In This Article Incommensurability in Science

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Methodological Incommensurability
  • Taxonomic Incommensurability
  • Incommensurability, Cognition, and Categorization
  • Incommensurability, Progress, and Rationality
  • Incommensurability and Reference
  • Incommensurability and Reductionism
  • Incommensurability, Translation, and Communication
  • Incommensurability and Relativism
  • Incommensurability and Evolutionary Epistemology
  • Against Incommensurability
  • Incommensurability and Historiography of Science
  • Historical Background

Philosophy Incommensurability in Science
Eric Oberheim, Paul Hoyningen-Huene
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0022


In 1962 in independent, influential publications, Thomas S. Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend suggested the provocative idea that some scientific theories (concepts, paradigms, worldviews) separated by a scientific revolution are incommensurable. They have “no common measure.” The idea of incommensurability became central to both Kuhn’s historical philosophy and Feyerabend’s philosophical pluralism. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), Kuhn 1996, cited in Thomas S. Kuhn on Incommensurability dramatically claims that the history of science reveals proponents of competing paradigms failing to make complete contact with each other’s views, so that they are always talking at least slightly at cross-purposes. Kuhn calls the collective causes of such miscommunication the incommensurability between pre- and postrevolutionary scientific traditions, claiming that the Newtonian paradigm is incommensurable with its Cartesian and Aristotelian predecessors in physics, just as Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier’s paradigm is incommensurable with that of Joseph Priestley’s in chemistry. These competing paradigms lack a common measure, because they use different concepts and methods to address different problems, limiting communication across the revolutionary divide. Incommensurability is also central to the aims and methods of Kuhn’s hermeneutic “new historiography of science,” which attempts to transform our image of science. Instead of the traditional image of continuous progress toward truth, Kuhn argues that scientific development is an evolutionary process away from anomalies. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is unprecedentedly popular across the human and social sciences, widely touted as among the most influential academic books of the 20th century. Feyerabend first used the term “incommensurable” in 1962 to characterize the relationship between the concepts of universal scientific theories interpreted realistically, claiming that they have no common measure. The idea of incommensurability remained central to his pluralistic approach to philosophy from his early work to his infamous Against Method (1975; Feyerabend 2010, cited in Paul Feyerabend on Incommensurability) through to his late, postmodern phase. For example, two main themes of The Tyranny of Science (Feyerabend 2011, cited in Feyerabend, Reality, and Incommensurability) are the disunity of science and the abundance of nature, which are lessons he learned directly through his experience with incommensurability. With incommensurability, Kuhn and Feyerabend appeared to be challenging the idea that science is rational, and they were called the “worst enemies of science” in the journal Nature. By now incommensurability has become a well-worn catchphrase of 20th-century philosophy, used across a range of interrelated disciplines to mean many different things in any number of controversial discussions.

General Overviews

Incommensurability and its implications have been controversially discussed ever since the inception of Western science as we know it. Incommensurability has played a starring role in a variety of controversial discussions about the nature of knowledge, from Plato, Aristotle, and Euclid to Albert Einstein, Thomas S. Kuhn, and Paul Feyerabend. Even just a comprehensive overview of the idea of incommensurability in science as it is typically used in the early 21st century is contentious, as incommensurability in science is a controversial, interdisciplinary idea that plays a wide range of roles across a broad array of interrelated discussions in contemporary history, philosophy, and sociology of science (sometimes collectively called science studies). Comparing attempted general overviews is particularly instructive with respect to the range of reconstructions, reactions, issues, and approaches that there are. Sankey 2006 attempts a concise introduction of the idea of incommensurability in science, highlighting some major developments in its reception in analytic philosophy and general philosophy of science. Oberheim and Hoyningen-Huene 2009 also attempts a general overview that distinguishes, develops, and compares Kuhn’s and Feyerabend’s evolving views on incommensurability in science. For a concise, general introduction specifically on Kuhn’s conception, see Bird 2011. For a concise general introduction specifically on Feyerabend’s conception, see Preston 2009. Incommensurability is also often a topic in general introductions to philosophy of science; for example, Chalmers 1999 has a discussion of incommensurability designed for an introductory course on philosophy of science, as does Ladyman 2002.

  • Bird, Alexander. “Thomas Kuhn.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward Zalta. 2011.

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    Section 4 discusses Kuhn on perception, world change, and incommensurability. Section 6 focuses on the critical reception of Kuhn on incommensurability. Compare Hoyningen-Huene 1993, section 6.3, pp. 206–222, cited under On Thomas S. Kuhn’s Incommensurability. Originally published in 2004.

  • Chalmers, Alan. What Is This Thing Called Science? 3d rev. ed. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1999.

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    Popular introductory textbook to philosophy of science. Originally published in 1976. Second edition with six additional chapters published in 1982; translated into German, French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian, Portuguese, Polish, Danish, Greek, and Estonian.

  • Ladyman, James. Understanding Philosophy of Science. London: Routledge, 2002.

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    Advanced introductory textbook that situates incommensurability into a general discussion of scientific revolutions and rationality. See especially chapter 4.6, “Incommensurability,” pp. 115–117.

  • Oberheim, Eric, and Paul Hoyningen-Huene. “The Incommensurability of Scientific Theories.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward Zalta. 2009.

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    Includes a section comparing Kuhn’s and Feyerabend’s views on incommensurability and an overview of the historical setting. On Feyerabend, compare Preston 1997, cited under On Paul Feyerabend’s Incommensurability. On Kuhn, compare Bird 2000, cited under On Thomas S. Kuhn’s Incommensurability.

  • Preston, John. “Paul Feyerabend.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward Zalta. 2009.

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    Section 2.10 situates incommensurability into the context of Feyerabend’s evolving philosophy. Compare Oberheim 2005, cited under On Paul Feyerabend’s Incommensurability.

  • Sankey, Howard. “Incommensurability.” In The Philosophy of Science: An Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. Edited by Sahotra Sarkar and Jessica Pfeifer, 370–373. New York: Routledge, 2006.

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    Concise introductory overview of some controversial issues.

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