Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962)


Kuhn was born shortly after WWI and approached intellectual maturity as WWII began in Europe. He was raised as a pacifist, but shifted positions by his sophomore year at Harvard. This transformation may have played a role in the themes of Scientific Revolutions, including conceptual anomalies leading to crisis; crisis as the impetus for change; reaction to crisis as a change of perspective; formation of “paradigms”; and exclusivity of successful paradigms. Kuhn first conceived of Scientific Revolutions as a graduate student in theoretical physics, but did not complete the work until after he wrote a book on the Copernican revolution.

SOD and EBO are competing paradigms that inform 21st Century warfare as we understand it.

- Kuhn's paradigm is much larger than either SOD or EBO. According to Kuhn, these would fall within the realm of puzzle solving. A competing paradigm would be the notion that there was no violence in war and wars were fought a la cyber space.

Thesis: Kuhn argues that science is not a steady, cumulative acquisition of knowledge. Instead, science is “a series of peaceful interludes punctuated by intellectually violent revolutions,” which he describes as “the tradition-shattering complements to the tradition-bound activity of normal science.” After such revolutions, “one conceptual world view is replaced by another.”

- Paradigm adoption => Normal science => Crisis/Anomaly => new paradigm competition => Adoption of a new paradigm (scientific revolution) => Normal science

- Paradigms – shared sets of beliefs/ideas/premises that establish models/rules for normal science

- Normal science – research; reveal nature of things; articulation – match paradigm to facts

Argument: The fundamental theme of Kuhn’s argument is that the developmental pattern of mature science is the successive transition from one paradigm to another through a process of revolution.

1. Paradigm – a collection of beliefs shared by scientists, a set of agreements about how problems are to be understood

1.1. Paradigms are essential to scientific enquiry, for “no natural history can be interpreted in the absence of at least some implicit body” of beliefs that “permit selection, evaluation, and criticism.”

2. Typical scientists are not objective and independent thinkers. They solve problems their theories dictate; they are puzzle-solvers who aim to discover what they already know in advance.

2.1. In periods of normal science, scientists attempt to bring the accepted theory and fact into closer agreement.
2.1.1. Tend to ignore findings that threaten paradigm and trigger development of another.
2.1.2. Only in periods of normal science does progress seem obvious and assured
2.1.3. Normal science evolution is characterized by an increasingly detailed and refined understanding of nature. The process is not an evolution toward a true account of nature, because all paradigms are imperfect.
2.1.4. Scientific knowledge is not purely objective. It is limited by the current paradigm that limits the range of scientific enquiry and prevents deviations from the paradigm itself. This shapes perceptions and forms underlying assumptions

3. Crises are triggered when scientists acknowledge specific instances when the paradigm fails to adequately describe nature.

4. Crises are resolved in three ways: normal science handles the problem; problem resists and is labeled, but left for future generations who will have better “tools” to solve the problem; and a paradigm war where a candidate for a new paradigm emerges.

5. Scientific revolution is a non-cumulative developmental episode in which an older paradigm is replaced in whole or part by an incompatible new one. The new paradigm cannot build on the preceding one. It can only supplant it.

Implications for Strategy

1. Many believe Kuhn’s observations on the nature of scientific advance have sufficient validity to apply them to other areas of human behavior, like strategy. One example is how crisis precedes paradigmatic change.

2. The USAF tries to utilize the objectivity of science to make decisions. It must be careful because science is not as objective as the Air Force may think .

2.1. If science is so influenced by underlying assumptions, then so much more is the rest of the world.

3. In order to overcome limitations of a paradigm it is wise to invite dissent and include a wide variety of backgrounds (inter-disciplinary thinking) in your decision process.

4. When facing problems or conflicting information, assess your underlying assumptions which may be preventing you from recognizing the best solution.

Sugar's Tips on Kuhn

During discussions, the topics of military revolutions and revolutions in military affairs may come up, with the question of how scientific revolutions affect these. Here's a quick review of the distinctions between the terms (taken from the student produced CGSC MMAS comps study guide) :

a. Military revolutions (MR)'Systemic changes in politics and society, they are uncontrollable, unpredictable, and unforeseeable. Per Murray and Knox, they “recast society and the state as well as the military organization” and “alter the capacity of states to create and project military power.” MRs discussed in class:

i. The creation in the 17th century of the modern nation-state, which rested on the large-scale organization of disciplined military power

- Adolphus Gustaphus, Sweden’s “Professional Army”

- Frederick the Great and the Limited War

ii. the French Revolution of the late 18th century, which merged politics and warfare

- armies of the people and national mobilization iii. the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century and after, which made it possible to arm, clothe, feed, pay, and move swiftly to battle the resulting masses

- The Civil War, which Churchill called “the last gentlemen’s war”

iv. WWI combined French and Industrial Revolutions and set the pattern for 20th century warfare

- Nationalism and industrialism meet attrition warfare

v. the advent of nuclear weapons, which contrary to all precedent kept the Cold War cold in the decisive European and northeast Asian theaters

- Mutual destruction ends unlimited war and reintroduces limited war through proxy states

b. Not to be confused with Revolutions in Military Affairs (RMA)', a mix of innovations that takes time to develop TTPs within the contest of politics and strategy.

i. Tactical

ii. Organizational

iii. Doctrinal

iv. Technological

RMAs render obsolete or irrelevant one or more core competencies of a dominant player, or create one or more new core competencies in a new dimension of warfare.


Nature of Paradigm Shift

Core Competency Affected

Dominant Player Affected

Carrier warfare

Created new operational and tactical-level model for naval warfare

Accurate naval gunfire battleship fleets (rendered obsolete)

Battleship fleets (U.S. and British)


Created new operational and tactical-level model for land warfare

Static defense of prepared positions by infantry and artillery (rendered irrelevant)

French army


Created new dimension of warfare (intercontinental strategic warfare)

Long-range, accurate delivery of high-yield nuclear weapons (a new core competency)

Machine gun

Created new tactical- level model for land warfare

Ability to maneuver massed infantry forces in the open (rendered obsolete)

All armies employing massed infantry forces in the open


Created new tactical- level model for land warfare

Man-to-man combat capability of knights on horseback (rendered obsolete)

French armored cavalry

One thought on scientific revolutions: As strategists, we make predictions on what the future will look like, and try to determine how we can influence the course of events it in our favor with our ways and means. Many advocates of Transformation have made assumptions that scientific innovation will continue in rates similar to what we have seen in recent modern history, to include improvements in computing, materials, information systems, miniaturization, etc. What if the rate of advance in scientific revolutions comes in fits and spurts rather than in a constant sloped increase over time? One example - the US Army embarked in FCS, its Future Combat System, assuming that certain technologies would become available within a certain timeline and programming for those rather than maintaining some "legacy" systems, to the point where in many cases factories no longer produce the parts to fix the old stuff. What happens when either the technology isn't ready on time, or the high costs of such an open procurement strategy become prohibitively high (as is currently the case - FCS is on the budget chopping block)? How do you know when the potential reward of this kind of procurement strategy is worth the risk? Guess we're about to find out with both FCS and the F-22...

One thought on technology and the nature of war - many people believe that technology changes the nature or war. Others distinguish that while the nature of war is constant (as a human activity, not a technical one), the language of war, or warfare, does change with technology. Most strategists of repute tend to side with the latter, while most people trying to sell something side with the former...

CAVEAT EMPTOR - beware anytime anyone tells you that the fundamental nature of anything has changed, or that we're experiencing something completely new that humankind has never had to deal with before. While that may be true of the specific situation, it's probably not in the broader sense of the human experience. Saying that something is unprecedented is the surest way to innoculate oneself from critisim when the lessons of the past are ignored...extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.



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