1996: The Man Who Explained to Scientists What They're Thinking Dies

Thomas Kuhn, philosopher extraordinaire, formulated the concept of 'paradigm shift', which isn't a cliché, it's a paradigm shift.

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Thomas Samuel Kuhn (July 18, 1922 – June 17, 1996), American historian and philosopher of science
Thomas Samuel Kuhn (July 18, 1922 – June 17, 1996), American historian and philosopher of science.Credit: Bill Pierce, Time/Life Getty's, Wikimedia Commons

On June 17, 1996, Thomas S. Kuhn, philosopher of science, died, at the age of 73. To say that Kuhn was the most well known philosopher of science of the modern age may sound like faint praise, but if you work in the field, you understand that his concept of “paradigm shifts” reinvented the way people understood progress in scientific thought, and attracted him vast amounts of attention and controversy.

Kuhn, through intuition and his training as a physicist and historian, proposed that major shifts in scientific thinking – understanding that the planets revolve around the sun, and not the other way around; the theory of natural selection to explain evolution – are not achieved in a linear, orderly progression but develop in lurches, and may confound earlier assumptions: 'Paradigm shifts' may force adoption of ideas that had been soundly rejected before, or vice versa.

Science for poets

Thomas Samuel Kuhn was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on July 18, 1922, and moved with his parents to New York before his first birthday. His father, Samuel L. Kuhn, was a hydraulic engineer; his mother was the former Minette Stroock. Thomas was educated at a succession of private schools, one more progressive than the next, but none especially stimulating for him. He graduated from the Taft School, in Watertown, Connecticut, in 1940, and entered Harvard University that fall.

Once he settled on physics as his field, Kuhn did very well, and he proceeded to receive, in succession, his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in the field from Harvard in 1943, 1946 and 1949. That period also included civilian service during World War II, during which he was sent to Europe by the Office of Scientific Research and Development to inspect radar stations.

Even before he had completed his Ph.D., Kuhn’s interests had shifted from physics, largely as a result of having been asked by Harvard’s president, James B. Conant, to teach an undergraduate “science for poets” course that would focus on case studies in the history of science.

By immersing himself in the actual thinking of ancient scientists, and by examining Aristotle’s theories on mechanics, and comparing them with Isaac Newton's, he gained an intuition that changed his understanding of scientific thought.

“I had not become an Aristotelian physicist as a result, but I had to some extent learned to think like one,” he later wrote, and the experience helped him understand that the entire conceptual frameworks of the two scientists were completely different.

Aristotle vs Newton

It was in his 1962 book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” that Kuhn refined and presented his conception of scientific progress, overturning the accepted understanding that science advances via the gradual accumulation of evidence and testing of hypotheses, and the subsequent adjustment of the extant understanding.

Explaining the theory of Kuhn's paradigm shift in visual termsCredit: YouTube

Instead, he posited that major conceptual changes come in quantum leaps, as it were, that are akin to "intellectually violent revolutions." Not only do they change our understanding of an aspect of the functioning of the universe, but they also change the terms of reference that surround it, and thus are incompatible with their predecessors.

That is, further declared Kuhn, new “paradigms” are “incommensurable” with the ones they're superseding. 

Not everyone appreciated Kuhn’s ideas, which themselves constituted something of a paradigm shift in the field of philosophy of science itself. But over the years, his “Structure of Scientific Revolutions” sold more than a million copies, a remarkable number for an academic treatise, and his ideas became the focus of extensive discussion and debate.

Some accused Kuhn of relativism, in that, if it was true what he said, that competing theories can not be compared, then there would be no way of determining the ultimate truth of a theory. He denied that this was the implication of his work, and supposedly claimed that if that's what "Kuhnism" meant, then, "I am not a Kuhnian!”

From Harvard he went to Berkeley and Princeton, before finally joining the philosophy faculty at MIT, in 1979. Although he continued to write and to teach, nothing he published had anything like the impact of his early book.

Kuhn, who was said to smoke upwards of five packs of cigarettes a day, died of cancer of the throat and the bronchial tubes.