Thomas Kuhn and the Art Science Paradigm

“For many centuries, both in antiquity and again in early modern Europe, painting was regarded as the cumulative discipline. During those years the artist’s goal was assumed to be representation. Critics and historians, like Pliny and Vasari, then recorded with veneration the series of inventions from foreshortening through chiaroscuro that had made possible successively more perfect representations of nature. But those are also the years, particularly during the Renaissance, when little cleavage was felt between the sciences and the arts.” –from Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions


Digital painting of Thomas Kuhn in a grey suit and blue shirt.
Thomas Kuhn is a modern enough philosopher that I had to go to Wikimedia to find this Creative Commons digital painting by Davi.trip to use!


As part of my endless quest to merge the arts/humanities and the sciences, I have taken another dive into the philosophy of science. I was first exposed to this world during my undergraduate degree. I took an introductory course in scientific philosophy that was , quite honestly, dead boring… but it featured a fabulous reading list! I’ve since let philosophy, particularly that of science, flow in and out of my life. I never got a degree in it, but that’s never stopped me from studying something I love! Now that I have access to the University of Edinburgh’s quaint philosophy library, I’m enjoying returning to some of these texts and wriggling around in falsifiability and paradigm shifts.

The quote above positively leaped out at me from the page, but before I can properly explain what was so compelling about it, I need to describe a bit of Kuhn’s philosophy of scientific revolution.

Thomas Kuhn defined the modern term paradigm. The word has its origin in the Greek paradigma, meaning pattern, example, or sample. In the philosophy of science, it refers to a set of practices and beliefs common to a discipline at any given moment in history. For example, for centuries the Earth was thought to be the center of the universe, with stars and planets revolving around us. This was the Ptolemaic system after the Greek astronomer Ptolemy.  This is otherwise known a geocentric (Earth-centered) model of the universe. Until Nicolaus Copernicus’ heliocentric (sun-centered) model was accepted many years after his death, scientists largely agreed that the Earth was the center of everything. They were operating under a certain paradigm.

Antique drawing of the Earth with stars and planets orbiting around it.
The geocentric universe! A popular subject for old astronomical engravings.

Nowadays, we know that a geocentric universe is flat out inaccurate, but to early scientists without sophisticated tools, it was a perfectly effective answer to many questions, such as how the sun, moon, and stars appeared to slowly move through the sky. It also provided a set of acceptable questions, like how fast these objects move or where they’re positioned relative to the Earth and to each other. This is another important feature of a scientific paradigm. It is more than just the sum total of known information, it’s a pattern thinking that includes knowledge, beliefs, questions, and possible answers.

Over time, paradigms start to accumulate anomalies, or findings that can’t be explained under that system. As anomalies pile up, paradigms undergo crises, or periods where the observations just don’t match the paradigm. Older scientists operating in that paradigm insist the paradigm must be right, and younger scientists begin to crave new answers to this contradictory data. Eventually, one or a series of breakthroughs results in a paradigm shift, when a new system of thought takes over.

This is the cycle of scientific revolution, and it has repeated through the history of science. Newtonian mechanics adequately explained nearly all observations in physics in the 18th century, but as we later started exploring physics at higher velocities, larger mass, and greater distances, anomalies accumulated, until Albert Einstein proposed his theories of special and general relativity, effectively shifting the paradigm in the direction of modern physics.

Large spiral galaxy floating next to smaller spiral galaxy in space.
When we took physics to space, the paradigm of Newtonian physics began to fail! Image from the Hubble Space Telescope.

Similar paradigm-shifting discoveries were the theory evolution developed by Charles Darwin, Lavoisier’s theory of chemical reactions replacing the phlogiston theory of chemistry, and the acceptance of the theory of plate tectonics. These revolutions often took place years after the scientists involved have died, because scientists are reluctant to throw out the old paradigm. But eventually, the change is made, and scientists pursue new questions.

An important feature of scientific revolutions that Kuhn emphasizes is that they are not merely a matter of people realizing they were wrong. On the contrary, each paradigm organically emerges as the best possible way to explain the natural world with the available tools and practices. Aristotelian physicists were no more wrong about physics than Newton. Rather, scientists from each period in history were using the best knowledge available. Paradigms are not information; they are broad collections of understandings that shape cultures and worldviews.

So, to return to that quote from above…This is from the very last section of the book, after he has already explained every I describe in the last five paragraphs. Kuhn doesn’t devote much energy to connecting science and art other than here, but what he does provide ample food for thought.

What paradigm are we in right now in terms of art and science? What are the acceptable connections? What are the acceptable practices? During the Renaissance, as Kuhn describes, visual art was far closer to what we consider a science today. There were well-defined goals for the practice, and techniques themselves were being invented and discovered just like different technologies and theories. This seems to be less true in the modern era, but is it? There continue to be scientific-style developments in the visual arts: New ways of rendering objects in computer graphics, photographic technology, and alternative ways of presenting visual information like virtual and augmented reality.

What seems to have changed is the pattern of thinking surrounding these discoveries. The infamous art/science divide is nothing more than a paradigm constructed culturally, largely through the economics of funding certain activities (where the arts frequently suffer compared to the sciences) and the increased need for specialization as the tools of both art and science become more sophisticated. In past years, the paradigm was different. Art and science were considered more closely together.

With the ample connections between art and science being observed by people like me, as well as put on display in scientific engagement contexts, we may be in the midst of a shift in paradigm. Science and art are returning to their related cultural state. But the important fact is that they were never actually so separated. The plates of the Earth still moved before plate tectonics was accepted. Though scientists positing other theories were not wrong according to Kuhn, this doesn’t change that there are underlying features of the world hidden beneath any given paradigm.

To (perhaps erroneously) extend this analogy to science and art, this means that regardless of the pattern of thought surrounding these practices, they have always and will continue to have substantial overlap. The terms “science” and “art,” as well as the alleged division, are human inventions. A mere paradigm.

And that is very comforting to me.

I love philosophy. It’s good to be back.


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