On one hand, Kuhn approach to the development of science is ahistorical in the sense that he doesn't believe in cumulative scientific progress or in their being any sort of scientific 'geist' that grows and realizes itself through the efforts of individual researchers.

On the other hand, his classification of scientific discovery into normal science and revolutionary science seems oddly reminiscent of Marx's boom/bust business cycle and very historicist in nature.

My questions:

  • Is Kuhn's view on the development of science historicist in the Hegelian/Marxist sense, or is it ahistorical?
  • Have there been any recognized paradigm shifts since Kuhn came up with his theory that would support it, the way a Marxist might argue that the various stock market crashes and recessions of the last century support Marx's crisis theory of capitalism?
  • 1
    Since history is not necessarily associated with any kind of progress why is lack of progress ahistorical? Kuhn does have a notion of knowledge growth though, albeit far less sweeping than positivist versions. Testing for paradigm shifts empirically is kind of moot because the main disagreement is over interpreting what a paradigm shift accomplishes, not whether they happened.
    – Conifold
    Commented Mar 2, 2016 at 22:18

3 Answers 3


-Is Kuhn's view on the development of science historicist in the Hegelian/Marxist sense, or is it ahistorical?

The Kuhnian dynamic is historicist, but it is important to distinguish it from the Hegelian or Marxist dynamics. Kuhn's teleology isn't actually guaranteed, explicitly, by the structure of paradigmatic science-- as long as we try to solve problems, we will run into anomalies and therefore crisis points, thus bringing about the chance for new paradigms to emerge, but the mere existence of the first paradigm is not sufficient for the second. Compare this to Hegel's metaphor of the bud/flower/fruit-- where each stage necessarily brings about the existence of those that follow it. As noted above, Kuhn does (at least implicitly) presuppose a final state, and is therefore (again, implicitly) teleological, but not in as strong a sense as Hegel, where each stage is defined primarily by its relation to the end stage. The end, for Hegel, contains everything that came before it, as opposed to Kuhn's construction, where the final stage is distinguished by the incommensurable elements between it and those which precede it.

So, while they may both be called Historicist, it is not accurate to completely equivocate the two.


Kuhns book The Structure of Scientifoc Revolutions (1962) is a work from history of science which touches also philosophical issues. E.g. see the preface of the author.

The concept of revolutions is a basic of Kuhn's book. In chapter XI Kuhn draws parallels between scientific and political revolutions. He writes:

One aspect of the parallelism must already be apparent. Political revolutions are inaugurated by a growing sense, often restricted to a segment of the political community, that existing institutions have ceased adequately to meet the problems posed by an environment that they have in part created. In much the same way, scientific revolutions are inaugurated by a growing sense, again often restricted to a narrow subdivision of the scientific community, that an existing paradigm has ceased to function adequately in the exploration of an aspect of nature to which that paradigm itself had previously led the way.

Nevertheless, economic reasons do not play any role in those scientific revolutions Kuhn envisages. Also sociological issues are not the trigger of scientific revolutions. Hence I would not press Kuhn's reasoning into a Marxist concept of revolution.


The opening is unfair to Kuhn. He characterizes most of science as 'normal science', which is constituted by 'puzzle solving', and is therefore a form of cumulative progress. And it is clear that the candiates in a revolution are only those that already address a majority of the solved puzzles adequately. The result cannot be anything other than cumulative progress, with the occasional step sideways taking us a little bit back. He does not posit a driving force, but he does not rule one out.

Kuhn was refining Popper, not denouncing him, basically by adding detail to the overly-abstract notion of falsificationism. He emphasizes over and over again that they 90% agree, but that the bald notion of a single judgement criterion does not fit with historical reality. Normal science is falisificationist in principle, even though it fails to be so in practice. And revolutionary science is done by normal scientists. So by sheer force of social psychology, it inherits all the biases of normal science that can be accomodated without leaving too few candidates.

Feyerabend was right to characterize Kuhn as historicist, though perhaps in a weaker sense than dialectical stances promote. Any adopted method must be somewhat teleological. Dogma needs a selling point, because freedom is traded for something. That something, in the case of sciences, is the quasi-mythological promise of eventual convergence. (I put in 'mythological' because I think it takes on some religious character, not because I doubt its truth -- I am a convert.)

You can see punctuated equilibrium and the selfish-gene theories as revolutions within Darwinism. The original theory involved a notion of gradual accumulation of adaptations and a sort of 'convergent design as sculpture' that became less tenable when we realize how discrete genetic information was.

The modern version of plate-tectonics based upon subduction is also a (slow and low-impact) revolution that eradicated the two contending camps of geological theories that had been at war for centuries and replaced them with a genuine peace. So one might say that plate tectonics was the foundational revolution in geology, before which it was not a fully-formed science, but still had two rival schools and no single paradigm. The assertion of this paradigm was underway during Kuhn's life, but it took decades. It finally came together during the 1970's, after the publication of "Scientific Revolutions" and in the face of famous holdouts with sterling reputations.

The creation of the discipline of psychology started an ongoing revolutionary process, which we are still in the middle of. Freudianism almost succeeded at being a paradigm briefly, and so did Behaviorism. So we have firsthand experience currently of how revolutionary processes take place and how normal science manages to assert itself during the process and coalesce shared results across paradigms, despite the lack of genuine traction.

To my experience, the history of psychology to date backs up Kuhn. But it also suggests that the process has a sort of fractal, self-similar nature to it, where potential paradigms create local sciences with miniature revolutions as they seek to expand themselves onto contested territory to gain traction in the larger ongoing revolution.

I also would contend Kuhnianism as a sort of 'percollational* synecdoche' (where the process writ large is made up of approximations to itself on various levels, so that each level provides a modelling metaphor for other levels), is an excellent model for politics, group dynamics and individual human thought -- a moderate improvement on sheer dialectics.

* the word 'percollation' is Benoit Mandelbrot's word for processes like the growth of a sponge, which form self-similar solids within a large range of scales. (We probably need a better term, less open to coffee puns.)

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