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In The Structure of Scientific Revolution Kuhn describes his belief that science alternates between normal and

so-called revolutionary periods of science, and that the paradigms that determine the scientific enterprise in two
consecutive periods of normal science are incommensurable. This paradigm, however, limits the ways people
think, thus making it impossible to compare two paradigms. Thus, it is impossible to get closer to the truth and
hinders meaningful developments in science. The purpose of this essay is to explain what this means and to
show why this led Kuhn to believe that getting closer to the truth is not a valid description of scientific
According to Kuhn (1970) incommensurability means no common measure. It is a borrowing from mathematics,
where it implies the absence of common measurement. Applied to the philosophy of science,
incommensurability may mean that there are no shared standards by which competing theories are to be
evaluated. In some context, incommensurability may be taken to mean that the content of competing theories
is unable to be directly compared due to semantic variations between the theories. It must be noted that
incommensurability is primarily a theses about meaning. There is no common measure of theories, it claims,
because the meanings of key theoretical terms are different when employed theories attached to different
paradigms. The meaning of theoretical term is identified with the role it plays within a theory. Where there is a
change of theory, there is a change of meaning and incommensurability arises.
Cohn (1978) defines a paradigm as a framework containing the basic assumptions, ways of thinking, and
methodology that are commonly accepted by members of a scientific community. Such a cognitive framework is
shared by members of any discipline or group. Thus, the use of a paradigm hinders scientists to think in their
own capacities as they are forced to follow a laid down framework and in a way this will hinder meaningful
developments in science.

In order to understand Kuhns remarks on the incommensurability of scientific paradigms, one has to
understand his views of how science changes in the course of history. It is then possible to comment on his
views on comparing paradigms. Kuhn does not see the changes made in science as a linear progression. In his
opinion, scientists do not evaluate and question the theories they use all the time, waiting for a counter-
example that would lead to falsification and the need to create a new theory, which does not get falsified by this
particular example. He believes that periods of normal and revolutionary science appear in an alternating
fashion. The periods of normal science consist only of puzzle solving, not of trying to overthrow the current
system of rules. Thus, according to Kuhn (1970), this puzzle solving is very positive and leads to actual progress
in science.

When doing normal science, researchers apply theories to anomalies that are known to exist and try to force
them into the system of rules. Kuhn calls this system a paradigm. Even though it consists of rules, it is not a
concrete method, but may instead involve illicit and not fully understood parts, and people following the
paradigm do not have to be able to articulate it. It is a very broad concept encompassing not only theories but
also methods, instruments, standards, assumptions, and even instincts. As a consequence, there is no direct
access to the world, since observations can only be made using a paradigm as well.

Novelty ordinarily emerges only for the man who, knowing with precision what he should expect, is able to
recognise that something has gone wrong. Anomalies appear only against the background provided by the
paradigm. When scientists fail to apply the current paradigm to more and more anomalies, this might eventually
lead to a crisis. Counter examples would emerge that contribute to the crisis and external factors, like social
changes, may also play a role. Simon (1976) suggests in the normal mode of discovery, even resistance to
change has a use. When the stress exerted by a crisis on the scientific community becomes too large, different
versions of the paradigm are proliferated, and this loosens the rules of normal puzzle-solving in ways that
ultimately permit a new paradigm to emerge. By ensuring that the paradigm will not be easily surrendered,
resistance guarantees that scientists will not be lightly distracted and that the anomalies lead to paradigm
change will penetrate existing knowledge to the core. After a new paradigm has been generally agreed upon, a
new period of normal science commences. This process is what Kuhn considers to be revolutionary science
leading to new developments in science.
Kuhn (1970) asserts that for a paradigm to be accepted as a paradigm, a theory must seem better than its
competitors, but it need not, and in fact never does, explain all the facts with which it can be confronted.
Paradigms gain their status because they are more successful than their competitors in solving a few problems
that the group of practitioners has come to recognise as acute. Moreover, Kuhn (1970) argues that the success
of a paradigm is at the start largely a promise of success discoverable in selected and incomplete examples.
Truth emerges more readily from error than from confusion. Scientists see things in an entirely different way
after a revolution as if they were wearing glasses with inverting lenses. The incommensurability theses then
implies that scientists will experience difficulties in evaluating rival paradigms, because there are no shared
standards and shared concepts among them. Therefore, there should be a recognition that a genuine effort and
extended commitment should be undertaken on the part of learners to achieve the kind of conceptual shift
necessary to make the historical approach useful for learning about science.

As stated before, the very broad notion of a paradigm that Kuhn introduced prohibits direct access to the world.
All observations can only be made using ones paradigm, and for different paradigms, the same observation may
have different meanings. It, however, changes and constrains what people think and how they perceive the
world. Assumptions that had been valid and rational under the previous paradigm might suddenly appear
ridiculous, and theories used before seem unscientific.
Kuhn (1970) however, argues that those discarded theories are as scientific as the ones currently in use. They
have been derived using a similar process, just under a different paradigm. The inability of people following one
paradigm to understand a second paradigm does not make it less scientific in any way. If this were true, then
previous theories would merely be myths, and the idea that those myths can be created in a scientific fashion
seems to be a paradox. For example, the use of scientific paradigms in scientific research may also be a reason
why Africa is behind in making scientific discoveries.
The fact that there is no direct way to access the world, together with the scientists commitment to adhere to
processes that are part of their paradigm, makes it impossible to accept the other paradigm and its theories.
There is no common standard of comparison that can be used to judge both without favouring one. This is what
Kuhn means by saying two paradigms are incommensurable.

The paradigm concept and the idea of alternating phases of normal and revolutionary science that Kuhn
propagates do not agree with the more conventional idea of linear progress. He disagrees with it in several
points. Contrary to philosophers that believe in such a linear progress, Kuhn does not think it is possible to
actually pinpoint the date of a discovery, even though textbooks often do just this. He argues that textbooks
serve a pedagogic purpose and thus have to be persuasive by showing the actual history of a discovery in an
abridged fashion that makes it appear logical and intuitive. The increase in stress due to the crisis and the
eventual change to revolutionary science, however, is a gradual process not only limited to a single researcher
or group. It is, in fact, dependent on many external factors that make it impossible to specify the date of
discovery exactly.
Kuhn also objects to the general notion that advances in science bring it closer to the truth. Such an absolute
statement cannot be justified since all observations that can be made to make the current paradigm look better
than the previous one have to be made using the current paradigm; therefore, they are biased. Thus, according
to Simon (1976) the incommensurability of two paradigms prohibits any kind of comparison.

According to Kuhns philosophy, scientific research requires a paradigm. This paradigm, however, limits the ways
a person can think, making it impossible to compare two paradigms, or to make absolute statements about the
world (Kuhn, 60). Because of this, he says, it is also invalid to say science is getting closer to the truth. I find the
basics of this approach very interesting and logically appealing.
From the discussions above, the notion of incommensurability as propounded by Kuhn (1970) has led to little
meaningful development in science as the discoveries could not be easily compared by the same paradigm. On
the other hand, the notion that paradigms are incommensurable, absolutely without common comparative
standard, is too extreme. For instance, to say that there is absolutely no possibility for somebody in one
paradigm, particularly one that follows immediately, to at least partially understand the rationale behind prior
paradigm is exaggerated as it should be possible to at least understand the principles behind the other

Cohn, Dorrit (1978). Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction. Princeton:
Princeton University Press.
Kuhn, Thomas S. (1970). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 3d edition. Chicago and London: The University
of Chicago
Kuhn, Thomas S. (1992). The Trouble with the Historical Philosophy of Science. Cambridge MA: Harvard
Simon, H. (1976). From Substantive to Procedural Rationality: Method and Appraisal in Economics. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press