Kuhn’s concept of ‘incommensurability’


The term originally appeared in Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” book in 1962. He had been struggling with the word since the ’40s:

According to Kuhn, he discovered incommensurability as a graduate student in the mid to late 1940s while struggling with what appeared to be nonsensical passages in Aristotelian physics(…) He could not believe that someone as extraordinary as Aristotle could have written them. Eventually patterns in the disconcerting passages began to emerge, and then all at once, the text made sense to him: a Gestalt switch that resulted when he changed the meanings of some of the central terms. He saw this process of meaning changing as a method of historical recovery. He realized that in his earlier encounters, he had been projecting contemporary meanings back into his historical sources (Whiggish history), and that he would need to peel them away in order to remove the distortion and understand the Aristotelian system in its own right (hermeneutic history) (…) Kuhn realized that these sorts of conceptual differences indicated breaks between different modes of thought, and he suspected that such breaks must be significant both for the nature of knowledge, and for the sense in which the development of knowledge can be said to make progress.

Kuhn was influenced by the bacteriologist Ludwik Fleck who used the term to describe the differences between ‘medical thinking’ and ‘scientific thinking’ and Gestalt psychology, especially as developed by Wolfgang Köhler.

Kuhn’s original holistic characterization of incommensurability has been distinguished into two separate theses:

  • taxonomic involves conceptual change (…) no over-lap principle that precludes cross-classification of objects into different kinds within a theory’s taxonomy/ no two kind terms may overlap in their referents unless they are related as species to genus, in contrast to
  • methodological, which involves the epistemic values used to evaluate theories (…) it is the idea that there are no shared, objective standards of scientific theory appraisal, so that there are no external or neutral standards that univocally determine the comparative evaluation of competing theories



The Incommensurability of Scientific Theories, In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, first published Wed Feb 25, 2009; substantive revision Tue Mar 5, 2013, available here

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