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on 6 April 2017
Probably the greatest non-fiction book I've ever read. Fantastic !
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 21 August 2012
Thomas Kuhn's controversial 1962 book produced a radical change in the way of thinking about science and also introduced the now pervasive term 'paradigm shift'.
Before Kuhn, the orthodox view was that science progressed in an evolutionary, cumulative way, gradually getting nearer to the 'truth'. In a nutshell, Kuhn's thesis states that there are alternating periods of 'normal' and 'revolutionary' science. After a revolutionary paradigm shift normal science is resumed with a new theoretical framework. Examples of this shift are the transition from Ptolemy's earth-centred solar system to the Copernican sun-centred paradigm and Newtonian mechanics being superseded by quantum mechanics.
'The Structure of Scientific Revolutions', which has now sold 1.4 million copies, is one of the most influential books of the 20th century and this 50th Anniversary Edition has an excellent new preface by philosopher Ian Hacking.
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As a practicing scientist and someone who has always been interested in history and the development of scientific ideas "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" has for long time been the book that loomed large on my intellectual horizon. Thomas Khun's book has for a long time had a reputation as the definitive and seminal work on understanding how new scientific ideas come about and how and why they gain support. Part of my reluctance to start reading this book stemmed from my belief that it would be an overly philosophical work, with a lot of opaque technical jargon, and with very little relevance to actual scientific practice. However, to my great surprise and delight, nothing could be farther from the truth. This book is written in a very matter-of-fact style, and it is easy to understand what Khun is getting at. His own background in science and history of science probably made him very sensitive to the working and thinking of practicing scientists.

The insights that Khun has arrived at are still relevant almost half a century after this book has been published. The idea of "paradigm shifts" has even entered the mainstream consciousness, to the point that it can be caricatured in various cartoons and silly t-shirts. However, after reading this book it is not quite clear to me whether Khun wanted this to be a description of the way that science works, or more of a normative prescription for how to arrive at truly fundamental changes in some scientific discipline. This is particularly relevant for disciplines or directions of research that seem to have gotten stuck in some dead end, as has been the case with particle physics for several decades.

Whether you are a practicing scientist, someone interested in science, or someone who would like to know more about how scientific breakthroughs happen you'll greatly benefit from reading this book. You may not agree with Khun's every conclusion, but the longevity of the ideas presented here makes them relevant for every serious discussion about scientific endeavor.
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VINE VOICEon 2 October 2008
Anyone interested in the philosophy of science and the good practice of science should read this. I have read both the review of Danny of Arabia and Mr P Briody and they do not understand the significance of Kuhn's thesis. This is not a threat to science, science cannot be threatened by something that captures its very essence.

This is how we do science and as a research scientist for now nearly 20 years it is certainly how I see science from the inside. This is not crank philosophy or something from the creationist movement, this is an intelligent discourse. It does not have any hidden relgious agenda. It just states that science is relativistic and science is relativistic, only very bad scientists would ever argue that they know the absolute truth.

More than this it is well written and accessible and it should be read much more widely. It certainly is a clearer view than Popper's and while they are different in some aspects they do not present a completely different view of science. Both agree that certainty does not exist.
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on 12 November 2015
When I undertook to read this great classic I expected it to be a book about the history of science, but I ended up reading a philosophy of science treatise. But I have to say that I am in complete agreement with almost everything Kuhn says about the process of scientific discovery. So much so that I did not have the impression of learning a great deal because everything Kuhn said in his famous essay was already integrated to my own view of the evolution of science. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the notion of paradigm in science is very well known today, to the point that various authors now take it for granted.

If I don't have any problems with what Kuhn says, I do have problems with the language he uses, which is very formal. This essay is way too academic for my taste. It gave me the impression to have been written for peers rather than the general public. And that is the main reason why I did not give it the full five-star rating it deserves. And the book is also a bit dated. It was originally published in 1962 and was partly based on ideas he had developed as early as 1949. And the way science is practiced today has considerably evolved since that time. But the basic premises still remain valid today. For most scientists the idea that science is a human endeavour fraught with subjective considerations and non-linear progress must be hard to swallow. As for the philosophers of science I think they have taken this book way too seriously. They generally have a tendency to focus on the individual trees and therefore cannot see the forest. Because of that they seem to have had difficulty to put Kuhn's ideas together into a meaningful whole.

If there is one weakness to this book it is a lack of differentiation between the various paradigms of science. My point being that some new paradigms have a more profound impact than others on the scientific community and society at large. If we take the Quantum Revolution as an exemple, it had implications and consequences far beyond what many other new paradigms ever had. Quantum Physics had a huge philosophical influence and continues to have deep repercussions across the intellectual world. And from QP are continuously derived an infinite array of technological applications. Each paradigm in every science had its own influence, but some had more impact than others. I wish Kuhn had discussed this aspect, but I am not sure he even mentioned it.

Potential readers also need to know that the various examples given by Kuhn are mainly taken from the history of physics and chemistry. There is practically nothing about the life sciences, which ironically are dominant today. That may be the reason why I thought the book was a bit dated. Yet it remains a must read for anyone who wish to better understand the fascinating process of scientific discovery.
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on 15 June 2013
Beautifully written. There's a tendency to over-egg the case, and perhaps Kuhn should say more about the extent to which relevant scientists saw themselves as engaging in revolutionary change. But a great account of the struggle for understanding in the field of science; even non-scientists ought to find it gripping. Helpful introduction to this edition by Ian Hacking.
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on 18 March 2010
"The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" is not the easiest book to interpret if you come to it cold. Those of a relativist inclination tend to leap too easily on the apparent claim that science isn't so special after all and is merely a sociological phenomenon. Scientists tend to see it as arguing that there is nothing about the current state of science that is better than Aristotle. The end result is that people tend to either love it or hate it, but they've both misinterpreted it - in my opinion.

In his later writings Kuhn makes clear that he feels there is some sense in which science advances. But he is unhappy with what he perceives to be simplistic explanations of what that sense is. Indeed he struggles to articulate it clearly himself. Some of the other reviews claim that he must be wrong because of the successes and accuracy of science, but Kuhn never denies the operational successes and the extraordinary accuracy of prediction. He is simply uncomfortable with the claim that extreme accuracy implies that the ontology of the theory is closer to the truth than less accurate theories. I think he's struggling with what such a claim really means and I think his doubts are not unreasonable.

Sometimes, particularly in Structure, he is too bold in his statements. Personally I think that his claim that theoretical words change meanings during scientific revolutions is sound, but I'm not so sure that pre- and post-revolutionary science are truly incommensurable. His observation that there is very rarely a cast iron falsification of a theory is, in my opinion, an accurate challenge to naive Popperianism, but he is frequently misinterpreted as claiming that therefore there are no good reasons for adopting a new theory. Arguably the force of his statements in Structure is partly responsible for this interpretation, but he explicitly states in later writings that this is a misunderstanding.

Overall I really recommend reading "The Copernican Revolution" and "The Essential Tension" in addition to Structure, because reading his historical works illuminates his philosophical position. I think you'll see that Kuhn has been misused by those who wish to champion extreme relativism.
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on 16 August 1999
As a scientist and someone who has always loved this book, I wanted to try and clarify Kuhn's message for Chris.
Kuhn is NOT arguing that anything that silly socio-psychobabble that all science is colored by personal perspective, and therefore faulty. What Kuhn doing is making the essential connection between the immutable fact and the people discovering and interpreting it. Scientists collect facts and build from them an idea of how things work as a whole. This is what he calls a paradigm. It thoroughly describes our reality as we have thus far been able to describe it. BUT: when a fact is discovered that does not fit this paradigm, the reality itself is discarded, and after a bit of chaos, a new paradigm is installed. Thus, science uses fact to produce a way of interpreting the world that more and more closely approximates reality. Point is, until anyone proves otherwise, the paradigm in place is the one that works. Science is the continual establishment and discarding of these paradigms as fact permits.
While this seems simple now, when it came out it was a revolutionary contradiction to the staid and now seemingly antiquated belief that science is a clean, steady progression to a full understanding of all phenomena. Truth is that, as Kuhn so elegantly illustrates, it moves by jumps and starts, with periodic changes in the equilibrium of things.
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Thomas S. Kuhn wrote this classic work in the early `60's. He sought to describe how scientific revolutions occur. The `60's were famous for numerous social revolutions, most notably in improving the status of blacks and women in our society. Books such as Charles Reich's The Greening of America rather famously made predictions on the direction of permanent social changes in America that never reached fruition. His book is now in that proverbial "dustbin of history." Kuhn's book is far more notable, and enduring, for providing a paradigm, as it were, on how shifts in scientific perception occur. The "as it were" refers to the fact that Kuhn is credited with first using the phrase "paradigm shift."

Kuhn postulates that there is a model, or paradigm, if you will, called "normal science." Virtually the entire scientific (and even non-scientific) community subscribe to this model. The role of a scientist operating within the normal parameters of a given paradigm is to "tweak" the model; that is, make further advances in our collective knowledge, but within the model's framework. But there always seem to be anomalies to a given explanation of the natural world, and the anomalies can mount, and seem to reach a "critical mass," (itself an expression from another paradigm shift), and eventually the entire paradigm is "shifted" to a new one. Certainly one of the most famous examples, cited by Kuhn, is the revolution in our thinking about our place in the universe, which was led by Galileo and Copernicus. Prior to this revolution, the standard model was that the earth was the center of the universe, with the sun, moon, and all the stars circling it. And they did so in perfect circles, because that is the way God would have wanted it. Perfection. But the observed motion of the celestial bodies mounted, perfect circles were imposed on perfect circles, in an effort to explain the motions, but eventually such structures became unwieldy, and unworkable. The time became right for the "paradigm shift" that stated it was the earth that circled the sun, which was just a small star in a universe full of them. Kuhn cites other examples, notably when Lavoisier published his paper in 1777 on the oxygen theory of combustion, which revolutionized our ideas on chemical processes. Yet another example is the 19th century theory that the universe was composed of "ether" through which waves traveled. That too has been discarded.

Kahn devotes specific chapters to detailing how the anomalies mount to a given paradigm, a "crisis" in scientific thinking occurs, followed by a revolution in that thinking, led by a very few men, and our world view changes, which Kahn declares to be progress. The author quotes Max Planck to sardonically and sadly note how that progress actually occurs: "a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it." Another enduring quote for me came from Francis Bacon: "Truth emerges more readily from error than confusion."

In the final chapter Kuhn raises, and briefly discusses some still very unanswered questions: "Why should the enterprise sketched above move steadily ahead as, say, art, political theory, or philosophy does not? Why is progress a perquisite reserved almost exclusively for the activities we call science?" "Why should scientific communities be able to reach a firm consensus unattainable in other fields?"

I've read the criticisms of this book which are posted in the Amazon reviews. Certainly one of the most valid is that Kuhn gave very limited coverage to the paradigm shift from Newtonian mechanics to quantum mechanics.

Lastly, I first read this book on the plane back from Vietnam (yes, as in "the war.") I was in desperate need to think about something else, and found it somewhat comforting that in some human enterprise some forward progress was being made. Still, the questions that Kuhn raises at the end of his book remain as valid today as 40 years ago: why progress in science; yet in the political field - and by extension, war , for example, the same old stupid mistakes continue to be made over and over again. Kuhn's work remains a five-star read, and I am pleased to see that as of this posting, his book is in the top 1000 best sellers.
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on 7 August 2000
Hi,
As anyone who invests the time to study the customer responses below will see, Kuhn has a lot of fans. I myself read the Structure of Scientific Revolutions back in my early student days, and at the time I was inclined to look on it quite favourably. Recently however, I decided to reread it, and now am no longer sure that I holds any philosophical water. Personally I would still say read this book - but do not accept everything it says uncritically - much of the underlying philosophical basis of the argument (the incommensurability of paradigms, the relationship between observation and theory, etc) is open to question.
Kuhn is also subject to multiple interpretations as a quote from below demonstrates:
(Gdyas) "Kuhn is NOT arguing that anything that silly socio-psychobabble that all science is colored by personal perspective, and therefore faulty. What Kuhn doing is making the essential connection between the immutable fact and the people discovering and interpreting it. Scientists collect facts and build from them an idea of how things work as a whole. This is what he calls a paradigm. It thoroughly describes our reality as we have thus far been able to describe it. BUT: when a fact is discovered that does not fit this paradigm, the reality itself is discarded, and after a bit of chaos, a new paradigm is installed. Thus, science uses fact to produce a way of interpreting the world that more and more closely approximates reality"
From my reading of Kuhn, I would regard the last sentence in particular as highly questionable as a summary of his views. Kuhn himself wrote:
"One often hears that successive theories grow ever closer to, or approximate more and more closely to, the truth. Apparently generalizations like that refer not to the puzzle-solutions and the concrete predictions derived from a theory but rather to it's ontology, to the match, that is, betwen the entities with which the theory populates nature and what is 'really there' ... There is I think no theory-independent way to reconstruct phrases like 'really there'. The notion of match between the ontology of a theory and its 'real' counterpart in nature now seems to me illusive in principle."
Many philosophers have commented after studying his work that there seem to be two Kuhn's - a moderate Kuhn who merely wishes to point out the extent to which our preconceptions can influence scientific theory choice and a more radical Kuhn who wishes to argue that our preconceptions are all there are. The problem of determining which Kuhn is the real Kuhn strikes me as a somewhat thankless task - I certainly would not like to attempt it. I do however, know that there are a number of points where I would disagree with the latter Kuhn - an instance of which being the degree to which the paradigm you are in shapes your perception of theory. Tom Maudlin expresses it better than I could,
"If presented with a moon rock, Aristotle would experience it as a rock, and as an object with a tendency to fall. He could not fail to conclude that the material of which the moon is made is not fundamentally different from terrestial material with respect to its natural motion. Similarly, ever better telescopes revealed more clearly the phases of venus, irrespective of one's preferred cosmology, and even Ptolemy would have remarked on the apparent rotation of a Foucault pendulum. The sense in which one's paradigm may influence one's experience of the world cannot be so strong as to guarentee that one's experience will always accord with one's theories, else the need to revise theories would never arise."
However for those who disagree with Tom here, I will close with the following enquiry from another good book 'Intellectual Impostures' by Sokal and Bricmont (from which the Maudlin quote was also taken):
"Research in history, and in particular in the history of science, employs methods that are not radically different from those used in the natural sciences: studying documents, drawing the most rational inferences, making inductions based on the available data, and so forth. If arguments of this type in physics and biology did not allow us to arrive at reasonably reliable conclusions, what reason would there be to trust them in history? Why speak in a realist mode about historical categories, such as paradigms, if it is an illusion to speak about scientific concepts (which are in fact much more precisely defined) such as electrons or DNA?"
I liked "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" - I think it is a book everyone should read at some point in their lives. Read, enjoy, and think. But especially the last of these three, and whatever you do don't (as some people who should know better are inclined to do) just name-drop it as some sort of infallible authority.
Cheers.
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