Science is usually thought of as an objective discipline based on observation, facts, and hard data. Yet in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, historian Thomas Kuhn argues that science is far less logical than it seems. Kuhn believes that each world-altering scientific discovery, from the law of gravity to the theory of relativity, actually begins with intuition—in a “lightning flash” of genius, one scientist’s instincts lead them to experience the world in a new way. Moreover, in order for the scientific community to adopt this new theory, Kuhn suggests that they must be persuaded not by rational proof but by aesthetic or emotional appeals. As such, Kuhn refutes the idea that scientists are objective and emotionless and suggests that intuition and feeling are what allow one scientific idea to triumph over another.
First, Kuhn tries to understand the emotional motives behind what he calls normal science: the everyday scientific work of trying to expand and apply a given paradigm to a variety of problems. Scientists are commonly thought to be motivated by “the desire to be useful, the excitement of exploring new territory, the hope of finding order, and the drive to test established knowledge.” Kuhn acknowledges that there is some truth to this perception of heroic science, as many young people do become scientists out of idealism. At the same time, he is interested in the more personal impulses that drive scientists (like the “excitement” of being one of few people who can understand a certain field). Kuhn argues that, for the most part, a scientist’s day-to-day life is driven by a sense of competition; “if only he is skillful enough, he will succeed in solving a puzzle that no one before has solved or solved so well.” Kuhn goes on to comment that normal science requires “a proper sort of addict,” one who prioritizes the thrill of solving puzzles and impressing colleagues above all else. Here, Kuhn completely undercuts the classic portrait of the objective, disinterested scientist and instead suggests that scientists are “thrill-seekers,” addicted to finding out the answers that elude their colleagues.
Kuhn also describes great, world-changing scientific discoveries—what he calls moments of extraordinary science—as deeply personal and instinctive. For the lone geniuses who engage in extraordinary science, “the new paradigm […] emerges all at once, sometimes in the middle of the night, in the mind of a man deeply immersed in crisis.” Kuhn’s writing here suggests a deep interest in the interior—even spiritual—lives of scientists. He asks readers to imagine these great thinkers in their private bedrooms in “the middle of the night,” not only confronted with a crisis of knowledge but actually “immersed” in it. Interestingly, while science is often understood to be observation-based, Kuhn shifts the focus from these geniuses’ “stimuli” to their “sensations.” “Very different stimuli can produce the same sensations,” Kuhn points out, just as “the same stimulus can produce very different sensations.” At its core, then, Kuhn’s claim is that scientists rely on lived experience (“sensations”) to make their conclusions—and so understanding them as real people with real lives is crucial to understanding their work.
Most importantly, Kuhn argues that the triumph of one scientific idea over another is more about feeling than fact. “The transfer of allegiance from paradigm to paradigm,” writes Kuhn, “is a conversion experience that cannot be forced.” Again, Kuhn thinks of science as something almost spiritual (“conversion”), one that develops not through logic but through deeply personal realizations. Though these arguments might never be made directly, many scientific theories appeal directly to scientists’ sense of what is “aesthetic—the new theory is said to be ‘neater,’ ‘more suitable’ or ‘simpler’ than the old.” In other words, theories do not triumph because they are “right” so much as because scientists admire their simplicity or their style. Here, Kuhn’s focus on scientists’ humanity goes to the heart of his argument—that one idea is not more truthful than another, but rather that it appeals more to a given group of human beings in a given time. Kuhn also compares scientific revolutions to political ones: both rely on the “techniques of mass persuasion,” focusing less on logic and more on rhetoric and argumentation. As Kuhn works to humanize individual scientists, he also is fascinated by scientists’ relationships with one another, both in terms of large-scale community and small-scale friendships or collaborations. Finally, then, Kuhn concludes that paradigm shifts can happen “not despite the fact that scientists are human but because they are.” Because scientists’ work is deeply personal, aesthetic, and experiential, they are able to move outside of the rigid bounds of logical problem solving—and to transform their field in the process.
Intuition and Emotion ThemeTracker
Intuition and Emotion Quotes in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
If these out-of-date beliefs are to be called myths, then myths can be produced by the same sorts of methods and held for the same sorts of reasons that now lead to scientific knowledge. If, on the other hand, they are to be called science, then science has included bodies of belief quite incompatible with the ones we hold today.
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.
There must also be rules that limit both the nature of acceptable solutions and the steps by which they are to be obtained. To solve a jigsaw puzzle is not, for example, merely “to make a picture.” Either a child or a contemporary artist could do that by scattering selected pieces, as abstract shapes, upon some neutral ground. The picture thus produced might be far better, and would certainly be more original, than the one from which the puzzle had been made. Nevertheless, such a picture would not be a solution. To achieve that all the pieces must be used, their plain sides must be turned down, and they must be interlocked without forcing until no holes remain.
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.
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.”
The marks on paper that were first seen as a bird are now seen as an antelope, or vice versa. That parallel can be misleading. […] the scientist does not preserve the gestalt subject’s freedom to switch back and forth between ways of seeing. Nevertheless, the switch of gestalt, particularly because it is today so familiar, is a useful elementary prototype for what occurs in full-scale paradigm shift.
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.
Examining the record of past research from the vantage of contemporary historiography, the historian of science may be tempted to exclaim that when paradigms change, the world itself changes with them. Led by a new paradigm, scientists adopt new instruments and look in new places. Even more important, during revolutions scientists see new and different things when looking with familiar instruments in places they have looked before. […] In so far as their only recourse to that world is through what they see and do, we may want to say that after a revolution scientists are responding to a different world.
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?
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.
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.