Kuhn, Thomas S.

Kuhn, Thomas S.
▪ 1997

      U.S. philosopher of science (b. July 18, 1922, Cincinnati, Ohio—d. June 17, 1996, Cambridge, Mass.), was the author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), one of the most widely read and influential books in 20th-century social sciences, humanities, and philosophy. Kuhn studied physics at Harvard University, where he earned (1949) a Ph.D. in physics. He remained there as a junior fellow, then taught at the University of California, Berkeley, Princeton University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His first book, The Copernican Revolution (1957), was a study of the development of Renaissance heliocentrism. His second book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, argued that scientific work and thought are defined by "paradigms" consisting of formal theories, classic experiments, and trusted methods. Scientists use the resources of paradigms to refine theories, explain puzzling data, and establish increasingly precise measures of standards and phenomena. Confidence in paradigms, however, can be eroded by unresolvable theoretical problems or experimental anomalies, and the accumulation of such difficulties eventually creates a crisis that can be resolved only by revolutions in which new paradigms are formulated to replace the old. The overthrow of Ptolemaic cosmology by Copernican heliocentrism and Newtonian mechanics by quantum physics and general relativity are both examples of fundamental paradigm shifts. The book received polite but not extravagant reviews and significant criticism when it first appeared. By the mid-1960s, however, it had clearly become one of the most influential works in post-World War II scholarship. It revolutionized the history and philosophy of science by inspiring accounts that gave increased weight to external social and cultural factors in shaping scientific work and thought and made the term "paradigm" part of common English. Kuhn's collection of essays, The Essential Tension (1977), was followed by his last book, Black-Body Theory and the Quantum Discontinuity (1978), a highly technical study that some considered an implicit rejection of his earlier work.

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▪ American philosopher and historian
in full  Thomas Samuel Kuhn  
born July 18, 1922, Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.
died June 17, 1996, Cambridge, Mass.
 American historian of science (science, history of) noted for The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), one of the most influential works of history and philosophy written in the 20th century.

      Kuhn earned bachelor's (1943) and master's (1946) degrees in physics at Harvard University but obtained his Ph.D. (1949) there in the history of science. He taught the history or philosophy of science at Harvard (1951–56), the University of California at Berkeley (1956–64), Princeton University (1964–79), and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1979–91).

      In his first book, The Copernican Revolution (1957), Kuhn studied the development of the heliocentric theory of the solar system during the Renaissance. In his landmark second book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, he argued that scientific research and thought are defined by “paradigms,” or conceptual world-views, that consist of formal theories, classic experiments, and trusted methods. Scientists typically accept a prevailing paradigm and try to extend its scope by refining theories, explaining puzzling data, and establishing more precise measures of standards and phenomena. Eventually, however, their efforts may generate insoluble theoretical problems or experimental anomalies that expose a paradigm's inadequacies or contradict it altogether. This accumulation of difficulties triggers a crisis that can only be resolved by an intellectual revolution that replaces an old paradigm with a new one. The overthrow of Ptolemaic cosmology by Copernican heliocentrism, and the displacement of Newtonian mechanics by quantum physics and general relativity, are both examples of major paradigm shifts.

      Kuhn questioned the traditional conception of scientific progress as a gradual, cumulative acquisition of knowledge based on rationally chosen experimental frameworks. Instead, he argued that the paradigm determines the kinds of experiments scientists perform, the types of questions they ask, and the problems they consider important. A shift in the paradigm alters the fundamental concepts underlying research and inspires new standards of evidence, new research techniques, and new pathways of theory and experiment that are radically incommensurate with the old ones.

      Kuhn's book revolutionized the history and philosophy of science, and his concept of paradigm shifts was extended to such disciplines as political science, economics, sociology, and even to business management. Kuhn's later works were a collection of essays, The Essential Tension (1977), and the technical study Black-Body Theory and the Quantum Discontinuity (1978).

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