Kuhns book The Structure of scientific revolution is based on Hegels philosophy of history and uses, as Hegel did, the dialectic as the motor of history. What Kuhn terms paradigm shifts, in Hegelian terms is sublation, the standard translation of aufheben.

To give an an example of this method, which is one that Kuhn uses - the relationship between Newtonian Physics and that of Einsteins.

In Popperian terms one says that Einsteinian physics falsifies Newtonian Physics; and this falsification is understood to be that of observable experiment; that is there is an experiment, the standard one here being the Michaelson-Morley experiment, that falsifies a prediction of the Newtonian theory.

In conventional physical discourse, typically, the notion of limit or convergence is used; and this just follows by simple reflection; Newtonian physics cannot be falsified in all its aspects, it retains a region of validity, and a newer theory must find that as a limit in that region of validity.

In Kuhns theory using Hegelian terms, the thesis is Newtonian physics, the anti-thesis is the constancy of light & its sublated into a synthesis that is Einsteinian Physics.

One notes here that the synthesis retains concepts from both theses - for example the fundamental notions of mass and energy as well as many derived notions - moment of inertia etc but they are significantly modified by the presence of the anti-thesis.

Question: Is Kuhns theory Marxist or Hegelian?

To clarify, Hegels use of the dialectic operates in the realm of ideas; whereas Marx, who claimed he turned Hegel 'upside down' placed the dialectic in the realm of matter: here this would be the use of physical experiment.

Certainly, in a typical theory introduction to mechanics it is the internal contradiction between two theories - Maxwells & Newtons that is resolved. But this method doesn't, I think, reflect the historical or logical reality but the theoretically efficient.

  • Refines, not falsifies. At normal energies and speeds, Newtonian mechanics is close enough for all practical purposes and even very close in theory. So I think your choice of the word "falsify" is a little misleading. My understanding is that thesis-antithesis-synthesis refers to genuine opposites. Capitalism/Communism => Modern democratic social welfare state. You wouldn't say that Capitalism and socialism refine each other. You'd say they're opposing ideas, they can't both be true. Hence the opportunity for synthesis. The physics example doesn't work because Einstein refines Newton.
    – user4894
    Jun 28 '14 at 1:08
  • 1
    @user4894:if you read my question closely you'll notice that I make exactly the same point; falsify is a technical term of Poppers; there is a difference between the theoretical structure of Einsteins theory and Newtons that refines doesn't quite do justice to. It is true, as I point out, that at low speeds the implications of both theories are pretty much the same, however the theoretical differeances remain huge: for example, Newtons theory doesn't show mass-energy equivalence at any energy level and the derivation of this result in Einsteins theory has nothing to do with energy Jun 28 '14 at 1:16
  • levels and everything to do with the constancy of light; the technical term is limit or converges in Physics discourse rather than refines - they show that the theoretical structure of Einsteins theory has Newtonian Physics as a low-energy limit. Jun 28 '14 at 1:21
  • -1 This Q has some problems. If I may suggest improvements: 1) You ask "What then is the relationship between Newtonian Physics and that of Einsteins?" and then you give yourself an answer. This should better be posted as a separate answer below. 2) The further question "Is Kuhns theory Marxist or Hegelian?" should be posted as a separate Q.
    – DBK
    Jun 28 '14 at 1:22
  • @DBK: Sure, I hadn't realised I'd answered my own question. I'll re-edit to focus it on the second. Jun 28 '14 at 1:23

I strongly suggest to supplement the reading of Kuhn's SSR with I. Bernard Cohen's - hystorian of science author of (among others) : The Newtonian Revolution (1980) - huge work on Revolution in Science (1985).

It is a very detailed inquiry about the history of the notion of scientific revolution.

The fundamental steps in this history are :

  • the "classical" period, when revolution means circular motion; see Nicolaus Copernicus, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (1543). Thus, at the beginning, the term has nothing to do with : "turning upside-down".

  • the shifting of meaning form the "physical" world to the "social" one, starting of course from the French Revolution

  • the adoption of the new meaning of revolution also for describing "intellectual transformations"; see Kant and the copernican revolution.

Thus, the path which lead to the current usage of "scientific revolution" is through Kant, and only superficially through Hegel (which of course lived in an age of revolutions, and his thought reflects his environment).


I thnk that the description of the change from newtonian to einsteinian physics :

In [...] Hegelian terms, the thesis is Newtonian physics, the anti-thesis is the constancy of light & its sublated into a synthesis that is Einsteinian Physics

is totally "un-kuhnian".

The fundamental idea of K's book is normal science much more than scientific revolution.

Normal science coexist with anomalies, i.e. facts which do not "fit" well with the paradigm for quite a long time. Only when a new theory is available which is able to solve the puzzles and "include" the previous paradigm, then we have the "change" (the revolution).

K's point of view is not falsificationist; thus we have no role for "contradictions" which act as driving force for the progress of knowledge in an hegelian sense.

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