Question Forum 1

Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

1. Place Kuhn into historical context. To what dominant conceptions of the history and philosophy of science was Kuhn responding or challenging? Why was Structure initially impactful and what makes it important to this day? (Ian Hacking’s introductory essay, p. xiv-xvii)

2. Kuhn uses historical examples as evidence. Discuss the strengths and limitations of his evidence. What are the types of science and the time periods he engages? Are there certain areas of science or time periods that more effectively support his theory than others? How applicable is his theory to the “human” sciences? (p. 6)

3. Compare Kuhn’s argument regarding scientific development to Darwin’s theory of evolution. Taking this into account, how would you perceive science’s development and progress? Perhaps reflect on Kuhn’s engagement (or avoidance of) the word “truth” (p. 169-172)

4. What is the role of the individual vs. the community within Kuhn’s theory of paradigms and paradigm shifts? (p. 19-20, 122-123, 175-186)

Elijah's Responses


Amanda K Phillips Response

Rich's Response to 1 and 3

Response to question #1

Kuhn’s work, first published in 1965, is an early work in the STS canon. As Kuhn points out he builds on Fleck’s work, originally published in 1935, which looked at cognition of scientific fact as social activity. (Fleck 1979) Although Kuhn doesn’t reference Robert Merton one could certainly see this as an expansion upon or perhaps counter to his exposition on normative science published in the 1942.
Merton’s work was arguably one of the first attempts to put the creation of scientific knowledge in social context. Merton’s work has been highly criticized but some of his ideas seem to resonate in Kuhn’s ideas of normal science. For example, Merton’s idea of organized skepticism and how that skepticism can lead to a change in the distribution of power within a scientific community could be seen as a precursor to Kuhn’s thought. (Merton 1942, 277-278)

Of course, Kuhn’s work is also a counter to Popper’s Logic of Scientific Discovery published originally in its first English edition in 1959. Kuhn, his concern in the subject work (Kuhn 1996, 146-147) He takes exception to Popper's idea of falsification which Kuhn suggests and abrupt identification of a disruptive anomaly


Fleck, Ludwig. The Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact edited by T.J. Trenn and R.K. Merton, foreword by Thomas Kuhn Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979. (English translation)
Merton, Robert K. 1942. "The Normative Structure of Science." In The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations, edited by Norman W. Storer, 267-278. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Response to question 3

Kuhn tells us he believes that Darwin’s theory of natural selection was a revolution. Kuhn points out that evolution itself was not revolutionary but natural selection was because it most directly confronted the teleological basis of what existed before. (Kuhn 1996, 171-172) The nature of Darwin’s work as a “Kuhnian revolution” is not without critics.
Although Peter Bowler implies that Kuhn’s basis for describing it as a revolution because natural selection broke from teleological ties in that it described evolution with no end state in mind. (Bowler 2009, 347) The basis of this argument is that the publications of Darwin’s ideas on natural selection lead to a variety of competitive theories and did not, in his opinion lead, to a state of normal science.

I would argue that although there were many new theories to counter Darwin his work also lead to a continuing series of experiments to test the theory resulting in what Bowler refers to the synthesis. (Bowler, 325, 346) In much the way Kuhn describes normal science, geneticists, biologists, and anthropologists have experimented to test and solve the problems of the natural selection paradigm resulting in the discovery of genetic mutations caused by environmental factors, for example.

Bowler, Peter J. 2009. Evolution: The History of an Idea. 25th Anniversary Edition ed. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Anita's Response to Question 2

Strengths and limitations of Kuhn’s evidence

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn’s use of historical evidence to support his claim that images of science created by scientists themselves provide a less comprehensive picture of the nature of science than images of science that are historically informed, has several strengths. One such strength is his explicit examples of discarded theories and schools of thought that were once considered cornerstones of scientific knowledge. For instance, Kuhn briefly mentions “phlogistic chemistry,” which governed scientific discourse and practice regarding combustion prior to the discovery of oxygen as a distinct element (2). While phlogistic chemistry has since been refuted, it was subject to the standards that governed scientific knowledge and practice at that time. Scientists may argue that the refutation of phlogistic chemistry – or any other theory – builds on the scientific knowledge that existed during that time period by discarding these older theories in favor of new theories that have been formed based on changes in the rules governing science (7). However, Kuhn argues that it is historians of science who, because of their removal from scientific practice, are able to examine the soundness of scientific practices more critically, within the context of their relevant time periods (3). In Kuhn’s view, refuted theories are not unscientific merely because they have been disproved, but are in fact scientific because they subscribed to the established rules of scientific practice during the relevant period. However, one possible limitation of Kuhn’s evidence is that historians of science may make assumptions of what was and was not considered science in any given time period that are not necessarily accurate.

Types of science and time periods he engages/areas that support his theory

Kuhn primarily draws on examples from physics. He makes extensive use of Newtonian mechanics, which were first published in the Principia in the late seventeenth century, to illustrate an example of scientific knowledge that is still seen as scientific by historians of science, despite the theory having been superseded by other theories such as quantum mechanics (27). He also cites examples in chemistry, such as the aforementioned phlogistic chemistry of the eighteenth century (2; 70). Both of these areas of science support Kuhn’s claim that scientists take a much more narrow view of whether refuted scientific theories are unscientific by virtue of being refuted, than do historians of science.

Application of his theory to the “human” sciences

Kuhn’s theory is as applicable to the human sciences as it is to the physical sciences. For example, if a sociological theory was established within the rules governing sociology during a given time period – but is then superseded or refuted by a new theory – this does not mean that the old theory is inherently un-sociological. The old theory may be incorrect, but within the context of the conditions under which it was established, it is still sociological by nature.

Lisa's response to Question 4:

Kuhn differentiates between the role of the individual and the community in shaping paradigms and paradigm shifts. From the outset, groups of individuals come together in pre-paradigm groupings. Structure before the paradigm often consists of competing groups, seeking to win the competition of ideas. A notable scientific achievement catalyzes convergence. Synthesis occurs, with smaller groups converging to agree on shared principles, shared questions, and shared mechanisms of solving problems. The new paradigm is observed when a critical mass of practitioners has converted to the new paradigm. In this new paradigm, “a more efficient mode of scientific practice begins” (Kuhn, p. 178). Older schools disappear. Practitioners who do not convert to the new paradigm are functionally shunned, their voices not accepted in conferences or in publications. Textbooks can convey the principles of the paradigm to newcomers, often teaching new converts the steps that led to the emergence of the paradigm. New papers appear esoteric, requiring specialized expertise of fellow practitioners, as opposed to the general explanations such as Darwin provided to generally educated people in The Origin of the Species.

In considering the role of the individual and the community, Kuhn explores the conservative role of the group in holding together while individuals can break out. Individuals build on the foundations of the paradigm, benefitting by the group agreement of the paradigm by not having to prove everything from first principles. Kuhn celebrates the “flash of insight,” from an insightful individual, noting that the “interpretative enterprise … can only articulate a paradigm, not correct it” (Kuhn, p. 122). Individuals exercise the normal problem-solving that can identify the anomalies and precipitate the crises which lead to new paradigms.

Communities implement the paradigm and consist of co-practitioners of that paradigm. The circular group structure snowballs, gaining influence as new members convert to the paradigm, and reinforces the core tenets of the paradigm. Practitioners of the shared specialty are inculcated in common lessons and doctrine, initiations and institutions, and train their successors to agree on the kinds of problems, techniques for collecting data, and acceptable types of proof. The visible practices reinforcing the paradigm are the agreement of whose review for draft articles constitutes valid peer review, whose articles are cited in others, and which individuals attend which conferences dedicated to which sub-specialties. Communities protect the core of the paradigm, and individuals continue to explore the leading edges and fill in the gaps in the knowledge. Individuals can get ahead of the group, and discover anomalies that cause paradigm-shaking crises. Kuhn celebrates the ablest of the individual who can belong to several subgroups, spanning the boundaries with sufficient expertise to understand multiple subgroups.

Kuhn's early insights opened new ways to identify groups in paradigms. New Semantic Web techniques such as the Web of Science and citation statistics enable practitioners and researchers to study the linkages. Breakout articles and insights fight for visibility. The expertise needed to understand paradigmatic research has increased in esoteric knowledge, particularly in sciences such as physics. Kuhn celebrates the breakout individual and also the benefit of the paradigm-enforcing community.

In considering the roles of individuals and the community, Kuhn did not apply the methods of sociology. Instead, as a practitioner of physical science, he used an unspoken metaphor that belonged to all members of his own scientific community: the mental model of an atom, with the cloud of electrons orbiting the nucleus with its proton. The nucleus was the core of beliefs; each scientist could be represented by an electron. The most stable elements are small, just as Kuhn described the most stable scientific groups. Individual scientists followed the Heisenberg uncertainty principle: you could know their velocity, or their position, but not both. As some were deepening the understanding of the paradigm by the puzzle-solving of normal science, others were energized by anomalies or new discoveries. Like energized electrons, these individuals emitted light and energy, publishing and speaking to their colleagues. If enough individuals were energized, the electrons could make a state change to a higher level of energy. With a significant enough burst of energy, there could be fusion — groups converging into each other to create a stable new paradigm — or fission, which would blow up existing understanding like atomic bombs. The atomic metaphor was widely understood, because newspapers and news reels at cinemas had to explain atomic bombs — much as Darwin popularly explained evolution. Kuhn translated this mental model into his discourse on individuals and communities, aware that his scientific peers were steeped in its context and could recognize and apply it to this broader set of considerations of the structure of scientific revolutions.

Pratama's Response to Question 1 and 4:

Question #1

Given that Thomas Kuhn’s background in physic, mostly his arguments in history and philosophy of sciences are taken from investigation in scientific community who closed to physic and “physic” language. I put Kuhn’s arguments into two accounts in history of science and philosophy of science. In history of science, Kuhn was challenging chronological events (cumulative) that the historian of science investigated scientists’ achievements. Rather than examining them, Kuhn studied the role of facts surrounding scientific activities. In determination of significant facts, matching facts and theory, and articulation theory, he changed the way of studying looked at how facts and histories constructed scientific activities, not merely cumulative activities.
In the philosophy of science, Kuhn was responding previous philosophy of science account that Kant’s a priory of principle thought and Proper’s falsifiability. Kuhn’s approach is different with them. He offered revolution with new paradigm and shift paradigm. It has contributed not only new research activities that pay attention to explore indeterminacy, but also put science studies in a certain context or history. Thus, Kuhn offered an insight in the way of seeing looked at science and scientific activities.
In addition to his contribution to philosophy and history of science, Kuhn’s Structure is still impactful today. To scientific community, Kuhn’s Structure contributed revolution by studying how to create paradigm or shift paradigm, in case scientists could not solve problem with old paradigm. Structure helps scientists in thinking “outside of the box” means beyond their rules to make a new invention. On the other words, Structure gives an insight that scientists should think not only in normal science but also social phenomena surrounding scientific activities that might not consider “scientific”. With Structure, we also can make contribution in studying how science works in a particular context. For example, Kuhn’s structure can be used to examine how social, political, cultural, and religious stances influence scientific activities.

Question #4

Echoing Kuhn’s paradigm in two descriptions, which are constellations and puzzle solving, the role of individual and group is relying on contribution and influence in constellations of belief, value, and technic within individual in a group and among groups. Given that to categorize individual and group in making paradigm or shift paradigm, it has consequences that they are separated each other but at the same time, they need each other. For example, in making paradigm or shift paradigm, as part of group, individual has role to influence his or her belief, value or technic in constellations. On the other hand, a group has role to shape individual’s belief, value or technic. Thus, in creating paradigm or shift paradigm, the role of individual and group shaped each other in making influences.

Russ Rochte
Response to QF1Q3

Darwin held that life “evolved” and underwent speciation through “descent with modification.” The process tended to be gradual and required significant time for the accumulation of modifications to become both useful and to differentiate the possessors from the prior population. Competition between organisms resulted in a “survival of the fittest” wherein only those organisms with the most advantageous modifications tend to survive and reproduce.

Kuhn held that, once established, “normal science” continues until the accumulation of anomalies under the prevailing paradigm becomes so great that the current paradigm no longer holds sufficient explanatory power. During the period of crisis in which the current paradigm increasingly fails to explain the mounting anomalies, several alternative explanations may arise, and “competition” of sorts for followers results. A new paradigm (the survivor) eventually results.

Comparing Darwinism and Kuhn results in a reasonably useful analogy to the extent that one does not look in detail into the differences between Darwin’s blind process and the mindfulness of Kuhn’s subjects. “Scientific Revolutions,” it would seem, have some sort of intelligent design behind them.

There is another point on which to compare Darwinism and Kuhn-ism. Neither held that the respective processes of evolution or scientific progress could or even ought to have a definite end or goal in mind. Both processes proceeded without need for or reference to any particular outcome whatsoever. They simply proceeded. But I am not at all certain that I agree with this in the case of scientific progress (Kuhn, 169-170), since it seems to me that any such scientific revolution has as its end the explanation of the anomalies that spelled the doom of the preceding paradigm. Accordingly, even if in this sense only, the progress of science via “paradigm shift” has a goal or end in mind, even if the eventual result could not be foreseen.

I wonder, also, whether the underlying presumption of the claims (that neither evolution nor scientific progress proceed towards anything), i.e., that there is no ultimate, knowable truth, is correct. If it is, as Kuhn suggests, that differing paradigms are not necessarily wrong, just different (e.g. Aristotelian physics v. Newtonian physics, the contemplation of which started Kuhn down the path), then what if the “net result” of “the wonderfully adapted set of instruments we call modern scientific knowledge” (171), is, itself, incorrect? Has not “science” advanced since 1962? How much of what was “true” in 1962 is now considered to be incorrect – and how do we know that it was wrong? What if it was just “different” as Aristotle’s physics were different from Newton’s? If Kuhn is correct, we think we now know as scientific fact is correct only because: it was developed within the prevailing paradigm; and nobody has, as yet, arisen to challenge it? If there really is no “one full objective true account of nature” (Kuhn, 170), then how, exactly, do we know we’ve got it right…this time?

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