An American historian, physicist, and one of the most influential people being a philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn became famous for his book published in 1962 called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. This book became a highly influential work in academic as well as other circles because of his claims about scientific knowledge and its progress which undergoes what is called the paradigm shift. His work in that particular book has even made an impact to the study of the English language which made him an even more influential man of science.
Personal Life and Academic Background of Thomas Kuhn
On July 18, 1922, Thomas Kuhn was born in Cincinnati, Ohio to his mother Minette Stroock Kuhn, and his father who was an industrial engineer named Samuel L. Kuhn. His awareness for physics and mathematics began after he graduated from The Taft School in 1940. In 1943, he was already able to attain his B.S. Degree in Physics after attending Harvard University and he graduated summa cum laude. From the same university, he obtained both his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees for physics in the years 1946 and 1949.
According to him and as stated on the preface to The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ second edition, the three years of academic freedom that he experienced as one of the Harvard Junior Fellows were key to his being able to switch from physics towards the history and philosophy of science.
He was married twice, and had three children with Kathryn Muhs who was his first wife. He later married Jehane Barton Burns or Jehane R. Kuhn. In 1994, he was diagnosed with lung cancer, and he died 2 years later in 1996.
After graduating from Harvard University, he spent his years there in doing research about radar during the war years. He was elected as a member of the Society of Fellows at Harvard, a prestigious society of the University. Up until 1956, Thomas Kuhn taught science classes of humanities undergraduates which were part of the curriculum for General Education in Science. This paved way to his being able to study more historical cases in detail. He then had a fascination for Aristotle’s works which made him understand more about philosophy while having his knowledge for science remain undistorted.
Because of that experience, he concentrated on the history of science. After some time, he was then appointed as the assistant professor for the history of science as well as general education. In this time of his career, his work was focused on the early history concerning thermodynamics as well as the 18th century theory on matter. His first book was published in 1957 when he turned his focus to the history of astronomy, and his book was called The Copernican Revolution.
In 1956, Kuhn moved to the University of California at Berkeley to take a teaching post for the history of science under the philosophy department. In 1961, he then became one of the full time professors there. It was his years in the University of California that developed his interest for the philosophy of science. A year later, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was published.
The main idea behind this publication was that the development of science has a driving force which is what Kuhn called as paradigms. These paradigms supple the puzzles which scientists are to solve as well as provide the tools which are needed to solve the problem. Scientific crises arise when the paradigm loses its ability to solve puzzles which are particularly worrying, and these are called the anomalies.
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is also referred to as the SSR and in his work, Kuhn argued that paradigms happen to be incommensurable—which means it is not possible for one to understand a paradigm by understanding another rival paradigm’s conceptual framework. His work had many critics, and especially about a paradigm’s being incommensurable, David Stove thought of this as irrational. According to him, if one cannot make comparisons between rival paradigms, how is one to know which one is better? Because of the interpretation, Kuhn denied that his work had any relativism behind it in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ third edition for clarification on his views and to avoid other misinterpretations.
Apart from being influential and controversial in science-related fields, SSR had an enormous impact on linguistic aspects as well. In Kuhn’s own words in the postscript of SSR’s second edition, he said that “the most novel and least understood aspect of this book.” Other terms coined with the rise of his book involved “normal science” which referred the daily work of scientists. “Scientific revolutions” referred to work which took place in different periods and encompassing several disciplines.
The work of Thomas Kuhn is truly influential in several fields including language, science, social science, and even made a presence in the debate about International Relations.
Honors and Awards
Because of his significant contribution and influence in several fields of study, Kuhn received several numerous honorary doctorates and he is credited as the foundational force who brought to life the post-Mertonian Sociology of Scientific Knowledge.
During his teaching career, notable positions he held included being the M. Taylor Pyne Professor of Philosophy and History of Science in Princeton University back in 1964. It was in 1979 when he became the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Philosophy. In 1954 Thomas Kuhn was named as a Guggenheim Fellow. The History of Science Society awarded him the George Sarton Medal in 1982.
Because of his legacy which brought to life awareness about the paradigm shift, the American Chemical Society awards the “Thomas Kuhn Paradigm Shift Award” to different speakers who are able to present new and original views which are not considered as part of the mainstream kind of scientific understanding. The winning candidate gets the award depending on how novel the viewpoint he or she present is. The potential impact of the said viewpoint and if it can be widely accepted is also taken into consideration. This is to honor the same legacy that the paradigm shift idea of Thomas Kuhn brought to the people of today.