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For alternative meanings see Paradigm (disambiguation).

Since the late 1800s, the word paradigm (IPA: /pæɹɘdaɪm/) has referred to a thought pattern in any scientific discipline or other epistemological context. Initially the word was specific to grammar: the 1900 Merriam-Webster dictionary defines its technical use only in the context of grammar or, in rhetoric, as a term for an illustrative parable or fable. Also, in linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure used paradigm to refer to a class of elements with similarities.

Philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn gave this word its contemporary meaning when he adopted it to refer to the set of practices that define a scientific discipline during a particular period of time. Kuhn's meaning was and is widely abused. Kuhn himself came to prefer the terms exemplar and normal science, which have more exact philosophical meaning. However, in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Kuhn defines a scientific paradigm as:

  • what is to be observed and scrutinized,
  • the kind of questions that are supposed to be asked and probed for answers in relation to this subject,
  • how these questions are to be put,
  • how the results of scientific investigations should be interpreted.

The more disparaging term groupthink, and the term mindset, have very similar meanings that apply to smaller and larger scale examples of disciplined thought. Michel Foucault used the terms episteme and discourse, mathesis and taxinomia, for aspects of a "paradigm" in Kuhn's original sense.

See also: paradigm shift, sociology of knowledge and philosophy of science, where these words are placed in context.

Paradigm shifts

Paradigm shifts tend to be most dramatic where they are least expected, as in Physics. At the end of the 19th century, physics seemed to be a discipline filling in the last few details of a largely worked-out system. In 1900, Lord Kelvin famously stated, "There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement." Five years later, Albert Einstein published his paper on special relativity, which challenged the very simple set of rules laid down by Newtonian mechanics, which had been used to describe force and motion for over three hundred years. In this case, the new paradigms reduces the old to a special case (Newtonian mechanics is an excellent approximation for speeds that are slow compared to the speed of light).

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn wrote that "Successive transition from one paradigm to another via revolution is the usual developmental pattern of mature science." (p.12) Kuhn's idea was itself revolutionary in its time, as it caused a major change in the way that academics talk about science. Thus, it caused or was itself part of a "paradigm shift" in the history and sociology of science.

Philosophers and historians of science, including Kuhn himself, ultimately accepted a modified version of Kuhn's model, which synthesizes his original view with the gradualist model that preceded it. Kuhn's original model is now generally seen as too limited. Where Kuhn originally believed that there can be only one paradigm at a time, decades of academic discussion have made it clear that this is not the case.

Other uses

Probably the most common use of the word paradigm is in the sense of Weltanschauung. For example, in social science, the term is used to describe the set of experiences, beliefs and values that affect the way an individual perceives reality and responds to that perception. Social scientists have adopted the Kuhnian phrase "paradigm shift" to denote a particular social phenomenon rather than what was originally meant by Kuhn's study on the practices and development of science. Even occultists, notably chaos magicians, use the term to describe a shift in personal belief systems concerning magic (magic theory).

The word paradigm is also still used to indicate a pattern or model ( or an outstandingly clear or typical example or archetype ( The term is frequently used in this sense in the design professions. Design Paradigms or archetypes, comprise functional precedents for design solutions. The best known references on design paradigms are Design Paradigms: A Sourcebook for Creative Visualization, by Wake, and Design Paradigms by Petroski.

This term is also used in cybernetics. Here it means (in a very wide sense) a (conceptual) protoprogramme for reducing the chaotic mass to some form of order. Note the similarities to the concept of entropy in chemistry and physics. A paradigm there would be a sort of prohibition to proceed with any action that would increase the total entropy of the system. In order to create a paradigm, a closed system which would accept any changes is required. Thus a paradigm can be only applied to a system that is not in its final stage.

Some language purists feel that among "business philosophers" and advocates of any type of change whatsoever, the term paradigm is widely abused and in that context bears no meaning whatsoever.


The word paradigm comes from the Greek word παράδειγμα (paradeigma) which means "pattern" or "example", from the word παραδεικνύναι (paradeiknunai) meaning "demonstrate".


  • Paradigm "is a word too often used by those who would like to have a new idea but cannot think of one."
    Mervyn King, then–Deputy Governor, Bank of England


  • Clarke, Thomas and Clegg, Stewart (eds) (2000) "Changing Paradigms" London: HarperCollins ISBN 0006387314

See also

bg:Парадигма cs:Paradigma da:Paradigme de:Paradigma fr:Paradigme he:פרדיגמה nl:Paradigma ja:パラダイム no:Paradigme pl:Paradygmat (nauka) ru:Парадигма sl:Paradigma fi:Paradigma sv:Paradigm vi:Mẫu hình tr:Paradigma uk:Парадигма