Monday, October 05, 2009

After the Revolution

Taking a look back at Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which provoked something of a paradigm shift in the history & philosophy of science.
The main threads of Kuhn's approach to science are well known. Science really gets underway when a scientific tradition has succeeded on formulating a paradigm. A paradigm includes a diverse set of elements -- conceptual schemes, research techniques, bodies of accepted data and theory, and embedded criteria and processes for the validation of results. Paradigms are not subject to testing or justification; in fact, empirical procedures are embedded within paradigms. Paradigms are in some ways incommensurable -- Kuhn alluded to gestalt psychology to capture the idea that a paradigm structures our perceptions of the world. There are no crucial experiments -- instead, anomalies accumulate and eventually the advocates of an old paradigm die out and leave the field to practitioners of a new paradigm. Like Polanyi, Kuhn emphasizes the concrete practical knowledge that is a fundamental component of scientific education. By learning to use the instruments and perform the experiments, the budding scientist learns to see the world in a paradigm-specific way. (Alexander Bird provides a good essay on Kuhn in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

A couple of questions are particularly interesting today, approaching fifty years after the writing of the book. One is the question of origins: where did Kuhn's basic intuitions come from? Was the idea of a paradigm a bolt from the blue, or was there a comprehensible line of intellectual development that led to it? There certainly was a strong tradition of study of the history of science from the late nineteenth to the twentieth century; but Kuhn was the first to bring this tradition into explicit dialogue with the philosophy of science.

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