Paradigm shift

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The term ‘paradigm shift’ is nowadays something of a cliché (it’s a favourite among sports journalists, describing some team shake-up). A fairly recent addition to critical vocabulary it was introduced into popular discourse by the historian of science Thomas M. Kuhn, in his 1962 study The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn began with a simple, vexing observation: Why do scientists quarrel so much among themselves? His ‘paradigm shift’ thesis has been hugely influential and genuinely illuminating. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions routinely figures in round-ups of the most important books of the twentieth century.

Shifts in science Kuhn’s approach is ‘meta-topical’. He looks at the history of science, in all its many departments, to observe how the discipline moves forward – which demonstrably it does. Very simply, Kuhn perceives three phases, or stages, in science’s progress.  What he calls ‘paradigm’ is central to each of them. Literally the word means ‘pattern’. Kuhn, however, prefers the overtones of the German word ‘Gestalt‘, which carries the supplementary sense of ‘meaningful pattern’. One of his illustrative ideas is of the picture that one’s eyes initially see as a duck, then, after a second or two, the image, or Gestalt, recomposes itself as a rabbit.

For scientists, a paradigm is a field (e.g. Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity) within a larger field (theoretical physics) within a still larger field (science). In all these fields certain constituents are held together by common variables.” (bold emphasis and italics  in original, p.72)

“The first of Kuhn’s stages is ‘pre-paradigmatic’. It’s a kind of bubbling intellectual primal soup. All theories contest among themselves without any becoming orthodoxy or consensual. The one theory establishes itself as dominant, firms up, and develops a community of co-theorists and instructors around itself. It becomes, as Kuhn puts it, ‘normal’. The energies of the community are devoted to confirmation and – more aggressively – the defence of its core belief. Careers and eminence are invested in the preservation of the ruling ‘normal’ paradigm. Disagreement is routinely seen as heresy.

This, ‘normality’ as Kuhn calls it, is the second stage. The third stage is ‘revolutionary’. So well defended is the normal that its fortifications can only be overcome by assault. If successful (not all revolutions are or deserve to be), there occurs a ‘paradigm shift’, equivalent to a scene change in theatre. A new normality will now emerge, conforming to the new paradigm. For example: until the middle of the twentieth century there was a ‘normal’ view among cosmologists that the universe was in steady state (the most famous proponent was Fred Hoyle). Then came the ‘Big Bang’ theory, and – after much quarrelling – a new paradigm. It is a tenet in Kuhn’s model that all paradigms are provisional.” (p.73)

“One of the attractions of Kuhn’s model – whether applied to science or humanities – is that it coneceives knowledge as the outcome of perpetual battle. Conflict creates light, as well as heat.” (p.75)

Ref: John Sutherland (2010) 50 Literature ideas you really need to know. Bloomsbury: London

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