Paradigm shift

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The expression paradigm shift was coined in 1962 by Thomas S. Kuhn and describes in his epistemological and historical writings the change in basic framework conditions for individual scientific theories, e. B. Prerequisites “with regard to concept formation, observation and apparatus”, which Kuhn calls a paradigm .

The precise definition of the Kuhnian “paradigm” concept, as well as his systematic theses and his historical analyzes, is still controversial.

In colloquial language, “paradigm shifts” are used more frequently in a more unspecific sense; then either scientific developments considered to be particularly important are meant or, for example, a change in attitude to life (for example regarding basic values) or changes in other life-world or professional contexts.

Kuhn's incommensurability thesis

Structure of the Scientific Revolutions

According to the usual presentation, Kuhn assumes that individual scientific theories and hypotheses can only be checked and compared with regard to their explanatory power within a certain paradigm (so-called incommensurability thesis ). Hence, for Kuhn, the transition from one paradigm to another is not a question of better rational arguments or better empirical evidence. Because it depends on the respective paradigm which theoretical terms capture the empirical finding at all, which methodological prerequisites and which dispositions apply to what is considered relevant data by means of which types of observations.


Regardless of the presentation, Kuhn's incommensurability thesis was and is still the subject of ongoing debates in the theory of science and the history of science.

Terence Ball, for example, distinguishes in Kuhn between the thesis of perfect or strict incommensurability, which Kuhn mainly advocates in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions , and the thesis of imperfect or only partial incommensurability in later texts. Ball advocates the thesis that the strict incommensurability thesis makes the Kuhnian paradigm shift internally inconsistent, since theory and theory 'consider completely different, incomparable phenomena. The anomalies in T could therefore not possibly be explained by T 'if they were incommensurable in the strict sense. A competition between paradigms would not be possible in this way. The partial incommensurability thesis states that T and T 'can translate at least certain empirical phenomena into their own theory, that certain equivalents of meaning are available (think of translating one language into another), and thus explains anomalies in T by T' can be.

In 1976, Kuhn formulated that by incommensurability , contrary to the view of most of his readers, he did not mean that theories were not comparable, but that he was referring to incommensurability in the mathematical sense . This statement is in the secondary literature u. a. as a “betrayal” of Kuhn himself of his “best earlier insights” or at least as the result of a “linguistic turn” by Kuhn or as an unsatisfactory suggestion that Kuhn does not explain how a comparison could come about, and the mathematical analogy is “not very plausible ”, because we simply“ have nothing comparable with the real numbers ”,“ which could be used as a basis for comparison between two incommensurable entities ”.

Debate on the concept of paradigm shift

Reactions to Kuhn

Kuhn's approach represents a radical reaction to the problem of falsification or the ideas of falsificationism (and also of verificationism ). Other philosophers of science have tried, also in response to Kuhn, to stick to the basic ideas of falsificationism and to develop its explanatory schemes further.

Imre Lakatos or the early Paul Feyerabend have suggested that the examination of theories is not about contradictions between an observation fact expressed in a single basic sentence and a theory, but rather about contradictions between theories, especially a theory which explains this observation (" Observation theory "," background theory "), and a theory to be tested. Possible explanatory problems can therefore also be reacted to rationally by exchanging the “background theories”, but sticking to a theory that is to be defended. When reconstructing episodes of the history of science, the aim is not to test individual theories, but to analyze a specific series of theories. Lakatos calls a series of theories reconstructed as a coherent “research program”.

Such a research program includes u. a. methodological rules on how to develop the theory and, if necessary, to protect it in the event of a problem. In order for a sequence of theories to be reconstructed as scientific progress, according to Lakatos, the following conditions must be met: A more recent theory T2 predicts facts that would not be expected from the point of view of an earlier theory T1 (“theoretically progressive”); some of these hypotheses are actually empirically confirmed (“empirically progressive”); T2 can explain why T1 has so far proven itself empirically.

Terence Ball understands the conflict between Kuhn and his critics as a debate that concerns “our central intellectual values”, not just epistemology and theoretical physics, but e.g. B. also social sciences, moral philosophy and political philosophy.

Conceptual alternatives

Within the philosophy and history of science, the same or related events or episodes that Kuhn describes as a "paradigm shift" were used before and after Kuhn, with different systematically elaborated results and methods, and in the history of science to describe "scientific revolutions", "theoretical dynamics" or " Theoretical change ”tries to describe applied terminology. As early as 1935, Ludwik Fleck used the term “styles of thinking” in a much-received study.


Web links

Wiktionary: paradigm shift  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. TS Kuhn: The structure of scientific revolutions. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1976, p. 57 (trans. From The Structure of Scientific Revolutions ).
  2. See Thomas Nickles:  Scientific Revolutions. 3. Kuhn's Account of Scientific Revolutions. 4.1 Incommensurability revisited. In: Edward N. Zalta (Ed.): Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy .
  3. See postscript for the second edition of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions ; Reflections on my critics (both 1970).
  4. Cf. Terence Ball: From Paradigms to Research Programs: Toward a Post-Kuhnian Political Science. In: American Journal of Political Science. Vol. 20, No. 1 (Feb. 1976). P. 154–157 ( Online ( Memento of the original from June 1, 2016 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was automatically inserted and not yet checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this note .; PDF; 422 kB). @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  5. Most readers […] have supposed that when I spoke of theories as incommensurable, I meant that they could not be compared. But 'incommensurability' is a term borrowed from mathematics, and it there has no such implication. The hypotenuse of an isosceles right triangle is incommensurable with its side, but the two can be compared to any required degree of precision. ”( TS Kuhn : Theory-Change and Structure-Change: Comments on the Sneed Formalism Knowledge, 10, 179–199 (1976), German:“ Most readers […] assumed that when I spoke of theories as incommensurable , I would argue that they are not comparable. But 'incommensurability' is a term borrowed from mathematics, and there it has no such implication. The hypotenuse of an isosceles and right triangle is incommensurable with its side, but both can with arbitrary precision be compared. ")
  6. Richard J. Bernstein: Beyond objectivism and relativism: science, hermeneutics, and praxis , University of Pennsylvania Press 1983, 80, available from Google Books .
  7. So z. B. Atocha Aliseda, Donald Gillies: Logical, Historical and Computational Approaches , in: Theo AF Kuipers: General philosophy of science: focal issues, Elsevier, Oxford 2007, 431–514, here 476, available at Google Books.
  8. ^ Carlos Ulises Moulines : The Concept of Scientific Progress and Its Epistemological Problems . In: R. Seising et al. (Ed.): Form, number, order . Studies in the history of science and technology. Franz Steiner Verlag, Stuttgart 2004, pp. 125–147, here 135 f. available on Google Books.
  9. cf. about I. Lakatos, A. Musgrave: Critique and Progress in Knowledge. Braunschweig 1974 (English original 1970).
  10. The clash between […] Kuhn [and his critics] is not about a mere technical point in epistemology. It concerns our central intellectual values, and has implications not only for theoretical physics but also for the underdeveloped social sciences and even for moral and political philosophy. ”( Imre Lakatos : quoted from: Terence Ball: From Paradigms to Research Programs: Toward a Post-Kuhnian Political Science. In: American Journal of Political Science. Vol. 20, No. 1 (Feb. 1976) ( Online ; PDF; 422 kB), German: "The conflict between [...] Kuhn [and his critics] is not about a mere technical point of epistemology. It affects our central intellectual values ​​and has implications not only for theoretical physics, but also for them underdeveloped social sciences and even moral and political philosophy. ")
  11. L. Fleck: Origin and Development of a Scientific Fact . Introduction to the teaching of thinking style and thinking collective, Benno Schwabe, Basel 1935.