Article

Scientific Revolutions

Thomas Nickles

in Philosophy

ISBN: 9780195396577
Published online July 2012 | | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0048
Scientific Revolutions

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Scientific revolutions and the problem of understanding deep scientific change became central topics in philosophy of science with Thomas S. Kuhn’s publication in 1962 of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (see Kuhn 1970, cited under General Overviews). Kuhn attacked the received view of the logical empiricists and Popperians that scientific change is cumulative. He claimed that there have been several revolutions since the so-called scientific revolution, including dramatic overturnings in the most mature sciences—with more to be expected in the future. Kuhn’s more dynamic model of scientific development postulated the existence of occasional crises that sometimes trigger full-scale revolutions that overthrow the old “paradigm” and replace it with a new one discontinuous or “incommensurable” with the old one. He rejected the received views of scientific rationality and denied that even the most successful sciences are progressing toward a final, representational truth about the world. By focusing on finished, “textbook” science, defenders of the received view, he argued, presented an inadequate account of how scientific research is done, leaving unexplained the marked difference between the mature natural sciences and the social sciences as well as the difference within a mature science itself between “normal science” and the extraordinary research context of science in crisis. Kuhn and an entire generation of historically oriented philosophers of science believed that philosophical models of science should be more naturalistic (not based on a priori normative claims), more reflective of scientific practice, and thus testable against the history of science. Unlike the logicians of science, Kuhn highlighted cognitive and social psychological factors and the importance of rhetoric in scientific decision making. In reaction, critics questioned whether there have been any genuinely Kuhnian revolutions, accusing Kuhn of debunking modern science by portraying science as subjective, irrational, and relativistic. Kuhn replied that he was not a relativist, that he was attempting to develop a new account of scientific cognition and rationality, and that he was in effect trying to instigate a revolution of his own at the level of metascience and even general epistemology. Virtually no expert fully accepts Kuhn’s model of science, but there is general agreement that he posed some serious problems, including the problem of new theories: How can it be rational for scientists to reject a highly developed and accomplished theory or research program in favor of a radical and undeveloped new approach? Kuhn’s work stimulated a number of later developments in philosophy and in social studies of science more generally.

Article.  18607 words. 

Subjects: Philosophy ; Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art ; Epistemology ; Feminist Philosophy ; History of Western Philosophy ; Metaphysics ; Moral Philosophy ; Non-Western Philosophy ; Philosophy of Language ; Philosophy of Law ; Philosophy of Mathematics and Logic ; Philosophy of Mind ; Philosophy of Religion ; Philosophy of Science ; Social and Political Philosophy

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