Kuhn considers "puzzle-solving" to be a feature of normal science, i.e., attempts to solve problems that, according to a paradigm, are supposed to be solvable within certain constraints. He repeatedly asserts that, normally, when a scientist fails to solve a puzzle, the scientist is to blame, not the paradigm.

I am at a loss to find any example in Kuhn's writings that illustrates this last point. All of the puzzle-solving examples I can find are examples of successful puzzle-solving. But I would expect him to also give examples for failed puzzle-solving, given this last point. Even an experiment that first failed but succeeded after various adjustments would be fine, yet I cannot find any.

I searched through "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions", his contributions to "Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge", and "The Road since Structure". Am I missing something?

  • Surely failed puzzle solving kicks off a new paradigm? Like say failure to find the aether which would have solved puzzles in pre-relativistic physics
    – CriglCragl
    Oct 16 at 14:36
  • @CriglCragl It is my understanding that, according to Kuhn, only persistent anomalies create a crisis that leads to new paradigms. Individual failures at puzzle-solving, in contrast, are not attributed to a falsity of the paradigm. Therefore, they can happen without leading to new paradigms.
    – 303
    Oct 16 at 17:22
  • @CriglCragl: Failing to solve a problem in calculus doesn't always kick of a paradigm. The question is whether the problem is deep enough. Then it's no longer a puzzle. For example, Newton called the aether problem a deep philosophical problem and not merely a puzzle. Oct 16 at 20:47

On page 39 of "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" (2nd ed., 1970), Kuhn writes:

"Throughout the eighteenth century those scientists who tried to derive the observed motion of the moon from Newton's laws of motion and gravitation consistently failed to do so. As a result, some of them suggested replacing the inverse square law with a law that deviated from it at small distances, To do that, however, would have been to change the paradigm, to define a new puzzle, and not to solve the old one. In the event, scientists preserved the rules until, in 1750, one of them discovered how they could successfully be applied.'"

The failed attempts at explanation Kuhn mentions fulfill his criteria for failed puzzle-solving. However, William Whewell, the source Kuhn cites, paints a much different picture of what happened (Whewell 1847, p. 220):

"We have already remarked, in the history of analytical mechanics, that in the lunar theory, considered as one of the cases of the problem of three bodies, no advance was made beyond what Newton had done, till mathematicians threw aside the Newtonian artifices, and applied the newly-developed generalizations of the analytical method. The first great apparent deficiency in the agreement of the law of universal gravitation with astronomical observation, was removed by Clairaut's improved approximation to the theoretical motion of the moon's apogee in 1750 ; yet not till it had caused so much disquietude, that Clairaut himself had suggested a modification of the law of attraction ; and it was only in tracing the consequences of this suggestion, that he found the Newtonian law of the inverse square to be that which, when rightly developed, agreed with the facts."

Whewell explicitly writes that scientists had manifoldly broken the rules laid out by Newton before they solved the problem. For Whewell, it was not a preservation of rules that led Clairault to the solution (as Kuhn suggests) but rather their violation.

I cannot understand why Kuhn thinks Whewell is supporting his account here. That is why I dismissed it so early and searched for alternatives. But, unfortunately, by the time I posed this question, I had forgotten about it.

  • Scientists did not break the rules of classical mechanics laid out by Newton to solve the puzzle. The problem was not with physics but with the approximation methods used to compute the predictions (neglecting higher order terms). By "Newtonian artifices" Whewell means that, not Newton's paradigm. Fixing a mathematical flaw is acting within a paradigm, not changing it, as altering the inverse square law would have been, see The 18th-century battle over lunar motion. So Kuhn and Whewell are saying the same thing.
    – Conifold
    Oct 17 at 1:14

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