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What Is A Paradigm Shift, Anyway?

94 years ago today thomas kuhn, the well-known physicist, philosopher and historian of science, was born. he became an important and powerful thinker, and one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century.

Kuhn’s 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, transformed the philosophy of science and changed the way many scientists think about their work. but his influence extended far beyond academia: the book was widely read and seeped into popular culture. One measure of his influence is his widespread use of the term “paradigm shift,” which he introduced in articulating his views on how science changes over time.

Inspired, in part, by the theories of psychologist Jean Piaget, who saw children’s development as a series of discrete stages marked by transition periods, Kuhn postulated two types of scientific change: incremental developments over the course of time; which he called “normal science”, and scientific revolutions punctuating these more stable periods. he suggested that scientific revolutions are not a matter of incremental advance; imply “paradigm shifts”.

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Since then, talking about paradigms and paradigm shifts has become commonplace, not only in science, but also in business, social movements, and more. In a column in The Globe and the Mail, Robert Fulford describes Paradigm as “a crossover success: It moved nimbly from science to culture to sports to business.”

But what exactly is a paradigm shift? or, for that matter, a paradigm?

merriam-webster dictionary offers the following:

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simple definition of paradigm:

  • : a model or pattern of something that can be copied
  • : a theory or set of ideas about how something should be done, done or thought
  • Consequently, a paradigm shift is defined as “a major change that occurs when the usual way of thinking or doing something is replaced by a new and different way.”

    More than 50 years after Kuhn’s famous book, these definitions may seem more intuitive than technical. But do you get what Kuhn really had in mind when developing an explanation of scientific change?

    It turns out that this question is difficult to answer, not because paradigm has a particularly technical or obscure definition, but because it has many. In an article published in 1970, Margaret Masterson presented a careful reading of Kuhn’s 1962 book. He identified 21 different senses in which Kuhn used the term paradigm. (That’s right: 21.)

    Consider some examples.

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    First, a paradigm might refer to a special type of achievement. Masterson cites Kuhn, who presents a paradigm as a textbook or classic example that is “unprecedented enough to attract an enduring group of adherents away from competitive modes of scientific activity” but at the same time is “open enough to leave all kinds of problems. For the redefined group of practitioners to resolve.” Kuhn writes: “Accomplishments that share these two characteristics I will henceforth refer to as ‘paradigms.’ “

    but elsewhere in the text, paradigms cover more ground. paradigms can offer general epistemological points of view, such as the “philosophical paradigm initiated by descartes”, or define a broad spectrum of reality, such as when “paradigms determine large areas of experience at the same time”.

    Given this abundance of related uses, Masterson asks a provocative question:

    In the end, Masterson distills the 21 senses of Kuhn’s paradigm into three more respectable ones, and identifies what he sees as novel and important aspects of Kuhn’s “paradigm view” of science. But for our purposes, Masterson’s analysis sheds light on two questions that turn out to be related: what did Kuhn mean by paradigm in the first place, and how did a single word manage to take on such a wide and expansive set of meanings after being triggered by the paradigm? of kuhn. book.

    Of course, Kuhn alone cannot be blamed for the way the paradigm, and its more cunning cousin, have spread in popular culture. what he did was provide some classic examples of the term that were novel enough to steer adherents away from more mundane alternatives, but open enough to leave all sorts of possibilities for others to explore. and that, I suppose, is an achievement.

    Tania Lombrozo is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. she writes on psychology, cognitive science, and philosophy, with occasional forays into parenting and veganism. you can follow with more of what she is thinking on twitter: @tanialombrozo

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