Thomas Kuhn

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Thomas Kuhn a Radical or Conservative

Thomas Kuhn a radical or Conservative


The difficulties in identifying and conceptualizing scientific revolutions involve many of the hardest issues in epistemology, methodology, ontology, philosophy of language, and even value theory. Since revolution obviously involves significant change, we right away confront the problem of deep, possibly noncumulative, conceptual change, now in modern science itself, a locus that Enlightenment thinkers would have found surprising. And since revolution is typically driven by new results, sometimes completely unanticipated, we also confront the hard problem of understanding creative innovation (Reisch, 1991: 264). Third, major revolutions supposedly alter the normative landscape of research by altering the goals and methodological standards of the enterprise, so we face also the difficult problem of relating descriptive claims to normative claims and practices, and changes in the former to changes in the latter.

Comparing the world of business and economic theory provides a perspective on the difficulty of these problems, for both the sciences and business technologies change rapidly and sometimes deeply, thanks to what might be termed “innovation pressure”—both the pressure to innovate and the pressure to accommodate innovation (e.g., Christensen 1997; Christensen and Raynor, 2003; Nickles 2008a). In a market economy, as in science, there is a premium on change driven by innovation. Yet most economists have treated innovation as an exogenous factor—as a sort of accidental, economically contingent event that comes in from outside the economic system to work its effects (Quine, 1951: 20).

What are the root conceptions of revolution? At bottom there would seem to be three, sometimes overlapping tropes, all involving rapid change from one stage or phase or structured system to another: (1) revolution as simply turning, e.g. revolving; (2) revolution as overturning; and (3) revolution as a great leap forward into new, previously uncharted territory. We may subdivide each in various ways, principally these. (1) The turning may be either revolution as in a turning wheel or a turning away from one path or direction to another. And the turning away may be either slight (doing something new that was previously imaginable, in which case it is hardly revolutionary) or sharp (doing something previously quite unexpected, even inconceivable).

History of the Concept of Scientific Revolution

What history lies behind the terms 'revolution' and 'scientific revolution'? The answer is an intriguing mix of accounts of physical phenomena, political fortunes, and conceptions of chance, fate, and history. Originally a term applying to rotating wheels and including the revolution of the celestial bodies (as in Copernicus' title: De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium) and, more metaphorically, the wheel of fortune, 'revolution' was eventually transferred to the political realm (Newman, 2001: 404). The term later returned to science at the metalevel, to describe developments within science itself (e.g., “the Copernican Revolution”). Christopher Hill, historian of seventeenth-century Britain and of the so-called English Revolution in particular, writes:

Conventional wisdom has it that the word 'revolution' acquired its modern political meaning only after 1688. Previously it had been an astronomical and astrological term limited to the revolution ...
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