Shift Happens

It’s safe to say that if you showed the average American the photo above, you’d stump the majority on being able to identify who he is.  Even if you gave away his identify as Thomas Kuhn, you’d be more likely to get a knowing nod if you name-dropped Bowie Kuhn, the former Commissioner of Baseball.

This year is rife with 50th anniversary acknowledgements of many cultural phenomena from 1962 such as iconic music from The Beatles and Stones; the death of Marilyn Monroe featuring the Kennedys and FBI; America’s first manned orbital flight featuring John Glenn; awarding of the Nobel Prize to Watson and Crick showcasing DNA; and … the publication of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  Celebrated by The Chronicle of Higher Education as Shift Happens, Kuhn’s major contribution was the notion of paradigm shift, a potentially hackneyed phrase that I’ve been as guilty as anyone in overusing.

In his introductory essay to the paperback 50th anniversary of “Structures”, all friends being referred to by first name only, Ian Hacking references The Essential Tension – a series of philosophical discourses on science, research, and revolutions given around the same time as Kuhn was writing Structure.  I rather like the term, essential tension, as capturing the flavor of much of what goes on in the course of our lives as optometric clinicians specializing in vision therapy and, frankly, in the lives of our patients and their families.  Hacking points out that Kuhn conferred the term paradigms not on any ol’ set of notable achievements, but that these achievements must share two characteristics:

1) They are sufficiently unprecedented to attract an enduring group of adherents away from what has been going on and 2) They are open-ended, with plenty of problems for the redefined group of practitioners to resolve.

It is amazing to realize that Structure was first published as volume 2, number 2 of the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, published by the University of Chicago Press.  The Encyclopedia was part of a project begun by Otto Neurath and fellow members of the Vienna Circle, who moved from Europe to Chicago to escape Nazism.

In re-reading Structures there is so much that still rings true today.  Kuhn writes that in the mature sciences, the questions that we ask are firmly embedded in the educational initiation that prepares and licenses the student for professional practice.  Because that education is both rigorous and rigid, these answers come to exert a deep hold on the scientific mind.  Research is therefore often a strenuous and devoted attempt to force nature into the conceptual boxes supplied by professional education.  Kuhn notes: “Simultaneously, we shall wonder whether research could proceed without such boxes, whatever the element of arbitrariness in their historic origins and, occasionally, in their subsequent development.”

Some have ascribed the origin of the term “thinking outside the box” to an actual box, noting that its hackneyed usage has rendered it almost meaningless.  Not nearly as trite as “Oh My God”, there is still utility in Kuhn’s point that thinking outside the box is impossible unless we have a box that grounds us.  The box in essence is what the paradigm shifts away from, and ultimately another box is created that we embrace until others come along who will, of course, think outside it.  This has become the cycle of disruptive innovation, common now to all enterprises, making Kuhn more relevant than ever.  As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of our youth, many things have changed, but The Stones, Monroe, Crick and Kuhn remain timeless.  After all, shift happens.


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