The word paradigm (Greek:παράδειγμα (paradigma),composite from para- and the verb δείχνυμι "to show", as a whole -roughly- meaning "example") has been used in linguistics and science to describe distinct concepts.
To the 1960s, the word was specific to grammar: the 1900 Merriam-Webster dictionary defines its technical use only in the context of grammar or, in rhetoric, as a term for an illustrative parable or fable. In linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure used paradigm to refer to a class of elements with similarities.
From the 1960s, the word has referred to thought pattern in any scientific discipline or other epistemological context. The Merriam-Webster Online dictionary defines this usage as "a philosophical and theoretical framework of a scientific school or discipline within which theories, laws, and generalizations and the experiments performed in support of them are formulated; broadly : a philosophical or theoretical framework of any kind.
Historian of science Thomas Kuhn gave the word paradigm its contemporary meaning when he adopted it to refer to the set of practices that define a scientific discipline during a particular period of time. Kuhn himself came to prefer the terms exemplar and normal science, which have more exact philosophical meanings. However, in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Kuhn defines a scientific paradigm as:
Alternatively, the Oxford English Dictionary defines paradigm as "a pattern or model, an exemplar." Thus an additional component of Kuhn's definition of paradigm is:
Thus, within normal science, the paradigm is the set of exemplary experiments that are likely to be copied or emulated. The prevailing paradigm often represents a more specific way of viewing reality, or limitations on acceptable programs for future research, than the much more general scientific method.
An example of a currently accepted paradigm would be the standard model of physics. The scientific method would allow for orthodox scientific investigations of many phenomena which might contradict or disprove the standard model; however grant funding would be more difficult to obtain for such experiments, in proportion to the amount of departure from accepted standard model theory which the experiment would test for. For example, an experiment to test for the mass of the neutrino or decay of the proton (small departures from the model) would be more likely to receive money than experiments to look for the violation of the conservation of momentum, or ways to engineer reverse time travel.
One important aspect of Kuhn's paradigms is that the paradigms are incommensurable, which means that two paradigms can not be compared to each other. A new paradigm which replaces an old paradigm is not necessarily better, because the criteria of judgement depend on the paradigm.
A more disparaging term groupthink, and the term mindset, have very similar meanings that apply to smaller and larger scale examples of disciplined thought. Michel Foucault used the terms episteme and discourse, mathesis and taxinomia, for aspects of a "paradigm" in Kuhn's original sense.
Simple common analogy: A simplified analogy for paradigm is a habit of reasoning or, the box in the commonly used phrase "thinking outside the box". Thinking inside the box is analogous with normal science. The box encompasses the thinking of normal science and thus the box is analogous with paradigm. "Thinking outside the box" would be what Kuhn calls revolutionary science. Revolutionary science is usually unsuccessful, and only rarely leads to new paradigms. When they are successful they lead to large scale changes in the scientific worldview.
Philosophers and historians of science, including Kuhn himself, ultimately accepted a modified version of Kuhn's model, which synthesizes his original view with the gradualist model that preceded it. Kuhn's original model is now generally seen as too limited. Making it almost seem like a parallel universe.
Kuhn himself did not consider the concept of paradigm as appropriate for the social sciences. He explains in his preface to "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" that he concocted the concept of paradigm precisely in order to distinguish the social from the natural sciences (p.x). He wrote this book at the Palo Alto Center for Scholars, surrounded by social scientists, when he observed that they were never in agreement on theories or concepts. He explains that he wrote this book precisely to show that there are no, nor can be, any paradigms in the social sciences. Mattei Dogan, a French sociologist, in his article "Paradigms in the [Social Sciences]," develops Kuhn's original thesis that there are no paradigms at all in the social sciences since the concepts are polysemic, the deliberate mutual ignorance between scholars and the proliferation of schools in these disciplines. Dogan provides many examples of the inexistance of paradigms in the social sciences in his essay, particularly in sociology, political science and political anthropology.
In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn wrote that "Successive transition from one paradigm to another via revolution is the usual developmental pattern of mature science." (p.12)
Kuhn's idea was itself revolutionary in its time, as it caused a major change in the way that academics talk about science. Thus, it could be argued that it caused or was itself part of a "paradigm shift" in the history and sociology of science. However, Kuhn would not recognise such a paradigm shift. Being in the social sciences, people can still use earlier ideas to discuss the history of science.
Perhaps the greatest barrier to a paradigm shift, in some cases, is the reality of paradigm paralysis, the inability or refusal to see beyond the current models of thinking..
Another perspective to the concept of what a paradigm is, is that a Paradigm is the Gestalt (organized whole) of the three main branches of philosophy that forms a "Weltanschauung" (German for 'Worldview')
Uses of the concept paradigm in the understanding of Kuhn and others, are mostly unclear and ambiguous analogies — ignotum per ignotius (the unknown explained by means of the more unknown), or obscurum per obscurius (the unclear explained by means of the more unclear) — to other concepts like the model.
Kuhn defines a paradigm as: “an entire constellation of beliefs, values and techniques, and so on, shared by the members of a given community”(Kuhn). This definition by Kuhn appears in the 1969 postscript to his original book, because originally the use of the term paradigm was not clearly defined. Besides this definition Kuhn mentioned another sense of use he had: a Paradigm also “denotes one sort of element in that constellation, the concrete puzzle-solutions which, employed as models or examples, can replace explicit rules as a basis for the solution of the remaining puzzles of normal science” [Ibid]. The term remains imprecise due to the different uses it is given.
Paradigms could be described from a structural perspective. Paradigms operate on different levels; the macro, meso and micro levels of the paradigm's structure. The levels address the fundamental structure of the paradigms, rather than its chronological-historical categorization or the etymological use, as used by most disciplines. The levels of paradigms are always present and not limited to these categories. They assist in an understanding of the functioning of a paradigm.
In the macro' level, a cognizance of the basic assumption to the question: ‘what can be understood’ is required. The question is: "Can it in reality be assumed that the essences of ideal things could be known at all, as in Plato's and Aristotle's use of the theory of ideas? Besides the essentialistic approaches of these two philosophers, is it not possible that "the things themselves reveal themselves as they are", analyzed in Heidegger's fundamental ontology? The assumption we make in answering these questions will predispose the perception that determines the way we ask the question about how we come to knowledge.
In the meso level, the question is how the macro level influences and forms the resulting theory of knowledge. “Is only deductive-delimited knowledge of human perception available to man, or is man open to an inductive-comprehensive understanding of the world?”. If man is open to inductive knowledge, where does it originate? The assumption on the macro level is the basis for this assumption. All philosophical efforts since the pre-socratics are essentialistic. An ontological approach seeks to evade the essences of things, requiring the things themselves to reveal them as they are.
In the micro level, the consequent perception of the two preceding levels, answering the questions of what is in the world and how the world is understood, is used in a practical way of doing. Is the praxis built on multiple ‘laws of conduct’ (ethic), or is it a fundamental and constant encounter with the open world as a different way of perception? Such a different perception is an 'affective awareness'. Previous and current understanding of perception is limited to essentialistic categories of limitation. 'Affective awareness' is by nature open and unlimited, inductive and not limited to 'sense perception'.
A paradigm is a view of reality that is a 'Gestalt' resulting from the three branches of philosophy; metaphysics, epistemology and ethics (see Encyclopædia Britannica: Branches of Philosophy):
(1) a metaphysical assumption of what could be known (refer to the pre-Socratics Parmenides and Heraclitus). It forms the basis for:
(2) a conception of epistemological knowledge acquisition. This is the essentialistic line of thinking essentialism from Plato, Aristotle and Popper vs. the ontological line of thinking (ontology) opened up by the 'uncertainty principle' of Heisenberg's quantum theories to Heidegger's 'Fundamental Ontology'. This in turn is the basis for the:
(3) praxis in an ethic for living.
It is obvious that the three branches of philosophy describe the structure of a paradigm. None of the branches of Metaphysics, Epistemology and Ethics can be left out for understanding paradigms. Together they describe a 'Gestalt', akin to a spiral (not a mere circular) movement, forming Hermeneutical understanding.
The result is that Hermeneutics can not be reduced to an interpretation of something in context of the text itself in a mere 'hermeneutic circle'; it is a developmental cycle that involves:
(a) "Wahrnehmung" as an 'affective awareness', which is more than mere sense perception. The method toward an affective awareness is through 'ontological understanding'. It forms the principles behind a paradigm, conceived as either the Heraclitean 'flux' (Heraclitus) or the Parmenidean 'one' (Parmenides). This principle is perceived as the relation of the limited to the unlimited. Meta-ethical 'principles', like the golden ethical rule of “Do unto others as you would like them to do unto you”, are formed here.
(b) "Verstehen" as the analysis of 'being' to reach understanding of the 'self'. Here the building of, or coming to, a theory of knowledge is achieved, determined by the assumptions in my metaphysical 'belief' of the nature of reality in (a). These assumptions necessarily tend to a predominantly inductive or mainly deductive theory of knowledge acquisition, which is reflected in my epistemology. Messo-ethical 'norms', like the sanctity of human life and freedom, are formulated at this level.
(c) "Ethos" is the attempt to form the world we live in, by growing an 'attitude' or participation in a mutually structured reality. All those who choose to participate in this reality, do it by 'taking responsibility for personal actions' in a social environment. More concrete micro-ethical 'codes of conduct', like monogamy and what we consider to be 'true and correct behaviour', is systematised into our 'dogma' at this level.
(d) "Praxis" is doing the 'right' thing. It is the behaviour resulting from systematising (a), (b) and (c) into a Gestalt, where the whole is more than the sum of the parts. This behavioural level is again the basis for "Wahrnemung", repeating the cycle on a new level. Most important is to understand that this cycle does not now start from the previous position of departure. There is a 'new awareness' of the praxis due to the previous stages in the cycle. The next cycle of "Wahrnemung" is elevated from the previous level of affective awareness to a deeper understanding. This is the basis for a new understanding of development. Development is far more than a 'mechanistic' process, by definition mechanistic processes all function and are 'essentially' closed systems. Development is by definition dependent on an inductive element. Another important point is that there is no start or end point in the cycle, every stage is on an elevated level from its previous position. Contrasted to that, a circle has a start and an end, which has actually no development; it is only a reaffirmation of what was before in a stagnant fundamentalism.
Thus, a Paradigm can only be understood in the context of a Hermeneutical cycle (rather than a Hermeneutical circle) within the Structure of the Paradigms. It supersedes mere interpretation or just bringing understanding. It implies that Paradigms are developmental by nature, moving in a hermeneutical cycle instead of a process of recurring mechanistic circles. Describing a paradigm as an era, epic, model, weltanschauung, or any other term is hardly more than merely renaming the concept of a paradigm to some other known concept, risking to be a tautological swapping of terms.
Another use of the word paradigm is in the sense of Weltanschauung (German for world view). For example, in social science, the term is used to describe the set of experiences, beliefs and values that affect the way an individual perceives reality and responds to that perception. Social scientists have adopted the Kuhnian phrase "paradigm shift" to denote a change in how a given society goes about organizing and understanding reality. A “dominant paradigm” refers to the values, or system of thought, in a society that are most standard and widely held at a given time. Dominant paradigms are shaped both by the community’s cultural background and by the context of the historical moment. The following are conditions that facilitate a system of thought to become an accepted dominant paradigm:
The word paradigm is also still used to indicate a pattern or model or an outstandingly clear or typical example or archetype. The term is frequently used in this sense in the design professions. Design Paradigms or archetypes, comprise functional precedents for design solutions. The best known references on design paradigms are Design Paradigms: A Sourcebook for Creative Visualization, by Wake, and Design Paradigms by Petroski.
This term is also used in cybernetics. Here it means (in a very wide sense) a (conceptual) protoprogramme for reducing the chaotic mass to some form of order. Note the similarities to the concept of entropy in chemistry and physics. A paradigm there would be a sort of prohibition to proceed with any action that would increase the total entropy of the system. In order to create a paradigm, a closed system which would accept any changes is required. Thus a paradigm can be only applied to a system that is not in its final stage.