What is a Paradigm Shift (Thomas Kuhn)? – Explained Examples

Thomas Kuhn was an American philosopher of science who changed how we look at the world and the happenings around us. He coined the word ‘Paradigm Shift’, which is commonly used in his famous book named ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions published in 1962. A PhD in Physics, Kuhn studied at Harvard University and his work revolved around Quantum Physics. During his later years, he taught science to humanities students as a part of the General Education in Science curriculum. These particular years brought him close to the history and the evolution of science. He came across multiple case studies and the journey of the work of prominent scientists and their discoveries. He found a common structure or pattern among all those patterns which led to the discovery and evolution of science. This led to the discovery of the word paradigm shift which we commonly use nowadays.

What is a paradigm shift?

When we come across the word ‘Paradigm Shift’, it seems more like jargon having scientific meaning and implications but it is really simple. In layman’s words paradigm is a model or a pattern which is often followed to arrive at a conclusion or to get the results. For instance, if a person wants to lose a few kilos and get into shape, then that person will follow a diet and exercise plan. That plan or pattern of exercising or dieting can be called a Paradigm. However, if that plan is not working for that person, they might change it. The non-feasibility of that plan is understood through observations and experiments or the trial and error method. Certain changes can be made to the existing plan or the entire plan can be scrapped for a new one. This can be described as a paradigm shift. We notice paradigm shifts in our day to day life.

 Kuhn observed that multiple scientific discoveries which now or sometimes back then seemed absurd had a major role in future discoveries and inventions. He mentioned in his book that the perception and interpretation of a few things were different at the given point of time when the discovery took place. And during that particular point in time notions surrounding that topic might be different which resulted in the outcome. A case in point is the word ‘Awe’, which in Old English was described as dreadful. The words awful and awesome were synonymous at one point. However, later on, the words changed their course and Awful took an entirely negative form and meaning while Awesome took a positive one. If anyone was working according to the older interpretations then their work might seem baseless in the new age. However, the work might be helpful to carry out further research or to even dismiss certain courses of action so that the same mistake is not repeated. The change in the interpretation and understanding of things, words or phenomena might also lead to a paradigm shift. This is what Kuhn discovered in his book and it changed the way we perceive the scientific world.

Kuhns Phases of Science:

Kuhn further stated that the discoveries of scientific theories are based upon a series of events. More specifically in his words, a series of phases.

1. The first phase (pre-science phase):

The first phase is where scientists are exploring various theories and fundamentals and have not yet arrived at any model and framework to follow. He named it the pre-science phase.

There are many interpretations which happen during this phase.

2. The second phase (normal science phase):

 The second phase is what he called normal science. According to him, ‘normal science’ is where the scientific process goes on in a normal and regular or usual way. He explained this phase where a community or group of scientists are working together on a shared and common question or topic. During this phase, they carry out their work on the basis of an intellectual framework or a paradigm. In simpler words, a model or a pattern. A number of assumptions and hypothesis help scientists arrive at a paradigm that they rigorously follow to gain their desired result. This framework places certain questions or puzzles which arise out of anomalies or irregularities which need to be solved to attain the desired outcome. In the case of normal science, the desired outcome is something that is expected to happen and nothing new or novel. This can be attained by modifying the framework or by observation and experimentation. A lot of scientists spend a maximum amount of time in their research on this phase and the abnormalities that arise during it are normal.

3. The third phase (crisis phase):

However, sometimes in this course, there comes a time when the desired outcomes are not achieved for a long time and the irrationalities or abnormalities keep pilling on. This is when the paradigm shift starts and it is described by Kuhn as the third phase; the phase of the crisis. This is when some scientists begin to question the paradigm or the model itself and its feasibility. This phenomenon is what Kuhn has described as the period when there is desperation and willingness to try anything. It enters a stage where the entire paradigm on which everything is based needs to be shifted to a new one. This can be summed up as the paradigm shift after which the science and the work in that field are carried on in the same and normal way. Based on the new framework the discovery or proving of the hypothesis goes on and on.

4. The fourth phase (revolution phase):

The fourth phase is elucidated by Kuhn as the phase of the revolution. Here a completely new and different paradigm, method is formulated. But it is not a result of the previous paradigm, it is a totally independent paradigm which is formulated with the help of observations, experiments and a few lessons from the previous one. This new paradigm is examined on the basis of new techniques and the same course is not followed. It is dealt with fresh perspectives to get the desired outcomes and results.

Also Read: Sociology of Development

Let’s see a few examples to understand the concept of Paradigm shift better-

During ancient times there were theories initiated by scientists like Ptolemy and supported by Plato and Aristotle that the Earth is the centre of our solar system and also it is motionless and that the sun and all other planets revolve around Earth. So when this notion was followed, all the other supporting theories were based on the exact theory that the Earth is at the centre. However, later on, Nicolas Copernicus, who is now considered the father of modern astronomy found out that the earth is not motionless. In fact, he figured that the Earth rotates daily, with the help of the position of the moons of Jupiter and also discovered that the Sun is the centre of our solar system and other celestial bodies including Earth revolve around it. Later on, it was also confirmed by Galileo who observed it with the help of a telescope. Copernicus initially took into consideration the fact that the Earth is in the centre, however, his work was not following up with that notion which is why he took a different path or paradigm. He found some abnormalities and discrepancies in the fact that the Earth is in the centre. And when the heap of discrepancies increased, he postulated a new hypothesis or a new paradigm to prove his point of view, which was later proved to be true. This is said as a Paradigm shift. This discovery was also eye-opening for the entire scientific world as it changed the way we look at things.

Another example is when Christopher Columbus reached America and believed that he reached the shore of South Asia and discovered India. However, it was, later on, discovered that he was wrong. Vasco Da Gama, a Portuguese seller discovered a new route via the Cape of Good Hope when he reached India. Here the anomalies from the previous sea expedition were taken into consideration and a new paradigm was formulated which was independent and wasn’t based on the previous one. The desired result was to reach India and it was attained with the help of a shift in the paradigm.

Also Read: Western Philosophy

During 297 B.C.E in India, Chandragupta Maurya the fiery warrior and the founder of the Mauryan dynasty captured Magadha and declared Patliputra as the capital of his Kingdom. But this was not an easy win. Initially, when he tried to Capture Magadha, he had to retreat since the armed force of the Mauryan emperor Dhanananda was really mighty and strong. So he with the help of his advisor Chanakya formed a different strategy and captured all the surrounding territories of the Kingdom and gheraoed it from all these sides. It eventually led to the fall of the Nanda kingdom and the rise of Mauryan Rule. This was possible because of the shifts in Paradigm. Earlier the Mauryan army decided to attack from one side, it was their old paradigm. However after failure or not attaining the desired results and the pilling of such difficulties the paradigm was changed and a new pattern and plan were devised. It was their new paradigm.

Kuhn always believed that the shift in paradigms is a logical result and interpretation. It is not failure but accepting a new and different approach toward something. He also stressed that the acceptance and rejection of the paradigm is a social process and psychological process. He also believes that a scientist must focus on the history and the journey of science and its discoveries to better understand the process. A new paradigm is not formulated hastily or overnight. It is a result of successive experiments. Kuhn also discovered that the process of science or scientific discovery is not stable or static throughout. It changes and alternates between normal science where a single paradigm is being examined and the phase of crisis where a new paradigm is desired to move on. To conclude, in Kuhn’s words, the paradigm is the philosophy of science that one needs to take into consideration during different phases of science.




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Isha Rane is a sociology graduate with a keen interest in research and analysis, focusing on areas such as Corporate Social Responsibility, Human Resources, and Public Policy. She is an avid reader, particularly enjoying books about the history and political scenario of India. Isha also likes to write about pressing issues and topics that require a voice in the conversation. Her career aspirations lie in the development sector. Additionally, she has a passionate interest in mythology and calligraphy.