Philosophy Thomas S. Kuhn
K. Brad Wray
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 May 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0202


Thomas Kuhn (b. 1922–d. 1996) was an American historian and philosopher of science. He completed a Ph.D. in physics at Harvard University. While a student at Harvard, Kuhn worked as a teaching assistant for James B. Conant, who was the president of Harvard University from 1933 to 1953 and who designed and taught the general education history of science courses at Harvard. This experience led Kuhn to become a historian of science. After Kuhn completed his Ph.D., he taught the history of science for a brief period at Harvard. Subsequently, he taught at the University of California, Berkeley, then at Princeton University, ending his teaching career at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Kuhn 2012, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (cited under Kuhn’s Work), was a very influential and widely read book, selling more than a million copies. It had a profound impact on philosophy of science. It was part of the new historical turn in philosophy of science that looked to the history of science to better understand how science works. The book took on a life of its own, which, at times, caused Kuhn much dismay. Much of Kuhn’s career was spent refining and clarifying the position he initially developed in Structure. He especially sought to defend his account of science from the charge of relativism and to distinguish his view from the view of the Strong Programme in the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK). Until the end of his life he was working on a book that would clarify his view, tentatively titled The Plurality of Worlds. Four years after his death, James Conant and John Haugeland edited a collection of papers by Kuhn that represent the direction his view was developing at the end of his life (see Kuhn 2000, cited under Kuhn’s Work). James Conant is the grandson of James B. Conant. Kuhn’s influence extended far beyond the philosophy of science, into the history of science, the sociology of science, and the broader culture. “Paradigm” and “paradigm shift,” two key concepts he popularized in Structure, are now used by the educated public and scientists as well.

Kuhn’s Work

Kuhn’s most famous and influential book is The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Originally published in 1962, a fourth edition was published in 2012 (Kuhn 2012). It includes an introductory essay by Ian Hacking. In Structure, Kuhn presents a cyclical theory of scientific change. Scientific specialties move from periods of normal science into states of crises which end in revolutionary changes of theory. It was in Structure that Kuhn employed the notions of paradigms and incommensurability. There are two important collections of Kuhn’s essays: Kuhn 1977, The Essential Tension, and Kuhn 2000, The Road since Structure, published four years after Kuhn’s death. The latter collection contains a long and informative interview with Kuhn. Kuhn discusses his intellectual development, from his undergraduate training in physics at Harvard, to the later developments in his view in the 1980s and 1990s. Kuhn 1957, his first book, The Copernican Revolution, is a study of astronomy from ancient times to Newton and grew out of his experience teaching the General Education history of science courses at Harvard. His other book-length contribution to the history of science is Kuhn 1978, Black-Body Theory and the Quantum Discontinuity: 1894–1912.

  • Kuhn, Thomas S. The Copernican Revolution: Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957.

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    Provides a history of astronomy from ancient times to Newton’s synthesis of Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion, and Galileo’s work on the physics of free-falling bodies. Published before Kuhn developed the account of scientific change presented in Structure. Noticeably missing from this book is any reference to paradigms.

  • Kuhn, Thomas S. The Essential Tension: Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977.

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    Part 1 contains some historical studies as well as some of Kuhn’s papers on the relationship between history of science and philosophy of science. Part 2 contains a series of philosophical papers, including “The Essential Tension: Tradition and Innovation in Scientific Research?” (pp. 225–240), “Second Thoughts on Paradigms” (pp. 293–319), and “Objectivity, Value Judgment, and Theory Choice” (pp. 320–339).

  • Kuhn, Thomas S. Black-Body Theory and the Quantum Discontinuity: 1894–1912. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.

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    Illustrates Kuhn’s view of scientific discoveries. Contrary to what is widely believed, Kuhn claims that Planck did not intentionally initiate a revolution in physics. Rather, as others developed Planck’s ideas, a revolution was initiated, but it took some time to unfold.

  • Kuhn, Thomas S. The Road since Structure: Philosophical Essays, 1970–1993, with an Autobiographical Interview. Edited by James Conant and John Haugeland. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

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    Contains Kuhn’s mature view of scientific revolutions and his view on specialization. Kuhn notes that some crises in science are resolved by dividing a field into two scientific specialties. Also includes an interview with Kuhn, in which he discusses his early intellectual development.

  • Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226458144.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    Presents Kuhn’s cyclical view of the development of a scientific field, from a period of normal science, through a period of crisis, culminating in a scientific revolution, which leads to the beginning of a new period of normal science. Two concepts that figure importantly in the analyses are paradigms and incommensurability. (Fiftieth anniversary edition; introductory essay by Ian Hacking.)

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