The Buzz

Fifty Years of Paradigm Shifts

A half century ago, an obscure professor of the history of science did something rare in academic life: he wrote a scholarly monograph that had an enduring impact on both the academy and wider public discussions.

The initial evidence is in the sales figures. Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, first published in August 1962, has over the years sold 1.4 million copies. That may not sound impressive to a blockbuster novelist or popular historian, but as John Naughton notes in The Observer, for "a cerebral work of this calibre, these are Harry Potter-scale numbers."

Naughton argues that while you may not have been among the purchasers of those million copies, your "thinking has almost certainly been influenced by his ideas." Ever heard the term "paradigm shift"? Kuhn coined it, and ever since then, it has become "probably the most used—and abused—term in contemporary discussions of organisational change and intellectual progress." Before Kuhn's Structure popularized it, even the word "paradigm" was mostly confined to use in linguistics. Now it passes through the lips of marketing experts, consultants, and all sorts of Powerpoint-wielding hordes.

Naughton argues that Kuhn's theory of theories nonetheless deserves recognition. Kuhn suggested that scientific progress wasn't really a long, linear march toward the truth, but rather, as Naughton puts it, "a set of alternating 'normal' and 'revolutionary' phases in which communities of specialists in particular fields are plunged into periods of turmoil, uncertainty and angst." Sometimes in these revolutionary phases, a new set of assumptions overturns old ones—Einstein's challenge to Newtonian physics, for example—and suddenly a paradigm shift occurs.

While Kuhn was focused on the natural sciences, others have pointed to paradigm shifts in the social sciences, which often in turn shape public policy. Hence it should be no surprise to readers of The National Interest, which recently released a special issue on the "Crisis of the Old Order," that U.S. foreign policy may be in one of these "periods of turmoil, uncertainly and angst." Something akin to a Kuhnian paradigm shift may be in the cards. Today's theorists can speculate. But only historians will have the final say.