The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

by

Thomas S. Kuhn

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on The Structure of Scientific Revolutions can help.

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: Chapter 13 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Finally, Kuhn turns to the question of progress. Why is science believed to progress in a way no other field does? Art, for example, is not viewed in a linear way. Kuhn also flips the question, suggesting that science is defined by progress: “to a very great extent the term ‘science’ is reserved for fields that do progress in obvious ways.” Kuhn then questions why science is so separated from other kinds of work.
For much of his treatise, Kuhn has argued that scientific progress moves in a circle, not a line. But here, he complicates that argument—because he suggests that for many, linear progress is not only a feature of science but the very thing that defines it. In other words, many people seem to believe that if a field moves in a straight line toward truth—rather than sewing doubt or introspection, as art would—that field is automatically a science.
Themes
Linear Progress vs. Circular History Theme Icon
First, Kuhn reflects on the figure of Leonardo DaVinci, who could go back and forth between science and art. Even after DaVinci’s time, the term “art” applied just as much to technology as it did to painting. But now science is siloed off, defined by progress and objectivity that is not necessary in other fields. 
In the modern world, creativity is reserved for artists, while objectivity is reserved for scientists. But Kuhn hopes to return to the DaVinci model, in which science is as much about “aesthetics” as it is about facts.
Themes
Intuition and Emotion Theme Icon
Community and Knowledge Theme Icon
Kuhn next reflects on the fact that artists and people in the humanities do make a kind of progress. But rather than trying to view such progress as linear, non-scientists merely try to add new ideas and creations; often, these ideas are in conflict with one another, but no one in these fields views that as disqualifying or negative. This disagreement is not possible in normal science because it is guided by a single coherent paradigm.
Whereas disagreement is a sign of crisis or collapse in the sciences, disagreement is considered to be a vital and exciting part of the arts. As Kuhn will discuss more explicitly later on, these differing views of disagreement point to the fundamental structural differences between artistic communities and scientific ones.
Themes
Community and Knowledge Theme Icon
Interestingly, Kuhn also notes that scientists—more than any other professionals—only address their work to one another, while most artists or theologians want their work to reach a broad population. And indeed, because scientists are speaking to a smaller audience, they have fewer contrasting viewpoints to contend with. Plus, because scientists are not necessarily trying to appeal to the public, they can choose areas of focus not because they are societally urgent but because they are probably solvable. Since scientists pick problems specifically to solve them, it follows that science often progresses faster than other fields (like theology or medical care).
Great art often asks its readers of viewers to question their received knowledge or beliefs. Great science, on the other hand, affirms a pre-existing set of ideas by applying these ideas successfully to a new problem. Kuhn’s realization that scientists pick “solvable” problems again demonstrates how paradigms perpetuate themselves: because paradigms are formed to answer specific questions, focusing on those questions will likely lead to results that support the paradigm.
Themes
Linear Progress vs. Circular History Theme Icon
Community and Knowledge Theme Icon
Get the entire The Structure of Scientific Revolutions LitChart as a printable PDF.
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions PDF
Kuhn also draws his readers’ attention to the way scientific education differs from other types of education. In most fields, students read a variety of primary works, many of which express different viewpoints, beliefs, or styles from one another. In science, however, textbooks are “systematically substituted for the creative scientific literature that made them possible”—and as Kuhn has already discussed, textbooks present a particularly linear, simplified view of the history of science.
As Kuhn has noted many times, scientific paradigms begin with individual, personal flashes of insight—just like paintings or plays tend to. In addition to erasing any conflict between these insights, then, textbooks also erase the fact that such revelations are often spiritual and subjective in nature.
Themes
Linear Progress vs. Circular History Theme Icon
Intuition and Emotion Theme Icon
Normal Science vs. Extraordinary Science Theme Icon
Rather than condemning this education, however, Kuhn notes that it prepares students for normal science. And because normal science is what allows for moments of crisis (and subsequent scientific revolutions), this textbook-based education also helps to make paradigm shifts possible. However, it does not necessarily equip students to think outside the box in the way that is necessary once a new paradigm has replaced an old one. 
Kuhn, reiterating an earlier point, acknowledges that the specificity of textbooks allows scientists to notice anomalies in a way they would not be able to otherwise. At the same time, textbooks—in their simplified content and their emphasis on tacit knowledge—make it difficult to confront the crisis such an anomaly might create.
Themes
Linear Progress vs. Circular History Theme Icon
Normal Science vs. Extraordinary Science Theme Icon
Finally, Kuhn argues that science and progress are associated precisely because there are so many scientific revolutions. When one group emerges victorious from a moment of crisis, they are determined to announce that victory—and thus to rewrite the history of science in their favor.
This is a crucial insight: to ensure that their paradigm is successful, scientists must paint this new idea as a marker of progress. In other words, the popular belief that scientific progress is linear is an idea that scientists themselves help to spread.
Themes
Linear Progress vs. Circular History Theme Icon
Community and Knowledge Theme Icon
But Kuhn does not believe that in science, “might makes right.” Instead, he tries to articulate the specific characteristics of scientific communities, which function based on mutual agreement and shared beliefs. In particular, Kuhn believes that most scientific progress was made in Europe from 1600 on; he therefore focuses mostly on a modern Western view of the scientific community.
Kuhn is careful to note that a paradigm cannot gain force on revisionist history alone. And while Kuhn pushes back against some classic Western ideas about knowledge, he has also written this entire book with a Euro-centric lens—he isn’t unbiased either.
Themes
Linear Progress vs. Circular History Theme Icon
Community and Knowledge Theme Icon
Kuhn lays out the criteria of such communities: first, the scientists must be concerned with problems of nature. Second, they must work in some detail and with some degree of focus. Third, scientists must accept solutions not as individuals but as a group. Fourth, scientists must have some sort of credentials and education (be members of “a uniquely competent professional group”). All these characteristics set groups of scientists apart from other groups of professionals.
Though all of these criteria are important, perhaps the most fascinating element of scientific communities is the fact that such a community must always accept or reject ideas as one. Kuhn began his book by suggesting that agreement was what made one idea emerge as science while another was dismissed as speculation; here, Kuhn begins to study how such agreements are actually reached.
Themes
Perception and Truth Theme Icon
Community and Knowledge Theme Icon
Since scientific groups have a shared knowledge of which problems have yet to be solved, paradigms are selected not because they are new but because they offer “concrete problem-solving ability.” Similarly, new paradigms often narrow science rather than broadening it; they allow for depth, not breadth.
Because paradigms allow scientists to collaborate with one another, each individual is able to focus on one very specific element of the larger paradigm. Working in community therefore allows for individual scientists to feel more successful day-to-day than they would if they were working alone.
Themes
Intuition and Emotion Theme Icon
Community and Knowledge Theme Icon
Kuhn has consistently argued that “scientific progress is not what we had taken it to be.” But now, he goes further, arguing that society has to “relinquish the notion, explicit or implicit, that changes of paradigm carry scientists and those who learn from them closer and closer to truth.”
This is arguably the most radical claim in the entire book. Here, Kuhn reveals that in casting doubt on the idea that science is linear, he is also questioning the belief that science will ever arrive at a set destination—namely, objective truth.
Themes
Perception and Truth Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Kuhn then points out that he has not used the word “truth” at all in his book (except in a quote from Francis Bacon). Science is so often the field in which objective truth seems most possible, but Kuhn argues that no such thing exists. Instead, he advocates for valuing science not because it explains a universal truth but because it answers a certain set of particularly relevant or interesting questions.  
While scientists may find new solutions to new kinds of problems, Kuhn doesn’t believe they have any more access to the truth than a painter or a poet does. In a way, then, Kuhn is calling for society to value science in the same way that people value artwork: because it is interesting and valuable, adding a new perspective without ever providing certainty.
Themes
Perception and Truth Theme Icon
Intuition and Emotion Theme Icon
To articulate the difficulty of his proposal, Kuhn turns to Darwin. When Darwin proposed evolution, what upset his contemporaries was not the process of gradual change that he described. Instead, fellow scientists were horrified that there was no end goal; in Darwin’s mind, living beings were not heading toward some form of perfection. Instead, they were merely changing to adapt to whatever environments and circumstances they found themselves in.
Kuhn now follows up on his earlier comparison between scientific progress and natural selection. In particular, he emphasizes that just as evolution rewards creatures that can best adapt to their environment, science rewards thinkers who can answer the most pressing questions of the historical context they’re living in.
Themes
Linear Progress vs. Circular History Theme Icon
Perception and Truth Theme Icon
Kuhn has argued for something similar in science: rather than progressing toward a single goal, new ideas and paradigms have adapted and succeeded through a kind of natural selection. There is a larger question here that Kuhn does not claim to know the answer to: “what must the world be like in order that man may know it?” Instead, he only claims to have presented a new lens through which to observe science—a lens that, in many respects, mimics nature itself.
In the final paragraph of his original publication, Kuhn suggests that science will never reach a plane of perfect knowledge. Kuhn does not even know how such knowledge could be possible—but he believes that the world itself would have to become more knowable, as such understanding could never come from people. But rather than lamenting this circular, never-ending history of science, Kuhn suggests that it is worth appreciating in the same way people appreciate nature, even in all of its mystery.
Themes
Linear Progress vs. Circular History Theme Icon
Perception and Truth Theme Icon