Paradigm

Foundations can hardly bear primary blame for the relentless spread of this muddy word, which by now has oozed all over the vocabulary of the social and natural sciences, philosophy, art criticism, business management, and just about everything else.

Its popularity has grown in direct proportion to the watering down of its meaning, which was never exactly concrete to start with, and has grown thinner with every new use. By now the word is indistinguishable from more honest (if less thrillingly Greek) terms like “pattern,” “structure,” “formula,” or “model.”

Philosophers may still retain some rigor in their use of PARADIGM. It was their laboratory, after all, from which the word first escaped, never to be recaptured. T.S. Kuhn gave it a seemingly permanent mystique in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, when he used it to describe the web of accepted theories through which scientists normally regard their subject. By Kuhn’s definition, a paradigm is the set of inherited preconceptions, the “glass darkly” through which even the most scrupulous inquirer habitually views the world. When someone shatters the glass-as Einstein did with his theory of relativity, for example-everyone is forced to ask questions differently, and to view the challenges of science and philosophy in a new way. Presto: a PARADIGM SHIFT.

It must have been obvious from the start that this word, thus invested with so spectacular a meaning, would be purloined by everyone with a plan destined to change the world. Nowadays we have a “welfare paradigm,” a “hospital paradigm,” the versatile “12-step paradigm,” “urban paradigms” of various shapes and colors, and “market paradigms” too numerous to reckon. All of them, according to some observer or other, urgently need to shift.

These metaphors and models and what-have-you are all related to Kuhn’s original idea, no doubt-the kinds of poor, distant cousins who show up in Dickens or Balzac novels demanding bed and board. But any kinship with Kuhn is so tenuous, and the relevance of the fancy word is so diluted, that most uses of PARADIGM today are mere posturing, intended to flatter the user more than to inform the reader.

In some people’s view (we claim no license to judge), Kuhn wasn’t being all that precise himself. “The notion of paradigm,” writes science historian Roy Porter in The Harper Dictionary of Modern Thought, “was too vague. The term seemed to be used to describe both whole sciences and individual concepts within them.” Yet whatever its original shortcomings, Kuhn’s idea was a dazzle of clarity compared with the uses the word has been put to in modern public policy and philanthropy.

Because people in those fields often hope to change inherited ideas, practically anything they touch turns to paradigms. In attacking the “insurance paradigm” behind Social Security, for example, a foundation writer apparently rejected the more accurate words “analogy” or “model” in favor of something that sounded more perfectly destined to shift. By borrowing Kuhn’s word, the writer may also have hoped to dress up a simple reform plan as a scientific revolution.

Similarly, by decrying the “educational paradigm” behind employment training, a writer seemed to be arguing simply that such training should not be done by schools, or in classrooms. Seeking a “new leadership paradigm,” a foundation trade group probably just wanted to find new forms of leadership, or new management styles. Both phrases provided a thunder of gravitas, yet neither meant anything special.

Still, it must be said that in none of these cases was the word wrongly used. Its general definition, apart from any special uses in philosophy, is so vague that it applies to almost anything. The Greek roots are simply the prefix para, for “alongside,” affixed to the root deik, for “show” or “teach.” Anything that’s explained or taught with reference to anything else probably fits the basic concept.

Small wonder that little or no clarity has come from that morass. For anyone genuinely intent on a scientific revolution, Rule No. 1 might be: Find a more concrete word with which to state your case, and shift away from PARADIGM.

Leave a Reply