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July 18: Thomas Kuhn and the “Paradigm Shift”

July 18, 2014
9780226458120Historian and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn, author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), was born in Cincinnati on this date in 1922. His immensely influential book claimed that the progress of science is marked by periodic “paradigm shifts” that open up new understandings of reality unimagined based on previous scientific knowledge, and that scientific truth, at any point in human development, is not a matter of objective fact but of consensus within the scientific community. The Copernican Revolution, for example (as described in his first book in 1957) involved “a transformation of mathematical astronomy, but it embraced conceptual changes in cosmology, physics, philosophy, and religion as well” and “could only be assimilated by men able to create a new physics, a new conception of space, and a new idea of man’s relation to God.” Kuhn’s concept of subjectivity in science very much influenced feminist and postmodernist thought in the so-called social sciences. His teaching years were spent primarily at MIT, although he taught also at Berkeley and Princeton. Kuhn died at 73 in 1996. “Under normal conditions the research scientist is not an innovator but a solver of puzzles, and the puzzles upon which he concentrates are just those which he believes can be both stated and solved within the existing scientific tradition.” —Thomas Kuhn