The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
I first learned about Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 game-changing book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in my undergrad “History of Science and Technology” class. After reading the book, I see how Kuhn looks at science, not as necessarily a truth-seeking endeavor, but more of a rhetorical process. Scientists aren’t discovering truth, but studying and advocating for better paradigms, much like Greek and Roman sophists in the forum. It’s not necessarily the best theory that always wins, so much as the better-argued and most applicable.
Kuhn suggested that the revolutions in scientific history are not necessarily cumulative patterns, but that one paradigm in many ways rejects another (e.g., Einsteinian physics rejected much of Newtonian). In many instances, the language and vocabulary changes with the new paradigm, signifying the obsolescing of the old. The new vocabulary is then used by future theorists, thereby making the old paradigm even less significant. This pattern repeats itself, not in an attempt to obtain the truth, but to effect a better reality.
Scientific Revolutions, in my understanding, is an attempt to give a historical account of how scientific theories evolve. Kuhn explicitly addresses the “out-of-date” ideas that some label as myths. He then points out that those myths were once accepted as science and fact. Kuhn paints a picture of how these ideas shifted, who was involved, and the effects these shifts still have today.
The book used the term “paradigm” to indicate a worldview of sorts. In my interpretation, a paradigm is itself a metaphor. Kuhn stated that to accept one paradigm was to reject another simultaneously. As I understand the book, Kuhn diverges from the hard-line thinking that science is a pursuit of truth, much like religion. Instead, he sees scientific efforts as more grounded in humanity with all its faults, mishaps, and troubled history. I am acutely aware of this perspective in my own studies. As an avid reader of Neil Postman, who argued against what he called “scientism,” I take a much less dogmatic stance on science than some. In my opinion, the science is never settled. I think Kuhn illustrates that concept quite well.
Scientific Revolutions is a good read, even if you don’t care about academics. We often think of history and science dogmatically, wherein the facts are constants, fixed points on a timeline that exists without reproach. Kuhn illustrates a different picture. Public opinion often has a dogmatic stance on any given topic (politics, religion, vaccines, etc.). We would do well to remember, as Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Meditations, “ The world is change; life is opinion.”
Originally published at http://thephilosophicalfighter.com on November 7, 2022.