Book Review: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) by Thomas Kuhn
The Structure of Scientific revolutions is a path breaking book by Thomas Kuhn first published in 1962. Kuhn was one of the most influential philosophers of science whose work brought a “paradigm shift” in the way we understand the field of scientific knowledge. The most telling of his success is the phrase ‘paradigm shift’, which is inevitably used in any academic, theoretical or even journalistic discussion, emerges from this book as part of its central argument.
Taking an overall view of the book, it is an act of subversion which challenged the established scientific order, which had in itself become an ideological order akin to religious diktats. The book was not received well and met with criticism when it was first released but by mid-1987 it had sold 650,000 copies and sales to date now stand at approximately 1.4 million copies (Naughton).
Thomas Kuhn traces the history of science and argues that the process of scientific knowledge creation is not what was imagined to be at the time the book was published. Before Kuhn’s work the dominant view about science was what British historian Herbert Butterfield argued in his little known work, The Whig Interpretation of History (1931), i.e. a tendency among certain type of historians pejoratively known as ‘whig’ in British political discourse to “praise revolutions provided they have been successful, to emphasize certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present (Butterfield).”
The same way, in scientific epistemology each research by the past scientist was seen collectively as a well-organized glorious progress march towards a better future. The ‘development-by-accumulation’ of scientific knowledge is just like putting bricks in a systematic order to build a wall where each building block is equally important but Kuhn’s book Structure… puts a break in this romantic idea and changed our views on how scientific knowledge developed over the years.
Central claim of Kuhn’s book is that scientific progression was not all that perfect and well understood rather somewhat random and sporadic. He argued that scientific development happened in phases, and the phases did not occur one after the other in well planned sequence, rather they were results of ‘anomalies’ or disruptions in the system of knowledge.
Kuhn challenged the heroic view of scientific progress that had emerged from positivism. According to positivism only that knowledge is true and pure which is gained by scientific research consisting of observations, repetition, verification. Such knowledge is objective, critical and free from bias. Every research is build upon the previous research and takes knowledge forward in a heroic way.
The social ethos of science formulated by Robert K. Merton in 1942 provides four institutional imperatives of science (Merton)
- Universalism – scientific knowledge is universal, which means what is true for one is true for all and knowledge is valid for all time and circumstances
- Communism – scientists belong to a community where knowledge is shared and scientist do not demand any ownership but recognition and honour
- Disinterestedness – knowledge is free from the individual scientist’s interests or lack thereof, as the scientists do not get emotionally involved with the object to be known
- Organized scepticism – all scientists are critical of everything that is to be known. Nothing is too pure to be critically examined.
These imperatives draws the heroic picture of scientific knowledge where scientists are seen as superior individuals whose only intention is to create knowledge for universal good and they are heroically taking the humankind towards progress free from superstition and irrational faith in higher powers.
Kuhn’s book Structure… problematizes this heroic picture, in particular, it questions the communism of knowledge as heroic and argues that this community is not free from its biases and weaknesses. He challenges the notion that scientists are always critical, and argues that the community of scientists do not actually question the past knowledge and simply follow the pre-determined rules and try to fix knowledge into conceptual boxes. According to Kuhn the community of scientists follow certain ground rules to determine what is there to be researched, what problems to be solved and how to solve them and this disciplinary matrix is called a ‘paradigm’. In Kuhn’s words, paradigms are “universally recognized scientific achievements that for a time provide model problems and solutions to a community of practitioners.” The knowledge at this stage is said to be ‘normal science’ which means research of one scientist is based upon the past research which is accepted as the basis or paradigm.
The route to normal science is described as simplistic – scientists share a common intellectual framework (paradigm) within which they engage in puzzle solving, the paradigm provides the basis of the knowledge, predicts the model problems that are likely to occur, and provides ways to solve them. Science students carry on day to day research, minor anomalies are either ignored or solved using the available knowledge within the paradigm, and they do not question the seniors who mentor them. Scientific development follows this process until a time comes when the anomalies become too big or too many to be solved by the paradigm. At this point the scientist, who according to Kuhn are usually of young age and not thoroughly accustomed to the rules of the paradigm, begin to question the paradigm itself and is forced to think outside the conceptual boxes, the old paradigm gives way to a new paradigm, and this is called the scientific revolution or a paradigm shift in modern parlance. Explaining the response of the scientist to the extraordinary crisis Kuhn writes, “The proliferation of competing articulations, the willingness to try anything, the expression of explicit discontent, the recourse to philosophy and to debate over fundamentals, all these are symptoms of a transition from normal to extraordinary research.”
Scientific revolution similar to political revolution
Scientific revolution is similar to a political revolution in which a new way of understanding the world around us emerges. Tracing back the history of how various scientific concepts have developed from the classical texts to the present day, Kuhn argues that scientific knowledge goes through phases when it is calm, orderly and status quoist followed by phases when it is disruptive and revolutionary and then with a new paradigm it again becomes normal science.
Thomas Kuhn Revolution in Scientific Knowledge And Julia Kristeva’s Revolution in Poetic Language
A parallel can be drawn between Kuhn’s description of revolution in scientific knowledge with Julia Kristeva’s ‘Revolution in Poetic Language’ where she mentioned the rhythm chora. According to Kristeva there are anarchic rhythmic periods in an infant’s life, even prior to Lacanian imaginary (a point when the infant forms ego and learns to distinguishing itself as an object) when the infant is still not disconnected from the mother’s body and have not identified itself as a separate identity, and experiences rhythmic flow of energy “which has no thesis and no position.” The chora according to Kristeva is a phase at the very beginning of an infants life. It is “a rupture and articulations (rhythm), precedes evidence, verisimilitude, spatiality, and temporality. Our discourse — all discourse — moves with and against the chora in the sense that it simultaneously depends upon and refuses it” (Kristeva). This maybe compared to the phase of scientific development which precedes the point where science becomes mature and irrefutable. The simultaneous dependence and refutation of the chora maybe compared to the dependence and refutation of paradigms in history of scientific development. While there is no direct relation between Kristeva’s work and Kuhn’s Structure…the brief similarity between the two kinds of revolution is relevant for feminist discourse since both the work gives central position to the idea of ‘ruptures’ or subversion of established orders. The description of scientific revolution as a “tradition-shattering complements to the tradition-bound activity of normal science” is a profoundly feminist thought.
Structure… came as a challenge to the supremacy of positivist scientific methods which prided upon its objective and didactic approach. It is a subversive text that challenged how we understand science. Before Kuhn every scientific knowledge was understood to be authentic, undeniable, unchangeable, something that have been arrived at after observations and verifications and therefore absolute truth. But Kuhn argued that each knowledge in the progression is open to be questioned and maybe replaced with new knowledge.
The Introduction sets in motion, the subversive purpose and context of the book, and briefly explains the content of each chapters. The opening paragraph itself establishes that the book is aimed to be a subversion to everything that was known about scientific knowledge. “This essay attempts to show that we have been misled…” writes Kuhn questioning everything history have said about scientific development. Kuhn even goes so far as equating science with myths, the very thing that science seeks to dismiss, by proposing that just like myths are incompatible with modern knowledge same way old text of science may be incompatible as per new knowledge. “If these out of date beliefs are to be called myths, then myths can be produced by the same sorts of methods and held for the same sorts of reasons that now lead to scientific knowledge.”
Chapter II Route to Normal Science
Route to Normal Science describes in details what are paradigms, how they are created and what’s their relevance in the group of professionals. Kuhn mentions two major phases in scientist knowledge pre-paradigmatic and paradigmatic. At the paradigmatic phase the science become mature, without paradigm a scientific research is not possible and guides the entire research.
Chapter III The Nature of Normal Science
In Chapter III, The Nature of Normal Science, Kuhn foregrounds the limitations of the paradigm. He first acknowledges that he had appropriated the word ‘paradigm’ from the established usage for lack of a better word but clarifies that in science its meaning would be different. Paradigm is not a model to be replicated but “like an accepted judicial decision in the common law, it is an object for further articulation and specification under new or more stringent conditions,” because when it first appears it is limited in its scope and precision. It can solve only so many of the puzzles to a limited extent. But those who practice normal science are only busy mopping up within the paradigm, without questioning any of the established knowledge, no attempt is made to think of new phenomenon, far from constantly questioning everything around them, the scientists get comfortable within the paradigm and do not attempt to find new anomalies, don’t attempt to find new solutions. Kuhn lists the three classes of problems of normal science — determination of significant fact, matching of facts with theory, and articulation of theory.
Chapter IV, Normal Science as Puzzle Solving
Chapter IV, Normal Science as Puzzle Solving makes holes in the greatness purported to lie in the pursuit of scientific research. While in common parlance we understand research to be the very foundation of knowledge creation as new research gives us new knowledge. But Kuhn argues that in normal science research can be deceptive and manipulative. Most often scientists do not attempt to find answers to questions that are relevant but take up those which are likely to have answer in the given paradigm. If a certain study does not meet expected result it is not published. Researchers already know what they seek to achieve. Kuhn draws a parallel between puzzles and research in science and explains that just like puzzles must have an answer in research only those problems are taken that can be solved without considering the intrinsic value of a research question.
Chapter V, The Priority of Paradigm
Chapter V, The Priority of Paradigm explains in details how the paradigm guides research, what its relevance is and the relationship between rules, paradigms and normal science. Kuhn suggest that while rules are derived from paradigm the paradigm can also guide research even in absence of rules and this is possible because often scientist work on models they acquire from formal education and literature without ever knowing what elements created the model. A parallel is drawn here with how Ludwig Wittgenstein answered the question, why we call a chair, ‘chair’ or a leaf, ‘leaf’ is because we somehow already intuitively know what chair or leaf is. The argument that scientists community are close knit and rigid, and they follow the paradigm without knowing or understanding the rules is telling of science replacing religion with a new order where scientists have blind faith in paradigm.
In Chapter VI
In Chapter VI Kuhn raises the question that if all scientists practicing normal science follow the paradigm without aiming at novelties of facts or theory then how is it that new discovery and invention take place in the field of science? The answer is in scientific discovery. From sociology and feminist discourse perspective it is important to note here that Kuhn makes a direct connection between identifying anomalies and discovery. New paradigm can only be arrived when new anomalies are identified which cannot be solved by existing paradigm. “Novelty emerges only with difficulty manifested by resistance, against a background provided by expectation.” For a feminist this is a call to raise questions against established patriarchal rules not just for women’s sake but for sake of new knowledge which would lead to a better society.
Chapters VII, VIII
The need for questioning status quo and stirring up crisis continues through Chapters VII and VIII in which Kuhn establishes a relation between crisis and emergence of scientific theories and how scientists respond to crisis. Kuhn draws a chaotic picture of the crisis scientists go through complete with shades of emotion. First they live in denial of the crisis and then try ad hoc solutions to eliminate anomalies, some scientists unable to deal with the crisis even leave the profession. Only after immense ‘essential tension’ does a revolution take place.
Chapter IX and X
In Chapter IX and X, Kuhn fully articulates the subversive aspects of the book as he foregrounds the necessity of scientific revolution, which remained one of the biggest take away from this book as it changed the way we view not only science but all types of knowledge creation. Even half a century after the book was written, these aspects remain influential in how differences and conflict in epistemology can be resolved and are of particular significance in feminist epistemology which rejects the ethos of positivism.
Chapter XI argues that even though revolutions are results of immense tension they are mostly invisible, and do not appear as something drastic just happened. Kuhn takes a critical look at the role of science textbooks in which scientific development is presented in a linear cumulative brick by brick manner hiding away the revolutions, text books are as such misleading.
Chapter XII and XIII details how scientific revolutions are accepted by the group of professionals and how they lead to scientific progress. A revolution happen only one paradigm has been fully proved to be incompetent in solving a puzzle and is replaced by a new one. Old paradigm is not replaced unless there is a fit candidate for change. The relationship between the two paradigm is incommensurable, they speak different language and view the world differently and the group of professionals have to come to reconciliation between the two.
The argument that two paradigms are incommensurable was an immensely radical idea at the time Kuhn published his work because scientific knowledge was always viewed as irrefutable. Each piece of knowledge was considered objective truth immune to attack.
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions have become the most influential book in philosophy for the endless opportunities it provided to think out of the box, beyond established dogmas and rules. From the perspective of feminist epistemology it is profoundly impactful to learn that if everything we knew about science can be turned upside down, if the process of scientific development itself is riddled with ruptures, rhythms, revolutions and chaos then it is more than obvious that feminist and subaltern discourses must reject phallocentric didactic positivist methods of knowledge creation.
Butterfield, Herbert. The Whig interpretation of history. W. W. Norton & Company, 1931.
Kristeva, Julia. Revolution in Poetic Language. Trans. Margaret Waller. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.
Merton, Robert K. The Normative Structure of Science. University of Chicago Press, 1942.
Naughton, John. Thomas Kuhn: the man who changed the way the world looked at science. 19 August 2012. 20 November 2018. <https://www.theguardian.com/science/2012/aug/19/thomas-kuhn-structure-scientific-revolutions>.