8.7 Scientific Historical Relativism


By the end of this section you will discover:

  • The meaning of scientific historical relativism.
  • Thomas Kuhn’s theory of the structures of scientific paradigm shifts.
  • How anomalies often trigger a paradigm crisis in accepted scientic theory.
  • How science is always an ongoing concensus subject to revisions when new data appears.
  • The strengths and weaknesses of Kuhn’s theory.

All scientific theories are subject to change, revision, even to being discarded.  The corpus of scientific knowledge is not based upon unchanging theory, but on the concensus of the majority of scientists in a discipline (biology, astronomy, chemistry, etc.) that our current theory is the one which best explains the evidence of our observations.  But undue reliance on any particualar explanatory theory runs the danger that science will not observe challenges to that theory, anomalies.

Scientific historical relativism is a position suggested by the work of philosopher Thomas Kuhn. “It suggests that “Scientific “truths” are relative to a given paradigm. This paradigm is not itself capable of being compared directly with the real. Nor may we assume that historical development will bring us increasingly more valid paradigms, since no two paradigms may be compared directly. Individual scientists and the community of scientists at-large move from one paradigm to another for considerations not wholly rational, and where rational, not wholly explicit…”  (Charles J. Dougherty, “The Structures of Scientific Relativism,” Transactions of the Nebraska Academy of Sciences, VIII:211-215., p. 291).

Thomas Kuhn

Thomas Samuel Kuhn was an American philosopher of science whose 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was influential in both academic and popular circles, introducing the term paradigm shift, which has since become an English-language idiom.

According to what follows, what three stages of development has science gone through?
Colorized drawing of Thomas Kuhn
Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996)

The Positivists and Karl Popper offer attempts to describe and develop rational methods for scientific inquiry. In so doing, they offer normative theories of scientific practice. That is, they offer views about how scientific inquiry should proceed and what counts as good scientific practice. Kuhn’s philosophy of science is inspired by the history of science and seeks to describe how science actually develops. Kuhn’s undertaking is not aimed at revealing universal norms of rational scientific practice. But his views have been taken by some to imply that the development of science is not guided by general norms of rationality, at least at crucial revolutionary periods of theory change.

Kuhn describes three stages in the development of science. The first stage is called “pre- paradigm science.” In pre-paradigm science, people seeking to understand an observed phenomenon share no common stock of background theory. Each inquirer essentially starts from scratch. Under these circumstances, very little progress is made. We have nothing resembling a tradition that can be passed from one person on to her students for further development and investigation. The various theories of the nature of the world proposed by pre-Socratic philosophers might be considered an example of pre-paradigm physics.

At some point, someone develops an account of the observed phenomenon that has enough substance and explanatory power to attract the attention of a community of individuals who will then carry on inquiry along the proposed lines. This marks the beginnings of normal science.

What is a “scientific paradigm”?

Kuhn calls the sort of account of the observed phenomenon that is required for this to happen a paradigm.

A paradigm consists of the following four things:

  1. A body of theory including laws: For instance, the basic laws of motion.
  2. Background metaphysical assumptions: For instance, that there is an external world and that our senses provide a reasonably reliable guide to its nature, that we share common objects of perception, etc.
  3. Values: Here we have in mind primarily epistemological values including norms of rationality. The idea here is that a paradigm tells you what counts as a phenomenon that requires explanation and provides a standard for what counts as an adequate explanation of that phenomenon.
  4. Exemplars: These are textbook applications of the theory to the phenomenon it is intended to explain. Classical physics is taught through exemplars that include applying Newton’s laws to swinging pendulums and forces exerted on springs.

What does Kuhn mean by “normal science”?

Normal science, the second of Kuhn’s three stages, is carried out within a paradigm. Working within a paradigm, the scientist normally accepts the core elements of the paradigm as dogma. The scientist’s job in the stage of normal science is to work out the details of the paradigm without calling into question the central laws of the paradigm, or the epistemic standards it presupposes. In the normal stage, we can think of science as puzzle-solving. Investigators are not advancing bold new theories but applying the accepted theoretical framework in new and novel sorts of cases. During normal science, a paradigm gets worked out in detail.

What does he mean by “anomalies”?

In the course of normal science, problems that resist resolution with the paradigm often arise. If these “recalcitrant” problems remain long enough, they become what Kuhn calls anomalies. As the details of a paradigm get worked out, the anomalies become harder and harder to ignore.

Researchers in need of projects may focus more and more scrutiny on the remaining anomalies. Continued and intensified but unsuccessful attempts to resolve anomalies can give rise to a crisis in normal science. Such a crisis makes it possible to call into question core elements of the paradigm that had been previously held dogmatically.

How can anomalies lead to a paradigm crisis?

What does Kuhn mean by a “revolution” here?

Persistent anomalies in a particular area of science can provoke a crisis in which the paradigm itself is called into question. In this atmosphere, it is possible for scientists to propose and win wide acceptance for significant changes in the theoretical framework. Until persistent anomalies provide a crisis, however, the social conditions aren’t ripe for revolution. Even if someone had great revolutionary ideas, they simply won’t get a hearing with the community since it is committed to working out the details of the standing paradigm. Revolutions in thinking can’t happen until the community is convinced that the old paradigm is irrevocably broken. When this does happen and an appropriate alternative to the old paradigm is developed and proposed, then and only then can what Kuhn calls a scientific revolution occur. In a scientific revolution, the scientific community abandons one paradigm in favor of another.

Once a new paradigm takes hold in the scientific community, normal science is resumed, the details of the new paradigm begin to get worked out and normal science continues until a new batch of anomalies emerges and provokes the next crisis.

A key insight of Kuhn’s is that science is a community effort. We often hold a “great genius” vision of the history of science where the fabulous insights of very special individuals are what drive science forward. Kuhn would say this is a distorted picture. The great geniuses like Newton or Einstein can only launch a revolution in scientific thinking when a broader community of inquirers have prepared the field and created the conditions for the germination of the seeds of a revolution in thinking. The history of science needs to be understood in terms of how these broader communities progress to the point where revolutionary thinking is called for and can be fruitful. Great insights and discoveries never happen in a social vacuum.

In a paradigm shift, one drops one conceptual framework in favor of another. When we grasp and evaluate the claims made in normal science, we do so in the context of acceptance of a paradigm. Kuhn suggests that the very meaning of the claims made in paradigm-based normal science can only be comprehended relative to the conceptual framework of that paradigm. A result of this is that from the perspective of one paradigm, we are never really in a position to evaluate the claims of normal science under a different paradigm. In this sense, paradigms are said to be incommensurable (lacking any common measure or independent standard of comparison).

It is tempting to see the cycle of normal science and revolutionary science as a Popper-style process of conjecture and refutation at the level of paradigms. However, Kuhn maintains that paradigms are never exactly refuted by intractable anomalies. Rather, when the scientific community enters a period of crisis and an attractive alternative to the old paradigm emerges, the community gives up on the old paradigm and adopts the new one. Paradigms are not so much refuted as abandoned. This raises serious questions about whether paradigm shifts in scientific revolutions can be understood as rational processes. They would seem not to be if we think of human rational processes as in some way ruledriven like logical rules of inference. But we might instead take Kuhn to be revealing a richer view of human rationality.

In Kuhn’s view, the methods and standards of science get articulated and refined through periods of normal science and are liable to undergo bigger shifts in periods of scientific revolution. What counts as good scientific inquiry and investigation cannot be specified independently of its history. We figure out what works as we encounter new challenges. The history of science reveals the practice of science to be dynamic and adaptive. Creativity and resourcefulness go into the hard-earned advances in our understanding of the world.

The broader moral of this story is that we should be highly suspicious of any attempt to boil the methods of science down to any specific series of steps. Rather, a good understanding of the many methods of science can only be had through a study of its history, its successes, and its failures. And even at this, our appreciation of the methods of science must remain open-ended. The story of science is far from finished, and so our understanding of its methods is likewise incomplete  (Payne, op. cit., ch 6).

Kuhn highlighted the often-messy evolution of scientific thought.  He showed that science has not been a smooth process of moving from older understandings to newer ones.  Scientists are people too, and people do not easily surrender their old ideas (nor their publications and research on the older ideas!).  His arguments also leave in doubt the question of whether science is in the business of getting us closer to reality, or merely in the business of moving from paradigm to paradigm without coming any closer to a full understanding of the universe.

Strenghts and weaknesses of Kuhn’s Paradigms theory.

Here are some of the main strengths and weaknesses attributed to philosopher Thomas Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions:

On the one hand, Kuhn’s theory:

Explains radical shifts in scientific theories like the move from Newtonian to Einsteinian physics.

Suggests that historicism better explains the actual complex history of science than the timeless logic of the scientific method.

Paradigms as disciplinary agreements aligns with the sociological nature of communities with shared assumptions.

Highlights the role of anomalies in triggering important revolutions in perspectives.

On the other hand:

It does not offer many criteria to guide theory choice during crisis periods of science.

It is subject to the charges of of epistemological relativism by saying  science advances without connection to the truth– that each new paradigm brings us no closer to the truth.

It has difficulty explaining cumulative progress of science across revolutionary breaks.

It downplays the role of rational factors in revolutionary transitions between rival paradigms.

So Kuhn raised key historical and sociological aspects of revolutionary theory change in science but faced challenges on sufficiently incorporating scientific rationality and truth approaches accompanying those shifts.


Works Cited

Dougherty, Charles J. “The Structures of Scientific Relativism.” Transactions of the Nebraska Academy of Sciences and Affiliated Societies, 1980, https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/tnas/291/.

“Thomas Kuhn.” The Reader Wiki, Reader View of Wikipedia, https://thereaderwiki.com/es/Thomas_Kuhn.


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PPSC PHI 1011: The Philosopher's Quest by Daniel G. Shaw, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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