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The word paradigm comes from the Greek paradeigma : evidence, example, pattern, model, archetype. In linguistics, a paradigm provides an example of a conjugation or a declension. In philosophy, its meanings include an archetype, a standard of measurement, a typical case or suggestive example, and a dominating scientific orientation. The term paradigm is frequently used in the social sciences. In popular understanding, paradigm often simply means a collection of ideas, a cluster of theories, models or actions representing a guiding idea, or a conceptual framework.

The concept of paradigm since Thomas S. Kuhn

Thomas S. Kuhn's seminal work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) initiated intense discussions on the concept of paradigm, making the word paradigm part of the general intellectual discourse, though not always in the sense intended by Kuhn. According to one of the definitions given by Kuhn, paradigms are "universally recognized scientific achievements that for a time provide model problems and solutions to a community of practitioners" (p. x). A paradigm consists of a group of fundamental assumptions forming a shared framework that provides the scholar with instruction on what to view as issues of inquiry and how to deal with these issues. Hence, a paradigm works as a criterion for choosing problems that, as long as the paradigm is taken for granted, can be assumed to have a solution. Paradigms structure observation and define reality. Kuhn's perspective is historical: Preparadigmatic periods in science are followed by a time where a valid paradigm allows "normal science" (to use Kuhn's terminology) to take place. Under the conditions of normal science and its "strong network of commitmentsconceptual, theoretical, instrumental and methodological" (p. 42), the community of researchers concentrates on the routine activity of "puzzle-solving" without testing the paradigm itself. However, an increasing number of observed anomalies leads to a crisis and eventually to a revolution and to the establishment of a new paradigm that is incommensurable with the old one. A paradigm shift has traits of a conversion. New candidates for paradigms are often presented by young scientists or scholars who are new to the field.

Kuhn's book created enough interest to make it a classic. Criticisms targeted the vagueness of his concept of paradigm both in definition and in use, the alleged incommensurability of the old and the new paradigm, and the notion of revolution as a description of development in science. Kuhn was charged with subjectivity, irrationality and relativism. The change of paradigm, which Kuhn described as "the selection by conflict within the scientific community of the fittest way to practice future science" resulting in "an increase in articulation and specialization" (p. 172), was said to belong to the realm of the social psychology of discovery rather than to the philosophy of science because the change follows values rather than formal rules. Kuhn's overstatement of revolution at the expense of the cumulative aspects of development in science and his emphasis on the consecutive at the expense of the simultaneous were modified to allow for the coexistence and even the interaction of different paradigms. Kuhn himself specified his notion of paradigm in two ways: a broad sense, also called a disciplinary matrix, which includes all the components of scientific consensus; and a narrow sense, which denotes exemplary solutions to problems. A paradigm has both descriptive and prescriptive functions, and it implies commitment by those who work in and under it.

Kuhn's concept of paradigm both in its initial and its modified shape has contributed to a number of achievements. The concept highlighted the historical situatedness of scientific research and the role of consensus in rationality. It lifted up the interplay of scientific and nonscientific components in the development of science. It focused on the ambiguity of commitment as that which can both undercut rationality and make scientific work successful. It acknowledged the circularity of abstracting data into a paradigm that informs the selection and interpretation of new data. Thus it contributed to fostering an interest in the sociology of scientific knowledge and in the hermeneutics of holistic nonuniversalist rationality. In the philosophy of science, the concept of paradigm has been followed by alternative concepts, such as competing research programs (Imre Lakatos) and research traditions (Larry Laudan).

The concept of paradigm in science and religion

The exploration of the concept of paradigm has had an impact on the relation between science and religion. The study has broadened the concept of rationality and affirmed its complexity and contextuality. It has nourished the discussion of the translatability of various discourses. It has also inspired a process of paradigm critique that questions the self-assuring power of paradigms and calls for an examination of the role of race, gender, culture, and political and economic power in the process of forming guiding ideas. In Myths, Models, and Paradigms (1974) and Religion and Science (1997), Ian G. Barbour uses the central features of the Kuhnian paradigm to argue that some of the same spirit of inquiry found in science also applies to religion: Religious experiences depend on a paradigmatic interpretive framework, religious paradigms are highly resistant to falsification, and no univocal rules exist for the choice between religious paradigms. These analogies presuppose a flexible definition of paradigm communities and of continuities versus discontinuities in paradigm shifts. Referring to paradigms as universal phenomena that provide comprehensive contexts for interpretation, Sallie McFague demonstrated in Metaphorical Theology (1982) that metaphorical thinking is basic to human understanding of the world. In Christianity (1995) Hans Küng used the concept of macro-, meso-, and microparadigms to structure the history of Christian theology around five major paradigmsJewish Apocalyptic, Ecumenical Hellenistic, Mediaeval Roman Catholic, Protestant Evangelical, and Modern. Nancey Murphy used the Lakatosian concept in Theology in the Age of Scientific Reasoning (1990) in her contribution to the dialogue between science and religion.

In numerous areas of academic and nonacademic research, paradigm is used in a variety of ways. It is frequently spoken of in terms of new, emerging, or shifting paradigms. In the wake of a more pluralistic approach, an increasingly metaphorical use of the concept can be noted. The word paradigm has come to describe more or less well-defined bodies of knowledge or beliefs, world views, and guiding or dominant standards that are apt to change over time and that need not always be explicit. Nuances of paradigm are often value-laden: Paradigms are described both as enhancing creativity and as restricting creative thought and action.

See also Worldview


barbour, ian g. myths, models, and paradigms: a comparative study in science and religion. new york: harper and row, 1974.

gutting, gary, ed. paradigms and revolutions: appraisals and applications of thomas kuhn's philosophy of science. south bend, ind.: university of notre dame press, 1980.

kuhn, thomas s. "second thoughts on paradigms." in the structure of scientific theories, 2nd edition, ed. frederick suppe. urbana: university of illinois press, 1977.

kuhn, thomas s. the structure of scientific revolutions, 3rd edition. chicago: university of chicago press, 1996.

küng, hans. christianity: its essence and history. london: scm press, 1995.

lakatos, imre, and musgrave, alan, eds. criticism and the growth of knowledge. cambridge, uk: cambridge university press, 1970.

mcfague, sallie. metaphorical theology: models of god in religious language. philadelphia: fortress press, 1982.

murphy, nancey. theology in the age of scientific reasoning. london and ithaca, n.y.: cornell university press, 1990.

van huyssteen, j. wentzel. the shaping of rationality: toward interdisciplinarity in theology and science. grand rapids, mich.: eerdmans, 1999.

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