The Kuhn Cycle - Thomas Kuhn's Brilliant Model of How Scientific Fields Progress (2023)

The Kuhn Cycle - Thomas Kuhn's Brilliant Model of How Scientific Fields Progress (1)

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The Kuhn Cycle is a simple cycle of progress described by Thomas Kuhn in 1962 in his seminal work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In Structure Kuhn challenged the world's current conception of science, which was that it was a steady progression of the accumulation of new ideas. In a brilliant series of reviews of past major scientific advances, Kuhn showed this viewpoint was wrong. Science advanced the most by occasional revolutionary explosions of new knowledge, each revolution triggered by introduction of new ways of thought so large they must be called new paradigms. From Kuhn's work came the popular use of terms like "paradigm," "paradigm shift," and "paradigm change."

The Kuhn Cycle is preceded by the Pre-science step. After that the cycle consists of the five steps as shown. The Model Drift step was added to clarify the cycle and allow reuse of the Model Drift concept in the System Improvement Process.

Kuhn's hypothesis that big progress comes from revolutionary breakthroughs has an equivalent in the life sciences, as we can see in this extract from Wikipedia:

Punctuated equilibrium ... is a theory in evolutionary biology which proposes that most species will exhibit little net evolutionary change for most of their geological history, remaining in an extended state called stasis. When significant evolutionary change occurs, the theory proposes that it is generally restricted to rare and geologically rapid events of branching speciation....

Punctuated equilibrium is commonly contrasted against the theory of phyletic gradualism, which states that evolution generally occurs uniformly and by the steady and gradual transformation of whole lineages (called anagenesis). In this view, evolution is seen as generally smooth and continuous.

Defining "paradigm"

The Kuhn Cycle - Thomas Kuhn's Brilliant Model of How Scientific Fields Progress (2)Thomas Kuhn defined paradigms as "universally recognized scientific achievements that, for a time, provide model problems and solutions for a community of researchers," (page X of the 1996 edition). A paradigm describes:

What is to be observed and scrutinized.

The kind of questions that are supposed to be asked and probed for answers in relation to this subject.

How these questions are to be structured.

(Video) Thomas Kuhn: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

How the results of scientific investigations should be interpreted.

In short, a paradigm is a comprehensive model of understanding that provides a field's members with viewpoints and rules on how to look at the field's problems and how to solve them. "Paradigms gain their status because they are more successful than their competitors in solving a few problems that the group of practritioners has come to recognize as acute." (page 23)

Why understanding the Kuhn Cycle is important

The global environmental sustainability problem is so large, complex, novel, urgent, and its solution so difficult that solving the problem entails creation of a new paradigm. Just conceiving of the problem requires a fundamentally new way of thinking. Before The Limits to Growth defined the problem in 1972, there was little realization that human system growth could not be infinite. So called "progress" cannot go on forever. The environment cannot be tamed and subjugated, as mankind has done before to everything else that stood in the way of "progress."

The Kuhn Cycle - Thomas Kuhn's Brilliant Model of How Scientific Fields Progress (3)Environmentalism finds itself in the Pre-science step of the Kuhn Cycle. It lacks a valid paradigm for solving its central problem of sustainability. Yet the field's members are assuming they are in the Normal Science step, where a field has a paradigm that works well enough for that field to be called a bona fide science. This is a grave error.

Civilization as a whole is in the Model Crisis step. The model it uses to run itself, mostly free market democracy, a collection of national governments, and some central coordination like the UN and the World Bank, is no longer capable of solving the world's top problems. The model was good enough to navigate through the Industrial Revolution, two world wars, the Great Depression, the Cold War, and other problems. The model shows no sign of being able to solve the global sustainability problem. Because of this void modern environmentalism appeared to fill the gap, beginning with Silent Spring in 1962. But the gap is large and difficult. The new field has so far been unable to provide a new model, a new paradigm, capable of solving the sustainability problem.

The top problem to solve is thus not the sustainability problem itself, but finding the new paradigm needed to solve it. Environmentalism and civilization may not know it but they are both in search of a paradigm that works.

A short introduction to how the Kuhn Cycle works

All new fields begin in Pre-science, where they have begun to focus on a problem area but are not yet capable of solving it or making major advances.

The Kuhn Cycle - Thomas Kuhn's Brilliant Model of How Scientific Fields Progress (4)

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Efforts to provide a model of understanding that works eventually bear fruit. The field can at last make major progress on its central problems. This puts the field in the Normal Science step where it tends to stay longer than any other step.

Over time the field digs so deep into its area of interest it discovers new questions its current model of understanding cannot answer. As more of these anomalies ("violations of expectations") appear the model grows weaker. This is the Model Drift step.

If enough unsolved anomalies appear and the model cannot be patched up to explain them, the Model Crisis step is reached. Here the model is obviously no longer capable of solving the field's current problems of interest. It's a crisis because decisions can no longer be made rationally. Guesswork and intuition must be used instead. These tend to fail.

Finally out of the struggle to form a new model of understanding one or more viable candidates emerge. This begins the Model Revolution step. It's a revolution because the new model is a new paradigm. It's radically different from the old paradigm, so different the two are incommensurate. Each uses its own rules to judge the other. Thus believers in each paradigm cannot communicate well. This causes paradigm change resistance.

(Video) Kuhn’s Paradigm:Phases of Science-Pre-Paradigmatic Phase,Normal Science,Crisis,Scientific Revolution

Once a single new paradigm is settled on by a few influential supporters, the Paradigm Change step begins. Here the field transitions from the old to the new paradigm while improving the new paradigm to maturity. Eventually the old paradigm is sufficiently replaced and becomes the field's new Normal Science. The cycle then begins all over again, because our knowledge about the world is never complete.

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The Steps of the Kuhn Cycle

Understanding the Kuhn Cycle and incorporating it into your approach to helping to solve the sustainability problem is so critical there are glossary entries for the prestep of Pre-science and the five main steps:

0. Pre-science - The field has no workable paradigm to successfully guide its work.

1. Normal Science - The normal step, where the field has a scientifically based model of understanding (a paradigm) that works.

2. Model Drift - The model of understanding starts to drift, due to accumulation of anomalies, phenomenon the model cannot explain.

3. Model Crisis - The Model Drift becomes so excessive the model is broken. It can no longer serve as a reliable guide to problem solving. Attempts to patch the model up to make it work fail. The field is in anguish.

4. Model Revolution - This begins when serious candidates for a new model emerge. It's a revolution because the new model is so radically different from the old one.

(Video) Thomas Hartung on Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

5. Paradigm Change - A single new paradigm emerges and the field changes from the old to the new paradigm. When this step ends the new paradigm becomes the new Normal Science and the Kuhn Cycle is complete.

More About the Kuhn Cycle

Reading Thomas Kuhn's book, The Stucture of Scientific Revolutions, is such a difficult read for non-scientists (myself included) that I suspect most don't finish the book once they get bogged down. They turn instead to outlines, descriptions, and articles about the book. Here are a few:

The Wikipedia entry for the book.

From Emory University we have Professor Frank Pagares' Outline and Study Guide. This is a selection on a page about Thomas Kuhn, with additional links at the bottom.

Lecture notes on Paradigms and Normal Science.

FAQs

What is Kuhn's cycle of science? ›

The Kuhn Cycle is a simple cycle of progress described by Thomas Kuhn in 1962 in his seminal work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In Structure Kuhn challenged the world's current conception of science, which was that it was a steady progression of the accumulation of new ideas.

What is the most important step in Kuhn cycle? ›

From the viewpoint of solving the sustainability problem, here's the most important step of them all in the Kuhn Cycle. It is imperative that scholars, environmentalists, politicians, funders, etc grasp this abstraction, because civilization is presently stuck in the Model Crisis step.

What did Thomas Kuhn mean by paradigm shift explain with suitable examples? ›

Kuhn presented his notion of a paradigm shift in his influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). Kuhn contrasts paradigm shifts, which characterize a Scientific Revolution, to the activity of normal science, which he describes as scientific work done within a prevailing framework or paradigm.

How many stages are in Kuhn's cycle? ›

The Kuhn Cycle is preceded by the Pre-science step. After that the cycle consists of the five steps as shown. The Model Drift step was added to clarify the cycle and allow reuse of the Model Drift concept in the System Improvement Process.

What are the three components of a paradigm by Thomas Kuhn? ›

According to Kuhn's vision, scientific development is made up of three main components: Paradigm, namely a set of universally recognized principles, methodological processes and cultural concepts that refers to the work of the “scientific community” of a certain era.

Why is Kuhn important? ›

Thomas Samuel Kuhn (/kuːn/; July 18, 1922 – June 17, 1996) was an American philosopher of science whose 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was influential in both academic and popular circles, introducing the term paradigm shift, which has since become an English-language idiom.

What are the 4 paradigms? ›

The Four Paradigms
  • Behaviorism.
  • Information Processing and Cognitive Psychology.
  • Individual Constructivism.
  • Social Constructivism and Situated Learning.

What is the theory of Thomas Kuhn? ›

Kuhn claimed that science guided by one paradigm would be 'incommensurable' with science developed under a different paradigm, by which is meant that there is no common measure for assessing the different scientific theories.

What progress does Kuhn think science can make? ›

Thomas Kuhn caused a major paradigm shift in the philosophy of science. Kuhn theorized that scientific progress is non-linear and occurs through periods in which science operates under the same focus, equipment, terminology, empirical methodology, and usually time period.

What is a research paradigm and how does it contribute to scientific development? ›

A research paradigm is a philosophical framework that your research is based on. It offers a pattern of beliefs and understandings from which the theories and practices of your research project operate. A research paradigm consists of ontology, epistemology, and research methodology.

What is a paradigm change Why do organizations and individuals have problems with paradigm changes? ›

A paradigm shift is a major change in how people think and get things done that upends and replaces a prior paradigm. A paradigm shift can result after the accumulation of anomalies or evidence that challenges the status quo, or due to some revolutionary innovation or discovery.

What is the key insight of Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions? ›

Basic approach

Stressing the importance of not attributing traditional thought to earlier investigators, Kuhn's book argues that the evolution of scientific theory does not emerge from the straightforward accumulation of facts, but rather from a set of changing intellectual circumstances and possibilities.

What is model revolution in Kuhn cycle? ›

Model revolution is the fourth step of the Kuhn Cycle. In this step a field's model of understanding is undergoing revolutionary change. The old model failed, which caused the Model Crisis step. The Model Revolution step begins when one or more competing new models emerge from the crisis.

What are the 3 types of paradigms? ›

The three most common paradigms are positivism, constructivism or interpretivism and pragmatism. Each of these can be categorised further by examining their: ontology, epistemology and methodology.

What are the 3 paradigms of science? ›

Robertson shifts from considering phase changes in scientific disciplines to considering the scientific method. He suggests the three paradigms (though he doesn't call them that) of collecting, compressing, and organizing information. Collecting information is clearly another term for observation and experimentation.

What are the 4 key management paradigms? ›

All paradigms are still present in organizations and every paradigm has its pros and cons.
...
  • Command & Control. ...
  • Predict & Control. ...
  • Business autonomy with high empowerment. ...
  • Purpose driven with wholeness mindset.
24 Apr 2019

What does Kuhn mean? ›

Kühn is a German word meaning "bold" and may refer to: Kühn (surname), a family name. a nickname for rulers and generals. Karl der Kühne (1433-1477), (Carl the Bold)

What does Kuhn have to say about truth? ›

As Kuhn puts it, “The ways of being-in-the-world which a lexicon provides are not candidates for true/false.” This is a “coherence theory” of truth, where truth applies not to the world but to statements about the world — and even then only in a given language, only with a given use.

What did Kuhn study? ›

What made it worse for philosophers of science was that Kuhn wasn't even a philosopher: he was a physicist, dammit. Born in 1922 in Cincinnati, he studied physics at Harvard, graduating summa cum laude in 1943, after which he was swept up by the war effort to work on radar.

What are paradigms example? ›

An example of a paradigm is the majority of the people on Earth accepting the viewpoint that the cosmology of the Earth was a flat disk with upturned edges. The subsequent paradigm was that the Earth was a sphere.

What is the students role to learning in learning paradigm? ›

It is both needed and wanted.” The Learning Paradigm (as opposed to the Instruction Paradigm), emphasizes the students' active role in learning and the purpose of that learning, which can be strong motivators for students. The challenge for instructors is to cede some control of learning to the students.

What are the 5 common paradigms or models of the study? ›

Five Common Paradigms
  • Assumptions and beliefs of the Interpretivist paradigm.
  • Assumptions and beliefs of the Positivist paradigm.
  • Assumptions of the Critical or Subtle Realist paradigm.
  • Assumptions of Critical Theory paradigms.
  • Assumptions of Feminist paradigms.

What does Kuhn mean when he says after a scientific revolution scientists work in a different world? ›

Also, in normal science, change is gradual, but in revolutionary science, change is quick. Kuhn mentions the perspectives scientists have on the world, saying that those who work in different paradigms live in different psychological worlds due to their differences in beliefs.

What are the two phases of science according to Thomas Kuhn? ›

According to Kuhn the development of a science is not uniform but has alternating 'normal' and 'revolutionary' (or 'extraordinary') phases.

What is model revolution in Kuhn cycle? ›

Model revolution is the fourth step of the Kuhn Cycle. In this step a field's model of understanding is undergoing revolutionary change. The old model failed, which caused the Model Crisis step. The Model Revolution step begins when one or more competing new models emerge from the crisis.

What are scientific revolutions according to Kuhn? ›

The Scientific Revolution was the topic around which the field of history of science itself came to maturity. Kuhn's popularization of the idea that even the mature natural sciences undergo deep conceptual change stimulated much general intellectual interest in the history of science during the 1960s and 1970s.

What is Kuhn's 1962 view of the progression of science? ›

Kuhn maintained that the perception of the world depends on how the percipient conceives the world: two scientists who witness the same phenomenon and are steeped in two radically different theories will see two different things. According to this view, our interpretation of the world determines what we see.

What is the name of Thomas Kuhn theory of knowledge? ›

In this book, heavily influenced by the fundamental work of Ludwik Fleck, Kuhn argued that science does not progress via a linear accumulation of new knowledge, but undergoes periodic revolutions, also called "paradigm shifts" (although he did not coin the phrase, he did contribute to its increase in popularity), in ...

What are the 3 types of paradigms? ›

The three most common paradigms are positivism, constructivism or interpretivism and pragmatism. Each of these can be categorised further by examining their: ontology, epistemology and methodology.

Why is Thomas Kuhn important? ›

In 1962, Kuhn's renowned The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Structure) helped to inaugurate a revolution—the 1960s historiographic revolution—by providing a new image of science. For Kuhn, scientific revolutions involved paradigm shifts that punctuated periods of stasis or normal science.

What does Kuhn say about normal science? ›

Normal science is the day-to-day research that scientists conduct in order to fill in the gaps in scientific knowledge that are found within the dominant paradigm. Kuhn argued that paradigms always have intractable problems that result in research anomalies.

Videos

1. Chapter 2.1: Thomas Kuhn, normal science
(Leiden University - Faculty of Humanities)
2. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions - Thomas Kuhn
(The Living Philosophy)
3. Thomas Kuhn on Scientific Paradigms and Revolutions
(Matthew J. Brown)
4. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Thomas Khun
(Gonzalo Esquer)
5. KUHN! Philosophy Battle - SCIENCE WARS - FULL EPISODE 3
(Philosophy Battle)
6. Kuhn: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions - Cleo Calma & Janille Matawaran, UPDEPPO Philosophy1
(UPDEPPO PHILOSOPHY1)
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