What is a Paradigm Shift?

What is a Paradigm Shift?
By Grace Lee Boggs
Michigan Citizen, Aug 18, 2009

When I hear Obama, Bernanke and media pundits talking so glibly about “recovery,” I wonder whether they have ever heard of a “paradigm shift.”

The term was introduced by Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. A paradigm shift, he said, is the totally new perspective needed at turning points in history when a prevailing concept fails to explain recurring phenomena. An example is the 16th century recognition that the Earth is not the center of the universe, known as the Copernican Revolution.

In his remarks at my July 19 birthday party actor-activist Danny Glover put it this way:

“With all the changes that have happened, we exist in a failed paradigm. It has failed human development. It has failed social development. It has failed everything that is needed to sustain human life.

“How do we bring out of these ashes, the ideas, the motivation, the spirit of this particular moment and take it to the next step? “

Almost every day I learn of a new independent study group. In the 1970s we formed study groups to try to understand what we had done in the 1960s. Study groups are mushrooming today because young people hope that by studying together they will discover the paradigm shift to take them to the next step. While Rome burns and Obama fiddles, the young people who elected him search for new ideas that will take them
beyond him.

I recommend that they study the half dozen pages summarizing Kuhn’s concept of paradigm shift in Marilyn Ferguson’s 1980 best-seller, The Aquarian Conspiracy: Personal and Social Transformation in Our Time.

Ferguson explains how those who have gained ascendancy in the old order have become emotionally attached to its way of thinking. “The old ways of thinking are part of the culture.. They are the air we breathe.”

Stuck in the old paradigm, they are unable to recognize that the questions we’re asking cannot be answered at the level at which they are asked.

Ferguson (nearly 30 years ago!) cites the health crisis to illustrate the need for a paradigm shift.

“For example, we ask how we are going to provide adequate health insurance, given the increasingly high cost of medical care. The question automatically equates health with hospitals, doctors, prescription drugs, technology.

“Instead we should be asking why people get sick in the first place. What is the nature of wellness?”

“Or we argue about the best methods for teaching the curriculum of public schools; yet rarely ask whether the curriculum itself is appropriate. Even more rarely have we asked ‘what is the nature of learning?’”

“Our crises,” she continues, “show us the ways in which our institutions have betrayed nature. We hav equated the good life with material consumption, we have dehumanized work and made it needlessly competitive, we are uneasy about our capacities for learning and teaching. Wildly expensive medical care has made little advance against chronic and catastrophic illness while becoming steadily more impersonal, more intrusive. Our government is complex and unresponsive, our social support system is breaking at every stress point.”

The way forward is by a paradigm shift that sees us embedded in Nature, Instead of exploiting Nature, as prescribed in our failed paradigm, we embrace a new paradigm which “promotes the autonomous individual in a decentralized society. It sees us as stewards of all our resources, inner and outer. It says that we are not victims, not pawns, not limited by conditions or conditioning, Heirs to evolutionary riches, we are capable of imagination, invention, and experiences we have only glimpsed.”

Or, as I often put it, “We have the power within us to create the world anew.”

“Human nature,” Ferguson writes, “is neither good or bad but open to continuous transformation and transcendence. It has only to discover itself. The new perspective respects the ecology of everything: birth, death, learning, health, family, work, science, spirituality, the arts, the community, relationships, politics.”


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