Kuhn's theory of scientific revolutions and cognitive psychology

Philosophical Psychology 11 (1):5 – 28 (1998)
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Abstract

In a previous article we have shown that Kuhn's theory of concepts is independently supported by recent research in cognitive psychology. In this paper we propose a cognitive re-reading of Kuhn's cyclical model of scientific revolutions: all of the important features of the model may now be seen as consequences of a more fundamental account of the nature of concepts and their dynamics. We begin by examining incommensurability, the central theme of Kuhn's theory of scientific revolutions, according to two different cognitive models of concept representation. We provide new support for Kuhn 's mature views that incommensurability can be caused by changes in only a few concepts, that even incommensurable conceptual systems can be rationally compared, and that scientific change of the most radical sort—the type labeled revolutionary in earlier studies—does not have to occur holistically and abruptly, but can be achieved by a historically more plausible accumulation of smaller changes. We go on to suggest that the parallel accounts of concepts found in Kuhn and in cognitive science lead to a new understanding of the nature of normal science, of the transition from normal science to crisis, and of scientific revolutions. The same account enables us to understand how scientific communities split to create groups supporting new paradigms, and to resolve various outstanding problems. In particular, we can identify the kind of change needed to create a revolution rather precisely. This new analysis also suggests reasons for the unidirectionality of scientific change.

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