Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, History and Philosophy of Science, Publicity

The Guardian’s #21 Best Nonfiction Book: Kuhn’s The Structure


The Guardian recently began chronicling their “100 Best Nonfiction Books of All Time.” Placing 21st on the list and profiled by Robert McCrum, Thomas S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions proves not only why it merited a new edition for its fiftieth anniversary in 2012, but also why new generations continue to find relevance in Kuhn’s concept of the “paradigm shift,” and the potential in situating the history of science in a dialectic composed of “normal” and “revolutionary” phases.

From the Guardian:

Yet, against the odds, Kuhn remains evergreen. His great insight, which owed something to Kant, but was based on his own study of the Copernican revolution, was provocatively at odds with Karl Popper (a later entry in this series). Kuhn’s description of the dialectic of change in science (the making of a paradigm; the recognition of anomalies, with an ensuing crisis; finally, the resolution of the crisis by a new paradigm) still holds true today, albeit in a radically different intellectual environment dominated by information science and biotechnology. Kuhn’s argument for an episodic model of scientific development in which periods of continuity are interrupted by passages of revolutionary science remains disputed by some, but is widely accepted within most circles. He himself has written that, “because I insist that what scientists share is not sufficient to command uniform assent about such matters as the choice between competing theories or the distinction between an ordinary anomaly and a crisis-provoking one, I am occasionally accused of glorifying subjectivity and even irrationality.”

Kuhn’s challenge to long-standing linear notions of scientific progress and his argument that transformative ideas do not spring from a gradual process of experimentation, but from eureka moments that disrupt conventional wisdom and offer unanticipated breakthroughs, were themselves a revolution. If turning a world of thought upside down is the mark of a superior paradigm, then The Structure has been, for more than half a century now, a howling success. As the Observer’s John Naughton has written: “A Google search for [the phrase paradigm shift] returns more than 10m hits.” More significantly, it scores a reference inside no fewer than 18,300 titles sold by Amazon. Kuhn’s scholarly monograph, says Naughton, is also “one of the most cited academic books of all time. If ever a big idea went viral, this is it.”

To read an excerpt from Ian Hacking’s Introduction to the 50th anniversary edition of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions published by the Los Angeles Review of Books, click here.

To read more about the book, click here.