Thomas Samuel Kühn was a well-renowned philosopher of science belonging to the twentieth century. He was born on July 18, 1922, in Ohio. Having obtained his PhD in physics from the prestigious Harvard University, he taught both physics and philosophy at the Universty of California. His shift of interest, from science to the history and philosophy behind development of scientific thought proved crucial for the publication of his most celebrated work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
Having being asked to teach a course on history of science, Kühn grew deeply interested in the processes by which a new theory replaces the older one, while both of them had been proven true at their respective times. He approached the matter in a systematic way, dividing the problem into two parts. Firstly, why scientific theories are accepted, and secondly, why they are replaced by new theories.
As a solution to the two-fold problem, Kühn proposed the concept of a ‘paradigm’ in the famous 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
He debated about the development of scientific ideas, and said that a breakthrough scientific idea of theory undergoes various stages. “Normal Science” is the stage where scientists solve day-to-day technological problems. The everyday puzzles of science are tackled by the scientists under a ruling paradigm. The paradigm is a major achievement or a model theory, such as Newton’s Gravitational law, or Einstein’s mass-energy relationship, which acts as a guide for the scientists, through which they derive other theories and scientific inspirations. A paradigm is not a strict set of rules which are followed word for word, but rather a light which shows the path of finding the answer to the puzzle, which is considered to be solvable under that paradigm
The next stage, the stage of anomaly, arises when an everyday scientific puzzle fails to be solved according to the ruling paradigm. This unsolved puzzle cannot be neglected as an incorrect research project, as various scientists are unable to to solve the problem.
The period of crisis follows this stage of anomaly, during which new methods of research are welcomed and new approaches are made towards solving the problem. Even older methods which were deemed incorrect are employed in hopes of cracking the code.
Luckily, one of the new methods prove successful in solving the puzzle, and a shift in the ruling paradigm occurs. This new method serves as a stepping stone towards a scientific revolution. The new method becomes the reigning paradigm, until another anomaly arises, leading to yet another paradigm-shift.
Kühn further said that paradigm shifts cannot be judged solely by scientists; they are ‘incommensurable’. Only with the help of philosophers and historians of science can they be distinguished clearly.
Kühn’s theory of paradigm shift did not remain limited to the field of science. It was extended and applied to diverse fields of study, such as political science, sociology, economics, and even business studies. The term ‘paradigm-shift’ is also embraced and utilized by the English language.
In order to honor the works of Thomas Kühn, a Paradigm Shift Award is also presented by the American Chemical Society to people who present fresh, original scientific ideas which may be contrary to popular scientific theories.
A collection of essays related to the philosophy and history of science penned by Kühn were published in 1977, under the title The Essential Tension. In 1978, he published the monograph Blackbody Theory and Quantum Discontinuity, his take on the history of quantum mechanics.
Thomas Kühn died on June 17, 1996. The world will remain forever in debt of his contributions towards the philosophy of scientific development and the process behind a scientific revolution.