Scientific progress according to Thomas Kuhn

Thomas Kuhn was one of the pre-eminent scientific voices of the twentieth century.  He made key contributions to physics; but his most important works were about the history and philosophy of science.  His most influential work is The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in which Kuhn offers the processes and conditions under which scientific progress takes place.  This book deals with a broad time-span of scientific history while also providing in-depth analysis of cornerstone scientific discoveries.  He states that rather than progressing through gradual and slow accumulation of new knowledge, scientific progress happens in periodic bursts in which new insights add to the previous understanding.  In other words, scientific progress happens through a three-step process.  During the initial ‘Prescience’ stage, there is not central guiding paradigm in the particular field of inquiry.  The process of adding new knowledge to the Prescient stage is called ‘normal science’, which is associated with ‘puzzle-solving’.  The steady adding up of anomalous results leads to a crisis within the paradigm.  This crisis prompts the dismantling of prevailing theoretical understanding and ushers in a paradigmatic shift toward ‘revolutionary science’.  These process are played out in historic cycles over and over again, constantly renewing, expanding and correcting our understanding of the physical world.  In this respect, Kuhn’s contribution to the philosophy of science and the understanding of historical processes through which science progresses is indeed very valuable.

At the core of Kuhn’s theory of scientific progress is the belief that each emergent paradigm is more complex and sophisticated that the one it replaces.  We also understand that

 “Paradigms can determine normal science without the intervention of discoverable rules or shared assumptions. In part, this is because it is very difficult to discover the rules that guide particular normal-science traditions. Scientists never learn concepts, laws, and theories in the abstract and by themselves. They generally learn these with and through their applications. New theory is taught in tandem with its application to   a concrete range of phenomena.” (Kuhn, 1962)

One should also understand that the terms ‘paradigm’ and ‘paradigm shifts’ were not originally coined by Kuhn, although he was instrumental in shaping and defining its meaning.  Being abstract notions as they are, these words have been misrepresented and diverted to mean other ideas that today they have become devoid of meaning.  Kuhn has been criticized for being vague in this regard and thereby causing confusion among the scientific community.  The other common criticism is that the author does not give extensive practical examples from the history of science to substantiate his theories, including that of paradigm shift.  A more recent criticism against Kuhn’s theory of scientific progress has come from Oriental scholars, who claim that Eastern formulations of mathematical and scientific theories hardly find mention in the book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and also that scientific progress in the Eastern hemisphere (chiefly China, India and Arabia) do not conform to the paradigmatic model proposed by Kuhn.  But in the final assessment, there is no diminishing of the view that Thomas Kuhn’s work on understanding the processes of scientific progress has had a profound effect.  Due to the merit of his theories and analyses not only has the scientific community benefited but also the general readership.

References:

Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (A Synopsis from the original by Professor Frank Pajares From the Philosopher’s Web Magazine), retrieved from <http://www.des.emory.edu/mfp/kuhnsyn.html>

Moleski, Martin X. “Polanyi vs. Kuhn: Worldviews Apart.” The Polanyi Society. Missouri Western State University. Accessed 11th November, 2011 from <http://www.missouriwestern.edu/orgs/polanyi/TAD%20WEB%20ARCHIVE/TAD33-2/TAD33-2-fnl-pg8-24-pdf.pdf>