Foundations Of Cognitive Science


The Oxford English Dictionary defines a paradigm simply as an "example or pattern". Within the scientific community however, the notion of paradigm is a far more significant issue. It typically defines what a given individual is willing to accept of his or her field, and how they perform their own work within it---whether they are conscious of it or not. It is here in fact that the more formal concept of a paradigm is realized.

Chalmers (1999), in a discussion of Kuhn's (1970) writings about scientific revolutions, loosely characterizes it as a framework of beliefs and standard which defines legitimate work within the science for which it applies. He states further that defining "paradigm" rigorously is inherently problematic. He does however offer some suggestions for what, at least in part, characterizes a paradigm; although worded with science in mind, some of these can be seen to apply to the concept of a paradigm in general.

A paradigm (from Chalmers (1999)):

  • is composed of "explicitly stated laws and theoretical assumptions".
  • includes "standard ways of applying the fundamental laws to a variety of types of situations".
  • possess "instrumentation and instrumental techniques necessary for bringing the laws of the paradigm to bear on the real world".
  • "consists of some very general, metaphysical principles that guide work within the paradigm".
  • "contains some very general methodological prescriptions".
Much animated debate occurs regarding what constitutes a shift of paradigm, and what does not. Kuhn writes that in the face of a scientific revolution, the "new" world-view is virtually incompatible with that which it replaced [3]. Bohm and Peat (2000) characterize this interpretation as overly restrictive. They suggest that it introduces significant fragmentation within the growth process of the scientific endeavour. I interpret this as a more reasoned attitude, as there is more potential for benefit than harm in the co-existence of (even contradictory) paradigms. I would argue in fact that this is more the norm than Kuhn seemed to feel was the case.


  1. Bohm, D., & Peat, F. D. (2000). Science, order, and creativity (2nd ed.). London ; New York: Routledge.
  2. Chalmers, A. F. (1999). What is this thing called science? (3rd ed.). Indianapolis: Hackett Pub.
  3. Kuhn, T. S. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions, second edition, enlarged. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

(Revised October 2010)