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Shift Happens

(Original story by David Weinberger at The Chronicle Review...)

"Kuhn undid Popper even more fundamentally than Popper had undone the positivists. The individual propositions within a science might be characterized by falsifiability, but how about the sort of gestalt that crystallized for Kuhn when at last and in an instant he understood Aristotle's idea of motion? That gestalt—which Kuhn of course called a paradigm—was of a different category than the propositions it enabled. Its acceptance may be rational in important ways, but Kuhn throughout his career could not bring himself to call paradigms "true."

Considering that paradigms are central to SSR, it's surprising how ambiguous that work leaves the concept. At a conference in 1965, the late British philosopher Margaret Masterman listed 21 senses in which Kuhn used the term in that book. She clustered them into three groups: (1) a set of beliefs, (2) a "universally recognized scientific achievement" that serves as a defining example of how that science is done, and (3) the textbooks, instruments, and other physical artifacts by which scientists learn and practice their fields. In a postscript published in 1969, Kuhn emphasized the second view of paradigms, as exemplars that guide practice—"See? That's how you do astronomy!"—rather than as big ideas that provide the context for smaller ideas. He also talked in the postscript about paradigms' applying to communities of scientists that might be only a hundred strong. That is not the grand picture that has stuck in the public mind.

Paradigms were not the only influential idea in SSR. Kuhn focused on what he termed "normal science," the daily work of career scientists. He said they are not in the business of plotting revolutionary overthrows of existing paradigms, but are instead solving puzzles. Which puzzles are interesting, how to address them, and what counts as solutions all are determined by the paradigm—or, depending on which sense of paradigm one uses, those are the paradigm. Astronomers train telescopes into the sky looking for particular radio signatures because they work under a paradigm in which that activity is important. They have learned to do this from textbooks that codify the paradigm, and they are trained by other scientists in their community. Kuhn spent much of the rest of his career trying to direct the focus of historians and philosophers of science on normal science rather than on revolutionary paradigms, perhaps because his concept of a paradigm was so powerful that it not only overshadowed the quotidian work of science but also threatened to take on an all too solid life of its own. No, Kuhn insisted, take away the practices, instruments, and textbooks of a scientific community, and there is no paradigm left over. Except those times when he left the opposite impression..."


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