ISU - FOI IDS 189.11- Chibeni Text

2. A Sketch of the Kuhnian Philosophy of Science

by Silvio Chibeni

This text has been taken from

This text is an excerpt from Silvio Chibeni's article "The Spiritist Paradigm," originally published in the official journal of the Brazilian Spiritist Federation, Reformador, June 1994. pp. 176-80.

[Excerpts of the original are presented here by permission of the author. The complete article can be found at]

Kuhn began his academic career as a theoretical physicist, and afterward became interested in the history of science. Undertaking important historical research from the perspective of a new historiographical tradition, according to which past scientific theories should be analyzed in their own scientific context, Kuhn realized that the traditional conception of science did not at all match with the actual process of the genesis and evolution of the theories of mature science (in, for example, physics or chemistry). Such a perception of the historical inadequacy of the current opinions concerning the nature of science led him in the end to study of the philosophy of science. His studies in this field were first published in a systematic way in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which had a profound influence on the development of the philosophy of science. In a language apparently accessible to the non-specialist, Kuhn advanced several sophisticated epistemological theses about scientific knowledge that soon became the object of heated debate among philosophers. We cannot enter into these discussions in detail here, but will present a simplified exposition of some of the most widely accepted contributions of this American philosopher.

Kuhn's theory of science centers on the thesis that the development of a scientific discipline typically occurs according to the following open structure:

pre-paradigmatic phase -> normal science -> crisis -> revolution ->

new normal science -> new crisis -> new revolution -> ...

The pre-paradigmatic phase represents, so to speak, the "pre-history" of a science, the period in which there is wide disagreement among researchers or groups of researchers about fundamental issues, such as which phenomena should be explored and according to which theoretical principle; what are the relations of the theoretical principles with each other and with theories in related domains; what methods and values should guide the search for new phenomena and new principles; what techniques and instruments can be used, and so forth. While such a state of affairs persists, the discipline cannot be said to be truly scientific.

A discipline becomes scientific when it acquires a scientific paradigm, capable of putting an end to the broad disagreement characterizing its initial period. The term "paradigm" has several meanings in Kuhn's book, and we cannot discuss intricacies of terminology here. In its original, pre-Kuhnian signification, the term means "example" or "model," as used for example in grammar. Kuhn keeps part of this meaning when he proposes that the transition to the scientific period requires acknowledgment from the community of researchers of an exemplary scientific achievement settling the issues at dispute in the pre-paradigmatic phase. Aristotle's mechanics, Newton's optics, Boyle's chemistry, Franklin's electricity theory are some of the examples given by Kuhn of paradigms that established their respective disciplines as sciences.

It is not easy to clearly summarize (especially in few sentences) the elements that form a Kuhnian paradigm. Kuhn even claims that such an explanation can never be complete, because the knowledge of a paradigm is partially tacit, acquired by direct acquaintance with the way of doing science determined by the paradigm. Thus, it is only by doing optics in the way Newton did, or electromagnetism in the way Maxwell did, that one can know exactly the paradigms of Newtonian optics of electromagnetism, for instance. We can nevertheless point out the essential components of a paradigm: (1) an ontology, indicating the kind of phenomena constituting reality; (2) fundamental theoretical principles, specifying the laws which regulate the behavior of those phenomena; (3) auxiliary theoretical principles, establishing the connections of the basic principles with the phenomena and with the theories of related domains; (4) methodological rules, standards and values, directing the further articulation of the paradigm; and (5) concrete examples of applications of the theory to the facts.

A paradigm provides the foundations on which the scientific community works. It represents a "map" to be used by the scientists in the exploration of nature. Research firmly grounded on the theories, methods, and examples of a paradigm is called normal science by Kuhn. Normal science aims to extend knowledge of the facts that the paradigm identifies as relevant by further elaboration of the theory and by more accurate observations.

Normal science is a highly directed and, in a sense, selective activity. This is essential to the development of science, as Kuhn has shown. It is only by focusing their attention on a selected range of phenomena and explanatory theoretical principles that the scientists succeed in going deep in the study of nature. No scientific research is possible without the guidance of a body of theoretical and methodological principles: they allow the selection, understanding and evaluation of what is observed. One of the main mistakes of the classical conception of science was precisely the belief that the progress of observation can, and should, be theoretically neutral. It is acknowledged today that the facts and theories are closely interdependent. There is a kind of ``symbiosis'' between them; facts give support to the theories, and theories make possible their classification, concatenation, prediction and explanation. Working under the direction of a paradigm the scientist need not constantly reconstruct the foundations of this field, explain the meaning and usefulness of the concepts he uses, and justify the observations he chooses to make.

Kuhn describes normal science as a ``puzzle-solving'' activity. It presupposes well- defined rules, like ordinary puzzles. In the course of a paradigm's development, some of the puzzles posed by nature may prove hard to solve. The scientist's duty is to insist on the rules and basic principles of the paradigm. For example, taking the example of a jigsaw puzzle, cutting off a non-fitting edge of a piece would not be a valid move. Similarly, in normal science, the fundamental laws and standards should not be abandoned or mutilated when a problem is tackled. In Kuhn's view, so long as the paradigm experiences no serious, generalized failures, the scientists should maintain their commitment to the paradigm. The progress of science requires that paradigms not be too easily abandoned. All paradigms, particularly in their initial periods, face difficulties, and a certain amount of conservation is necessary to give them time to exhibit their full strength.

But this calculated tolerance should have a limit, of course. When unsolved puzzles--called anomalies by Kuhn--remain unsolvable despite the best efforts of the best scientists for a long time and affect vital areas of the paradigm, the time is ripe for challenging the validity of the whole paradigm. In such situations of crisis, the most daring and creative members of the scientific community come forward with alternative paradigms. Once confidence in the dominant paradigm is lost, such alternatives become appealing to a growing number of scientists. As in the pre-paradigmatic phase, discussions and disagreements over fundamental principles take place. However, the old paradigm continues to guide research until a better paradigm is clearly recognized.

When a new paradigm is finally adopted, science will have undergone what Kuhn calls a scientific revolution. The most controversial theses proposed by Kuhn concern these scientific revolutions. . . .