The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

by

Thomas S. Kuhn

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The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Thomas S. Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Thomas S. Kuhn

Thomas Kuhn, the son of engineer Samuel L. Kuhn, was born in Cincinnati and raised in between New York City and Croton-on-Hudson. Though he is thought of as a historian and philosopher, he started off his career as a physicist—in fact, he had almost finished a physics doctorate at Harvard before an encounter with Aristotle’s work (so dramatically different from the contemporary theories he was familiar with) piqued his interest in the history of science. After transitioning to work in the humanities, Kuhn began teaching at various universities (including Princeton and M.I.T.) and developing the argument that would later become his masterwork, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. After its publication in 1962, Kuhn’s radically new conceptualization of scientific progress—famous for having made the word “paradigm” a part of daily speech—sparked debates across many academic fields. Kuhn spent the next decades of his life revising his initial theory (as he does in the 1969 postscript to the original book), teaching, and raising his three children. By the time he died in 1996, he was widely considered to be the 20th century’s most important philosopher of science.
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Historical Context of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Since The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is fundamentally a history book, Kuhn touches on a wide variety of historical events. Two such events, however, stand out for their influence on Kuhn’s own thinking. Before he wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn had written a book about the Copernican Revolution, the moment in 1543 in which Nicolaus Copernicus overturned the long-held belief that Earth, and not the sun, was at the center of the universe. Even more crucially, Kuhn’s fascination with the history of science was sparked by his understanding of the huge gulf between classical ideas of physics (like Aristotle’s) and Isaac Newton’s 1728 concepts of motion. Finally, the rising prominence of Gestalt psychology—which focused on the inconsistency of perception—was a major influence on Kuhn’s own thinking.

Other Books Related to The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

In many ways, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions pushes back against the predominant scientific literature of Kuhn’s time: namely, high school and college textbooks that presented scientific history as straightforward and neat. However, though Kuhn’s theory was radical, he was not the first person to question this simplistic narrative. Gaston Bachelard, a French philosopher, had held for decades that scientific was more discontinuous and less objective than it seemed. Like Kuhn, Bachelard was interested in epistemology (the study of what knowledge is and how it develops), which he wrote about in his book Formation of the Scientific Mind (1938). In addition, Michel Foucault, Kuhn’s contemporary and author of such famous books as The Birth of the Clinic (1963) and The Order of Things (1966), was similarly trying to understand science as the product of social forces in addition to mere observation.
Key Facts about The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
  • Full Title: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
  • When Written: 1950s–1960s
  • Where Written: Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • When Published: 1962
  • Literary Period: Mid-century
  • Genre: Nonfiction, Science, History
  • Setting: While the book is a global history of science, most of the discoveries Kuhn focuses on were made in Western Europe.
  • Climax: Kuhn, arguing that scientific progress is neither linear nor cumulative, claims that scientists are not getting any closer to a single, objective truth—because no such thing exists.
  • Point of View: First Person

Extra Credit for The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Cited and Celebrated. Though The Structure of Scientific Revolutions had obvious implications for scientists themselves, it was also influential across disciplines: sociologists, philosophers and even economists argued against the book or used it in their own work. It follows, then, that it is one of the most-cited academic works of all time, an impressive achievement for a book published only 50 years ago.

Paradigm Shifts Galore. The term “paradigm shift,” which Kuhn uses to describe the process by which one set of scientific perceptions and questions replaces another, is now commonplace in popular culture. But to ensure that the term remains associated with the man who made it famous, the American Chemical Society created a prize called the Thomas Kuhn Paradigm Shift Award, given out to only the most original thinkers in chemistry.