Shift Happens (again and again)

A great article on Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions:

Kuhn’s idea was slow to gestate. It began in 1947, when, as a graduate student in physics at Harvard, he was recruited by James B. Conant, the university’s president, to teach a history-of-science course to humanities majors. In preparation, Kuhn was trying to understand how Aristotle could be such a brilliant natural scientist except when it came to understanding motion. Aristotle’s idea that stones fall and fire rises because they’re trying to get to their natural places seems like a simpleton’s animism.

Then it became clear to Kuhn all at once. Ever since Newton, we in the West have thought movement changes an object’s position in neutral space but does not change the object itself. For Aristotle, a change in position was a change in a quality of the object, and qualitative change tended toward an asymmetric actualization of potential: an acorn becomes an oak, but an oak never becomes an acorn. Motion likewise expressed a tendency for things to actualize their essence by moving to their proper place. With that, “another initially strange part of Aristotelian doctrine begins to fall into place,” Kuhn wrote in The Road Since Structure.

50 Years of Paradigms 1
From this, Kuhn learned several important lessons that surfaced in SSR 15 years later. First, scientific ideas occur within a context that enables them to make sense. Second, context is accepted for different sorts of reasons than are the hypotheses that emerge within it. Third, the idea of a new scientific context occurs roughly the way his own illumination of Aristotle’s ideas did: all at once, an entire whole snapping into view the way a duck-rabbit illustration switches instantly from one view to another.

via Shift Happens – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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