You are on page 1of 15

Essay for Philosophy of Science course Jan.

1997 by Shawn Monaghan

Part 1. 'Normal Science'

Part 2. (page 7 of this essay) Kuhn’s conceptualization of paradigm is

criticized for its characterization of scientists’ as uncritical drudges instead of as

critical and creative scientists.

‘Normal science’ is a term Kuhn uses to describe the phase of science and

research that take place at a time of consensus within the community. The

consensus of the community means that the practice of a given field of science is

based and founded upon “past scientific achievements”. This consensus is

established in part through the existence and propagation of textbooks.

When the individual scientist can take a paradigm for granted, he need no longer, in
his major works, attempt to build his field anew, starting from first principles and
justifying the use of each concept introduced. That can be left to the writer of
textbooks. Given a textbook, . . . the creative scientist can begin his research
where it leaves off and thus concentrate exclusively upon the subtlest and most
esoteric aspects of the natural phenomena that concern his group (p 19-20).

The texts usually display discoveries and achievements in modern terms, terms

that would often be considered completely alien to the founding scientist (but

most certainly are rarely the original documents of the founding scientists)(p 10).

Paradigm is the term Kuhn uses to refer to the achievements that define

the consensus. Paradigm is a very specific term that refers to two specific

characteristics. The discoveries or achievements must be unprecedented enough

to attract a great deal of attention so as to attract scientists away from

competing scientific practices and activities. The second characteristic is that the
achievement has to be “open-ended” enough that it provides this group with

guidance while leaving a great deal of answers yet to be discovered and puzzles yet

to be solved (p 10). Kuhn’s phraseology at this early point in his book is somewhat

stiff and artificial. Kuhn speaks of a paradigm as an ‘achievement’ with little

explanation. It is the achievement that provides a sort of theoretical perspective,

a consensus, around which scientists gather because of its relative novelty and

limited application to provide answers but almost unlimited application to provide

questions, or puzzles to be solved.

It is in relation to revolutions of science that Kuhn develops his definition of

paradigms and normal science. Essentially it is the paradigm that provides the

organizing principle around which a normal science exists. Normal science would

not exist without what Kuhn terms paradigm. Of course the paradigm is really just

a set of conditions that enable normal science the consensus and stability that is

its defining circumstance. Here is a definition of paradigm in Kuhn’s own words:

In a science, . . . a paradigm is rarely like an object for replication. Instead, like an

accepted judicial decision in the common law, it is an object for further
articulation and specification under new or more stringent conditions (p23).

This makes a most precise conceptualization of Kuhn’s paradigm. It is an accepted

perspective, a judgment, about phenomena that is commonly accepted and used as a

rule-of-thumb that facilitates future work, thought and decisions within a given

area. The analogy to common law is an excellent one and provides an intuitive

discourse superior to any number of discursive sentences.

At a certain point in the development of a science the scientific community

becomes increasingly specialized and internalized. Rather than addressing the

intelligent community at large a science which is largely developed and specialized

begins to write articles and research papers that address a small well defined

community of peers. It is this movement toward addressing scientific peers with

increasingly obscure and detailed work that allows for the rapid specialization and

development that characterizes ‘normal science’. The work of these scientists is

immensely augmented by a good grounding of consensus in the foundations of their

field of their study. It is the paradigm that provides this foundation through an

ever increasing realm of achievements and discoveries that this community largely

agrees upon. Thus, leaving the scientist with a large area of background knowledge

at their disposal that allows for concentration on very precise and specialized


Sometime between 1740 and 1780, electricians were for the first time enabled to
take the foundations of their field for granted. From that point they pushed on to
more concrete and recondite problems, and increasingly they then reported their
results in articles addressed to other electricians rather than in books addressed
to the learned world at large. . . . They had, that is, achieved a paradigm that
proved able to guide the whole group’s research. . . . it is hard to find another
criterion that so clearly proclaims a field a science (p 21-2).

The transition of which Kuhn speaks, in the above quotation, is a movement into

‘normal science’ through the adoption of a paradigm by the community of

electricians. Before this point of transition the field of electricity was

characterized by a wide variety of groups and subgroups that were defined by a

wide variety of differing opinions about the rudiments of electricity.

Communication between these groups would have been stultified by disagreement

upon the very foundations of their research.

The actual work of a normal science scientist involves what Kuhn terms
“mop-up” work. This sort of work is also referred to as puzzle solving. Basically

the scientist in entering into a community with an established paradigm spends a

good deal of her time attempting to make all of the data and phenomena fit into

the framework of the paradigm. This sort of work could be characterized as

drudgery but is in fact a very engrossing and perhaps addictive task. This puzzle

solving involves the engrossing task of ‘making everything fit’. The search for

other fundamental theories and perspectives is decidedly not the sort of work a

‘normal scientist’ engages. In fact if the scientist did attempt to devise a new

theory or organizing principle it would be quite unlikely that his ideas would be well

received. Normal science is characterized by a good deal of intolerance to newly

invented theories. The discovery of new phenomena and problems with the

accepted paradigm are decidedly frowned upon or just do not seem to occur. In

fact it is Kuhn’s contention that phenomena that do not fit into the paradigm are

either ignored or completely overlooked (p 24).

In the eighteenth century, for example, little attention was paid to the
experiments that measured electrical attraction with devices like the pan balance.
Because they yielded neither consistent nor simple results, they could not be used
to articulate the paradigm from which they derived. Therefore they remained
mere facts, unrelated and unrelatable to the continuing progress of electrical
research (p35).

An unsuccessful project, like the one mentioned above, would reflect negatively

upon the scientist as a failure to solve the puzzle. This failure is usually perceived

as a reflection not of the paradigm, nor of nature but of the scientist’s abilities to

do her job. The problems undertaken by the scientist are valuable in the

articulation and advancement of the scientific field itself but, the question is
raised, why do scientists undertake these problems with such enthusiasm and verve

if failure reflects solely upon them? The answer is in the puzzle solving element

that is central to scientists of normal science. The puzzle is not in achieving the

data the scientist needs to further his field of science. The puzzle is how to go

about, procedurally, uncovering the data and phenomena that are predicted by the

paradigm. Thus, it becomes clear that what is involved in Kuhn’s conceptualization

of puzzle solving is the search for a solution that is known, or is thought to be

known, to exist (p 36). One reason for the incredible rate of growth of normal

sciences is thought to be that scientists choose puzzles that are so likely to be

resolvable that only a “lack of ingenuity should keep them from solving” them (p

37). The rest of Kuhn’s conceptualization of puzzle solving now comes to the fore.

A puzzle if it is indeed possible to solve also involves rules that restrict and guide

its resolution. For instance, to solve a jigsaw puzzle you need to follow the

fundamental rules of the game. An example of such a rule is that all of the pieces

of a jigsaw puzzle must be turned so that the correct side is up (p 38). Kuhn

appeals to a broad use of the term rule to enable the analogy to apply well to the

science. Thus, ‘rule’ can mean such things as “established viewpoint”.

It is in his exposition of revolutions that Kuhn’s incommensurability thesis

becomes clear. When one paradigm is replaced by another, it usually only occurs

after the current generation of scientists dies out. This is because the choice of

paradigm becomes a framework and a perspective. One paradigm is not necessarily

accessible to someone who is immersed within a totally different paradigm. This is

where Kuhn’s broadened use of ‘rule’ becomes clearly important. Part of what it

means to adopt a paradigm is to adopt certain viewpoints which are not simple
things to drop modify or replace. The changing of a paradigm for an individual is

like a Gestalt switch if it is changed at all.

Failure of existing rules is the prelude to a search for new ones (p68).

Thus it also becomes clear that the evaluation of a paradigm has more to it than a

mere comparison with the phenomena, the world, the rejection of one paradigm

always comes together with the adoption of another (p 77). It is not the inability

of one paradigm to fit nature that leads to scientific revolution but the comparison

of one paradigm to another and both to nature.

Without the strong influence of an alternative paradigm anomalies can be written

out of existence by ad hoc modifications of the paradigm, unless the anomalies are

numerous and extremely serious. Ad hoc modifications are part of the process

that involves the ‘loosening’ of the ‘rules’ of normal research within a paradigm (p

84). Once normal research ‘loosens’ the paradigm comes into question and it may

result in paradigm shift. It is not however a simple matter of a one to one

comparison of paradigms, according to Kuhn this sort of comparison is not possible.

Almost always the men who achieve these fundamental inventions of a new
paradigm have been either very young or very new to the field whose paradigm
they change. . . . for obviously these are the men who, being little committed by
prior practice to the traditional rules of normal science, are particularly likely to
see that those rules no longer define a playable game and to conceive another set
that can replace them (p 90).

The phase that occurs between crisis of normal science and revolution, or for that

matter crisis and the restabilizing of the original paradigm is what Kuhn calls
extraordinary science. This phase can end in revolution and the adoption of a

different paradigm but does not always. Extraordinary science is characterized as

a sort of hybrid between normal and non-normal science.

The debate between paradigms is bound to circularity “each group uses its

own paradigm to argue in that paradigm’s defense” (p94). Though the circular

argument can be extremely persuasive, it becomes clear that paradigm change can

only occur when the scientist wants to be persuaded or is extremely open to the

discussion. The limits of logic in paradigm shift is clear. A participant need merely

refuse to enter the circle of the argument to avoid being persuaded (p 94). This

does not make the arguments wrong merely incommensurable.

The scientist can have no recourse above or beyond what he sees with his eyes and
instruments. If there were some higher authority by recourse to which his vision
might be shown to have shifted, then that authority would itself become the
source of his data, and the behavior of his vision would become a source of
problems . . . (p 114).

If a third paradigm existed that is commensurable with the two paradigms in

conflict then the paradigm shift would not seem so strange nor would it pose

philosophical problems. This sort of paradigm shift can occur but is not the rule.

More often than not the competing paradigms have no common ground on which

they can be compared this is what causes scientific revolutions.


Kuhn’s conceptualization of paradigm is criticized for its characterization of

scientists’ as uncritical drudges instead of as critical and creative scientists. This

criticism appears to stem from the Kuhnian view that anomalies can often be

overlooked or are arbitrarily eliminated by minor ad hoc modifications of the

paradigm. The drudgery portion of the criticism stems from a clear statement by

Kuhn that the majority of work in normal science is mopping-up. These criticisms

are not especially destructive of the Kuhnian project. It is true that in

extraordinary science, which is normal science in crisis, scientists may be required

to reevaluate or reconceptualize the foundations of their science. Under such

circumstances the scientist is required to come up with novel theories that could

either explain away the crisis or replace a defunct paradigm. It is this sort of

science that I take to mean ‘creative research’.

This question of drudgery is easily cleared up and so I will deal with this

element of the question first. For the majority of time normal science is not in

crisis and this means that the scientist is involved in the fleshing-out of the

paradigms her community accepts. Much of this sort of work is indeed very

creative, but it is not what in the common conceptualization is considered creative

science. Kuhn describes the primary task of scientists within normal science to be

puzzle-solving. This task is anything but drudgery in the way that Kuhn

conceptualizes it.

Bringing a normal research problem to a conclusion is achieving the anticipated in a

new way, and it requires the solution of all sorts of complex instrumental,
conceptual, and mathematical puzzles. The man who succeeds proves himself an
expert puzzle-solver, and the challenge of the puzzle is an important part of what
usually drives him on (p 36).
Thus clearly from the example quoted scientists are considered creative, perhaps

differently creative than the common conceptualization, but it does not appear to

be a substantive difference. As for the uncritical aspect of this criticism it

seems to be a clear case of human fallibility and not human gullibility. The fact

that the repulsive force of static electricity was attributed to gravity, not seen as

a factor of electricity, was due to the fact that it did not fit into their framework

this does not make them uncritical, merely capable of error. Capable of error and

uncritical are not synonymous. For the sake of argument let us assume that error

is synonymous with uncritical. In this case the scientists who mistook electrical

repulsion for gravity would then be considered uncritical. If scientists are found

to have been critical in the past then science of the past is uncritical. If science

of the past is found to be uncritical in this sense then science of the present most

certainly must be uncritical. For a modern instance of a similar error as the

electrical scientists we need only review the much tooted discovery that bacteria

(hylicobacter hyplori) were discovered to live and thrive within the acid

environment of the stomach. The remarkable element of this discovery is that this

scientific breakthrough was held back by ten years by the mere conceptualization

that no living thing could actually live in the human stomach. We are not committed

to calling science utterly uncritical, merely sometimes uncritical through the

inescapable fact of human fallibility.

Kuhn’s conceptualization of scientific revolution (involving paradigm shift) is

criticized for its characterization of science as irrational “mob reaction”. This

criticism appears to be unkind to Kuhn, by giving very little charity to his work.

The process of paradigm shift is not viewed by Kuhn as an irrational enterprise.

Indeed paradigm shift occurs when the old paradigm is sufficiently crisis-wrought
that it is evident that it has little more to contribute to scientific advancement.

In the replacing of an old paradigm with a new one, it is a transition from one

system that is problematic into a new system that is promising and able to deal

with the very anomalies that threatened the old one. The focus of this criticism

appears to be the absence of an orderly and precise mechanism of transition.

Scientists are not able to readily compare one paradigm with another because the

paradigms lack common ground for comparison. The shift from one system to

another appears irrational because of this lack of commensurability between


More specifically, it may be Kuhn’s denial of the existence of instances of

falsification of an old system that is at the center of this criticism. In any

dominant paradigm there may be a number of anomalous cases that could ‘falsify’

that paradigm. It is Kuhn’s contention that ‘falsification’ instances may not exist

at all.

. . . no theory ever solves all the puzzles with which it is confronted at a given time,
nor are the solutions already achieved often perfect. On the contrary, it is just
the incompleteness and imperfection of the existing data-theory fit that, at any
time, define many of the puzzles that characterize normal science. If any and
every failure to fit were ground for theory rejection, all theories ought to be
rejected at all times. On the other hand, if only severe failure to fit justifies
theory rejection, then the Popperians will require some criterion of “improbability”
. . . they will almost certainly encounter the same network of difficulties that has
haunted the advocates of the various probabilistic verification theories (p 146-7).

One of those “haunting” problems is that adjudicating between paradigms is not a

simply a matter of comparing each paradigm to the world and with each other.

These paradigms often will have different “non-empirical” premises that must be

accepted without a proof for the individual proponents to make their case. This

sort of debate between paradigms is not a simple matter of proofs because of the

inherent circularity involved in the defense of a paradigm. The debate between

paradigms is bound to circularity “each group uses its own paradigm to argue in

that paradigm’s defense” (p 94). Though the circular argument can be extremely

persuasive, it becomes clear that paradigm change can only occur when the

scientist wants to be persuaded or is extremely open to the discussion. The limits

of logic in paradigm shift is clear. A participant need merely refuse to enter the

circle of the argument to avoid being persuaded (p 94). This does not make the

arguments wrong merely incommensurable. Another problem with debate between

paradigms is the new use of terms that are incompatible with the old system.

Communication across the revolutionary divide is inevitably partial. Consider . . .

the men who called Copernicus mad because he proclaimed that the earth moved.
They were not either just wrong or quite wrong. Part of what they meant by
‘earth’ was fixed position. Their earth, at least could not be moved (p 149).

Copernicus did not merely view the earth in motion he had an entirely new way of

viewing both the ‘earth’ and ‘motion’. The problems of paradigm comparison clearly

become a matter of incredibly complex detail and require a sort of translation as if

between two different languages. An accurate picture of the debate properly

views the two participants of debate as belonging to entirely different worlds.

Thus what is involved in paradigm choice becomes not some clear concise debate

but a complex debate interspersed with translation from one system to another

and from one world to another. Each paradigm is very much like a language. Terms

and concepts are dependent on the context of the language (paradigm) and on the
context of other concepts within the language (paradigm). Thus it becomes

necessary that the participants of debate learn the others’ language in order to

effectively communicate and finally to debate. Notice that in learning a new

language becoming conversant and efficient in a language usually corresponds with

actually thinking in that language. A person cannot simply choose to think in

another language, this only happens with practice and not by choice. Thus it

becomes clear that the ‘conversion’ analogy between paradigms can sound like an

irrational process, like a “mob reaction”. But clearly when speaking of language

learning ‘conversion’ is an essential part of a process that we do not entirely

understand. It involves processes that are not perspicuous but certainly would not

be characterized as irrational or unthinking. Instead the picture of learning a new

language is like learning how to think from another viewpoint. It is not irrational

merely very difficult way of thinking that scientists are not especially used to

practicing. Picture paradigm shift as a scientific community moving from one

language community to another. The shift occurs because scientists have found

the second community a more hospitable environment for conceptualizing the

world. Thus, it becomes clear that we can derive a better picture of how the

paradigm shift is not an irrational process at all -- merely a much misunderstood

one (p 199-202).

. . . a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making
them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new
generation grows up that is familiar with it (p 151).

Kuhn’s view of this very common occurrence in scientific communities clearly leaves

little room for the view that science is irrational. One of the strengths of normal

science is this resistance to view anomalies as instances of falsification because

often the anomalies are explained and resolved within a given paradigm. This same
resistance to change is cited by Kuhn as the very same characteristic that allows

puzzle solving to exist as normal science.

Kuhn is also criticized that his opposition to the usefulness, or even the

possibility, of formulating methodological rules governing the conduct of scientific

inquiry, in advance of such an inquiry, commits him to relativism. Kuhn’s comparison

(as outlined above) of opposing paradigms to different language communities does

suggest that there may not be a single truth, that in fact both groups may be

correct. As Kuhn says in his postscript applied to cultural-linguistic groups, this

becomes a relativist stance. Kuhn then goes into a description of why this does not

have to translate into relativism when applied to science. I will not go into this

aspect of the argument because it is not necessary. The charge of cultural

relativism comes from the perspective that a scientific theory actually uncovers

the truth about the world. Somehow a theory is supposed to be able to describe

things in the world as they really are. This position on truth is a hard one to

justify and implies an unnecessary stance toward the relation between science and

the world. We cannot step outside of all possible theories. We cannot measure

the applicability of one particular theory to the world. This is enough justification

to throw doubt on this conceptualization of truth. As Kuhn says, if this approach is

indeed construed as relativistic then it is not clear precisely what (if anything) is

wrong with this approach (p 205-7). The charge, that Kuhn arbitrarily denies the

possibility of a methodology for adjudicating inquiry between theories, is not

entirely accurate. Kuhn’s claim is that there can be no hard and fast rules for such

an adjudication. This is because there can be no theory-neutral language with

which to compare two incommensurable theories. Kuhn does however describe the

process of translation and debate that would be required for any reasonable

debate between such systems (see above for a discussion of the process).
An alternative perspective on adjudication between theories is provided by

Lakatos’ conceptualization of multi theoretical research groups. This approach to

the argument helps to calm the discontent that creeps up in instances (like the

above) where theoretical relativism threatens to destroy the competency of

science. Though Kuhn’s form of relativism is not wholly unsupportable, the

philosophical connotations of such a stand are hard to bear. Lakatos’ ‘long essay’

reveals a comforting approach that seems much more complex (and for that reason

more accurate) than any mono theoretical approach (such as Kuhn’s). For Lakatos,

choice between theories in time of crisis is more a matter of a competition

between two higher level theories within a multiple-theory system. In the

following quotation, Lakatos describes crisis within a given paradigm:

. . . no theory forbids a state of affairs specifiable in advance. It is not that we

propose a theory and Nature may shout NO; rather, we propose a maze of
theories, and Nature may shout INCONSISTENT. . . . The problem is then shifted
from the old problem of replacing a theory refuted by ‘facts’ to the new problem
of how to resolve inconsistencies between closely associated theories. Which of
the mutually inconsistent theories should be eliminated (Lak. p 130)?

If Kuhn were to adopt the Lakatosian conceptualization of theory-mazes, his work

would become substantially less simplified and misunderstandings, which I

interpret as misconstrued as irrationality, would be nullified. Because Kuhn tends

to conceptualize the paradigm as mono theoretical, his models lose a great deal of

accuracy, not reflecting the true intricacies of a given scientific field. Thus, the

intricacies that are lost often are misconstrued by Kuhn’s critics as a simple

characterization of science as irrational/uncritical. The job of internalizing

Lakatos’ ‘research program’ into Kuhn’s system would however not be without

complications. Kuhn’s stance as contra falsificationism would require significant

modification of the Lakatosian ‘research program’ at least in application. It is my

position that much criticism of Kuhn’s stems from what is an inevitably simplistic

approach to paradigms. Though I am sure Kuhn does not consider paradigms to be

mono theoretical he treats them as such, and thus loses a great deal of accuracy in

the way he conceptually grasps them. Unfortunately, Lakatos does seem to

oversimplify the process of adjudicating between theories he speaks as though we

could simply:

. . . replace first one, then the other, then possibly both, and opt for that new set-
up which provides the biggest increase in corroborated content, which provides the
most progressive problemshift (p 130).

Clearly Kuhn has a lot to say about the conceptual difficulties involved in such a

freewheeling way of grasping entire theoretical frameworks and throwing them

about (see above).

Lakatos’ claim that we can make incompatible theories ‘content comparable’

through a “dictionary” is an incredible oversimplification (p 179 note). If I were to

take this statement with as much charity as possible it would be essentially

equivalent to Kuhn’s double-translation thesis. That is, the participants in a debate

between paradigms would have need to carefully work to learn the language of

their opponent in an attempt to engage in meaningful dialogue (see above). Kuhn is

clear and careful in considering the very real barriers against meaningful discussion

and logical proofs, in a way that Lakatos seems to utterly ignore. Methodological

procedures are essentially useless in light of the complex and near ‘radical

translation’ conditions involved in the terms of debate.