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Paradigm

On Definition, Criticism Of Kuhn's Paradigms, Revolutions, Leaps Of Faith, Criticism Of Kuhn's Relativism

Paradigm is the key term in Thomas Kuhn's (1922–1996) very influential book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). As is frequently the case when new ideas are presented, Kuhn took an existing term and gave it a specialized meaning. The term paradigm now occurs frequently in every kind of discourse, usually to mean something like "way of thinking" or "approach to a problem." Kuhn has generally been given credit for introducing this usage, but the way that paradigm is popularly used misses a central aspect of his argument. Kuhn emphasizes that a paradigm cannot be reduced to a set of beliefs or to a list of rules and indeed that a paradigm cannot be put into words. Scientists have to learn by doing, both by thinking in terms of the concepts that are used in a particular science and by physically manipulating material to create phenomena.

Kuhn argues that the history of science is best understood as exhibiting stable periods, which he calls normal science, punctuated by revolutionary changes. Paradigm is the central concept that Kuhn uses to make his case, since a period of normal science is defined by its paradigm and a scientific revolution is, in Kuhn's terms, a change in paradigms. Typically a paradigm is first established by the publication of a ground-breaking book that sets out problems and solutions, then others adopt the aims and methods of the original, thus establishing a period of normal science. Contrary to the traditional view that science was founded in Renaissance Europe by "the scientific revolution," Kuhn sees multiple revolutions in the history of science, that is, multiple cases of the overthrow of one scientific paradigm by another.

Paradigm is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as a pattern, exemplar, or example. Kuhn acknowledges this meaning by giving the conjugation of a regular Latin verb as an example of a paradigm. Furthermore, since he believes that a normal science is typically established by an important book and often by a series of experiments, it is clear that Kuhn has the idea of a paradigm as a pattern that will be followed very much in mind when he is explaining his view. A key aspect of paradigms is that they set out problems and also show how to solve them. Newton's laws of motion and the force of gravity combine to explain planetary motion, for example. There is more to a paradigm than a good model to follow, however. Kuhn also thinks that among scientists who are working under the same paradigm, the historian can find common methods, common standards, common aims, and fundamental agreement about the nature of the world and the nature of the processes in it. Periods of normal science are characterized by consensus, especially about fundamentals, and this agreement allows for specialization, or as Kuhn puts it, "professional and esoteric work" (1996, p. 23). The function of normal science is to extend the original work by applying its methods to new areas as well as to revisit old ground in order to refine the paradigm. Because normal science is based on agreement and has well-defined parameters, it can make progress and accumulate knowledge.

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