An Historian

historical stuff by Gareth Millward


Paradigm Shift


Somehow, the practice of astronomy, physics, chemistry or biology normally fails to evoke the controversies over fundamentals that today seem endemic among, say, psychologists or sociologists. Attempting to discover the source of that difference led me to recognize the role in scientific research of what I have since called “paradigms.” These I take to be universally recognized scientific achievements that for a time provide model problems and solutions for a community of practitioners.

If I am right that each scientific revolution alters the historical perspective of the community that experiences it, then that change of perspective should affect the structure of postrevolutionary textbooks and research publications.

The extraordinary episodes in which that shift of professional commitments occurs are the ones known […] as scientific revolutions. They are the tradition-shattering complements to the tradition-bound activity of normal science.

Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Kuhn’s approach to the history of science has been applied to wider studies of the history of thought. A “paradigm shift” occurs when a discovery or event fundamentally alters the world view of a society or culture. In Kuhn’s case, he studied the culture of science and scientists – but it can be applied to populations or other professional classes.

This approach has been accused of being a bit clunky. For instance, it assumes that shifts happen as the result of one event or a cluster of events in a small amount of time. It also assumes that there is one paradigm dominant over all others. A dialectic approach would say that ideas are constantly in battle with each other and these battles themselves spawn new ideas and new battles. For instance, even a paradigm shifting moment – such as the “discovery” of America or of the structure of the atom – does not come from nowhere. Similarly, not all people in a given community will accept the dominant interpretation of these events.

The concept is useful, however, on the wider level in explaining how fundamental “truths” about our existence are subject to change at any moment. New or contradictory evidence newly interpreted can make us reconsider the nature of our universe.

We are products of our time – and history is important, because it shows us that “truth” – all truth – is relative.

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