Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (3)

Scientific revolutions are those moments in the history of science in which one paradigm is replaced by another. In order to clarify further, Kuhn compares scientific revolutions to political revolutions. In political revolutions there is a growing sense of dissatisfaction with the governing institutions that eventually reaches a threshold: similarly, in scientific revolutions the paradigm—it’s methodology, tools, theories and ontology—has ceased to facilitate exploration in an arena in which it had previously led the way and thus dissatisfaction grows. (92) Another, and what Kuhn refers to as a more profound parallel is that of incommensurability. During a political revolution competing camps or parties emerge which disagree about, “the institutional matrix within which political change is to be achieved and evaluated.” (93) Thus there is no higher ground for arbitration and in the end the groups must resort to persuasion. (93-94) While persuasion in the political realm often ends in violence, in scientific revolutions it results in circular argument. (94)  Paradigm competition is analogous to—in fact is—comparing two competing epistemological stances when foundationalism has been found wanting. The competitors must resort to displaying inner coherence, the overarching predicative ability, and even inner aesthetic of one over the other. (94, 97, 155) All of this is complicated by the fact that neither side will grant the other all of the non-empirical assumptions it needs to make its case,  when the world is conceived as fundamentally different by opposing camps it is incredibly hard to debate or even find the terms and categories over which to do so. (148-149) —

Kuhn makes the statement that “cumulative acquisition of novelty is not only rare in fact but improbable in principle.” (96) This is a result of the fluctuation of science only seen when viewed historically. Normal science, within a paradigm, is cumulative. It builds upon the problem solving methodology of the paradigm as it attacks puzzles. In doing so it knows what it is looking for and for the most part is unsurprised by what it finds.  When genuine novelties arise within paradigms they signify anomalies. That is, novelty suggests that the world is not being or acting the way that it is supposed to. Novelty reveals anomalies and in so far as anomalies persist the paradigm itself moves towards crisis until its dissolution/dislocation by a new paradigm. When this happens, when anomaly is solved through a shift in paradigm, novelty appears as law and thus disappears. –-

The idea that conversion to a new paradigm could be forced is based on a common philosophical assumption about the world, one that can be referred to as naïve empirical realism coupled with a correspondent theory of epistemology. Put differently, the world, qua empirical reality, exists independently of human cognition and can be reliably accessed, almost intuitively, via the matching of simple propositional statements to objective empirical facts. Both Popper’s falsification thesis and the probabilistic theories fall under this philosophical assumption. (145-147) What Kuhn is at pains to show is that this is simply not the case, at least not for science. Paradigms structure not only theory, research methodology and instruments but the world itself. (149) There is no, “one set of scientific problems, one world in which to work on them, and one set of standards for their solution.” (147-148)

It is plausible that one could object to Kuhn’s account by pointing out that while Kuhn seems to see scientific revolutions everywhere, for the majority of people, including scientists, these processes are all but invisible. Kuhn’s preemptive response entails a brief look at the ideology that weaves its way through both popularizing science books and science textbooks masking the flux of the history of science. (136-137) This is not as insidious as it sounds. Rather,  it serves as a good pedagogical tool. Science students are being incorporated into a tradition. It is not just the tradition of science as a whole, if there is such a thing, but rather the tradition of a specific way of doing science, a paradigm. As such, students are taught to ask the kinds of questions and seek the kinds of answers, using the kinds of methodologies, which the present paradigm permits. (138) In addition, science often writes its history backwards paying little if any attention to the historical context of discoveries. It revises the work of its heroes so that their findings and research can be understood within the present paradigm and in doing so covers of the historical gaps and leaps that constitute scientific revolutions. (139-141.)


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