Saturday, September 01, 2012

Everybody has a “Paradigm”

Posted by Darin Hayton on 09/01 at 10:51 AM

I recently reread Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I had first read Kuhn’s book in my first year of graduate school. Perhaps because I was reading Structure I seemed to hear the term paradigm frequently, in contexts ranging from a strange conversation in a cafe, to an attorney discussing evidence in a trial, to investment officers in a financial firm referring to investment strategies. The man in the cafe recalled fondly his reading of Kuhn’s book as an undergraduate. The attorney could not identify the source. The investment officers remembered that it was from a book about science but admitted to never having read it. Kuhn’s lasting legacy is the widespread use of the term paradigm well beyond, and perhaps more commonly beyond the history of science.

I began to wonder how often Kuhn used the term “paradigm” in Structure. Excluding the 1969 Postscript, I counted 446 occcurences of paradigm, pre-paradigm, and post-paradigm, spread throughout the book. Then, as an exercise in gratiutous graphing, I plotted the occurence of these words and then overlaid a bargraph showing the number of times these words were used in each chapter.

A graph showing how often Kuhn used the term paradigm. Each bar represents a chapter. Numbers in bars indicate mentions in that chapter (click for larger image)

The width of the bars is proportional to the number of pages, the height to the number of mentions (the actual number is shown in each bar). The graph doesn’t really illustrate much beyond the fact that once Kuhn began using the term paradigm in chapter two, he used it consistently. He used the term most frequently in chapters three and twelve, “The Nature of Normal Science” and “The Resolution of Revolutions.”

As it is the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Kuhn’s book, essays on it can be found all over. See, for example, Hamish Johnston’s short piece in Physics Today or John Naughton’s piece in The Guardian or Rebekah Higgit’s piece in The Guardian. Or purchase fiftieth anniversary edition from the University of Chicago Press, which contains an introductory essay by Ian Hacking.

Tags: paradigm, the structure of scientific revolutions, thomas kuhn