Thomas Kuhn introduced the paradigm shift into our language and culture. His initial impulse to do so came when, although a physicist, he could not understand the physics of Aristotle from over two millennia earlier. He realized that Galileo and Newton had built an entirely new intellectual framework within which the physics of motion was contained. Aristotle had worked within the confines of an earlier framework, alien to modern minds.
Kuhn described the change of intellectual frameworks within which facts are interpreted as a paradigm shift.
Thomas Samuel Kuhn was born on July 18, 1922 in Cincinnati, Ohio, USA into an affluent family. His parents called him Tom. His younger brother Roger was born three years later.
Tom’s father, Samuel Louis Kuhn, was a Cincinnati-born industrial engineer and investment consultant. A graduate of Harvard and MIT, he had fought in World War 1. Tom’s mother, Minette Kuhn (née Strook), came from a wealthy New York family. A graduate of Vassar College, she wrote unpaid articles for progressive organizations, worked as a freelance editor, and was a patron of the arts. Both of Tom’s parents were active in left-wing politics and both were of Jewish descent, although neither of them practiced their religion.
When Tom was a few months old, the family moved to New York.
From kindergarten through fifth grade, Tom was educated at Lincoln School, a private progressive school in Manhattan where independent thinking rather than learning facts and subjects was practiced. His father grew impatient when, age seven, his son could still not read or write. With a little coaching from his father, however, Tom was soon reading.
The family moved 40 miles north to the small town of Croton-on-Hudson where, once again, Tom attended a progressive private school – Hessian Hills School. It was here that, in sixth through ninth grade, he learned to love mathematics. Influenced by radical teachers, he also hoped to join the leftist American Student Union. Before joining it, members had to swear an oath never to fight for America. After agonizing over this, and talking to his father, he decided he could not sign. He left Hessian Hills in 1937.
For tenth grade, Tom moved to Solebury School, a private boarding school in Solebury Township, Pennsylvania.
His final school was another private boarding school, Taft School, in Watertown, Conneticut.
A straight-A student, he was admitted to Harvard University, his father’s alma mater. He believed this was a great honor, and it was only years later he learned that nearly everyone who applied when he did was admitted to Harvard.
He knew he would eventually have to make a choice between majoring in Mathematics or Physics. His father told him it would be easier to get a job as a physicist, so even before leaving for Harvard, Tom decided he would major in Physics.
Undergraduate at Harvard
Arriving in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the fall of 1940, 18-year-old Tom Kuhn experienced a happy improvement in his social life. In his final prep school years, he had started to feel like an outsider looking in. His frequent moves between high schools must have been unsettling. At Harvard, he felt like he belonged.
However, physics proved harder than he expected, and he scored a C in his first exam. Worried, he asked a professor if he had any future in the subject. The professor told Kuhn he needed to spend time plowing through more problems, making sure he could do them. Kuhn took the advice and scored A at the end of his freshman year.
In his sophomore year, America entered World War 2. Kuhn decided to speed up his degree by attending classes in summer. He graduated with a BS in Physics summa cum laude (with highest honor) in 1943. In addition to studying Physics, he spent his final year as head of the editorial board of the Harvard Crimson, the college newspaper.
In the summer of 1943, Kuhn joined the Radio Research Laboratory’s theoretical group. Based at Harvard, his group was tasked with devising countermeasures against enemy radar. He was soon sent to work in a laboratory in the United Kingdom.
Later he traveled with a Royal Air Force officer to France for a few weeks to study recently captured German radar installations, then carried on into Germany itself.
Back to Harvard
Kuhn returned to Harvard after the war in Europe ended and graduated with a master’s degree in Physics in 1946 and doctorate in 1949. His PhD thesis was The Cohesive Energy of Monovalent Metals as a Function of the Atomic Quantum Defects.
Even before he returned to America, his enthusiasm for physics had been dwindling. He continued studying it though, because it was the most convenient way for him to get a doctorate.
Making Sense of Absurdity
As a matter of fact, Kuhn was increasingly fascinated by philosophy, believing that in his personal search for ‘Truth’ it offered better prospects than physics.
In 1947, he was invited to deliver a History of Science course for undergraduates at Harvard. He had an epiphany while trying to make sense of the ideas of motion described by Aristotle in his Physics, ideas that had persisted from 350 BC – 1600 AD.
Kuhn realized he could not understand Aristotle’s ideas of motion because his modern physics education was getting in the way. Kuhn was studying Aristotle’s ideas from the perspective of a physicist familiar with Isaac Newton’s much later ideas. When Kuhn took account of the underlying science and philosophy of the Ancient Greeks, Aristotle’s Physics began to make much more sense.
History of Science
In the fall of 1948, while still working on his physics doctorate, Kuhn embarked on a three-year program as a Junior Fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows. With no teaching duties, he focused entirely on developing his ideas as a science historian and philosopher. He became preoccupied with understanding the mechanisms of scientific progress; he saw this as a more fruitful approach than following conventional historical timelines and worrying about discovery dates.
As a former physicist, he observed that science textbooks at introductory level tended to present their subjects in a highly polished way, as indisputable facts; moreover, the creative processes that produce scientific discoveries were ignored in these books.
At the end of his fellowship, Harvard appointed Kuhn as an instructor, teaching general courses. A year later, he was promoted to assistant professor. He began giving an advanced undergraduate History of Science course looking at the development of mechanics from Aristotle to Newton. He enjoyed this immensely.
Kuhn’s Take on Nicolaus Copernicus’ Revolution
One of the courses Kuhn offered students was The Copernican Revolution, which he used as the basis for his first book, published in 1957. He scrutinized Nicolaus Copernicus’s famous book De revolutionibus with its bold claim that the earth orbits the sun.
Kuhn came to the conclusion that De revolutionibus was:
“a revolution-making rather than a revolutionary text.”
He claimed, with some justification, that Copernicus’s model was no more accurate and no simpler in its portrayal of heavenly bodies than the previous system devised by Claudius Ptolemy 1,400 years earlier. Kuhn believed Copernicus’s model was ultimately preferred because it was more pleasing to its audience – in other words for aesthetic reasons rather than scientific reasons. Certainly the fact that in Copernicus’s model there was no need for Ptolemy’s equant was aesthetically appealing. (The equant was an extremely clever mathematical improvisation Ptolemy devised to make his theory of planetary movements work.)
Scholars such as Richard Hall have pointed out that Copernicus’s model actually does have some scientific advantages over Ptolemy’s, such as those concerning the maximum elongation of Venus and Mercury, the explanation of retrograde motion, and the frequency of retrogressions.
Written for a general rather than a narrow specialist readership, Kuhn’s book has proven to be a keeper. The copy in front of me is from the twenty-fourth printing in 2003.
Berkeley & the Center for Advanced Study
In 1956, Harvard had still not offered Kuhn tenure. He accepted an offer from the University of California at Berkeley, where he became an assistant professor in both the Philosophy and History Departments.
In 1958, he was promoted to associate professor and given tenure. In the fall of that year, he began a one-year fellowship at Stanford University’s Center for Advanced Study. It was here he wrote a significant part of his most influential work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
In 1961, he was promoted to full professor of the History of Science at Berkeley. This actually infuriated him, because he wanted to be a professor of Philosophy. In the end, however, he agreed to accept the position in History.
The Paradigm Shift
The concept of the paradigm shift made Kuhn’s name. The term became widely used in all disciplines, not just science.
Kuhn first described the paradigm shift in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The concept had been in his mind for many years, starting when he asked himself how an intelligent man like Aristotle could have harbored absurd ideas about motion. It dawned on him that the framework of science in which Aristotle interpreted facts was entirely different from the framework of science (or to be more specific, the framework of basic mechanics) we use today, courtesy of Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton. The change of framework was the paradigm shift.
Nicolaus Copernicus’s De revolutionibus provided Kuhn with another example of a paradigm shift. Before De revolutionibus, all facts were interpreted within a framework that said our planet lies at the center of the universe. Within a few decades, all facts were being interpreted within a new framework, which said the earth is actually a planet orbiting the sun.
After a paradigm shift has taken place, Kuhn said, scientists can begin building up facts again, perhaps studying different problems and searching for facts in different places suggested by the new paradigm. He described this period between paradigm shifts as normal science or puzzle solving.
Kuhn also discussed the concept of incommensurability.
While a whole number such as 1 and a fraction such as 1/3 are on a common scale (you need three of one to exactly equal the other) there is no common scale between a whole number and an irrational number like √2.
Kuhn used the word incommensurable to describe paradigms that represent wholly different world views of the same subject – for example, the mechanics of Aristotle vs Newton, which differ so drastically that there is little common ground between them.
Princeton and MIT
In 1964, Kuhn moved to Princeton University as the M. Taylor Pyne Professor of Philosophy and History of Science. In 1979, he became Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
The Impact of Kuhn’s Work on Science
Most scientists are only vaguely aware of Kuhn’s work, although like most people are familiar with the idea of a paradigm shift. Humanities students are generally more familiar Kuhn’s work.
Some Personal Details and the End
By ancestry Kuhn was Jewish. By choice he was an agnostic.
While studying for his PhD, Kuhn became rather isolated from other people, repeating the experience of his final high school years. Working in an almost all-male setting, he worried his mother by not dating women. He agreed to undergo psychoanalysis. Looking back on the experience, he said he hated the psychiatrist, who would fall asleep during sessions. The psychoanalysis ended because the psychiatrist left town and Kuhn got married.
He married Kathryn Muhs in 1948. His wife, like his mother, was a graduate of Vassar College. She typed his PhD thesis. They had two daughters and a son – Sarah, Elizabeth, and Nathaniel. The couple divorced in 1978.
In 1981, age 59, Kuhn married Jehane Barton Burns.
He retired from MIT in 1991, age 69.
Thomas Kuhn died, age 73, of cancer on June 17, 1996 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He had been suffering from throat and lung cancer for two years.
Author of this page: The Doc
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Thomas S. Kuhn
The Copernican Revolution: Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought
Harvard University Press, 1957
Richard J. Hall
Kuhn and the Copernican Revolution
British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, Vol. 21 No. 2: pp. 196-197, 1970
Thomas S. Kuhn
The Road Since Structure
The University of Chicago Press, 2000