Thomas Kuhn’s concept of the paradigm has greatly influenced the way that ideas and concepts evolve. Although his ideas were largely applied to the history of science, his concept of paradigm is also applicable to other branches of study such as philosophy and the social sciences among others. Kuhn (1962) showed that science is not merely an accumulation of knowledge. Rather, there are different periods of revolution, which he called paradigm shifts.
During these paradigm shifts, the main ideas about science and the processes governing scientific inquiry change dramatically. He said that science can be understood through three stages. The first one is pre-science, which does not have an over-arching paradigm. Prescience is succeeded by normal science, which is characterized by the attempts of scientists to develop and expand the central paradigm through the process of solving a problem, usually characterized as a puzzle.
The paradigm takes into account several variables and factors and seeks to explain different phenomena in the world. When there are anomalous results, meaning that there are results, which cannot be sufficiently explained by the dominant paradigm, and they accumulate, there develops a point of crisis. The old paradigm can no longer deal with new variables and new trends, hence there emerges a new paradigm, which takes into account the older one and successfully deals with the factors that cannot be explained away by the old paradigm. The anomalous results will then be integrated into the new framework alongside the old one.
Kuhn’s work is a revolutionary one. But what exactly is a paradigm? How useful is this concept? What evidences does he present in discussing this concept?
A paradigm is more than just a theory; it refers to a whole worldview that establishes the relationships between and among different variables in the system (Kuhn, 1962). This is because a theory is more limited in nature and scope. Although his use of the term paradigm has been criticized as vague and ambiguous, he attempted to use the term disciplinary matrix instead (Forster, 1998).
Kuhn criticized the adherents of science because of the claim that science is cumulative and that it is advancing toward a certain end. In fact, he even went as far as to claim that science textbooks is misleading and usually relies on history. Kuhn calls history and the occurrence of previous discoveries as normal science—the kind that has already established its tenets and other set of beliefs and assumptions (Neyens & Gardner, 2007).
Through this discussion, Kuhn presented several characteristics of his concept of the paradigm. One is that the paradigm should be unprecedented, which means that the old paradigm should not have taken into account the features of the new paradigm. The new paradigm should also be an open system so that different scientists will be able to work with its building blocks of ideas and deal with a number of different problems so that the paradigm becomes applicable to a wider range of problems, thereby contributing to its wider acceptance by the people in the scientific community.
In developing his concept of the paradigm, Thomas Kuhn looked at several discoveries and advancement in the field of electricity during the first part of the nineteenth century. Normal science, according to Kuhn usually has established procedures, processes, assumptions and rules. Even though the scientific process is still the same, normal science usually works within its own sphere of knowledge and is unable to transcend such sphere (Neyens & Gardner, 2007).
The Occurrence of Paradigm Shifts
In a manner of speaking, normal science tends to be a closed system and does not take much account for the anomalous results that may be produced by the same system. In order for scientific advancements to happen, these anomalous situations and results should be present and that the old paradigm should be unable to explain the existence of such anomalies. To illustrate his points, Kuhn showed several examples in the history of science through the ages. When the number of anomalous results increases, a paradigm shift is impending.
A paradigm shift can also be considered as a scientific revolution (Kuhn, 1962). In order to explain the anomalies being discovered by scientists, they would have to transcend the prevailing paradigm and incorporate a new kind of understanding. Usually, the anomalies in a paradigm are explained away as errors. In other instances, they are also simply ignored and other explanations are not sought after.
At any particular point in time, the significance of these anomalies varies from scientist to scientist. For a particular period of history, a certain branch of science is dominant while at other times, other branches receive more attention.
The anomalous results or variable will grow in terms of volume and momentum. When this happens, the prevailing paradigm enters a period of crisis in which it can no longer effectively work in explaining different variables and occurrences in the field. This crisis is necessary for the testing of the paradigm and its validity as well as the examination of the prevailing paradigm. In fact, without crisis, there can be no paradigm shift (Forster, 1998).
Paradigm Shift and Crisis
Kuhn illustrated this masterfully by pointing out the example of the paradigm shift that was brought about by Copernicus and his version of astronomy. This new paradigm challenged the prevailing paradigm of Ptolemy’s astronomy during that time. To make matters worse, the earth-centric astronomy of Ptolemy was supported by the Church. Unfortunately, those who supported the revolutionary paradigm did not only have to fight in the arena of scientific inquiry but at times, they also had to fight for their lives because of the danger posed by the church to such individuals. The experience of Galileo is a testimony to this violent crisis between two the old and the new paradigm.
Kuhn showed the astronomical system of Ptolemy could no longer offer effective explanations to the observations being made by astronomers during that time. Scientists went as far as offer solutions to such problems. However, over time, the seemingly solved problems of Ptolemic astronomy keep cropping up all over the place (Forster, 1998). As such, the discrepancies, lack of explanations and explanatory difficulties came together and created momentum for the development of an alternative paradigm—that of heliocentric astronomy as proposed by Copernicus.
Paradigm shifts may also involve the discovery of new set of data that can undermine the prevailing paradigm and support the revolutionary one. Or it may also involve looking at a different point of view so that the relationships between and among variables take on a new meaning and new interpretation of data. Kuhn also argued that science is non-cumulative and the interpretations of previous scientists may not be drawn upon by the present paradigm that explains the relationships of variables and different. As such, science is not cumulative.
When Albert Einstein published his theory of relativity, it was believed that there was not much to be discovered in physics and that physicist would have to labor for better ways of calculations and measurements. Through Einstein’s findings, however, this view changed. Another paradigm shift has entered the picture of the sciences and forever changed the view of people of the world and of the universe. Einstein’s findings also enabled scientists to develop further theories and applications, which up to now are being used all over the world.
Impact of Paradigm Shifts on Scientists
There are two main impacts of paradigm shifts on scientists. One is that paradigm shifts create important changes in the manner in which scientists view the world. If a particular set of things used to be viewed as one thing, there is a change in such a view. The example provided by Kuhn is the way that the moon used to be viewed as a planet under Ptolemaic astronomy. But through the paradigm shift of Copernicus, it was seen as a satellite (Forster, 1998).
Secondly, paradigm shifts tend to change the very way that scientists work. By identifying new variables and introducing different ways of interpreting variables and factors, the way that scientists work is also affected by the paradigm shifts that occur in the fields of science (Forster, 1998).
Paradigm shifts may be arrived at because of the technologies available and the discovery of new factors that need to be taken into account in the prevailing paradigm. With the coming of a new paradigm, interpretations change as well as the relationships between and among different variables and factors.
Scientific revolutions and paradigm shifts are a necessary component in the development of ideas in the world. These kinds of paradigm shifts do not only occur in the scientific world. In fact, the concept of the paradigm and paradigm shift has been applied to politics, economics and other branches of knowledge.
In terms of accepting the changes brought about by paradigm shifts, the non-scientific sectors of the world tend to accept it more quickly than the scientific community. If anything, the acceptance of the scientific community of the paradigm shift is the last straw that indicates that the paradigm shift has already occurred (Neyens & Garnder, 2007).
Revolutions and their Role in the World
Revolutions are usually invisible and they are discerned only after their conclusion. Old paradigms and theories tend to be absorbed into the new paradigm. Otherwise, they tend to disappear altogether. This is also seen in the way that the Copernican view of the world superseded the Ptolemaic paradigm. The Ptolemaic paradigm fell to disuse while the Copernican view gained prominence. Later on, the Copernican view was superseded by another paradigm and it too fell into disuse and oblivion.
Revolutions, however, tend to be filled with conflict and at other times violence. Yet, as the merits of the new paradigm becomes more popular and accepted, the paradigm becomes accepted and will supersede the prevailing one. As different revolutions go on in the world, the progress will be readily discernible for those who care to look back and chronicle these revolutions.
The impact of the concept of paradigm as developed by Kuhn has spilled over into other fields of discipline such as politics, economics, sociology, and even in organizational behavior. The concept of a paradigm has come to mean a way of looking things and a system of relationships of different factors and variables within the system.
As such, in order for progress and change to occur, the present way of looking at things and the manner of running the different factors in the system should change. In short a paradigm shift would be very much needed.
Criticism of Kuhn
Although the concepts of paradigm and paradigm shift are important in looking at the development of science and of different fields, Kuhn was not able to sufficiently distinguish his concept of paradigm from that of a theory or from the disciplinary matrix that he presented. Apart from the understanding that a theory is more limited in scope than a paradigm, this concept does not seem to have much difference from the concept of worldview or theory.
Another criticism of Kuhn is his apparent disregard of the cumulativeness of knowledge in science and the way that scientists use such knowledge for the advancement of knowledge and of science. Even the Copernican heliocentric worldview had to use some of the tools employed by the Ptolemaic system in order to arrive at such a conclusion (Franklin, 2007).
Without the previous findings of scientists in any field of study, some of the recent findings of science will not become possible. Kuhn’s argument that rival paradigms could not understand each other appears to be a play on linguistics and the use of different terminologies for the same things. His explanation for this immutability between rival paradigms is not sufficiently explained. Without such comparison, it would not be possible to compare and contrast rival paradigms to assess the effectiveness of each one and arrive at an understanding of which theory has better explanatory value in explaining the phenomenon.
Kuhn is also criticized by his non-differentiation of the hard sciences and the humanities and appeared to have espoused a version of relativism and does not take into account the nuances and dynamism of the scientific process.
Nonetheless, the concept of paradigm has been elevated from its mundane meaning and is now one of the most famous words in terms of effecting change and transformation. Furthermore, Kuhn also highlighted the importance of effectively addressing new variables and factors in the prevailing paradigm.
The concepts of paradigm and paradigm shifts have proven to be very useful in understanding the development of theories and of ideas in the world. These concepts have not only been used in the hard sciences such as physics and the like. Rather, they have been used in social sciences and other related fields.
Although there are criticisms directed to some of the things that Kuhn disregarded such as the cumulativeness of scientific knowledge and by seemingly promoting relativism, his concepts still have explanatory power in documenting and tracing the occurrences and the quality of the revolutions going on in the world. By using these concepts, it would also be easier to track development and progress.