Scientific American's review of Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1964 ended with the pat pronouncement that the book was "much ado about very little." The short piece, which appeared two years after the initial publication of Structure as a monograph in the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, discarded as unoriginal Kuhn's critique of the positivist argument that science progresses relentlessly forward toward the truth.
The reviewer's glib dismissal missed the mark. Unquestionably, Kuhn's work has absorbed countless barbs over the decades. But it also counts as one of the most influential 20th-century works of philosophy and history of science. Structure has sold 1.4 million copies and the overused "paradigm shift" has attained the status of effete cliché in countless, numbing business conference PowerPoints. (See John Horgan's "Reluctant Revolutionary," an interview with Kuhn in the May 1991 Scientific American.)
Kuhn advanced the idea that scientists in a particular field share an existing set of practices—a paradigm—that allows them to labor away using common methods on like research problems—what he labeled "normal science." Eventually, experimental anomalies accrue that foment revolutionary change—the ballyhooed paradigm shift that overturns the existing order and ushers in a new era that may differ radically from the old.
That "incommensurability," as Kuhn termed it, held that after a true revolution, an existing body of theory bears no relationship to the new theoretical framework, the opposite of "standing on the shoulders of giants." In other words, the concept of mass in the new world of E = mc2 differs fundamentally from the same designation in the old classical mechanics of F = ma. Kuhn's use of the word incommensurability has been distorted to mean that he advocated discarding the objective consideration of a new theory, exchanging rationality for "scientific relativism" in which the loudest voice for a pet idea prevails, what one critic characterized as "mob psychology."
Kuhn has procured a prize spot in the pantheon, but how have his ideas endured since the year that the Beatles released their first record. The prominent Canadian science philosopher Ian Hacking has written an introduction to the 50th-anniversary edition of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that addresses the somewhat dated nature of Kuhn's work, even while casting an admiring eye on the original accomplishment.
[An edited excerpt of an interview with Hacking follows.]
Do you think that Kuhn's ideas about the importance of revolutions propelling scientific change still hold as much sway today as they did 50 years ago?
Kuhn was the intellectual of whom many scientists said: he's "telling it as is it is" insofar as talking about a process of "tinkering" in terms of theory and experiment followed by radical changes. But often what Kuhn had in mind were some very spectacular incidents in the history of the sciences that changed our way of looking at the world. I'm not at all sure that that is going to continue as the way in which the sciences develop since now the life sciences in general have replaced physics as queen of sciences. I don't think that Kuhn's model for scientific change is necessarily going to prevail. But it still remains the case that Kuhn gave us a spectacularly new and vivid version of what he thought was going on. That will stand there forever, and that will be a permanent part of the repertoire of historians and philosophers and people in science studies in general.