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50 years of Revolutions: A classic revisited

26 October 2012 by
Ian Hacking Magazine issue 2887. Subscribe and save
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Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions challenged cherished notions of logical progress. What has the book's legacy been? Read more: "Kuhn's heroes: Five paradigmbusting revolutions" STRUCTURE and revolution are rightly up front in the title of Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
He was convinced that not only are there scientific revolutions but also that they have a structure. He laid out this structure with Thomas Kuhn single-handedly changed the scope great care: normal science (routine scientific and meaning of the word "paradigm" (Image: Bill work), with its specific accompanying Pierce//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images) paradigm and a dedication to solving puzzles; followed by serious anomalies produced by research, which lead to a crisis; and finally resolution of that crisis by the creation of a new paradigm. Puzzle-solving makes us think of crossword
puzzles, jigsaws, sudoku - pleasant ways to keep busy when one is not up to useful work. A lot of scientific readers were a bit shocked, then had to admit that this is how it is in much of their daily work. Kuhn wrote: "The most striking feature... is how little they aim to produce major novelties, conceptual or phenomenal." Nowadays, many scientists
have great respect for his account of normal science. Kuhn single-handedly changed the currency of the word "paradigm", so a reader now attaches very different connotations to the word than were available in 1962. As Kuhn stated in his postscript to the book: "The paradigm... is the central element of what I now take to be the most novel and least understood aspect of this
book." On the same page he suggested "exemplar" as a substitute. In another essay, he admitted he had "lost control of the word". In later life he abandoned it. But we, the readers of Structure 50 years later, can, I hope, restore it to prominence. Normal science, then, is characterised by a
paradigm, which legitimises the puzzles and problems

on which the community works. All is well until the methods legitimised by that paradigm cannot cope with the anomalies that emerge; a crisis results and persists until a new achievement redirects research and serves as a new paradigm. This is a paradigm shift. By way of illustration, there are moving quotations in Structure
from Wolfgang Pauli, a few months before Heisenberg's paper on matrix mechanics showed the way to a new quantum theory, and a few months after. In the former, Pauli feels physics is falling apart and wishes he
were in another trade; a few months later, the way ahead is clear. Many
had the same feeling: at the height of the crisis the community was falling apart as its paradigm was under challenge. Obviously, Kuhn's structure is too neat. History is not like that. But it was precisely Kuhn's instinct as a physicist that led him to find a simple and insightful structure. It was
a picture of science the general reader could pick up. It also had the merit of being to some extent testable. Historians of science could see the extent to which momentous changes in their fields did conform to Kuhn's structure. Unfortunately, it was also abused by sceptical intellectuals who called the idea of truth into question. Kuhn had no such intention. He was a fact lover and a truth seeker. So much for structure. As for revolutions,
we think first of revolution in political terms. Everything is
overthrown; a new world order begins. The first thinker to extend this notion to the sciences may have been Immanuel Kant. In the preface to the second edition of The Critique of Pure Reason, Kant speaks of
two revolutionary events. One was the transition in mathematical practice in which techniques familiar in Babylonia and Egypt were transformed in Greece to proofs derived from postulates. The second was the emergence of the experimental method and the laboratory. At the time Kuhn was writing, scientific revolution of the 17th century was much in vogue: Francis Bacon was its prophet, Galileo its lighthouse, and Newton its sun. But Kuhn was not talking about the scientific revolution. That was quite a different kind of event from the revolutions whose structure Kuhn postulated. Indeed, shortly before writing Structure, he proposed
a "second scientific revolution", which took place during the early 19th century when new fields were mathematicised. Heat, light, electricity, and magnetism acquired their own paradigms: suddenly, a
whole mass of unsorted phenomena began to make sense. But neither this second revolution nor the first one exhibited the "structure" Kuhn had in mind. The generation preceding Kuhn had grown up
in a world of radical revolution in physics. Einstein's special and general theories of relativity were more shattering than we can conceive. Then came the quantum revolution. Relativity and quantum physics overthrew not only old science but basic metaphysics. Kant taught that absolute Newtonian space and the principle of uniform causality are a priori principles. Physics proved him mistaken Cause and
effect were mere appearance, and indeterminacy at the root of reality. Before Kuhn, Karl Popper was the most influential philosopher of science. He came of age in the second quantum
revolution. It taught him that science proceeds by conjectures and refutations (the title of one of his most famous works). We frame bold conjectures, as testable as possible, and inevitably find them wanting. They are refuted, and a new conjecture found that fits the facts.
Hypotheses count as "scientific" only if falsifiable. Kuhn's emphasis on revolutions can be seen
as the next stage after Popper. Both men took physics as their prototype for all the sciences and formed their ideas in the aftermath of relativity and quanta. Today, the sciences look different. In 2009, the 150th anniversary of Darwin's Origin of Species was celebrated. I suspect many bystanders, if asked to name the most revolutionary scientific work of all time would have answered Origin. So it is striking that Darwin's revolution is never mentioned as such in Structure.
Now that life sciences have replaced physics as top dog, we have to ask
about the extent to which Darwin's revolution fits Kuhn's template.

Back in 1962, did Chicago Press know it had a bombshell on its hands? Structure was first published as part of the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science,
a project by the Vienna Circle philosophers. With the exodus from Nazism, the circle had moved to Chicago. Kuhn was, he says, "weaned intellectually" on the circle's philosophy of science. In 1962 -1963, 919 copies were sold. The paperback sold 4825. Structure appeared
on millennium lists of best books of the 20th century. Much more important: the book really did change "the image of science by which we are now possessed". Forever.

Ian Hacking specialises in the philosophy of science, and is based in Canada at the University of Toronto. This essay is edited from his introduction to the 50th anniversary edition of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn (University of Chicago Press)

From issue 2887 of New Scientist magazine, page 28-29. As a subscriber, you have unlimited access to our online archive. Why not browse past issues of New Scientist magazine?


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