Books, Philosophy, Science

50th anniversary of Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Paradigm shift? Incommensurability? Did you ever wonder where these ideas came from? Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions was published 50 years ago and several texts online pay homage to this philosophical blockbuster.

“More than most scholars of his era, Kuhn taught historians and philosophers to view science as practice rather than syllogism,” *

writes David Kaiser in Nature. And philosopher Michael Ruse writes a text on Kuhn at The Chronicle’s Brainstorm. The first two paragraphs are very good and I quote them in full:

“Fifty years ago, when I started my life as a philosopher, one rigid distinction that we were taught was the difference between the “context of discovery” and the “context of justification.” A scientist might come up with an idea in the daftest manner – the favorite was Kerkulé discovering the circular nature of the benzene ring by seeing in the flickering flames of a fire a snake swallowing its tail – but the proof of the pudding lay in whether the evidence supported it. We philosophers needed to know nothing about the former and everything about the latter. The feeling was that history of science, which deals with discovery, is basically gossip.

Then in 1962 – 50 years ago this year – along came Thomas Kuhn and his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He drove a horse and four through the distinction, arguing that unless you know something of how and why a scientist gets his or her ideas, even as a philosopher you are missing something very important. Origins do matter, all of the time. Not that I think that Kuhn was a relativist, thinking that only origins matter. Some have taken him this way, or at least have used his authority to go down that path. His point rather was that to understand the present, you must understand the past.” *

After that Ruse goes off on some Kuhn-unrelated tangent about evolution … well, it must be a sign of the power of Kuhn’s text that people seem to have all kind of associations.

Update 10. 05. 2012: Ulrich Lehmann explains in Nature that science sociology began before Kuhn and reminds us of Ludwik Fleck and his 1935 study Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact (translated into English in 1979). One more thing on my reading list …


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