Thomas Kuhn challenged the positivist ideal that science is an objective means of understanding the world around us. Science, in Kuhn's view, is intrinsically conservative, and reflects the vested interests of established scientists to maintain a status quo, to prevent their ideas from becoming obsolete. Therefore, like anybody, scientists inherit what are seen as "common sense" views of the world (what Alvin Gouldner referred to "domain assumptions"). For Kuhn, scientific belief was made up of socially constructed paradigms, which govern any research that takes place. Scientists, particularly young, unknown ones, are expected to conform to the dominant paradigm. This is why when a child in a school chemistry laboratory finds the boiling point of water to be something other than 100°C, he or she is informed by their teacher that they are wrong. Of course, to anyone living in the current paradigm, the notion that the child might be right seems ridiculous, and their findings are dismissed as bad science. Let us consider some of the dominant paradigms throughout history:

  • The Earth is a flat plane.
  • The Earth is the object around which the Universe rotates.
  • People with black skin colour are genetically less evolved than people with white skin colour.
  • People can never leave the Earth.

Therefore, it is conceivable that years from now, people will be chortling at the memory of those noble savages who thought that people could not travel at the speed of light, that Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system, that water boils at 100°C. Kuhn argues that paradigms are only broken down when anomalies (evidence that contradicts the paradigm) becomes too obvious to overlook. For example, some may have felt they could ignore Galileo Galilei and his telescope, but when someone circumnavigated the globe, people had to take notice. This is a paradigm shift.


Revitalizing Kuhn

It seems evident from our readings that Thomas Kuhn, although essential to the progression of the “New Philosophy of Science”, was simply a stepping-stone for people like Imre Lakatos and Paul Feyerbend. But I believe it is still very important that we analyze his ideas and methods in order to figure out whether they are scientifically progressive, and if they turn out not to be, finding modifications to make them so.

Starting off, I’d like to define Kuhn’s view regarding his coined term “Paradigm”. While this is the initial term which Kuhn describes it also proves to be one of his most complex. Chalmers’ seems to best describe it as a theory which is made up of, “explicitly stated laws and theoretical assumptions”, “situation dependant applications”, “instrumentation and instrumental techniques”, “general, metaphysical principles”, and “general methodological prescriptions” (109-110). Once established, it is strong and must be recognized as such by all those who practice under it in order to, “actualize a paradigm’s potential” (Salmon, Earman et. al. 147). Even if a scientist seems to come up with observations which go against their paradigm this is seen not as a falsification but rather as a mere anomaly (Chalmers 110). Because a paradigm starts with a theory and then makes experiments and observations in its favor, we do not have constant changes but rather constant refinements. Although these all seem to limit a scientist practicing under Kuhn’s “normal science”, it becomes evident that there is substantial freedom from within the paradigm itself. In fact, Kuhn even utilizes this to his advantage, for if different scientists subscribe to different interpretations within the same paradigm there shall be much greater numbers of methods to work from (Chalmers 119). This freedom further allows normal scientist to make “detailed articulations” and “perform the esoteric work necessary to probe nature in depth” (110). These esoteric articulations lead normal scientists to make ever better connections between the workings of the laws and the way things actually occur in nature. And though Kuhn clearly believes that this can never be fully achieved, he agrees that it does bring us closer.

Now that I’ve successfully described the inner workings of Paradigms it may have become apparent that Kuhn is leaving out an import aspect, mainly that of change. For surely a paradigm will either modify itself or be replaced with a new one as time moves on. Kuhn logically formulates Paradigm Revolutions, which reflect the later option. Once a paradigm is no longer capable of matching up its methods to reflect the actual workings within nature there occurs such an event. To explain this I’ll quote Salmon and Earman, “when a paradigm’s puzzles are no longer solvable by the resources of normal science, they become its problems…the continued loss of puzzle-solving efficiency and the outstanding problems not amenable to the paradigm, propel the scientific community into crisis which is resolved ultimately by the community coming to share a new paradigm. The new paradigm sets new puzzles and the rules for their solution, and successfully tackles new outstanding problems but not necessarily those of the old paradigm” (Salmon, Earman, et. al. 148). It is abundantly clear that Kuhn does not allow for one paradigm simply to amend another but instead replaces it entirely with none of the original component statements being brought along.

Such incompatibility leads to a new term known as incommensurability. “Kuhn tells us that the component statements of the rival paradigms are not intertranslatable. If this is so the incommensurability of the paradigms precludes saying that they are logically incompatible since this notion presupposes some measure of intertranslatability, precisely the requirement denied by Kuhn’s conception of incommensurability” (148). Essentially this explains that incommensurability refutes all chances for paradigms with compatibility by first destroying intertranslatability, which contains within it compatible values. When made analogous to linguistics we can get a better look at precisely what this means. Just as words depend on complex relationships with other words and to translate one would certainly mean to translate them all, so too does one paradigm condition depend on the others and so revolutionizing one equates to the revolution of the entire paradigm (148).

With such ideas presented and explained we can start to bring to light the question of whether these revolutions can be classified as scientifically progressive. Many might take commensurability into account in order to argue that these do not. Again we can take a statement of Salmon and Earman to describe this complaint; “because of incommensurability and the consequent absence of any neutral framework beyond the paradigms on which to base an appeal, there is simply no transparadigm criteria of problem-individuation which allows us to say that the paradigms address the same problem” (150). If a paradigm is not even addressing the same problem as its predecessor it is hard to imagine that it is actually making progress in the name of science. It seems rather to be avoiding it entirely. Two reasons can account for such an issue, his attempt at replacing the prior views of two theories containing distinct terms but a single goal (Inductivism/Hypothetico-Deductivism) with his own epistemological one; and taking his theory too far out from its “historical social contexts” (150). Within the first reason he refuses to make a “neutral observation language” and further negates the entire notion of a different language with his claims of different paradigms governing “liveing in different worlds” (Kuhn 1970, 111). The second aspect to this argument lies in Kuhn’s failure to take into account the “common ground” among the competing paradigms. “The sense of historicality that an historical narrative provides of scientific crises shows that there is no transformation of a scientific tradition into a new perspective that does not preserve some important elements of continuity with its former self” (Salmon, Earman et. al. 151). The entirety of incommensurability is now called into question. While these arguments make perfect sense we must come back to whether or not progress is occurring, and here the answer becomes slightly less clear. If you have two people living in different, non-related paradigms, it seems unlikely that one will concede that his is inferior of the other’s and that he has not experience progress due to his inferiority. But yet without the distinction who is to say that the revolutions are accomplishing anything at all? Further, if it is true that incommensurability is an impossibility it seems that much of Kuhn’s argument falls apart and that paradigms become modifiable.

These refutations, while valid, must be silenced a little in order to give Kuhn a fair chance at defending himself with a little tweaking of his ideas. First, I shall extract some of Chalmers’ ideas concerning the separation of subjective “relativist” portions of Kuhn from the objective ones involving progression. The part which needs to be removed is that orienting Kuhn with the relativists (an idea which Kuhn himself tries to debunk). To explain subjectivism you can think of the thoughts of individuals and the degrees to which they consent to the ideas within these thoughts (Chalmers 125). Placed within Kuhn’s work, this equates to the rationalization that no paradigm can ever be better than another, for then you restrict subjective choice. Also, progress becomes a voided term because you again have no comparisons between the systems. These limitations are lifted once you strictly look at Kuhn’s work in an objective way. In doing so you create paradigms with, “properties that are distinct from what individuals might be aware of” (126). In such a choice these properties can make one paradigm superior to its predecessor by having improved “puzzle-solving” qualities outside the realm of individual opinion.

From this point I can formally assert that I agree with Kuhn in all aspects save his relativist portions and claims to non-compatibility among the paradigms. With such limitations I can argue that the system is scientifically progressive. Kuhn states that scientists move from one paradigm to the next because of increased simplicity, social need or specific problem, and that the switch is triggered by a “gestalt switch” or "religious conversion” and is not based on the idea of superiority (115). But these gestalt switches and religious conversions contain very subjective terms which Chalmers previously threw out, so we can safely throw these out as well. Now I am left with obtaining a new reason for switching between paradigms. Well, if the new paradigm remains still simpler, more socially needed and has more specified issues, I do believe it may simply be the case that it is just a better paradigm and that logically you’d choose it over the other because of these things. The majority, upon realizing the obvious superiority of this newly proposed paradigm, will switch due to its objective qualities which separate it from the last. The issue of whether a paradigm can address even the same problem as its former can be answered by stating that the new paradigm still contains within it the objective problems only now with novel new methods and theories to solve them. These objective problems may contain the neutral backbone which Salmon and Earman describe. In redefining Kuhn his revolutionary cycle achieves scientific progressiveness.

By starting off with clear definitions of what Kuhn meant by a paradigm and the revolutions which much occur to improve them I hope that I was able to provide a stable background on which to build from. By further explaining the complex nature of incommensurability I began to implement some ideas that were less clear as to their progressiveness. These fears were noted and I thought it time to modify Kuhn to help his ideas become what we needed. With this newly established criterion we could safely determine Kuhn’s ideas to be progressive.

An interesting thing to think about is what would occur if we were to use our current state of affairs as a basis for a paradigm. It might turn out that we are on the verge of a revolution into a paradigm in which we see the world through the ideas of String Theory. The strange thing about this case would be that the new paradigm would seek to join together many of the older ones but obviously replace them too. If we look at paradigms as being progressive then it seems only natural for such a thing to occur.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.