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What Paradigm Shift? Ignorance Ain’t Bliss If You’re a Teacher

This enigmatic statement by Thomas Kuhn about what the world looks like after a paradigm shift may be found in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions:

“In a sense that I am unable to explicate further, the proponents of competing paradigms practice their trades in different worlds.”

This sentence appeared in the original version of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions published in 1962 and remained unchanged in the 1970 version. One could say that Kuhn spent much of the remainder of his life trying to find a way to convey his felt-sense that working in different paradigms meant more than using different words for the same empirical realities. I treasure this sentence for that very reason–for its acknowledgment that the life of the mind is carried out in the space between a desire to know and an inability to put one’s thoughts into words.


Let’s return to these two responses to the assertion that the advent of Web 2.0 marks a paradigm shift in human communication:

  • It’s not a paradigm shift because I can ignore it.
  • Whether it’s a paradigm shift or not is academic; those of us who teach in the humanities need not be distracted by changes in what is, essentially, simply an improved delivery system.

For my purposes, Kuhn’s strongest, most compelling example of a paradigm shift is the move from the Ptolemaic earth-centered universe to the Copernican, helio-centric universe. Astronomers working under the earth-centered paradigm bent their model every which way to keep Man at the center and the unchanging celestial sphere at bay. And this model, which came to include circles revolving on circles around an unoccupied center, held well into the 16th century.

And why not? I wake this morning and like every clear morning, the sun rises up over the horizon, filling my apartment with light. Over the course of the year, where the sun rises on the horizon changes: right now, as we head into winter, it’s heading south, rising further and further down the horizon, cutting a shallower and shallower arc across the sky, producing shorter days and longer nights.

Sunrise in New Brunswick, 2010, a couple of days apart.

The sun’s moving, not me.

Sure the measurement system is crude, but that’s the point. I don’t have the camera at exactly the same place and exactly the same time, but this event is happening on such a grand scale that even the most casual of observers can verify the general motion of the sun in one direction heading into winter and in the other direction heading into fall.

Keep looking at the event with the naked eye and you’ll never generate a new insight into the organization of the universe: all you can do is generate better and better tools for measuring where the sun is relative to the horizon and where the planets are relative to the revolving, unchanging heavens at night. And sure enough, over time, the measurements got as good as they could get, given the limits of the human eye and the fineness of the marks on the astrolabes.


I should stress that the pictures above were taken after the Copernican Revolution. Neither the sun nor my eyes have any opinion about how humans make sense of their place in the cosmos: the sun still appears to rise in the East and, as far as my eyes are concerned, it doesn’t appear to do so; the sun does, in fact, rise in the East.

Why do I stress this obvious point?

To underscore something equally obvious, but insufficiently considered by those who discount the transformative significance of the Web 2.0 paradigm shift for educators on the grounds that this technological development can be ignored:

Save for a relatively small group of people–namely astronomers, astrophysicists, and those who are intimately involved in the space industry–whether the Sun goes around the Earth or the Earth goes around the Sun is a matter of absolutely no practical importance.

And, indeed, as was pointed out to me during one of my talks, for those who sail, successful navigation is entirely dependent upon persisting in the fiction that the earth is fixed and the sun moving!

So, in answer to the question, can the scientific aspects of a paradigm shift in how the cosmos is modeled be ignored, one can only say, “Uh, yeah.”


Can the economic, social, cultural, political, moral, philosophical, metaphysical, medical, technological, environmental, educational, and religious consequences of the cosmological paradigm shift also be ignored?

That’s just the teensiest bit harder to do.


Humanists who wish to ignore the significance of the advent of Web 2.0 will no doubt be inspired by this example of ignorance’s longevity:

It was in 1633 that the Vatican tried Galileo for heresy because of his insistence that earth revolved around the sun–an insistence born out of his use of the newly invented telescope to observe the heavens. There was stuff going on up there that just couldn’t be seen with the naked eye: the sun wasn’t stationary: it rotated; its surface wasn’t perfect: it was marked by spots and its orb ruptured by explosions. It was all very exciting, really.

But, not so amusing for the Inquisition, which convicted Galileo of heresy, commuted his sentence of imprisonment to indefinite house arrest, banned his scathing critique of the geocentric system and all future writings.

Nearly 400 years later, in 1992, Pope John Paul stated publicly that the Catholic Church had erred in its treatment of Galileo.

So, how long can it take an established institution refuse to acknowledge a paradigm shift?

One measure starts the stopwatch with the publication of the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems in 1632 and stops it with the declaration of plans to install a statue of Galileo in the Vatican in 2008. Another measure just leaves the stopwatch running, given the January 2009 announcement that plans for the statue have been abandoned, with the funds intended for the statue diverted to an educational institution in Nigeria, where they will be used to foster a better understanding of the “relationship between science and religion,” according to a church official.

How long can a paradigm shift be ignored?

In practical terms, maybe forever.


Next: We’re All Galileo.


N.B. Though this entry can be read on its own, it is a continuation of an entry that began here: What is a Paradigm Shift?

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides a succinct account of the significance of this passage, relative to Kuhn’s evolving understanding of the relationship between perception and phenomena here. (Fantastic that this invaluable resource is free and open to all.)

The closing example of Galileo’s statue is a revised version of an example that appears in my essay, “The Coming Apocalypse” which, sadly, is firewalled here. If you’d like a copy for personal use, drop me a line. I’m at work trying to have it made available via creative commons.

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