Paradigm Shift: Why did Kuhn Challenge Science and Objectivity?

Paradigm Shift

Thomas Kuhn‘s Paradigm Shift has radically changed the nature of epistemology in the sense that science and knowledge before him was perceived to be unquestionably objective. Knowledge before Kuhn was often the byproduct of the investigations and experiments conducted by experts to achieve new goals or to correct existing problems. These experiments and investigations were often modeled on the prescribed theories by the pioneers of a dominant paradigm. As a result, rather than coming up with cutting-edge knowledge the pseudo-scientists or practitioners of these theories mostly used them to solve existing problems. This, in turn, rendered the development of knowledge as a linear process and duped people in believing that they were progressing at a constant speed. This belief is carefully safeguarded by all the scientists and their disciples who were bold enough to repress any sorts of subversion within the concerned paradigm, which is why Galileo and Copernicus were so misunderstood during their time.

Now, Hawking in his article titled “Our Picture of the Universe”  traces the development of knowledge from Aristotle to Einstein, and wraps up his discussion in uncertainty, saying “any physical theory is provisional … (1988).” Through his lucid text, Hawking makes it clear how most scientists from different paradigms self-righteously defended their mistaken views which were later to be utterly debunked by people. Once dominant theories were found to be totally baseless on the face of the newer once, and this ultimately defies the popular view of epistemological advancement as a linear one. This is why, it would not be wrong to assume that all knowledge before Kuhn progressed as events and was relative and context sensitive. Thus, knowledge before Kuhn was moderately transitional in nature.

With the conviction of science as an imperfect arena of knowledge, Kuhn goes on to explain Paradigm Shift in his 1962 book The Structures of Scientific Revolutions. By Paradigm Kuhn means a period of science with its typical research methodologies, discoveries and experiments with discreet boundaries which the concerned scientists are not able to go beyond. As a result, most scientists from this period wrestle around problems with predictable solutions and follow models prescribed by the pioneers of the same paradigm. Although initially the period appears to be very unique and progressive, at one point of time it becomes sterile and halts the period’s apparently linear movement. This stagnant  condition does not prevail for long, as Kuhn suggests there are scientists, even though few in number, with the audacity to come up with utterly different approaches to the existing problems and offer solutions till now unknown. This group of scientists is the one Kuhn refers to as “revolutionary” as they are responsible for opening up new horizons to the world of science. Through these horizons, we can look forward to a new world free from the false and problematic views of the preceding one, and these two worlds, paradigms is Kuhn’s terminology, do never converge anymore. So, the divergence of the latest world-view from the last one is what Kuhn calls the “Shift”.

The widely conceived concept of science as an objective and ever-progressing branch of knowledge is challenged by Thomas Kuhn’s much debated theory of Paradigm Shift. Simply put, paradigm shift refers to the replacement and rejection of age-old scientific theories at the advent of newer ones by unorthodox devotees of science. Kuhn, being a scholar on the history of science, divides science into two categories and asserts that in a particular scientific field the conventions are at risk when new and radical theories are proposed by revolutionary scientists. Kuhn terms the first category as “Normal Science” and the second one as “Extraordinary” or “Revolutionary science”, and the transition from the first to the second as “Paradigm Shift” (Cassidy, 2002). According to Kuhn, normal science aims at solving research puzzles through predefined models and limited experiments, whereas revolutionary science strives for absolutely new solutions to problems which “Normal Science” fails to answer. Doing so, “Revolutionary Science” challenges the long established scientific paradigm and paves the path for a new one to emerge. Thus, the followers of the new science do not only create a new paradigm, they also help rewrite the history of the entire field where age-old truths and constants are deemed to be false and relative. Hence, Kuhn’s thesis challenges the very concept of universal truths in the field of science and establishes the fact that science as a branch of knowledge is not objective but relative, and scientific developments are not events contained within themselves but processes with provisions of future amendments.


About the author

Sayeed Noman

Sayeed Noman is a Fulbright scholar and an adjunct professor at Temple University. His PhD dissertation focuses on Afrocentricity, postcolonialism, and postmodernism. His interest ranges from political to economic and cultural issues.

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