Posted by: Jeremy Fox | April 12, 2012

The paradigm of ‘paradigm shifts’ turns 50

Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is 50 years old this year. It’s one of the most famous books on philosophy of science ever published, and one of the only ones to become well-known (albeit usually in a second-hand way) among scientists themselves. Kuhn focused on how scientific ideas get established, and later discarded or replaced, and his coinage of the term ‘paradigm shift’ proved especially resonant. See here for some ecological discussion of ‘paradigm shifts’. Kuhn was one of the first philosophers of science to pay serious attention to how science is actually practiced, and to take his philosophical inspiration from detailed consideration of the actual history of science. That’s surely a big reason why his ideas found an audience with practicing scientists.

David Kaiser has a very good overview essay at Nature, in particular noting some aspects of Kuhn’s book which are well-known among philosophers but much less well-known among scientists. Kuhn’s usage of ‘paradigm shift’ was infamously (although perhaps productively) ambiguous. And his view of alternative paradigms as ‘incommensurate’, meaning that they literally can’t be compared, is not a view to which many scientists would subscribe. Scientists tend to think of new ‘paradigms’ as improvements over the old ones, so that science exhibits cumulative progress of a sort that Kuhn denied. Kuhn himself wasn’t anti-science, but his ideas were one source of inspiration for postmodernist critiques of the objectivity of science.

I actually think ecologists would benefit from more familiarity with philosophers of science besides Kuhn (and Karl Popper, the other philosopher of science to become well-known among scientists). But I also think they’d benefit from more first-hand familiarity with Kuhn and Popper, since the second-hand ‘pop’ versions of Kuhn and Popper familiar to most practicing scientists aren’t actually all that helpful. And as Kaiser notes, Structure is actually short, clear, and very readable, and the most controversial claims are put forward in a suggestive rather than insistent style. The University of Chicago Press has just published a new edition of Structure with an introductory essay by Ian Hacking, whose own philosophical works I’ve found very accessible and helpful. So if you’re looking to get some first-hand familiarity with philosophy of science, the 50th anniversary of Structure is as good an excuse as any to take the plunge.


  1. I picked up “Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate” by Susan Haack after reading about it on another blog. A lot of it is on the philosophy of science, and it’s fun to read.

    • I’ve read that myself! Clearly great minds think alike. 😉

  2. One of the most important things we can do is ask, and answer, big questions. Paying attention to philosophers and historians of science can help us do this, but they should be taken with a grain of salt. Enormous progress can be made in science that is not paradigm shifting, just filling in the crucial details. Perhaps as important as reading Kuhn and Popper is reading their interpreters, who explain what it means for the practitiouer.

    • I certainly agree that reading interpreters and commentators is a useful thing to do. Especially if the original works (like some of Popper’s books) are rather lengthy and inaccessible. I just think it’s a little unfortunate that most scientists don’t even do this much. Mostly, I think practicing scientists just pick up some highly-digested scraps of Popper and Kuhn ‘from the air’, which isn’t very helpful.

      Besides helping us think big, thinking about philosophy can also help us better understand what we do and why we do it. It can help us do science a little more self-consciously, which I think can be a good thing. Our usual ways of proceeding mostly serve us pretty well, and we can usually just follow them ‘automatically’ without worrying about whether or why they work. We just ‘follow the recipe’, if you like. But there are times when our usual ways of proceeding break down or aren’t helpful, and (contra Kuhn) we won’t always run into ‘anomalies’ that warn us of this. Being a little more self-conscious about why we do science the way we do, and when and why that way of doing science works, can help us recognize those times when we need to step back and rethink.

  3. Maybe you should start hosting “Jeremy’s Book Club” on the blog. Pick a book ahead of time, then read & discuss.

    • That would actually be fun if I felt like I, and enough readers, could carve out enough time to do it.

      I may start posting some book reviews at some point, of stuff I’ve already read, but which others might not have.

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