THOMAS KUHN

Tim Healy, Santa Clara University


The first edition of Thomas Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" appeared just over 30 years ago, in 1962. His vision has revolutionized the way we think about science, and has given us as well a new way to look at change in all of life.

A vision of science that preceeded Kuhn saw science as an accumulation of all that had been learned over history, each new law adding its weight to the mass of science. Kuhn saw something else. He saw a science profoundly altered by a major new law, so that all of the science might be affected. Kuhn envisioned a science as having, at any one time, a world view, or 'paradigm', of its environment. This scientific paradigm describes everything which the science holds, all of its laws, beliefs, procedures, methods, everything upon which it bases its life. Kuhn felt that most scientists participate in 'normal science' which is any activity consistent with the existing paradigm, with relatively small gains the rule. Eventually, anomalies arise which the paradigm cannot resolve. Then some individual(s) may step out of the paradigm, and propose some new principle or law. If the scientific community accepts the proposed change, the science experiences a 'paradigm shift', and the new science proceeds with a new paradigm.

I find Kuhn's image of a paradigm to be very useful in my understanding of myself, and of the changes that take place in all of life, scientific, social, religious, everything. Some people may not like to carry over the analogy into non-scientific aspects of our life, and that is fine. If the concept is not useful, then of course you should not use it. I speak only for myself when I say that it has helped me understand many things.

Whether in the sciences, or in other aspects of our lives, paradigm shifts seem to have some common characteristics.

1, Paradigm shifts are a necessary part of life. Things do change, and we have to adjust to that change.

2. Paradigm shifts can be bad. Society needs quite a bit of stability, so that it can depend on its view of the world. Constant shifts in major elements of our paradigm would make our lives very difficult.

3. Paradigm shifts often come from the young. Older people have more to conserve. They have more of investment, financial and psychological, in their paradigm. Winston Churchill said that any man who is not a liberal at 20 has no heart, and any man who is not a conservative at 40 has no mind.

4. You cannot abandon a paradigm until you have one to put in its place, because our paradigm is that which allows us to function. Without a paradigm, good or bad, we cannot function.

5. It usually takes a long time to effect a paradigm shift - often as much as 20 years, about the life of a generation. (See Point 3 above, and for an example, see also Maxwell.)

This last point is what Thomas Stockmann means when he says in Ibsen's "An Enemy of the People"

"A normally constituted truth lives, let us say, as a rule seventeen or eighteen, or at most twenty years; seldom longer."

I find myself bringing the concept of a paradigm, and its five characteristics, to bear on many issues. An example of an accomplished paradigm shift that took place in my lifetime is the acceptance of persons of color in the military. The fight over that paradigm shift took placejust before, during, and after the Second World War. In the early days there were passionate opponents of the idea. (You know that there is a potential paradigm shift in the making when someone says "It will happen over my dead body.") Today, persons of color in the military is a part of our paradigm, and no one debates it any more. Our generation is in the midst of two similar possible paradigm shift fights, over gays in the military, and full participation of women in the military.

Another interesting example of a recent paradigm shift is the movement of society toward recycling. Twenty years ago all of our bottles and glasses, and most of our newspapers went into the trash. Today most communities have recycling programs, and for most of us it has become a psychologically painful experience to throw a can in the trash. We look around for a nearby recycling bin, and increasingly often we find it.

Our paradigms shift constantly. It is fascinating indeed to watch the early signs of change, the arguments, the debates, and think about the common characteristics of paradigm shifts. What is slowly changing totay that will become a part of a new paradigm, what will not change?

Will we come to accept the right of a woman to choose an abortion?

Will the computer revolution have profound effects on how we live our lives?

Will professional baseball die in the United States?

Will racism decline significantly?

Reference: Kuhn, Thomas, S., "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions", Second Edition, Enlarged, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1970(1962)