“When Will I Need That?” How understanding Science can be beneficial to the Humanities and Arts

Philosophy of Science is often an area that both philosophers and scientists avoid, as a lack of understanding seems to become evident on both sides within this debate.  However, an understanding of Kuhn’s notions of what exactly makes up science as we understand it, can give an insight that makes science the practical lived experience that it is, and not what is recorded in textbooks.  Normal science and revolutionary science give an account of the different areas of what make up the larger discipline and are distinctive in their own rights.  By understanding the difference Kuhn puts forward in his work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, normal science and revolutionary science are practised in completely different circumstances, and lead to separate outcomes.

Kuhn’s position as a historian within philosophy of science sees him place his views as a part of history, and therefore science is not something that exists outside of normal records of the past.  He wanted to make a clear distinction by what was understood as the routine activity of scientists, and science as a body of knowledge.  This involved using psychology, logic and language and drawing from the history of science.  As a physician and a lecturer, Kuhn’s ideas of science seemed radical at the time, especially when teaching humanities students about the nature of science in a series of Lowell Lectures starting in 1951.[1]  As Kuhn does not necessarily agree with the methodological approach to science, he almost needs to redefine his terms of what normal science is to the outsider, and of course what revolutionary science mean.  Chapter four of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (TSoSR)sees normal science as puzzle solving.  Kuhn explains that a paradigm, ‘the source of methods, problem-field, and standards of solution accepted by any mature scientific community at any given time’[2] gives puzzles for normal science to solve.  Scientists within the history of science can be seen to therefore be puzzle solvers for Kuhn.  He explains it is not their job to change the fabric of scientific knowledge and cause a revolution, but to base their findings and knowledge around the life they are in now.  He explains that normal science produces the bricks of scientific knowledge and forever adds to what we can know.[3]    Revolutions only occur in science when these ways of discovery can no longer continue as they are.  Kuhn makes it clear that normal science therefore is not out to cause a revolution, its not idealistic to keep changing the basis of our understanding every five minutes.  Kuhn makes the statement the one of the most prominent elements of normal science is that the research is not there to produce brand new concepts or phenomena.  Of course, it makes sense to question why scientists would want to solve these puzzles with such effort if they aren’t aiming to change the nature of science?  But Kuhn places science in time; within a contextual realm, where it is the scientist is trying to gather information based on the order and explanation of knowledge they possess currently, finding it in the paradigm the scientists exist in.[4]

By using a historical approach to science, influenced by the likes of Koyre, Metzger and Meyerson,[5] Kuhn spawned his idea of a paradigm, which essentially is a space in time where scientific knowledge exists under the circumstances at the time.  The paradigm therefore creates the possibility for normal science, giving it puzzles to solve throughout time, based on the knowledge the scientific community at the time hold.  This notion of the paradigm is key for understanding what constitutes normal science, and then what goes on to become revolutionary science.  Scientists can only know the information they have access to at the time, from their equipment to methods of observation, as this is a psycho-social construction for the community ‘doing’ science, not science as an empirical, observable object.[6]  This differs hugely from the methodological approaches to science, fronted by the likes of Karl Popper.  The methodological approach assumes the science is cumulative, that it is building and building on information from the past in order to get to some ultimate ‘Truth’, where all scientific knowledge from the past that has been deemed false in accordance to the most up to date science, is disregarded as useful.[7]  Kuhn’s ideas when placing science as historical states that this isn’t an accurate way to present normal or revolutionary science.  To state that all scientific evidence from the past is wrong because it has been disproved is like saying that test you passed when you were in junior school is now wrong because you’ve completed another test at secondary school.  To say that Aristotelian scientific explanations of astronomy are wrong because of the information that the International Space Station and the Hubbell would be inconsiderate of the fact that Aristotle didn’t have 20th Century technology in order to explore space, and so his scientific developments where based on the knowledge he had within his paradigm, the scientific information available to him in his time.[8]  The philosophy of science that existed before TSoSR was mostly dominated by the logical positivists, headed by Mortiz Schlick.  They didn’t pay close attention to the history of science, as they believed more so in the ideas of the context of justification than about the context of discovery, where the justification of a new theory is more important than the discovery.  Kuhn states this presents a naïve view of science, and that revolutionary new discoveries cause the revolution to replace older scientific theories with the new ones.[9]  This of course relies on the fact that enough scientists choose to believe in the new accepted way of understanding, and abandon the previous paradigm, as paradigms aren’t cumulative, but stand alone periods of science throughout history.  If there is not another paradigm present, then that branch of normal science will dissolve over time.

So where exactly do we see this shift from normal science to revolutionary science?  For Kuhn, anomalies are the weaknesses within a scientific theory; and when too many anomalies appear to make exceptions for, there becomes an issue for that discipline of normal science. An anomaly is when a problem cannot be given a solution, and it is not compatible with the already accepted theories of a said paradigm.  Normal science, the day to day research performed by a scientific community, can create an ‘ad hoc’ modification where certain allowances are made within a theory that allow the anomaly to have a logical explanation.  But a puzzle is no longer considered a puzzle unless it has a solution.  When too many anomalies occur that cannot be accounted for, normal science goes into crisis.  This causes a breakdown in the scientific knowledge that has been accepted to exist within that paradigm, as questions start arising when there are too many exceptions to the rule.[10]  Revolutionary science can therefore be seen as the involvement of discoveries that cannot be accommodated in the concepts that were used to define normal science before, so in order to facilitate these, Kuhn says that there becomes an alteration in the way we perceive the natural phenomena that we used to know in the paradigm.  So normal science doesn’t need to cause a revolution unless developments appear that no longer fit the theories and practises of the paradigm; and this is revolutionary science.[11]  Kuhn details for us clearly on the nature of normal science, that a paradigm becomes accepted when it is seen as more successful than its competing theories in solving these ad hoc modifications that cannot be catered for anywhere else.  When enough members of the scientific community go on to accept this as a new more informed reality for a normal science to exist in, the revolutionary shift occurs to a new paradigm, which them goes on to perform a new cycle of normal science, under a new set of concepts.[12]

Kuhn makes an example from the history of science in his chapter on the anomalies and scientific discoveries.  The case of dephlogisticated air; and the battle for the discovery of oxygen gas between Priestley and Lavoisier.  Priestley had claimed to have discovered a gas in his phlogiston theory, which was based on mercury and nitrous oxide fumes, which he called dephlogisticated air.  Lavoisier thought that this gas was ‘air in itself’, looking closer and closer to what this gas was, new definitions would be needed to define what this unknown chemical gas was made of.  For Priestley, this compound of dephlogisticated air was oxygen; but when Lavoisier tested it agaisnt the expected results of the phlogiston paradigm; he did not get the same outcomes; revealing that this wasn’t the oxygen gas that Priestley had discovered, but what seemed to be now the oxygen theory of combustion.[13]  This prompted then a whole change in reality, was what was thought to be known about combustion and gasses had just been proven false; entering a crisis stage for the previous paradigm, and moved into a revolutionary form of science which later became known as the chemical revolution.

Similarly, can be said for theoretical ideas of paradigm shifts, which Kuhn displays in the chapter on progress through paradigms.  Whereas the last example is based on experimental discoveries, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, published in 1859, had completely gone agaisnt what was considered scientific fact before.  Not because of the claims made about the origin of species specifically, as there were already scientific ideas that evolution was a possibly before and had been widely debated by many other scientists.  The difficulties came from a shift that Darwin himself had created himself.  Evolutionary scientists before Darwin; Lamarck, Chambers and Spencer had already theorised that evolution was orientated towards a goal, a specific purpose for humans to evolve into.  However, Darwin’s discoveries lead him towards the conclusion that evolution wasn’t aiming towards a specific model, but in fact evolution was based solely on equipping the species best for survival with its environment.[14]  As we know Darwin faced religious backlash from this theory, but also by changing the conceptions about what was know about evolution, caused a revolution in ideas.  If it wasn’t the nature of a creator figure to design humans to eventually become perfect throughout time, but was their environment changing the genetics of the creates best suited to live there, then biology at the time had to then question all their other principles agaisnt this new information; causing what for a long time was normal science to then become revolutionary.

Now naturally these points are very brief and exacerbate the message Kuhn is trying to get across.  Paradigm shifts are movements from normal science to revolutionary science – where our excepted and known realities can no longer hold all of the answers we need, causing the need to move into another paradigm.  But this isn’t so black and white.  Scientists don’t go into a physical crisis state and panic, and these paradigms are marked and plotted in their work diaries.  Rejection of the information the old paradigm provided is fundamental in accepting that that form of normal science was the old way of doing things; but then an episode of revolutionary science occurred, and now through retrospect of what we knew in the past, we can go on to create more normal science in the reality that is immanent to this current paradigm.[15]  This of course for Kuhn, is the basis of how science as a body of knowledge develops through time.[16]   

So for Kuhn, both normal and revolutionary science are important for explaining science not only as a body of knowledge, but also as a practical occupation.  Normal science seeks to test what we know is possible through the vast amounts of information we have today, based on years and years of scientific experience, all of which valid in their own rights having been taken as truth at one time.  When of course, these tests and experiments start to break down the theories and evidence that make up our understanding of the world, science enters a revolutionary state where new ideas come into being that haven’t been considered before, leaving an old paradigm and moving into a completely new incommensurable paradigm, unrelated to the past.

This Essay was submitted for grading on the 10th January 2020 as part of an assessment at the University of Gloucestershire. Turnitin ID: 117870674


[1] James A. Marcum, Thomas Kuhn’s Revolution, Continuum Studies in American Philosophy (London: Continuum, 2005) p.30-31

[2] Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Third Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996) p.103

[3] Thomas Kuhn, The Road Since Structure (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002) p.13

[4] Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions pp.35-37

[5] Ibidp.vii-viii

[6] Ibid pp.77-88

[7]Steve Fuller, Kuhn Vs. Popper: The Struggle for the Soul of Science. Revolutions in Science. (Cambridge: Icon, 2003)

<https://www-dawsoneracom.glos.idm.oclc.org/readonline/9781840465334>  [accessed 15 November 2019]

[8] Samir Okasha, Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002) pp.77-95

Big issue in comparing past and present paradigms as they are incommensurable, science had to pass through those stages to get where it is today, historical view over the methodological.  Cannot say one is better than the other, they happened because of the reality of the way things were at the time.  Each displaying aspects of normal and revolutionary science, essential to each past paradigm.

[9] Ibid

[10] W.H Newton Smith, Blackwell Companion to Philosophy: A Companion to the Philosophy of Science (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2001) p.417

[11] Thomas Kuhn, The Road Since Structure pp.14-15

[12] James A. Marcum, Thomas Kuhn’s Revolution, Continuum Studies in American Philosophy (London: Continuum, 2005) p.35

[13] Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions pp.54-57

[14] Ibid pp.171-172

[15] James A. Marcum, Thomas Kuhn’s Revolution, Continuum Studies in American Philosophy (London: Continuum, 2005) p.32

[16] Ibid p.94

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