Whose names will be carved on classroom buildings in the future? You could argue that the most successful social scientist of our age is a mild-mannered physicist-turned-historian named Thomas S. Kuhn.

He is the man who contributed the word "paradigm" to the modern vocabulary.

But what a lot of indignities Kuhn has endured on his way to immortality. It's been 43 years since his ideas occurred to him as a junior fellow at Harvard, 28 years since he published them as a recondite monograph in the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science under the title, "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions," 10 years since he sought stoic obscurity by moving from Princeton University to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Now Kuhn's concepts are at the center of an intriguing flap over ideas at the White House.

More or less coincidentally, they were on the cover of Newsweek magazine and the top of the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, at least implicitly.

Not bad staying-power for a concept whose first appearance in a New Yorker cartoon was in 1974.

Not good notoriety for a high-minded, hard-mannered scholar who once told a Washington Post reporter that he feels more comfortable with his critics than with his fans.

Before Kuhn adopted "paradigm" for use in the study of the history of science, the word was familiar mainly as a term from grammar lessons. It meant an example, a pattern of usage, as in the conjugation or declension of a verb: I go, I went, I have gone. Paradigms were the almost-unconscious rules that helped you learn to speak a language.

After the 1962 publication of "Structure," however, the word paradigm came to mean something bigger and more complicated than a mere example. It meant the constellation of subtle institutions and beliefs surrounding any dominating example of successful scientific research.

Thus, a science in the stage before a paradigm was established resembled free play among smart people, Kuhn said; maybe there would be good questions about phenomena and maybe not, but almost anyone aspiring to wisdom was entitled to a view. Once a paradigm was established, however, an infant science would begin to take on new shape and definition; an organized set of questions would emerge, as would a small community of investigators to answer them.

To be accepted as a paradigm, a theory must seem better than its competitors. That is, it must win an intimate election among scientists. But once accepted, it had an astonishing ability to weld together a community of scientists. It held on through great shakings, then collapsed swiftly and completely -- but only when a new paradigm appeared to replace it.

Within a few years, logicians had identified 22 subtly different shadings of meaning in the word paradigm in Kuhn's book. Professional students of his work retreated into departments of history and philosophy of science. But the basic idea remained that there were fundamentally two types of change in knowledge: slow, steady, incremental change, or "normal" science, as Kuhn called it, which was the usual order of the day; and sharp, discontinuous transformations of world view, "revolutions" or paradigm shifts, which occurred rarely but with great significance.

Sound a little like Karl Marx for the life of the mind? Well, yes, actually it does. The idea of punctuated equilibrium -- of one dispensation lasting for a long time, then giving way quickly to another long-lasting regime -- was profoundly troubling to the conservative world of science history. But from the moment of its appearance, Kuhn's book was enormously influential with persons outside the field. Within a few years it began to pass hand-to-hand among undergraduates and high school students. At the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, it was the very hottest intellectual book around. More than half a million copies have been sold, in 16 languages.

One of those students into whose hands the book fell was a gangly Evanston, Ill., schoolboy named James P. Pinkerton. Paradigm is in the news today because Pinkerton, now a 32-year-old deputy assistant to George Bush, says there is a new one -- a new free-market, anti-bureaucratic Republican tradition that is bidding to replace the New Deal as the dominant political matrix in the United States.

Pinkerton is in the news today because Office of Management and Budget Director Richard Darman attacked him obliquely in a recent speech: "The problem with all these New Thises and New Thats is that, however seriously intended, they can be little more than slogans. They are necessarily abstract."

Indeed, the controversy over whether there is or is not a new political paradigm reveals all the weaknesses of the term. It is almost impossible to pin down exactly what is meant -- at least in real time. "Informed pragmatic idealism" is Pinkerton's description of his stance, which he says rests on five principles: decentralization, market forces, the empowering the poor, an emphasis on choice, and sheer practicality. And whereas scientific revolutions are resolved almost instantly in seminar rooms and among journal referees, political revolutions generally require elections to work their way -- and there is not another one of those until 1992.

Still, there's something similar to this analysis of paradigm change to be found in the current fracas over the discovery of the "politically correct," or PC, point of view in the universities today. The rap here -- heard last week from as disparate sources as liberal Newsweek magazine and the conservative editorial page of the Wall Street Journal -- is that a creed, a set of beliefs emphasizing the leveling of hierarchies and elevation of multicultural diversity, has taken over on many of the nation's campuses.

The dim view of the politically correct is that it is enforced by faculty members, aging rads who are refighting in the lecture halls the battles they failed to win 20 years ago on the nation's streets. The hopeful interpretation is of a sorting-through and integrating function that is precisely what is required to create a common culture in a newly complicated world.

Different world views are failing to come to grips with one another. What happens when paradigms compete is the very essence of the story of Kuhn's landmark book. One by one, disputants try each set of ideas on for size, he says; they judge them by their power to explain. They "vote" by shifting professional allegiances to one paradigm or another. In the end, one point of view triumphs and the other slips into obscurity as the textbooks are rewritten.

None of this pop political analysis is what Thomas Kuhn intended. He's spent much of the last 20 years fleeing from the widespread popularization of his ideas. But the fact remains that "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" is one of the very finest books of the 20th century, a luminous and surprising picture of science as a metaphor for society. Reading it pays off in some unexpected ways.

David Warsh is a columnist for the Boston Globe.