The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







For alternative meanings see Paradigm (disambiguation).

From the late 1800s the word paradigm refers to a thought pattern in any scientific discipline or other epistemological context. Initially 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.

For linguistic purposes, Ferdinand de Saussure used paradigm to refer to a class of elements with similarities.

The best known use of the word in the context of a scientific discipline was by philosopher Thomas Kuhn who used it to describe a set of practices in science. It was and is widely abused. Kuhn himself came to prefer the terms exemplar and normal science, which have more exact philosophical meaning. However, in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Kuhn defines a scientific paradigm as:

  • what is to be observed and scrutinized,
  • the kind of questions that are supposed to be asked and probed for answers in relation to this subject,
  • how these questions are to be put,
  • how the results of scientific investigations should be interpreted.

The formally-defined 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. Read more about this in the paradigm shift, sociology of knowledge and philosophy of science articles, where these words are placed in context.


Other uses

Probably the most common use of the word paradigm is in the sense of Weltanschauung. 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 particular social phenomenon rather than what was originally meant by Kuhn's study on the practices and development of science. Even occultists, notably chaos magicians, use the term - to describe a shift in personal belief systems concerning magic (magic theory).

The word paradigm is also 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.

Some language purists feel that among "business philosophers" and advocates of any type of change whatsoever, the term paradigm is widely abused and in that context bears no meaning whatsoever.


The word paradigm comes from the Greek word παράδειγμα (paradeigma) which means "pattern" or "example", from the word παραδεικνύναι (paradeiknunai) meaning "demonstrate".


  • Paradigm "is a word too often used by those who would like to have a new idea but cannot think of one."
    Mervyn King, then Deputy Governor, Bank of England

See also

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