The previous post generated some interesting discussion. Eventually, I would like to take the time to address the comments in a deliberate, serious manner; however, at the moment I want to take us back around to some fundamental questions.
- What did Thomas Kuhn mean by paradigm?
- Did Kuhn think his paradigmatic structure applied to the social sciences, arts, and humanities?
- Can we legitimately apply the concept of Kuhnian paradigm shifts to theology and biblical studies?
A Definition Might Help
As you probably already know, Kuhn’s magnum opus, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, spawned a great deal of controversy. Undeniably, he unleashed a generation of self-absorbed loud-talkers at parties who used the word incessantly. His detractors almost immediately jumped upon the fact that Kuhn used the word “paradigm” in several different senses of the word. How do we know what he meant by the term paradigm shift if we can’t be certain, from one page to the next, what exactly he meant by paradigm?
In the preface to more recent editions of Structure, Ian Hacking cites “an often-cited but seldom-read essay” by Margaret Masterman — who may be the first person to have counted the 21 ways Kuhn used the word. Having recently read the paper, “The Nature of a Paradigm,” I think Masterman’s criticism came out of sincere respect and the desire to clarify Kuhn’s muddy waters. She rightly notes the sense in which a group of scientists latch onto a paradigm before they can articulate a theory. It starts with some achievement that draws like-minded people together into a social relationship.
[F]or Kuhn, something sociologically describable, and above all, concrete, already exists in actual science, at the early stages, when the theory is not there.
It is worth remarking also that, whatever synonym-patterns Kuhn may get trapped into establishing in the heat of his arguments, he never, in fact, equates ‘paradigm’, in any of its main senses, with ‘scientific theory’. For his metaparadigm* is something far wider than, and ideologically prior to, theory: i.e. a whole Weltanschauung. His sociological paradigm, as we have seen, is also prior to theory, and other than theory, since it is something concrete and observable: i.e. a set of habits. And his construct-paradigm is less than a theory, since it can be something as little theoretic as a single piece of apparatus: i.e. anything which can cause actual puzzle-solving to occur. (Masterman 1977, p. 66-67, emphasis mine)
[*By “metaparadigm,” Masterman is referring to the sense in which Kuhn refers to an all-encompassing way of thinking about the world and not merely to a localized pattern, set of habits, or framework for puzzle-solving.]
While many critics (especially followers of Popper) scoffed at Kuhn’s work and claimed he had simply reworked some well-known and understood ideas, Masterman realized he was onto something important. And she recognized that this new way of looking at scientific progress — not as an accumulation of facts and a slow upward march, but as a kind of punctuated equilibrium — was attracting readers and adherents.
Thus the widely-held popular views that Kuhn is not really saying anything new: or that in so far as he is a philosopher at all, his views are essentially the same as Feyerabend’s; or that he must be trying to say the same things as Popper (since Popper first said everything that is true about the philosophy of science), but that he does not say them very efficiently or with the right kind of emphasis; all these judgements can be shown, from actual examination of Kuhn’s text, to be false. It is, in fact, the very differences between Kuhn’s ‘new image’ of science (or, as I shall from now on call it, the ‘paradigm view’ of science) and all other philosophies of science which are known to me, which is causing Kuhn’s book to be so widely read, and which is prompting me to write the present paper. (Masterman 1977, p. 67, emphasis mine)
Kuhn himself realized he had unleashed the word and immediately lost control of it. In his essay, “Second Thoughts on Paradigms,” Kuhn contemplates the social nature of scientific communities. These communities have shared methods, mutual goals, and a common view of the world. What is it that binds them together?
Let me now suppose that we have, by whatever techniques, identified one such community. What shared elements account for the relatively unproblematic character of professional communication and for the relative unanimity of professional judgment? To this question The Structure of Scientific Revolutions licences the answer “a paradigm” or “a set of paradigms.” That is one of the two main senses in which the term occurs in the book. For it I might now adopt the notation “paradigm,” but less confusion will result if I instead replace it with the phrase “disciplinary matrix”—“disciplinary” because it is the common possession of the practitioners of a professional discipline and “matrix” because it is composed of ordered elements of various sorts, each requiring further specification. Constituents of the disciplinary matrix include most or all of the objects of group commitment described in the book as paradigms, parts of paradigms, or paradigmatic. (Kuhn 1977, p. 297, emphasis mine)
The term “disciplinary matrix” didn’t catch on; however, it gives us some insight into Kuhn’s thought process. A paradigm requires a community, and vice versa.
For Kuhn, people engage in “normal science” only within a mature paradigm. Before that, no coherent, agreed-upon framework for understanding exists. Practitioners use a variety of tools, examine disparate data points, argue from multiple viewpoints, etc. But no meaningful consensus exists. In fact, people expend enormous amounts of energy rehashing the same fundamental issues, with no real progress. Here, Kuhn would note that the arts, humanities, and social sciences do not progress in the same way as the natural sciences for this very reason. They remain mired in a pre-paradigm world.
The preceding pages have carried my schematic description of scientific development as far as it can go in this essay. Nevertheless, they cannot quite provide a conclusion. If this description has at all caught the essential structure of a science’s continuing evolution, it will simultaneously have posed a special problem: Why should the enterprise sketched above move steadily ahead in ways that, say, art, political theory, or philosophy does not? Why is progress a perquisite reserved almost exclusively for the activities we call science? (Kuhn 2012, p. 202)
Kuhn mentions economics as a possible candidate for a social science that is moving or has moved out of the pre-paradigm state. However, such examples are rare. Keith Percival explained Kuhn’s views about the demarcation point between mature and immature sciences quite succinctly in an essay published in 1979:
Kuhn was . . . deeply convinced that the developed sciences differ radically from other disciplines in being characterized by what he referred to as uniform research-consensus. In effect, therefore, Kuhn merely replaced the older view of science as characterized by gradual cumulative progress, with an alternative view, which postulated that the essence of science consists in community-wide commitment to one single all-embracing Weltanschauung. According to this perspective, the reason that fields such as psychology and sociology are not mature sciences is that the practitioners of these disciplines disagree among themselves about the nature of legitimate scientific problems and methods. (Percival 1979, p. 29)
None of the foregoing should lead us to conclude that Kuhn considered revolutions to be occurrences unique to the mature physical sciences. Quite the contrary — in fact, his novel contribution to the history of science was the notion that revolutions were observed within the sciences as well. That is, things didn’t flow neatly in a straight line via the gradual accumulation of data, the way science was (and often still is) presented in works concerning the history of science.
In the 1969 postscript to Structure, Kuhn wrote:
A number of those who have taken pleasure from it have done so less because it illuminates science than because they read its main theses as applicable to many other fields as well. I see what they mean and would not like to discourage their attempts to extend the position, but their reaction has nevertheless puzzled me. To the extent that the book portrays scientific development as a succession of tradition-bound periods punctuated by non-cumulative breaks, its theses are undoubtedly of wide applicability. But they should be, for they are borrowed from other fields. Historians of literature, of music, of the arts, of political development, and of many other human activities have long described their subjects in the same way. Periodization in terms of revolutionary breaks in style, taste, and institutional structure have been among their standard tools. If I have been original with respect to concepts like these, it has mainly been by applying them to the sciences, fields which had been widely thought to develop in a different way. (Kuhn 2012, p. 207, emphasis mine)
Trouble in Paradigms
Let’s summarize what we’ve found so far.
- A Kuhnian paradigm emerges in a mature science.
- The arts and humanities don’t have paradigms.
- You can’t have a paradigm shift without a paradigm.
- Revolutions can and do occur without paradigm shifts.
Please don’t misunderstand: For the purposes of the discussion at hand, it doesn’t matter whether you think Kuhn is correct, nor does it matter whether he was describing or prescribing what scientists actually do or what they ought to do. Notice that I’m not criticizing anyone for using the generic term “paradigm shift” as a loose synonym for a revolution in thought. However, if someone cites Kuhn’s work while invoking the term paradigm (as Kuhn understood it) with respect to history, the arts, biblical studies, or theology, then I have to wonder if that person understands Kuhn at all.
Consider, for example, Robert Price’s essay “Paradigm Shifting and the Apologetics Debate.” At the outset he claims that “the relevance of [Kuhn’s] work for other fields such as theology has become apparent.” In particular, he thinks the concept of “paradigm shifting” will prove useful in a debate over two varieties of apologetics. Unfortunately, Price does not begin his essay by defining what Kuhn meant by paradigm. If he had, he might have saved himself a long and pointless trip over very rough road.
His first mistake is not understanding what a paradigm is, at least in the Kuhnian sense. But even if we could bend Kuhn’s logic into a pretzel and apply Structure to theology, Price’s second mistake takes us completely off the road, down the embankment, and into the thicket.
In his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn takes issue with the common conception that scientific advancement has proceeded mainly by way of “new discoveries.” In fact, really new data is relatively seldom discovered. Scientific progress has more to do with scientists coming to formulate new ways of construing the same old information, new keys to solve the puzzles presented by the data. One such paradigm will be accepted by scientists as long as it seems to make plausible sense of most of the evidence. (Price 2008)
Here, and throughout the essay, Price shows that he does not understand the critical importance of anomalies, which lead to a crisis. It becomes painfully clear when he invents a new, entirely unnecessary term: super-paradigm.
Price asks whether a paradigm can disprove itself, or as he puts it: “do they carry their own criteria of plausibility of explanation?” Because he misunderstands a paradigm shift as simply the seemingly arbitrary conversion from one gestalt to another, he concludes that some external all-encompassing worldview must be required — some superset of ideals by which we judge the fitness of competing paradigms.
Mustn’t they, if they are truly comprehensive systems for understanding data (so that only in light of them are the data “data for” anything)? But if they do, then how is any shift from one paradigm to another ever possible? In terms of our example, why should Ptolemaists have felt ashamed of all those epicycles? (Price 2008)
Wrong on Every Point
As we noted in the previous post in this series, the problem with the Ptolemaic system was not a supposed embarrassment over epicycles. In fact, the mathematical/geometric construct of the epicycle neatly explains the observed (i.e., apparent) motion of the planets — not merely their retrograde motion, but their apparent increase in brightness as they move backward across the ecliptic. No, what embarrassed astronomers was the inability of the Ptolemaic system to make accurate predictions.
But of course, the shift did occur. This implies that paradigms do not contain within themselves their own criteria of plausibility. And if they do not, they must be seen as sub-paradigms, or subsets of a larger, all comprehensive paradigm. This super-paradigm will be the field of presuppositions in which scientific thought occurs. It will include criteria by which given sub-paradigms (geocentricity or heliocentricity, Einsteinian or Newtonian physics, Big Bang or steady-state cosmologies) can be preferred to one another. Included among these criteria would probably be something like “economy and inductivemess [sic] of explicability of the data.” Such criteria will be the arbiters of which paradigm makes “better sense” of the evidence. They will tell which sense is the “better” sense. (Price 2008)
Unfortunately, Price is wrong here on every point. Paradigms contain within themselves a way of thinking about the world, a set of problems to solve, and a array of tools to solve those problems. Crucially, they contain within themselves a set of expectations. In periods of “normal science,” we should be able to fit any new observed phenomenon within the current paradigm, even if we have to go back and make adjustments.
However, when new results violate expectations, and the paradigm can’t be tweaked to make sense of the perceived violations, the paradigm is in crisis. For example, the Steady-State theory could not satisfactorily explain background radiation or the red shift in light received from distant stars. The Big Bang theory did. The presuppositions that Price believes exist somewhere outside the paradigm are, in fact, built into all paradigms. Specifically, a paradigm purports to be able to explain existing phenomena and reasonably predict new observations.
Nor is it correct in any sense to think of, for example, Newtonian or Einsteinian mechanics as “sub-paradigms.” They are complete paradigms unto themselves with incommensurable terms and concepts. For example, as Kuhn points out the term “mass” in both paradigms might superficially seem to refer to the same thing, but we must recall that Newton said mass is always conserved while Einstein showed we can convert mass into energy.
Newton described gravity as the natural attraction between objects with mass. Hence his system cannot explain gravitational lensing, since photons have no mass. On the other hand, Einstein described gravitation as a distortion in the fabric of spacetime; hence, the general theory of relativity both predicts and explains phenomena the Newtonian paradigm cannot even imagine.
He continues in his essay, invoking a Kuhn who exists only in Price’s mind:
The evidentialist approach is unsatisfactory at least partially because it makes the Christ-Logos posterior rather than anterior to the reasoning process. In Kuhn’s terms, evidential apologetics makes the evangelical Christian subparadigm subordinate to the larger paradigm of neutral, common criteria. And if it does this, then the same bridge from one sub-paradigm to the evangelical one, could as easily one day be the bridge to still a third subparadigm. (Price 2008, emphasis mine)
We have now left the thicket, slid off the cliff, and tumbled into the ravine. First of all, theological conjecture masquerading as a philosophical theory cannot be considered a paradigm. A group of clergymen and theologians does not equate to a community of scientific practitioners operating with the same worldview, performing experiments, observing results, solving puzzles, and doing normal science. There is no science here.
Second, there can be no paradigm shift here, not merely because there is no paradigm, but because we could never agree as to what would constitute an anomaly. Christian apologists are trained to ignore inconsistencies, aberrations, and contradictions. For them, any contradiction becomes a “supposed” contradiction. Any inconsistency becomes an “apparent” inconsistency. Apologetics rewards harmonization and the continuous denial of anomaly. Without anomalies, we cannot reach a state of crisis. And without a crisis, we can have no paradigm shift.
Finally, it is vitally important to understand that theology is not even in a pre-paradigm state (as described above). We do not have competing groups looking for a scientific world view that will win out and become the first paradigm. We don’t have theological scientists experimenting in their basements or scribbling on their chalkboards trying to make it all fit. No, Kuhn’s Structure will never apply here, and any attempt to do so will result in meaningless blather, Q.E.D.
When writing about the response to Structure, especially by philosophers who didn’t understand him, Kuhn would sometimes refer to a pesky alter-ego who continually contradicted him.
. . . I am tempted to posit the existence of two Thomas Kuhns. Kuhn1 is the author of this essay and of an earlier piece in this volume. He also published in 1962 a book called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the one which he and Miss Masterman discuss above. Kuhn2 is the author of another book with the same title. It is the one here cited repeatedly by Sir Karl Popper as well as by Professors Feyerabend, Lakatos, Toulmin, and Watkins. That both books bear the same title cannot be altogether accidental, for the views they present often overlap and are, in any case, expressed in the same words. But their central concerns are, I conclude, usually very different. As reported by his critics (his original has unfortunately been unavailable to me), Kuhn2 seems on occasion to make points that subvert essential aspects of the position outlined by his namesake. (Kuhn 1970, p. 231)
To be honest, the trope gets annoying pretty quickly. But whenever I read Price and he starts talking about Kuhn and his paradigms, I can’t help but think, “Which Kuhn is he talking about?”
In the next post, we’ll return to the real Kuhn and try to wrap up some loose ends, including unanswered questions about the Copernican Revolution — why it prevailed, why it took so long for it to do so, and what changed in its wake.
Kuhn, Thomas S., “Second Thoughts on Paradigms” in The Essential Tension. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977.
Kuhn, Thomas S. and Hacking, Ian, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2012, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press
Kuhn, Thomas S., “Reflections on My Critics” (1970), in Lakatos, Imre, and Alan Musgrave, Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, 2014
Percival, W. Keith, The American Sociologist, Vol. 14, Issue 1, “The Applicability of Kuhn’s Paradigms to the Social Sciences,” 1979
Price, Robert M., “Paradigm Shifting and the Apologetics Debate,” 2008
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