I find T.S. Kuhn's "Structure of Scientific Revolutions" a little sloppy (some unclear definitions and some terms that lack precision or are used ambiguously), but with a charitable reading it tells a very coherent story of scientific pursuit.

I've heard a number of criticisms of the work, but most seem to either misread Kuhn (painting him almost akin to Feyerabend) or just dismiss him out of fashion. I've heard reports of some schools that start their philosophy of science courses with the understanding that his views are so obviously wrong as to not require refutation or discussion, but I've had trouble finding a cogent argument against the Structure of Scientific Revolutions that takes him to task on his argument and not something pedantic. Can anyone recommend a book, article, thinker, proof, bumper-sticker, anything that reads his work charitably and then proceeds to refute it?

  • Do you mean a wholesale rejection, or merely a rejection of part of his thesis, such as incommensurability of theories? Because overall, I have the same impression as you--most commonly I find dismissal without careful argumentation that actually addresses his position--but there are a few particulars (incommensurability being the most egregious) where he seems at the very least too strident.
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Dec 8, 2012 at 15:55
  • @RexKerr, honestly, I'd be happy with a solid counter-argument to a part of his work, especially if it ultimately proved fatal to the main idea. I have seen a few attacks on his work, but they rely on an uncharitable interpretation--for instance, taking incommensurability or normal science to be defined broadly, and not taking Kuhn at his word about their definitions (clarified after the work was published). It bothers me that I can't find good arguments from opponents who actually listen to his own clarifications of his work.
    – jxn
    Commented Dec 8, 2012 at 21:40
  • Well, incommensurability was the most controversial point, IMO, and I've not seen any good refutation of the "clarified" position. I'm not entirely convinced it's even the same position, but I guess it is charitable to take his later clarifications at face value.
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Dec 8, 2012 at 22:02
  • I´m short on time so it will just be a comment: There is something paradoxical at Kuhns thesis. If he is right, then it is true for his theory of scientific revolutions aswell and his theory will be abandoned.
    – Lukas
    Commented Dec 13, 2012 at 8:05
  • I'm not sure any of that follows of necessity, @Lukas . First, Kuhn was talking about the domain of Science, not philosophy or the history of science. Nowhere that I have read does he generalize his theory in a way that makes it seem like he means it for any historic analysis. Furthermore, abandonment of the type Kuhn discusses is only true of paradigms (under normal science conditions), not of individual theories nor of ideas which do not reach acceptance below paradigmatic levels. Finally, it may be ironic, but not paradoxical because Kuhn's doesn't promise epistemological progress
    – jxn
    Commented Dec 19, 2012 at 4:09

3 Answers 3


Kuhn's work has 58315 citations in google scholar, so there is a lot of literature. To take one example, the mind has a virtual issue on Kuhn: http://oxfordjournals.org/our_journals/phisci/kuhn_virtual_issue.html

These things are probably best studied by example. Kuhn and Feyerabend have in fact studied the history of physics, whereas critics and scientists themselves very often have not. So I think one can at least learn a lot in this regards from Kuhn. Cogent responses come from scientists themselves in many debates, although they in most cases don't reference Kuhn. The basic counter-argument is that science progresses linearly, which is a very widely held belief.

Some more modern examples of paradigm shifts or discussions around them:

String theory

The physicist Lee Smolin has written a book called the trouble with physics. This is a quite broad attack on string theory. I don't think he explicitly references Kuhn, but his arguments are very similar. The paradigm of string theory is freezing progress in physics. There are good arguments for and against. What I always find is that scientists in general are very unaware of the fact, that there has been some writing on the working of science. I can't judge about the arguments of Smolin in the end. I certainly agree with the basic sentiment. The relevance of experiments are very central in this debate.

Economics and finance

The thinker Nassim Taleb has broadly attacked quantitative finance and economics in general. This is an interesting case, because his books became bestsellers and shortly after the Black Swan was published the great financial crises happened. One could extend his argument to science in general. I mostly agree with him and others who have are very unsatisfied with economics, Steven Keen, Hyman Minksi and George Soros have written on this. There is now quite a broad movement in this direction.


This is an interesting example. The major paradigm in terms of foundations is set theory, and even though category theory has been successful it is hardly known that there is even a paradigm.

Computer science

Neil Gershenfeld has come interesting views on paradigms in computer science. He said that computer science is the worst what could have happened to computers or science. Such strong statements from distinguished professors are quite rare.


Chomsky revolutionized the field in the 50s. That was a true paradigm shift. This is good case study, because the transition was very rapid. Because Chomsky is a philosopher of great importance, he is at the same time very conscious with regards to the general workings of science. He said that he couldn't get a position at a faculty first, and then, a few years later, founded modern linguistics.

Counter examples

Most contributions in science are in one paradigm and are not shifting the entire field. In this sense science is linear. There is always an interaction between local progress and global paradigms. I couldn't say how a good counter argument would even look like. One can certainly argue that paradigms are not so important. But to refute the existence of shifts in beliefs in science is impossible in my opinion. Perhaps one can find quite a few fields, where the general ideas are fairly stable. Chemistry after Lavoisier seems to me to be one of such cases, because of the structure of the science itself. But in biology for example the evidence is overwhelming. As soon as Crick and Watson published their findings in 1953 the world had changed. Perhaps the first half of the 20th century is a better source of pro-Kuhnian arguments than the second half.

Critic of Kuhn

What one can wonder is what the role of philosophy is, in all of this. Philosophers are partly critics of science. Dan Dennett does a good job of integrating views to coherent views. Generally Kuhn follows the stance of positivism, i.e. science is to be left as it is. Philosophers can describe aspects of it. I personally strongly disagree, but that is a different topic. In general I think everyone should read Kuhn and Feyerabend, the history of science, etc. I'm not aware of any major works explicitly declared as theory of science, besides Kuhn, Feyerabend and Popper, although I'm sure there a lot of books, articles, etc. And they would have to reference other important theories, such as those of Kuhn and Popper.

To take one random example I have researched through wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophy_of_science)

"Stove became best known to the wider intellectual community for his attacks on Karl Popper and his falsificationist philosophy of science, as well as the influential philosophies of Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend."

Actually some of the points are quite interesting. In general, although I think Kuhn and Popper are important, I would not regard them in the same category as other major philosophers, in terms of breadth and depth of their work.


D. Shapere, "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions," Philosophical Review, 1964, 73: 383-94. (It is also reprinted, for instance, in Balashov & Rosenberg's Philosophy of Science)

Shapere's was one of the first reactions to the book. The paper works both as a friendly summary and as a piece of serious criticism which considers wide implications of the Structure.


As someone who basically accepts Kuhn, the problem I see with it is that modern physics really does all three kinds of science at once, so this notion of segregated revolutions fails. 'Interpretations' like 'many-worlds' or other workable mindsets that are not part of the model are really pre-science (adaptive mythology), normal science obviously proceeds, and alterations to groundwork are also not yet stable. So, what period would we be in?

It is unlikely we will meet another revolution in science that is truly 'incommensurable' with Newtonian physics and does not actually rely upon the approximate truth of that physics for its justification. If you read a quantum dynamics text, it is full of Newtonian physics, whereas Newton was not full of Ptolemy (or even Galileo).

This is not like the contrast we had with atomism and substance, or with the new notion of elements existing in large numbers. In those cases, the old paradigm was in fact not a necessary part of the support for the new paradigm. It conflicted, and adopting a new paradigm left known facts newly unexplained.

We even have two different new, revolutionary paradigms in process, both of which rely almost completely upon the fact that Newton was almost completely right. And we are having a hard time choosing which should be primary, but we expect them to agree in the long run. A quiet, pedantic revolution with two outcomes at the same time, each fully accommodating the other. How revolutionary!

We are shifting the paradigm. But it has not caused any massive crisis in 'normal science', which just got split up a bit, while the old parts kept chugging. And although the modern theories had some major detractors and led to some excessive declarations, they were seen as curmudgeonly or bombastic, not dangerous.

So either there is a distinct reduction in the quality of revolutions over time, or his notion of revolution is simply the high tide of a force that runs continuously through science at various scales. To continue looking at it in terms of its most extreme cases will probably not serve the discipline well in the future.

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