Chapter 5 in Thomas Kuhn’s ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ is titled ‘The Priority of Paradigms’. In this essay as he refers to it, Kuhn elaborates on the relationship between rules paradigms and ‘normal science’. I thought this essay was less articulate than the previous essays although he introduces some important concepts which he develops in later chapters. Kuhn suggests that rules govern a research tradition and that there is a common understanding within the research community that forms the research paradigm. However he thinks that scientists are often unaware of the specifics of the research paradigm and instead rely on an intuitive understanding much akin to that proposed by Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein proposed that we know a game by its family of properties. Even if a game doesn’t have all of the properties we identify with a game, we will still be able to recognise it as such through these flexible recognition mechanisms. He goes on to describe science as a ‘ramshackle structure’ with little coherence arguing that if we consider the physical sciences we will see a big difference between related sciences. He gives the example of a chemist and a physicist being asked whether helium is a molecule and giving two entirely different answers. The explanation for this is that the scientists were using different paradigms even though both branches were derived using quantum mechanics.
I found many of Kuhn’s suggestions profound. He suggests for instance that the scientist may undertake research quite separately from any explicit consideration of the underlying paradigm. This thought is quite remarkable as it suggests that a scientist may dissociate a rational approach used in their experimental study from an irrational approach to the wider context of the research paradigm in which their study is operating. In other words if there is an obvious flaw in the underlying assumptions of a research paradigm then it doesn’t matter how many well designed studies are undertaken within that paradigm, the conclusions will still be erroneous because of the mistaken assumptions several layers down. Kuhn would presumably have recommended a healthy scepticism towards the research paradigm although this is not explicitly mentioned within the essay. I can’t help but think that in describing the research paradigm, Kuhn is actually describing in a roundabout way, the characteristics of a social group. These characteristics remain invariant regardless of whether it is science we are talking about or any group activity. The group will form an identity and this identity is developed through a shared language and culture. The culture itself may develop from a decision to solve specific problems whereupon there is a ccncerted drive to use a systematic approach to achieve this end. In science this results in the research paradigm. However this will also be repeated in other parts of society froming the impetus for social change across a wide variety of fields.
Thomas Kuhn. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Narrated by Dennis Holland. (Paperback originally published in 1962). Audible. 2009.
For a review of the Introduction see here.
For a review of Chapter 1 see here.
For a review of Chapter 2 see here.
For a review of Chapter 3 see here.
For a review of Chapter 4 see here.
Picture is derivate of the following work – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Thinker,_Rodin.jpg
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