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Paradigm shift

A paradigm shift is an (often radical) change of paradigm. For a precise definition of paradigm, see this word.

Kuhnian Paradigm Shifts

A epistemological paradigm shift was called a scientific revolution by epistemologist Thomas Kuhn.

A scientific revolution occurs, according to Thomas Kuhn, when scientists encounter anomalies[?] which cannot be explained by the universally accepted paradigm within which scientific progress had thereto been made. Once new discoveries are made that cannot be reconciled with a current paradigm, and these results are repeatedly independently confirmed by other scientists, then the scientific community is forced to create a new paradigm in line with the evidence. This is a key difference between religion and science (and generally to science and other belief systems); adherents of the scientific method are generally willing to change their beliefs when new facts and compelling logic are presented.

Classic examples of paradigm shifts include:

  • The work of Galileo, who overthrew Aristotelian physics and created Galilean relativity.
  • The work of Kepler.
  • The invention of modern physics by Newton.
  • Albert Einstein's development of Special relativity, which overthrew the idea of the ether and of absolute motion.
  • Albert Einstein's development of General relativity, which overthrew previous ideas of space and time.
  • The development of Quantum mechanics, which overthrew classical mechanics.
  • The 17th century scientific revolution
  • The work of Galileo, the reaction of the church, and the subsequent acceptance of the work of Kepler and Newton, are seen by some as the classic example of a paradigm shift.

A common misinterpretation of Kuhnian paradigms is the belief that the discovery of paradigm shifts and the dynamic nature of science is a case for relativism, i.e. "all kinds of belief systems are equal", so that say, magic, religious concepts or pseudoscience would be of equal value to true science. Kuhn vehemently denies this interpretation and states that when a scientific paradigm is replaced by a new one, albeit through a complex social process, the new one is always better, not just different.

These claims of relativism are, however, tied to another claim that Kuhn does at least sometimes endorse. This is the claim that the language and theories of different paradigms cannot be translated into one another or rationally evalauated against one another; he says they are in these cases incommensurable. This idea gave rise to a lot of talk of different peoples and cultures having radically different worldviews or conceptual schemes--so different, anyway, that whether or not one was better they could not be understood by one another. However, the philosopher Donald Davidson published a highly-regarded essay in 1974, "On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme", arguing that the very notion that any languages or theories could be incommensurable with one another was itself incoherent. If this is correct, Kuhn's claims must be taken in a weaker sense than they often are.

Other Uses

The word paradigm shift has escaped from the Kuhnian context and found other uses, where it merely represents the notion of a major change in a certain "thought-pattern":

Here, a paradigm shift is a radical change in personal beliefs, complex systems, or organizations, replacing the former way of thinking or organizing with a radically different way of thinking or organizing. Examples of paradigm shifts in perception or ways of thinking:

  • Margaret Mead, noted anthropologist, shows a flashlight to the indigenous New Guinea people.
  • People blind since birth are suddenly enabled to see.
  • Development of new techniques in genetics impact long-standing assumptions in anthropology.
  • An apparently miraculous healing is witnessed by a someone who has never believed in miracles.

Examples of paradigm shifts in complex systems and organizations:

  • The English monarchy with the signing of the Magna Carta.
  • The "explosion of life" during the Pre-Cambrian era.
  • Society with the invention of any of several innovations (fire, the wheel, gunpowder, the microchip, etc.).
  • Warfare and corporate structure with the development of the Prussian military model.

See Also



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