TOWARD UNDERSTANDING THOMAS KUHN
On occasions in history certain books have come to the forefront on a popular level to evoke radical change in society with the popularizing of an idea. The writings of Martin Luther in German, the language of the people, including a German translation of the Bible, set flames to the Reformation. John Calvin’s Institutes, originally written in French for the people, had the same effect. The writings of Marx and Engels set in motion a whole movement for social transformation that now shapes three-fourths of the world. The works of certain men in the scientific community have also had a phenomenal effect on man’s understanding of himself, his world, and his universe.
One book that has come to the forefront as an attempt to explain the radical transformations in science is Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. While this book is somewhat controversial within and without the scientific community it is an attempt to analyze parallel movements that lead to the radical shift in the way men understand the universe and a radical shift in the scientific enterprise.
In trying to gain an understanding of Kuhn’s book, this writer could not help but see Kuhn as a keen student of the scientific community much like Alex de Tocqueville was a student of social science.
As a serious student of the conditions necessary for revolution, Tocqueville tried in the late 1840s to warn the governing powers in France about the possibility of overthrow. He was convinced that the government and the Court had so offended the people that democratic passions would soon overturn the government. On January 27, 1848, Tocqueville, a deputy, rose in the Chamber of Deputies. “They tell me that there is no danger because there are no disturbances,” he said. “They say that as there is no visible perturbation on the surface of society, there are no revolutions beneath it. Gentlemen, allow me to say that I think you are wrong. Disturbance is not abroad but it has laid hold of men’s minds.” Within four weeks the people revolted, the king fled, and the Second Republic was proclaimed. (Ferguson, The Aquarian Conspiracy, p. 37)
What Tocqueville understood about social science Kuhn is attempting to understand about the physical science (and resulting sciences). As this paper attempts to move toward an understanding of Kuhn’s book, rather than analyzing its content, there are two broad ideas that must come under scrutiny: revolution and paradigm. Without attempting to offer a critique of Kuhn’s book, this paper now moves to gain an understanding of these two concepts.
One basic problem that must be approached in understanding Kuhn’s analysis is arriving at an understanding and definition of the term “revolution.” After one comes to an understanding of this concept then one can seek an understanding of how Kuhn uses the term in reference to his analysis of the history and development of science.
The term “revolution” whether in English, Latin, or other languages) has gone through the process of slow change and transformation. And, if one is not careful, it is easy to get lost in the ambiguous definitions of the term. A history of the development and changes in meaning is necessary. Unfortunately, this is lacking in Kuhn’s analysis. However, such an historical account does exist in the writings of researchers of like concern with Kuhn. See for example, I. Bernard Cohen’s book, Revolution in Science, section IV, pages 197-269. This book gives a thorough examination of the development of the term from its ambiguous beginnings, until it come to mean, in this writer’s words, a radical discontinuity and change. It is in this vein that “scientific revolution” becomes used in Kuhn’s work. See also The Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 37, 1976, an article by I.B. Cohen entitled, “Eighteenth Century Origins of the Concept of Scientific Revolution” (pp. 257-288). Here Cohen reasons that it was d’Alembert and Diderot who were chiefly responsible for the popularization of the interpretation of the history of science in terms of revolution.
Stanley L. Jaki criticizes Kuhn’s thesis and use of paradigm and revolution as a sort of historicism. He reminds his readers that Kuhn’s critics “paid less attention to the lack of rigor in Kuhn’s use of the word revolution which played an equally important role in his theory” (The Road of Science and the Ways of God, p. 273). And, while Jaki does not fully develop his criticism along these lines, he does serve to remind Kuhn’s readers that an understanding of Kuhn’s use of “revolution” must be understood before one can comprehend Kuhn’s thesis. In fact, the use of “revolution” as a principle of radical discontinuity of one science for change into another understanding of science lies at the foundation of Kuhn’s book. Jaki says again, “He had hardly passed the midpoint of his book when he declared that its remainder served to demonstrate the striking similarity of paradigm changes to political crises resolved by revolutions” (The Road to Science, p. 237). Kuhn believes that scientific change (revolution) occurs in parallel fashion to political change (revolution). He seeks to demonstrate this as fact through the second half of his book. This is how one can determine whether a revolution has actually occurred in science—the “assumption” of revolution.
B. The “Assumption” of Revolution
Kuhn seeks to defend his position that science changes in a revolutionary fashion rather than in an evolutionary fashion by paralleling political and scientific change. “In the face of the vast and essential differences between political and scientific development, what parallelism can justify the metaphor that finds revolutions in both?” (Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, p. 92) Kuhn then moves to define two parallels.
1. Stagnate institutions replaced by new ones in keeping with current need.
2. This change always goes radically against the structure of the first institution.
Kuhn develops the first parallel as follows:
One aspect of the parallelism must already be apparent. Political revolutions are inaugurated by a growing sense, often restricted to a segment of the political community, that existing institutions have ceased adequately to meet the problems posed by an environment that they have in part created. In much the same way, scientific revolutions are inaugurated by a growing sense, again often restricted to a narrow subdivision of the scientific community, that an existing paradigm has ceased to function adequately in the exploration of an aspect of nature to which that paradigm itself had previously led the way. In both political and scientific development the sense of malfunction that can lead to crisis is prerequisite to revolution (p. 92).
The second parallel has to do with the crisis that comes to exist either in the political life of a nation, or the scientific understanding of the scientific community. This crisis leads to those defending the older institution and those defending the new institution, or way of doing things. “Political revolutions aim to change political institutions in ways that those institutions themselves prohibit” (p. 93). Kuhn and his supporters look to the actual development of science to defend this position of revolution over evolution. A few examples will serve to illustrate this.
C. Historical Examples
Alexandre Koyre’s work, The Astronomical Revolution, is one example of using Kuhn’s thesis as a framework to understand the radical shift from the Ptolemaic understanding of the universe to the Copernican model, and to the latest model. Copernicus represents a radical break from earlier views of astronomy, even though Copernicus’ understanding and method did not radically differ from that of Ptolemy (and was later replaced). In fact, Koyre begins his book with a section entitled “Copernicus and the Cosmic Overthrow.” He then goes on to establish the leaders of the radical discontinuity of the Ptolemaic system in favor of the Copernican change, men such as Kepler, Borelli, Tycho Brahe, and others. The impact of this new understanding of the universe had a revolutionary impact on Western society.
History has provided man with other examples of this radical shift from one understanding to another. A revolution in scientific understanding was caused by Newton in mathematics with the invention of calculus, and the application of mathematics to physics and astronomy. A biological revolution was instigated by Vesalius, Paracelsus, and Harvey as they moved to replace the Galenic doctrines of understanding the human body.
Without going into detail, this writer refers the reader to Cohen’s book, Revolution in Science, to gain an understanding of the revolutionary ideas of men like Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, and Albert Einstein, who along with many others evoked a revolution in their respective sciences.
But just as important to understanding Kuhn as a discussion of “revolution” is a discussion of “paradigm” must be taken up. This discussion will serve to further clarify Kuhn’s thesis. With that in mind, this paper now turns to a discussion to help move toward understanding paradigm.
II. Toward Understanding Paradigm
Perhaps the most misunderstood concept underlying Kuhn’s work on scientific revolutions is his use of the term “paradigm.” This is a concept that he has come increasingly under attack concerning. Indeed, Kuhn has sought to defend himself from many of his critics by writing further on the concept. Still it is a concept that is difficult to understand. First, then, one must search for a definition of the term.
A. Searching for a Definition
Attempting to define “paradigm” is a difficult process. Kuhn uses the term in a number of different ways in his book. Margaret Masterman, in Lakatos and Musgrave’s Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, attempts to identify the various categories of meaning that Kuhn gives to the term in her essay “The Nature of Paradigm.” Masterman says, “On my counting, he uses ‘paradigm’ in not less than twenty-one different senses in his 1962 edition, possibly more, not less.” (p. 61) Here is Masterman’s list of Kuhn’s twenty-one senses of paradigm:
(1) As an universally recognized scientific achievement (p. x);
(2) As a myth (p. 2);
(3) As a ‘philosophy’, or constellation of questions (pp. 4-5);
(4) As a textbook, or classic work (p. 10);
(5) As a whole tradition, and in some sense, as a model (pp. 10-11);
(6) As a scientific achievement (p. 11);
(7) As an analogy (p. 14);
(8) As a successful metaphysical speculation (pp. 17-18);
(9) As an accepted device in common law (p. 23);
(10) As a source of tools (p. 37);
(11) As a standard illustration (p. 43);
(12) As a device, or type of instrumentation (pp. 59-60);
(13) As an anomalous pack of cards (pp. 62-63);
(14) As a machine-tool factory (p. 76);
(15) As a gestalt figure which can be seen in two ways (p. 85);
(16) As a set of political institutions (p. 92);
(17) As a ‘standard’ applied to quasi-metaphysics (p. 102);
(18) As an organizing principle which can govern perception itself (p. 112);
(19) As a general epistemological viewpoint (p. 120);
(20) As a new way of seeing (p. 121);
(21) As something which defines a broad sweep of reality (p. 128).
While one may see some of these uses as being a bit trite, they nevertheless illustrate the necessity of coming to an understanding of Kuhn’s uses of paradigm. What does he mean by the term? Masterman goes on to put these twenty-one differing uses of the term into three broad categories:
(1) Metaphysical paradigms—equaling those sues in which Kuhn “equates ‘paradigm’ with a set of beliefs” as a metaphysical notion or entity, rather than a scientific one.
(2) Sociological paradigms—when used in a sociological sense, i.e., as a universally recognized scientific achievement (p. x).
(3) Construct paradigms—when the term is used in a more concrete way, such as an actual textbook or classic work (p. 10).
The rest of Masterman’s paper is an attempt to coming to an understanding of the uses of “paradigm” in these three contexts. Obviously this varied use of the term by Kuhn has led to much criticism, and rightfully so. Jaki, for example, says, “While Kuhn himself admitted that he used the word as a substitute for ‘a variety of familiar notions,’ minor consternation was felt when it was pointed out that he had attached to the word at least twenty-one different meanings within the covers of a not very long book.” (The Road of Science, p. 273)
Masterman concludes her analysis of Kuhn’s use of paradigm by giving it the following guidelines:
I wish to say that a paradigm draws a ‘crude analogy’; and further to define a crude analogy as an analogy which has the following logical characteristics:
(a) a crude analogy is finite in extensibility.
(b) it is incomparable with any other crude analogy.
(c) it is extensible only by an inferential process of ‘replication’, which can be examined by using the computer-programming technique of ‘inexact matching’, but not by the normal methods of examining inference (p. 79).
If this writer may oversimplify the discussion, it seems to him that “paradigm” is the structural standard upon which a given group of people (i.e., scientists/theologians/governments) bases their actions and concerns. Kuhn openly acknowledges the vagueness of the term in his paper “Reflections on my critics,” (Lakatos and Musgrave, pp. 231-278) and in his Postscript to the second edition of Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In his Postscript he says, “A paradigm is what a scientific community shares, and conversely, a scientific community consists of men who share a paradigm” (p. 176). In this sense a paradigm becomes an unwritten structure that sets off a group of people in their understanding.
In attempting to move toward understanding Kuhn and paradigm, revolution comes again into play as that thing which causes a shift from one paradigm (way of doing things?) for another paradigm. Cohen has attempted to define what brings about a revolution in science and thus a shift in paradigm.
B. Paradigm Shift
Cohen attempts to give four tests in which one can determine whether a scientific revolution, or paradigm shift has occurred. First, Cohen describes Kuhn’s understanding in this way: “Kuhn’s characterization (1962) of a revolution in science as a shift in ‘paradigms’ (to use his original language) that arises when a series of ‘anomalies’ has produced a ‘crisis’ helps us in our attempt to formulate a definition and test.” (Revolution in Science, p. 40) Cohen sees the process of revolution or paradigm shift as moving from anomaly to crisis to a new paradigm. His four tests are given as follows:
1. The testimony of witnesses: the judgment of scientists and nonscientists of that time.
2. An examination of later documentary history of the subject.
3. The judgment of competent historians, notably historians of science and philosophy.
4. The general opinion of working scientists in the field today. (pp. 41-44)
Though Cohen’s analysis differs slightly from Kuhn’s, it still gives the reader criteria for judging historical events which have been considered revolutionary in the history of science. The accumulation of anomalies forces the “normal science” (to use Kuhn’s words) into a crisis, for this crisis resolution is only found in a revolution, a paradigm shift, to a new model of understanding and doing science.
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A Select Bibliography: Problems in Epistemology
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Stanley L. Jaki Bibliography
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Translations with Introduction and Notes:
Giordano Bruno, The Ash Wednesday Supper, Mouton, 1975.
J.H. Lambert, Cosmological Letters on the Arrangement of the World Edifice, Science History Publications; Scottish Academic Press, 1976.
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Bibliography Concerning the Christian Faith
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Russell, R.J., W.R. Stoeger, and G.V. Coyne, eds. Physics, Philosphy and Theology: A Common Quest for Understanding. Notre Dame Press, 1988.
Snoke, D. “Toward a Unified View of Science and Theology.” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 43 (Sept. 1991): 166-73.
Stannard, Russell. Grounds for Reasonable Faith. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1989.
Strauss, James D. Foundation of Faith: A Review of Stanley Jaki’s Continuing Contribution to the History and Philosophy of Science. Revised edition. Editor Chris Hvezda. Lincoln, IL: Lincoln Christian Seminary, 1992. Not a published paper but hardbound (52 pages) and available for checkout from the LCC/LCS library.
Van Till, Howard J., et.al. Portraits of Creation: Biblical and Scientific Perspectives on the World’s Formation. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990.