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Glossary of Literary Theory
by Greig E. Henderson and Christopher Brown

Paradigm / paradigmatic:

The former is a term used by Thomas Kuhn to describe the dominant ontological model that enjoys hegemony in a scientific community at a given historical moment. According to Kuhn, a paradigm is either a particular conceptual model, theory, or mode of explanation, or it is "the entire constellation of beliefs, values, techniques, and so on shared by the members of a given community." Paradigms, then, are "universally recognized scientific achievements that for a time provide model problems and solutions to a community of practitioners." They are the "accepted examples of actual scientific practice -- examples which include law, theory, application and instrumentation together -- [and] provide models from which spring particular coherent traditions of scientific research." Kuhn's enterprise is to trace the historical succession of scientific paradigms, thereby discovering the structure of scientific revolutions. His surprising conclusion is that although he does not doubt that "Newton's mechanics improves on Aristotle's and that Einstein's improves on Newton's as instruments for puzzle-solving," he can see "no coherent direction of ontological development." According to him, it is mistaken to believe that in science changes in paradigm carry us closer and closer to the objective truth. There is, he contends, "no theory-independent way to reconstruct phrases like 'really there'; the notion of a match between the ontology of a theory and its 'real' counterpart in nature now seems . . . illusive in principle."

In structuralist parlance, Kuhn sees paradigm shifts as the substitution of one synchronic whole for another. Structuralists, however, use the term "paradigmatic" to refer to the vertical axis of language, the relations between an individual word in a sentence and other, similar words that might be substituted for it. The two uses of the term are thus dissimilar, though it is true that both privilege the synchronic over the diachronic. (See also Linguistics and literary theory, Structuralism.)


© Greig E. Henderson and Christopher Brown,
University of Toronto
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University of Toronto English Library
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Last modified: March 31, 1997