Paradigm Shift + Thinking outside of the box = Death of a Salesman

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    Huh? What does Arthur Miller have to do with paradigm shift? – Marthaª Mar 8 '11 at 19:01
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    Common sales jargon-speak thrown in just for fun - worth at least a pair a dimes – user5531 Mar 8 '11 at 19:07
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    That pun is so bad it's not even worth a thwack. You should be ashamed of yourself. Hmph. – Marthaª Mar 9 '11 at 0:45

This term became current with Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962): if you Google "paradigm shift was first used", all results confirm that it was first used in that work. He described the same concept in his earlier work The Copernican Revolution (1957), but apparently he didn't use the term paradigm shift there. It may have existed before Kuhn, but all sources seem to suggest that it did not.

  • It might actually occur in Kuhn's earlier book The Copernican Revolution – Seamus Mar 8 '11 at 19:11
  • @Seamus: You're right. I will edit my answer. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Mar 8 '11 at 19:19
  • Actually, "paradigm" doesn't appear in the index for The Copernican Revolution and a quick google books search doesn't find any mentions. Sorry. False alarm! – Seamus Mar 9 '11 at 11:24
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    Also, OED has its first mention as p.66 of Structure – Seamus Mar 9 '11 at 11:25
  • @Seamus: Yeah I have researched it a bit more, and it appears he first used the term (though not the subject) in Structure. I have edited my answer again. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Mar 9 '11 at 17:38

See below what Google ngrams finds. The roughness near the turn of the century seems to be the result of a bug or incorrect data, though.

  • I was going to suggest that Joel Barker might be responsible for the spike in common usage of the term (as his website suggests), but the top graph shows the growth starting at least a decade before Joel started selling his video to the corporate world. – oosterwal Mar 9 '11 at 2:40
  • @oosterwal I have no idea who Joel Barker is. Is that an example for its usage in marketing speak? – artistoex Mar 9 '11 at 9:23
  • @artistoex: Joel Barker makes motivational videos for Corporate HR departments. I first saw his video, The Business of Paradigms during a company department meeting in the early '90s. It was something of a 'viral video' before the internet, and video sharing, went mainstream. The Skeptic's Dictionary credits Barker for first using 'Paradigm' and 'Paradigm Shift' in association with 'retroactive clairvoyance'. He may have had an impact on its use in marketing speak, but the top graph shows that the term was gaining usage before his video (1986.) – oosterwal Mar 9 '11 at 13:54
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    Google n-grams seems to find those ripples near the turn of the century for everything. It's just a bug; it's unlikely there are actually a greater number of sources in that time period. (Try the search links below the graph.) – ShreevatsaR Mar 9 '11 at 17:34
  • I think the turn of the century ripple is due to texts that are inexactly dated: it probably records everything dated "early 20th century" as 1901, or something. – JPmiaou Mar 9 '11 at 17:46

Yes, Kuhn's writings first mention the idea of paradigm shifts. Somewhere in the Structure of Scientific Revolutions he thanks one of his colleagues at UCal Berkley for introducing him to Wittgenstein. He also talks explicitly about Wittgenstein in the beginning of the book--that is, later Wittgenstein. It is clear that Wittgenstein's On Certainty is going in the direction of paradigm shifts--i.e. assumptions that are treated as facts. But I'd also check out Koyré's From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe--I'm pretty sure Kuhn mentions Koyré in the preface to SSR. Although the term paradigm shift wasn't used before Kuhn, the general idea isn't new (I'm thinking of Hume, Kant to an extent, even Protagoras--at least as presented in Plato's Theaetetus). --Hope this helps. I'd definitely recommend reading some of these books esp. later Wittgenstein.

  • Right, you could very well say that Hume presented a paradigm shift. I think he just didn't consider paradigm shifts on a meta-level as Kuhn did. That is, he may have mentioned that we were stuck with wrong ideas about causality, but I don't remember his musing about the general nature of such shifts in ideas. He might have in some less-well-known paragraph, though. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Mar 8 '11 at 23:07
  • That seems right. Though, I was thinking about probability for Hume and assumption for Kant as early examples of a sort of worldview, or perspective, shift (both Hume and Kant were investigating the same thing, but Hume knew not to go too far). Obviously, Koyré pressed the perspective shift before Kuhn, and it seems that Kuhn's paradigm shift owes much to Koyré and Wittgenstein. – Jon Mar 9 '11 at 1:39
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    Yeah the history of philosophy is like a living and ageing organism, whose different stages usually develop in gradual steps (though I don't believe it can die or end, as Hegel held). – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Mar 9 '11 at 1:48
  • --Even Kojève believed in a absolute system of philosophy. But it's unclear exactly how dogmatic of a Hegelian he was, as his Outline of a Phenomenology of Right strays a bit from traditional Hegelianism. His friendship with Koyré (and for different reasons Leo Strauss) is rather interesting. But yeah, I would agree that any sort of absolute system of knowledge is nonsensical and is only a product of fact-fudging and dogmatic ignorance--I think it was Bertrand Russel who essentially said as much about Hegel's Philosophy of History. --Too bad that philosophy can't get past Plato. – Jon Mar 9 '11 at 20:53
  • @Jon: Right, but we philosophers can! I do feel Plato messed up philosophy a bit. It is remarkable that a man like Epicurus emerged from the Academic traditions of transcendentalist Plato and teleologist Aristotle. But he probably owed much to Democritus. Plato is an excellent writer, but too impractical a thinker for my taste. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Mar 11 '11 at 13:51

"Paradigm" is a Latin transliteration of the Greek "παράδειγμα", which in current Greek means example, but, in ancient and pre-modern Greek can also mean "general template" or "framework". Plato used the word "παράδειγμα" among many other words, including "ιδέα" (idea) and "μορφή" (form) to describe his General Theory Of The Forms, which used to be called General Theory Of Ideas in past usage of English. It makes perfect sense for Thomas Samuel Kuhn, a scholar and thinker very much at home in physics as well as Greek philosophy, to have picked up "παράδειγμα" from Plato.


As the NOAD reports, the origin of paradigm shift is 1970s; the dictionary reports the term was used in the writings of Thomas S. Kuhn.
The Collins English Dictionary reports that the origin of the word is the 20th century, and that the term was coined by "T.S. Kuhn (1922-1996), US philosopher of science".

As additional information, the first sentence containing "paradigm shift" reported from the Corpus of Historical American is dated 1980-1989.


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    @kiamlaluno I believe the OED's policy is to report the first documented use of the word. But only for words that are actually in use. So in 1962 the OED wouldn't have had an entry for paradigm shift, even though it had been used. But once it was in wide use, then its origin dates back to its first use. This is surely the only way to do things. How would you adjudicate when a word came into "widespread use"? – Seamus Mar 9 '11 at 17:20
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    @kiamlaluno As someone who has studied philosophy of science I know that Kuhn uses "paradigm shift" in Structure of Scientific Revolutions so I know the phrases dates back to at least 1962. I'm not basing my knowledge on what the OED says: I'm basing it on weeks spent reading Kuhn and about Kuhn. Corroboration from google books – Seamus Mar 9 '11 at 18:30
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    @kiamlaluno The OED I looked at rightly points at Kuhn (1962) as the origin. What do you think origin means? It certainly doesn't mean "the point at which something became widely used". As I said before, I believe it is typical for dictionaries to try and find the first documented use of a word. This fits with my understanding of what "origin" means. – Seamus Mar 9 '11 at 18:58
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    @Seamus: I believe that the Oxford Dictionaries reports the sentence I have written before. Just to state it, what I reported in my answer is not what I believe to be true, but what reported by a dictionary. – kiamlaluno Mar 9 '11 at 19:18
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    @kiamlaluno I don't. Because it looks like in this instance they are wrong. And therefore I think your answer is wrong. – Seamus Mar 10 '11 at 13:36

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