In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Scientific Revolutions

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • History of the Idea
  • The Received View in Philosophy of Science
  • Kuhn on Scientific Revolutions
  • General Accounts and Applications of Kuhn’s Model
  • First Responses to Kuhn
  • Later Philosophical Responses to Kuhn
  • Meaning Change and Incommensurability
  • The Science Wars
  • Kuhn’s Later Work
  • Responses to Kuhn’s Theory of Cognition
  • Continental European Approaches
  • Contributions in German
  • Contributions in French, Italian, and Spanish
  • Frameworks
  • Do Scientific Revolutions Exist, and Are They a Good Thing?
  • Problems of Empiricism
  • Scientific Realism
  • Recent Work in Models of Scientific Change

Philosophy Scientific Revolutions
Thomas Nickles
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 May 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0048


Scientific revolutions and the problem of understanding deep scientific change became central topics in philosophy of science with Thomas S. Kuhn’s publication in 1962 of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (see Kuhn 1970, cited under General Overviews). Kuhn attacked the received view of the logical empiricists and Popperians that scientific change is cumulative. He claimed that there have been several revolutions since the so-called scientific revolution, including dramatic overturnings in the most mature sciences—with more to be expected in the future. Kuhn’s more dynamic model of scientific development postulated the existence of occasional crises that sometimes trigger full-scale revolutions that overthrow the old “paradigm” and replace it with a new one discontinuous or “incommensurable” with the old one. He rejected the received views of scientific rationality and denied that even the most successful sciences are progressing toward a final, representational truth about the world. By focusing on finished, “textbook” science, defenders of the received view, he argued, presented an inadequate account of how scientific research is done, leaving unexplained the marked difference between the mature natural sciences and the social sciences as well as the difference within a mature science itself between “normal science” and the extraordinary research context of science in crisis. Kuhn and an entire generation of historically oriented philosophers of science believed that philosophical models of science should be more naturalistic (not based on a priori normative claims), more reflective of scientific practice, and thus testable against the history of science. Unlike the logicians of science, Kuhn highlighted cognitive and social psychological factors and the importance of rhetoric in scientific decision making. In reaction, critics questioned whether there have been any genuinely Kuhnian revolutions, accusing Kuhn of debunking modern science by portraying science as subjective, irrational, and relativistic. Kuhn replied that he was not a relativist, that he was attempting to develop a new account of scientific cognition and rationality, and that he was in effect trying to instigate a revolution of his own at the level of metascience and even general epistemology. Virtually no expert fully accepts Kuhn’s model of science, but there is general agreement that he posed some serious problems, including the problem of new theories: How can it be rational for scientists to reject a highly developed and accomplished theory or research program in favor of a radical and undeveloped new approach? Kuhn’s work stimulated a number of later developments in philosophy and in social studies of science more generally.

General Overviews

The primary philosophical overviews take the form of encyclopedia articles, especially online, updatable articles, of which Nickles 2009 is the most comprehensive. Others are listed under Reference Works. Kuhn 1970 is the most cited source on the topic of scientific revolutions; it is the work that put the topic on the philosophical map, but it develops only Thomas S. Kuhn’s own account of scientific revolutions rather than providing a general overview. Cohen 1994 is a thoroughgoing treatment of historical work on the so-called scientific revolution during the period from approximately 1540 to 1700. Cohen 1985 considers the general topic of revolution in wider cultural and temporal contexts, from a historian’s viewpoint, with a focus on concepts of scientific revolution. Suppe 1977, in addition to articles by some of the principal figures, includes a long and valuable editor’s introduction and afterword that provide a widely cited account of “the received view” and the developments that led to the new directions taken by Norwood Russell Hanson, Stephen Toulmin, Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, Imre Lakatos, and others as well as the new budget of philosophical difficulties that resulted. Moulines 2008 provides a more recent survey of the development of modern philosophy of science written with an institutional emphasis. Aside from Kuhn 1970, Thagard 1992 is the best and practically the only book-length treatment of scientific revolutions in philosophy of science, in this case from a computational perspective. Kvasz 1999 is representative of various attempts to distinguish different kinds of revolutions.

  • Cohen, H. Floris. The Scientific Revolution: A Historiographical Inquiry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

    The definitive study of historical treatments of the period now called “the scientific revolution,” that is, the birth of modern science from Nicolaus Copernicus to Isaac Newton. Ends with chapters on the concept of the scientific revolution and on the structure of that extended revolution.

  • Cohen, I. Bernard. Revolution in Science. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1985.

    A comprehensive treatment of the idea of scientific revolution from Nicolaus Copernicus to the 20th century. For Cohen, a revolution must be recognized as such by scientists and their contemporaries at the time it is happening and by present-day scientists and science studies experts.

  • Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

    The work that triggered philosophical interest in deep scientific change. Presents the concepts of “normal science,” “paradigm,” and “paradigm change.” Appealing to the then new history of science, Kuhn attempted his own epistemological revolution via his treatment of scientific problem solving. The first edition, published in 1962, lacks the important “Postscript—1969.”

  • Kvasz, Ladislav. “On Classification of Scientific Revolutions.” Journal for General Philosophy of Science 30.2 (1999): 201–232.

    DOI: 10.1023/A:1008317930920

    Distinguishes three major types of revolutions, colorfully termed “Russian,” “Franco-British,” and “American,” and compares this account with Kuhn, Lakatos, Michael Crowe, and Joseph Dauben. Kvasz takes into account revolutions in mathematics as well as empirical science.

  • Moulines, C. Ulises. Die Entwicklung der modernen Wissenschaftstheorie (1890–2000): Eine historische Einführung. Hamburg, Germany: LIT Verlag, 2008.

    A general history of the development of the modern philosophy of science in five stages: Ernst Mach’s first academic chair in philosophy of science, early logical positivism, later logical positivism (with an emphasis on Karl R. Popper’s critique of it), the historical turn and Kuhn, and the broadly modelistic stage still underway.

  • Nickles, Thomas. “Scientific Revolutions.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2009.

    A long entry that treats most of the themes in this bibliography, including some attention to Continental European work and to recent approaches that treat the sciences as engineered complex systems or as dynamic networks.

  • Suppe, Frederick, ed. The Structure of Scientific Theories. 2d ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977.

    The introduction and afterword to this conference volume provide a detailed statement and critique of “the received view” and of the holistic “worldview” philosophies that replaced it. Contains articles by such figures as Kuhn, Carl Hempel, Toulmin, Dudley Shapere, Hilary Putnam, Achinstein, Bas C. van Fraassen, Jeffrey Bub, Patrick Suppes, and I. Bernard Cohen. First edition 1974.

  • Thagard, Paul. Conceptual Revolutions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.

    Surveys problems of conceptual change and conceptual reorganization, then develops Thagard’s account of revolutionary theory choice in terms of greater explanatory coherence, applying his Explanatory Coherence Harmony Optimization (ECHO) program to several historical revolutions: Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, Charles Darwin, plate tectonics, and so forth. Explores the question of revolutions in psychology and in child development.

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