Tuesday, March 6, 2012

How Science Works, according to Thomas Kuhn...

and probably every scientist who reflects upon the following narrative...

…but now came the real shock.  The biggest blow to earlier philosophy of science came, oddly enough, from the history of science, and in particular, from Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  Now, Kuhn’s target in that book (it was a book about the history of science)…was typically called the “Whig Interpretation,” of the history of science…[which held that] science proceeds cumulatively and inevitably through the linear addition of discovery and argument, based on a background foundation of a set of concepts and assumptions.  This is the kind of science which…you learned, and many people probably still learn, in their science classes.  Namely, science proceeds by putting one brick on top of another brick.  You get a foundation for your science, each experimentalist or theorist adds [another brick of] knowledge and you gradually build, build, build, build. 
Kuhn argued that such is a plausible description only of a part—and in fact the least interesting part—of the development of science.  For while what he will call “normal science” in most historical periods does proceed through the patient accumulation of fact.  Over time, there gradually develops cracks and fissures:  unsolvable problems begin to accumulate in this structure being built by normal science.  When these cracks become grave enough, a scientific revolution takes place, nothing incremental but a sharp break, involving not the addition of one discovery or one little argument, but the wholesale replacement of what he called “the paradigm.”  If you’ve heard the word “paradigm” in your life, it’s probably because it came from this book of Kuhn’s, which made it famous.
In a scientific revolution, the whole paradigm—meaning the fundamental concepts and practices of a science in a period of time—gets rejected.  One paradigm is radically overthrown by another. 
—Lawrence Cahoone describing Thomas Kuhn’s assertions in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  The Modern Intellectual Tradition: From Descartes to Derrida.  2010.  “New Philosophies of Science.”  Lecture 29.  The Teaching Company.

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