural history can be interpreted in the absence of at least some implicit body of intertwined theoretical and methodological belief that permits selection, evaluation, and criticism” (16-17). “Paradigms gain their status because they are more successful than their competitors in solving a few problems that the group of practitioners has come to recognize as acute.” Normal science, then, is a puzzle-solving activity consisting of mopping-up activities, guided by the reigning paradigm. “Rules derive from paradigms, but paradigms can guide science even in the absence of rules” (42). “Normal research, which is cumulative, owes its success to the ability of scientists regularly to select problems that can be solved with conceptual and instrumental techniques close to those already in existence" (96).

Over time, however, new and unsuspected phenomena—anomalies—are uncovered by scientific research, things that will not fit into the reigning paradigm. When a sufficient failure of normal science to solve the emerging anomalies occurs, a crises results, and this eventually leads to the emergence of a new scientific theory, a revolution. A reorientation occurs that breaks with one tradition and introduces a new one. Kuhn stated that the new paradigm is incompatible and incommensurable with the old one. Such “scientific revolutions are … non-cumulative developmental episodes in which an older paradigm is replaced in whole or in part by an incompatible new one” (92). This crisis and its accompanying revolution lead to a division of camps and polarization within the science, with one camp striving to hold onto and defend the old paradigm or institutional constellation, while the other upholds and seeks to have the new one replace the old one. “That difference [between competing paradigms] could not occur if the two were logically compatible. In the process of being assimilated, the second must displace the first” (97). Moreover, proponents of the two cannot really speak with each other, for “To the extent … that two scientific schools disagree about what is a problem and what is a solution, they will inevitably talk through each other when debating the relative merits of their respective paradigms” (109). Scientific revolutions amount to changes of world view.

Scientific revolutions, Kuhn claied, tend to be invisible because they “have customarily been viewed not as revolutions but as additions to scientific knowledge” (136). This is primarily because of textbooks, which “address themselves to an already articulated body of problems, data, and theory, most often to the particular set of paradigms to which the scientific community is committed at the time they are written.” Textbooks, popularizations, and philosophy of science all “record the stable outcome of past revolutions” and are “systematically misleading” (137). “Textbooks … are produced only in the aftermath of a scientific revolution. They are the bases for a new tradition of normal science” (144). Moreover, “depreciation of historical fact is deeply, and probably functionally, ingrained in the ideology of the scientific profession” (138).

Although it may superficially resemble or mimic them, neither verification, as claimed by the positivists, nor falsification, as propounded by Popper, are the methods by which theory change actually occurs. Instead, Kuhn claimed, something resembling religious conversion happens. A new paradigm first needs a few supporters—usually younger people who are not committed or beholden to the older one. “Probably the single most prevalent claim advanced by the proponents of a new paradigm is that they can solve the problems that have led the old one to a crisis” (153). The main issue in circumstances of competing paradigms is “which paradigm will in the future guide research on problems many of which neither competitor can yet claim to resolve completely (157). Because of that “a decision is called for” (157) and “in the circumstances that decision must be based less on past achievement than future promise” (157-158). But Kuhn denied that “new paradigms triumph ultimately through some mystical aesthetic” (158).

The remaining central question for growth of scientific knowledge is, Kuhn acknowledged, “Why should the enterprise [he sketches in his theory] … move steadily ahead in ways that, say, art, political theory, or philosophy does not” (160). He suggested that the answer is partly semantic because, “To a very great extent the term ‘science’ is reserved for fields that do progress in obvious ways.” This is shown "in the recurrent debates about whether one or another of the contemporary social sciences is really a science” (160). Kuhn declared that “we tend to see as science any field in which progress is marked” (162). “It is only during periods of normal science that progress seems both obvious and assured” (163). But, he asked, “Why should progress also be the apparently universal concomitant of scientific revolutions?” He answered that “Revolutions close with a total victory for one of the opposing camps. Will that group ever say that the result of its victory has been something less than progress? That would be rather like admitting that they had been wrong and their opponents right” (166). “The very existence of science,” he wrote, “depends upon vesting the power to choose between paradigms in the members of a special kind of community” (167). And, “a group of this sort must see a paradigm change as progress” (169). But Kuhn denied that a paradigm change of the kind he describes leads toward the truth. “We may … have to relinquish the notion, explicit or implicit, that changes in paradigms carry scientists and those who learn from them closer to the truth” (170). But this is no great loss because, he asked, “Does it really help to imagine that there is some one full, objective, true account of nature and that the proper measure of scientific achievement is the extent to which it brings us closer to that ultimate goal? If we can learn to substitute evolution-from-what-we-do-know for evolution-toward-what-we-wish-to-know, a number of very vexing problems may vanish in the process” (171). Moreover, “the entire process may have occurred, as we now suppose biological evolution did, without benefit of a set goal, a permanent fixed scientific truth, of which each stage in the development of scientific knowledge is a better example” (172-173).

Criticism of Kuhn

Many people responded to Kuhn’s work, and the responses ranged from extremely favorable to highly critical. Dudley Shapere gave a harshly critical review of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in Philosophical Review 73 (1964). W.V.O. Quine wrote that Kuhn's work contributed to a wave of “epistemological nihilism.” Quine continued, "This mood is reflected in the tendency of … Kuhn … to belittle the role of evidence and to accentuate cultural relativism"(Ontological Relativity and Other Essays, p. 87). Some people praised Kuhn’s opening to consideration of the sociology and psychology of science. Others—Karl Popper, for an important example—condemned this as a prostitution, or at least severe misrepresentation, of science. Some claimed that Kuhn’s work was progressive in that it opened the door to a new and fresh understanding of what science is and how it operates. But Steve Fuller, in Thomas Kuhn: A Philosophical History for Our Times, claimed that Kuhn’s work is reactionary because Kuhn tried to remove science from public examination and democratic control.

One of the most important and influential examinations of Kuhn’s work took place at the International Colloquium in the Philosophy of Science, held at Bedford College, Regent’s Park, London, on July 11-17, 1965, with Popper presiding. The proceedings are gathered in a book entitled Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, edited by Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave. In that colloquium, John Watkins argued against normal science. Steven Toulmin asked whether the distinction between normal and revolutionary science holds water. Margaret Masterman pointed out that Kuhn’s use of “paradigm” was highly plastic—she showed more than twenty different usages. L. Pearce Williams claimed that few, if any, scientists recorded in the history of science were "normal" scientists in Kuhn’s sense; i.e. Williams disagreed with Kuhn both about historical facts and about what is characteristic for science. Others then and since have argued that Kuhn was mistaken in claiming that two different paradigms are incompatible and incommensurable because, in order for things to be incompatible, they must be directly comparable or commensurable.

Popper himself admitted that Kuhn had caused him to notice the existence of normal science, but Popper regarded normal science as deplorable because, Popper claimed, it is unimaginative and plodding. He pointed out that Kuhn’s theory of science growing through revolutions fits only some sciences because some other sciences have in fact been cumulative—a point made by numerous other critics of Kuhn. In addition, Popper claimed that Kuhn really does have a logic of scientific discovery: The logic of historical relativism. He and others pointed out that in claiming that a new paradigm is incommensurable and incompatible with an older one Kuhn was mistaken because, Popper claimed, “a critical comparison of the competing theories, of the competing frameworks, is always possible.” (Popper sometimes called this the "myth of the framework.") Moreover, Popper continued, “In science (and only in science) can we say that we have made genuine progress: That we know more than we did before” (Lakatos & Musgrave, 57).

Kuhn responded in an essay entitled “Reflections on my Critics.” In it he discussed further the role of history and sociology, the nature and functions of normal science, the retrieval of normal science from history, irrationality and theory choice, and the question of incommensurability and paradigms. Among many other things, he claimed that his account of science, notwithstanding some of his critics, did not sanction mob rule; that it was not his view that “adoption of a new scientific theory is an intuitive or mystical affair, a matter for psychological description rather than logical or methodological codification” (Lakaos & Musgrave, 261) as, for example, Israel Scheffler had claimed in his book Science and Subjectivity—a claim that has been made against Kuhn by numerous other commentators, especially David Stove—and that translation (from one paradigm or theory to another) always involves a theory of translation and that the possibility of translation taking place does not make the term “conversion” inappropriate (Lakatos & Musgrave, 277).

Kuhn’s work (and that of many other philosophers of science) was examined in The Structure of Scientific Theories, ed. with a Critical Introduction by Frederick Suppe. There Kuhn published an important essay entitled “Second Thoughts on Paradigms” in which he admitted that his use of that term had been too plastic and indefinite and had caused confusion, and he proposed replacing it with “disciplinary matrix.” (Suppe, 463) In an “Afterward” to the 1977 Second Edition of this work, Suppe claimed that there had been a waning of the influence of what he dubbed the Weltanschauungen views of science such as that of Kuhn.

Examination and criticism of Kuhn's work—pro and con, with the con side dominant among philosophers, but the pro side tending to be supported by sociologists of science and by deconstructionists and other irrationalists—continues into the twenty first century. Kuhn is frequently attacked as a purveyor of irrationalism and of the view that science is a subjective enterprise with no objective referent—a view Kuhn strongly denied that he held or supported. One problem is that Kuhn tended to complain that his critics misunderstood and misrepresented him and that he did not hold what they represented him as holding—even though they could point to passages in which he seemed to say explicitly what they claimed he held—but he did not give them much in response that would serve to show that they were wrong or that he actually held to any defensible form of scientific rationalism. Since he gave up the notion of an external referent or “ultimate truth” as the aim or goal of science, it was nearly impossible for him to specify anything except a completely conventionalist account of growth or progress in scientific knowledge.

On the question of Kuhn's relationship to logical positivism (or logical empiricism), George Reisch—in a 1991 essay entitled “Did Kuhn Kill Logical Empiricism?”—argued that Kuhn did not do so because there were two previously unpublished letters from Rudolf Carnap (Carnap was regarded by most observers as being the strongest, most important, or arch-logical positivist) to Kuhn in which Carnap expressed strong approval of Kuhn’s work, suggesting that there was a closer relationship between Kuhn and logical positivism than had been previously recognized.

"Post-Kuhnian" philosophy of science produced extensive responses to and critiques of the apparently relativistic and skeptical implications of Kuhn's work—implications Kuhn himself disowned. But, as noted above, Kuhn's disowning of those implications is puzzling and perhaps even disingenuous, given what Kuhn actually wrote on those topics.

Kuhn’s work after Structure

Kuhn published three additional books after The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. They were The Essential Tension: Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change (1977), Black-Body Theory and the Quantum Discontinuity 1894-1912 (1978; 1984; and reprinted in 1987 with an afterword, “Revisiting Planck”), and The Road Since Structure: Philosophical Essays, 1970-1993, with an Autobiographical Interview (Ed. by James Conant and John Haugeland, published posthumously, 2000). Subsequent editions of The Copernican Revolution were published in 1959, 1966, and 1985. A second revised edition of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was published in 1970, and a third edition in 1996. Essential Tension and The Road Since Structure were mostly collections of previously published essays, except that Road contains a long and informative interview-discussion with him conducted in Athens, Greece, on October 19-21, 1995, by three Greek interviewers; the occasion was the awarding of an honorary doctorate by the Department of Philosophy and History of Philosophy by the University of Athens and a symposium there in his honor.

Understandably, given the importance of Structure and the enormous outpouring of interest and criticism it provoked, almost all of Kuhn's work after it consisted of further discussions and defenses of things he had written, responses to critics, and some modifications of positions he had taken.

During his professorship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Kuhn worked in linguistics. That may not have been an especially important or productive aspect of his work. But in his response "Reflections on my Critics," especially section 6 entitled "Incommensurability and Paradigms," where he wrote "At last we arrive at the central constellation of issues which separate me from most of my critics," Kuhn wrote about linguistic issues, and that set of problems or issues may have been the focus of his later work at MIT.

Understanding of Kuhn's work in Europe

In France, Kuhn's conception of science has been related to Michel Foucault (with Kuhn's paradigm corresponding to Foucault's episteme) and Louis Althusser, although both are more concerned by the historical conditions of possibility of the scientific discourse. (Foucault, in fact, was most directly influenced by Gaston Bachelard, who had developed independently a view of the history of scientific change similar to Kuhn's, but—Kuhn claimed—too rigid.) Thus, they do not consider science as isolated from society as they argue that Kuhn does. In contrast to Kuhn, Althusser's conception of science is that it is cumulative, even though this cumulativity is discontinuous (see his concept of Louis Althusser's "epistemological break") whereas Kuhn considers various paradigms as incommensurable.

Kuhn's work has also been extensively used in social science; for instance, in the post-positivist/positivist debate within International Relations.

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Primary Sources

(In chronological order)

  • Kuhn, Thomas. The Copernican Revolution. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957, 1959, 1965.
  • The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.
  • The Essential Tension: Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1977.
  • Black-Body Theory and the Quantum Discontinuity, 1894-1912. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
  • The Road Since Structure: Philosophical Essays, 1970-1993. Ed. by James Conant and John Haugeland Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. (This book contains a complete bibliography of Kuhn's writings and other presentations.)

Secondary Sources

  • Bird, Alexander. Thomas Kuhn. Princeton: Princeton University Press and Acumen Press, 2000.
  • Einstein, Albert and Leopold Infeld. The Evolution of Physics New York: Simon and Schuster, 1938.
  • Fuller, Steve. Thomas Kuhn: A Philosophical History for Our Times. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
  • Lakatos, Imre and Alan Musgrave, Eds, Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge. London: Cambridge University Press, 1970.
  • Lakatos, Imre and Paul Feyerabend. For and Against Method. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.
  • Quine, W.V. Ontological Relativity and Other Essays New York: Columbia University Press, 1969.
  • Raymo, Chet. “A New Paradigm for Thomas Kuhn,” Scientific American. September, 2000.
  • Reisch, George. “Did Kuhn Kill Logical Empiricism?” Philosophy of Science 58 (1991).
  • Rothman, Milton A. A Physicist's Guide to Skepticism. Prometheus, 1988.
  • Sardar, Ziauddin. Thomas Kuhn and the Science Wars. Totem Books, 2000.
  • Scheffler, Israel. Science and Subjectivity. Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill, 1967
  • Shapere, Dudley. “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” Philosophical Review. 73, 1964. (A review of Kuhn's book.)
  • Stove, David. Scientific Irrationalism: Origins of a Postmodern Cult. Transaction Publishers, 2001.
  • Suppe, Frederick. The Structure of Scientific Theories, Second Ed. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1977
  • Wolpert, Lewis. The Unnatural Nature of Science. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.

External links

All links retrieved April 30, 2023.

General Philosophy Sources


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