The Structure of Scientific Revolutions


Thomas S. Kuhn

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Linear Progress vs. Circular History Theme Icon
Perception and Truth Theme Icon
Intuition and Emotion Theme Icon
Community and Knowledge Theme Icon
Normal Science vs. Extraordinary Science Theme Icon
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In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, historian of science Thomas Kuhn argues that many of the most important scientific discoveries are made by individuals. However, these individuals’ insights can only be applied in specific, real-world ways when a larger group of scientists learn about them and accept them as fact. Kuhn thus claims that community is essential to scientific work—only when many scientists have similar educations and a shared set of goals can they begin to build on one another’s work, collaborating to solve a variety of related problems instead of arguing over basic principles. Furthermore, Kuhn suggests that if scientific knowledge depends on communities to develop and spread, then understanding how scientists communicate and compromise with one another is key to understanding the kind of scientific knowledge they produce.  

Kuhn suggests that, perhaps even more than in other disciplines, specific scientific communities are rigidly defined: each member of a community must operate according to the same ideas as the others, and the community is therefore cut off from other communities and the world at large. In order to gain specificity and broad application, a few individuals must adopt and adapt a paradigm, thus making it “attract the allegiance of the scientific community as a whole.” This sentence signals one of Kuhn’s most subtly radical ideas: because the extraordinary science that produces groundbreaking shifts in science is so grounded in individual perception and belief, community is what transforms this personal insight into a legitimized science. In other words, Kuhn argues that unless the scientific community can agree on an idea, that idea is not considered to be scientific. Kuhn explains that because typical textbook-based scientific education is both “rigorous and rigid,” it forces science students to think within the same “conceptual boxes” as their contemporaries. Further, Kuhn argues that the textbooks a scientist reads tacitly define not only specific scientific understanding but also the scientist’s general way of perceiving the world. Kuhn explains that because scientists learn their discipline through problem-solving, internalizing ways of scientific thinking without even necessarily being able to explain such ideas, their brains become hardwired to view the world in a certain way. In this way, Kuhn argues, a scientific community shares an internalized set of beliefs. These shared beliefs allow scientists to communicate with each other, but it also shuts them off from the outside world. “Given a textbook,” Kuhn writes, a scientist “can begin his research where [the textbook] leaves off and thus concentrate exclusively upon the subtlest and most esoteric aspects of the natural phenomena that concern his group.” That scientists’ findings will then be addressed to the other scientists “whose knowledge of a shared paradigm can be assumed and who prove to be the only ones able to read the papers.” While textbooks give scientists the same tacit set of beliefs, Kuhn explains, the academic essays and research publications provide scientists within a community with a shared—and exclusive—language, one founded on the beliefs of the community’s paradigm and inaccessible to those in other communities.

Kuhn explains that although these communities sometimes prevent new discoveries or ideas, they also allow scientists to collaborate with new focus and precision and, in fact, help enable new discoveries. Normal science depends on “the assumption that the scientific community knows what the world is like.” To conduct their daily work, scientists have to agree not only with their contemporaries but also with the textbooks and teachers that formed their education. Scientific communities then allow a single worldview to be transmitted not only between individuals but across generations and geographic distance. To prove his point, Kuhn cites a quotation from Francis Bacon, an important 16th-century scientist. “Truth,” Bacon writes, “emerges more readily from error than from confusion.” Scientists may not always succeed in their individual efforts, but by agreeing with a group of peers on their goals and methods—by eliminating “confusion”—they can at least proceed with a shared sense of purpose. Similarly, even as these communities restrict original thought, they also (even inadvertently) enable novel discoveries. In fact, Kuhn argues that because members of a given scientific community share one another’s values, they are able to collectively “identify crisis or, later, choose between incompatible ways of practicing their discipline.” Rather than being thrown into a tailspin by every surprising discovery, the ability of scientists’ within a community to communicate with one another also allows them to pick and choose which unexpected findings (anomalies) are truly worth focusing on.

In his 1969 postscript to the original text of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn made clear his enduring focus on the topic of community: “if this book were being rewritten,” he reflects, “it would […] open with a discussion of the community structure of science.” In fact, Kuhn ends his postscript with a call for more study of scientific communities (or academic communities as a whole). After all, if communities are necessary for both normal and extraordinary science, understanding how members debate and come to consensus is crucial to understanding how any kind of science is produced. 

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Community and Knowledge Quotes in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Below you will find the important quotes in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions related to the theme of Community and Knowledge.
Chapter 1 Quotes

History, if viewed as a repository for more than anecdote or chronology, could produce a decisive transformation in the image of science by which we are now possessed.

Related Characters: Thomas Kuhn (speaker)
Page Number: 1
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 2 Quotes

No natural history can be interpreted in the absence of at least some implicit body of intertwined theoretical and methodological belief that permits selection, evaluation, and criticism. If that body of belief is not already implicit in the collection of facts—in which case more than “mere facts” are at hand—it must be externally supplied, perhaps by a current metaphysic, by another science, or by personal and historical accident. No wonder, then, that in the early stages of the development of any science different men confronting the same range of phenomena, but not usually all the same particular phenomena, describe and interpret them in different ways.

Related Characters: Thomas Kuhn (speaker)
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 3 Quotes

Mopping-up operations are what engage most scientists throughout their careers. They constitute what I am here calling normal science. Closely examined, whether historically or in the contemporary laboratory, that enterprise seems an attempt to force nature into the preformed and relatively inflexible box that the paradigm supplies. No part of the aim of normal science is to call forth new sorts of phenomena; indeed those that will not fit the box are often not seen at all.

Related Characters: Thomas Kuhn (speaker)
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 4 Quotes

Once engaged, his motivation is of a rather different sort. What then challenges him is the conviction that, if only he is skillful enough, he will succeed in solving a puzzle that no one before has solved or solved so well. Many of the greatest scientific minds have devoted all of their professional attention to demanding puzzles of this sort. On most occasions any particular field of specialization offers nothing else to do, a fact that makes it no less fascinating to the proper sort of addict.

Related Characters: Thomas Kuhn (speaker)
Page Number: 38
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 5 Quotes

That process of learning by finger exercise or by doing continues throughout the process of professional initiation […] One is at liberty to suppose that somewhere along the way the scientist has intuitively abstracted rules of the game for himself, but there is little reason to believe it. Though many scientists talk easily and well about the particular individual hypotheses that underlie a concrete piece of current research, they are little better than laymen at characterizing the established bases of their field, its legitimate problems and methods.

Related Characters: Thomas Kuhn (speaker)
Page Number: 47
Explanation and Analysis:

An investigator who hoped to learn something about what scientists took the atomic theory to be asked a distinguished physicist and an eminent chemist whether a single atom of helium was or was not a molecule. Both answered without hesitation, but their answers were not the same. For the chemist the atom of helium was a molecule because it behaved like one with respect to the kinetic theory of gases. For the physicist, on the other hand, the helium atom was not a molecule because it displayed no molecular spectrum. Presumably both men were talking of the same particle, but they were viewing it through their own research training and practice. Their experience in problem-solving told them what a molecule must be.

Related Characters: Thomas Kuhn (speaker)
Page Number: 51
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 6 Quotes

New and unsuspected phenomena are, however, repeatedly uncovered by scientific research, and radical new theories have again and again been invented by scientists. […] If this characteristic of science is to be reconciled with what has already been said, then research under a paradigm must be a particularly effective way of inducing paradigm change. That is what fundamental novelties of fact and theory do. Produced inadvertently by a game played under one set of rules, their assimilation requires the elaboration of another set.

Related Characters: Thomas Kuhn (speaker)
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 8 Quotes

When acute, this situation is sometimes recognized by the scientists involved. Copernicus complained that in his day astronomers were so “inconsistent in these [astronomical] investigations . . . that they cannot even explain or observe the constant length of the seasonal year.” “With them,” he continued, “it is as though an artist were to gather the hands, feet, head and other members for his images from diverse models, each part excellently drawn, but not related to a single body, and since they in no way match each other, the result would be monster rather than man.” Einstein, restricted by current usage to less florid language, wrote only, “It was as if the ground had been pulled out from under one, with no firm foundation to be seen anywhere, upon which one could have built.”

Related Characters: Thomas Kuhn (speaker), Nicolaus Copernicus, Albert Einstein
Related Symbols: Jigsaw Puzzles
Page Number: 83
Explanation and Analysis:

Instead, the new paradigm, or a sufficient hint to permit later articulation, emerges all at once, sometimes in the middle of the night, in the mind of a man deeply immersed in crisis. […] Almost always the men who achieve these fundamental inventions of a new paradigm have been either very young or very new to the field whose paradigm they change. And perhaps that point need not have been made explicit, for obviously these are the men who, being little committed by prior practice to the traditional rules of normal science, are particularly likely to see that those rules no longer define a playable game and to conceive another set that can replace them.

Related Characters: Thomas Kuhn (speaker)
Page Number: 90
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 9 Quotes

As in political revolutions, so in paradigm choice—there is no standard higher than the assent of the relevant community.

Related Characters: Thomas Kuhn (speaker)
Page Number: 94
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 10 Quotes

Chemists could not, therefore, simply accept Dalton’s theory on the evidence, for much of that was still negative. Instead, even after accepting the theory, they had still to beat nature into line, a process which, in the event, took almost another generation. When it was done, even the percentage composition of well-known compounds was different. The data themselves had changed. That is the last of the senses in which we may want to say that after a revolution scientists work in a different world.

Related Characters: Thomas Kuhn (speaker), John Dalton
Page Number: 134
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 11 Quotes

But scientists are more affected by the temptation to rewrite history, partly because the results of scientific research show no obvious dependence upon the historical context of the inquiry, and partly because, except during crisis and revolution, the scientist’s contemporary position seems so secure. More historical detail, whether of science’s present or of its past, or more responsibility to the historical details that are presented, could only give artificial status to human idiosyncrasy, error, and confusion. Why dignify what science’s best and most persistent efforts have made it possible to discard?

Related Characters: Thomas Kuhn (speaker)
Page Number: 138
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 12 Quotes

These examples point to the third and most fundamental aspect of the incommensurability of competing paradigms. In a sense that I am unable to explicate further, the proponents of competing paradigms practice their trades in different worlds. One contains constrained bodies that fall slowly, the other pendulums that repeat their motions again and again. In one, solutions are compounds, in the other mixtures. One is embedded in a flat, the other in a curved, matrix of space.

Page Number: 150
Explanation and Analysis:

Though a generation is sometimes required to effect the change, scientific communities have again and again been converted to new paradigms. Furthermore, these conversions occur not despite the fact that scientists are human but because they are.

Related Characters: Thomas Kuhn (speaker)
Page Number: 152
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 13 Quotes

We may, to be more precise, have to relinquish the notion, explicit or implicit, that changes of paradigm carry scientists and those who learn from them closer and closer to the truth.

Related Characters: Thomas Kuhn (speaker)
Page Number: 170
Explanation and Analysis: