A paradigm is a set of assumptions about reality held in common by a group of people. Because it is an assumption about Reality, and because an assumption generally flies below the level of one’s conscious radar, a paradigm feels as if it’s simply True. Notice that the idea that there is a single thing called “Reality” is itself an assumption; there are many religious and philosophical traditions in which that is not a given. In those traditions, what we perceive as Reality is actually a construct, projection, or even delusion.
It is important to notice that a paradigm is an assumption held by a group of people. It is a cultural phenomenon, not an individual one, even though it is visible at the level of individuals. It is therefore a shared view of Reality, reinforced by cultural cues and inculcated into the young born into that culture. Often a culture’s art expresses its paradigmatic assumptions about reality, although artists also challenge the truth of the underlying paradigms with “new” or “iconoclastic” art. Some of the world’s greatest works fall into this category.
When a cultural paradigm is challenged, it initiates a process called a paradigm shift that may lead to destruction of the old paradigm and creation of a new understanding of what is True. Because paradigms feel like Reality, however, their destruction in a paradigm shift feels threatening. People are therefore both fascinated and disturbed by images and ideas that shake their paradigms. Nevertheless, a given paradigm is neither right nor wrong with respect to one it replaces or is replaced by.
Footnote: As the term paradigm was originally used by Thomas Kuhn in his book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” it was much more ambiguous than it is here. In fact, it was used in quite a few different ways just in that one book, which led philosophers to discuss its true meaning for many years. The definition used here is one we have used in university classroom and other educational settings for a long time, and it has stood up well in practical application. It and the text on paradigm shifts were approved by a major scholar in this particular area of philosophy.