The controversy over Thomas Kuhn’s ideas about the nature of science

The works by the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn have had a profound effect on my understanding of the nature of science. I can strongly recommend his books The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962 and revised in 1970) and The Copernican Revolution (1957).

For those who would like a shorter introduction to his ideas, this article by James A. Marcum that provides a brief biography of Kuhn as well as a summary of the ideas in Structure is good.

Kuhn views led to fierce debates about the nature of scientific knowledge within the academic world that spilled over to the general consciousness. Marcus does a good job of discussing what the controversies were about and how Kuhn reacted to them.

This link was sent to me a few days ago by a former student of mine who took my course on the evolution of scientific ideas way back in 2003. We discussed Kuhn a lot in that course and he says that he found the ideas in that course to be thought-provoking. It is always gratifying for a teacher to find that a course influenced a student’s interests and reading habits reading long after it ended.


  1. flex says

    When I read Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions I didn’t think it was all that profound, but that is likely because I first read it in the 80’s after already been exposed to both popularization’s and the controversy surrounding Kuhn’s work.

    I think lots of people took Kuhn’s idea of a paradigm shift to mean that reality is more malleable than it is. Miss-understanding Kuhn allowed a lot of quantum-quackery to flourish. When, from my reading of Kuhn, he was really discussing how the preponderance of evidence from examining a discrepancy in current theory can lead to both new theories and heavy criticism of any new theories by those who’s lives were heavily invested in the older theories.

    However, as Kuhn’s work became popular I encountered any number of hippies at science-fiction conventions who maintained that if enough people believed in unicorns, they would show up because of the ‘paradigm-shift’. Kuhn was, of course, not advocating that at all. Kuhn was describing, and creating a model of, a historical phenomenon. But a model generally works only one way. You have to believe in sympathetic magic to believe that changing a model (unicorns don’t exist to unicorns exist) will alter reality. Reality is more thermo-plastic than we generally credit it, but not in sense of physics but in the cultural sense. But reality, even cultural reality, doesn’t work like The Secret.

    I found a number of similarities in Kuhn’s ideas as in the ideas of Umberto Eco (who I’m certain had read Kuhn at some point). I’m re-reading Eco’s Serendipities and some of the same ideas Eco discusses about Kircher’s or Leibniz’s incorrect view of the Chinese language are almost identical to Kuhn’s examples of paradigm shifts. So much so that I think I’ll leave a quote from Serendipities here:

    However, the real problem does not so much concern rules as our eternal drive to think that our rules are the golden ones. The real problem of a critique of our cultural models is to ask, when we see a unicorn, if by any chance it is not a rhinoceros.

    Umberto Eco, last lines of chapter 3, Serendipities, 1998.

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