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Paradigms Regained: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions 50th Anniversary Edition

April 21, 2012

Ian Hacking in Los Angeles Review of Books:

ONE THING IS NOT SAID often enough: Thomas S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, like all great books, is a work of passion, and a passionate desire to get things right. This is plain even from its modest first sentence: “History, if viewed as a repository for more than anecdote or chronology, could produce a decisive transformation in the image of science by which we are now possessed.” Thomas Kuhn was out to change our understanding of the sciences — that is, of the activities that have enabled our species, for better or worse, to dominate the planet. He succeeded. (…)

The sciences progress by leaps and bounds. For many people, scientific advance is the very epitome of progress. If only political or moral life could be like that! Scientific knowledge is cumulative, building upon previous benchmarks to scale new peaks.

That is exactly Kuhn’s picture of normal science. It is truly cumulative, but a revolution destroys the continuity. Many things that an older science did well may be forgotten as a new set of problems is posed by a new paradigm. That is indeed one unproblematic kind of incommensurability. After a revolution there may be a substantial shift in topics studied, so that the new science simply does not address all the old topics. It may modify or drop many of the concepts that were once appropriate.

What then of progress? We had thought of a science as progressing towards the truth in its domain. Kuhn does not challenge that conception of a normal science. His analysis is an original account of exactly why normal science is a social institution that progresses so speedily, in its own terms. Revolutions, however, are different, and they are essential to a different kind of progress. [More]

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