An Introduction to Thomas Kuhn

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Reply Sat 5 Sep, 2009 12:31 pm
An Introduction to Thomas Kuhn

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Thomas Kuhn was born on the 18th of July 1922 in Cincinnati Ohio. Kuhn obtained a B.S in Physics from Harvard University in 1943. Kuhn continued the study of Physics as a postgraduate obtaining a PhD from Harvard University in 1949. Kuhn taught a course in the History of Science at Harvard from 1948 until 1956 when he took up a post at the University of California, Berkeley and in 1961 became a professor of the History of Science. Kuhn then went on to take academic positions at Princeton (1964) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1979) and in 1983 was named Laurence S. Rockefeller Professor of Philosophy at MIT. Kuhn retired from academic life in 1991. Sadly Kuhn was diagnosed with cancer of the bronchial tubes in 1994 and suffered from cancer until he died at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts on the 17th of June 1996 aged 73 and was survived by his wife and his three children from his first marriage.


Work
Of the five books and many more academic piece's that were written by Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions published in book form in 1962 was by far his most influential work. As the title of this work suggest Kuhn concerned himself with how a body of scientific knowledge changes over time. One of Kuhn's main contentions was that the scientific community was inherently resistant to the process of falsification as outline by 20th Century Philosopher of Science Karl Popper. For Kuhn what he called 'normal science' was very conservative and operated within a set framework of shared beliefs held by the whole Scientific community, with new scientists being trained into what Kuhn called a 'paradigm' (from the Greek word paradeigma meaning a pattern). For Kuhn these paradigms made the scientific community conservative, rigid and resistant to change. Of course many scientists rejected this picture of the setting that they worked in.


As long as a paradigm holds no serious disagreement between scientists arise. During this period of what Kuhn labels normal science, scientists undertake work which seeks to enlarge the central paradigm which Kuhn calls 'puzzle solving'. A failure of a result to conform to the paradigm is not enough to falsify the existing paradigm (contrary to Popper) for example Counter-instances may originally be seen as puzzles which can be solved by refining the existing paradigm. Kuhn also recognised that Scientists may accept that the existing paradigm cannot explain the anomalies and the anomaly is set aside for future generations, for example observations where noted very early on which did not fit Newton's laws but the great predictive power of Newton's paradigm meant scientists were content to put the odd anomaly aside. Paradigms work until they cease to work, there is a point that is reached where the amount of anomalous research causes a crisis point, which causes a period of revolutionary science in which the underlying assumptions in the old paradigm are challenged and new paradigm is formed. We then have what Kuhn called paradigm shift and known in the field of Science as a Scientific revolution. Once a new a paradigm becomes dominant science can return to 'normal science'.


Kuhn's philosophy of Science was incredibly influential at the time and received a very mixed reception with both numerous supporters and detractors. A testament to the revolutionary effect that Kuhn's work had was the special and rather critical symposium held on The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1965, chaired by none other than Karl Popper. Even though Kuhn concentrated on the development and growth of Scientific knowledge his ideas have been applied to other fields such as Sociology and in fact discussion of Kuhn is still found in many Sociology textbooks. Kuhn's work has been influential but not without its fair share of criticism and has lead to more interest being paid in the human aspects of Scientific research with Kuhn's work still being hotly debated today.
 
 

 
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