The Ashtray Has Landed: The Case of Morris v. Kuhn

He conveys the excitement of what might seem abstract intellectual questions. How then can he deny it? Kuhn, author of the immensely influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a book assigned to countless students of the philosophy, history, and sociology of science, is exposed as a corrupter of the youth, the father of relativist and postmodernist heresies, an unoriginal borrower from more insightful thinkers, an arrogant dogmatist, implacably intolerant, ill-tempered, confused, contradictory, vapid, and obsessive. The ideas of the frustrated man who threw it are becoming better understood. Samuel Johnson’s “refutation” of the idealist philosopher Bishop George Berkeley. Normal science, as Kuhn describes it, makes no sense unless something independent of human investigators pushes back against scientists’ efforts. Yet, on the basis of the writings he was content to see in print, it’s possible to see how he tried to square the thought of an independent reality with the thesis of a changing world. The growth of science was portrayed in terms of “conversion” and “faith,” they complained, rather than as an exercise in reason and evidence. How silly to deny reality! The editors (known for their devotion to logic and rigorous argument) had commissioned a monograph on the historical development of the sciences from a young ex-physicist-turned-historian. No contemporary reader of Berkeley, even a beginning undergraduate, would take Johnson’s “argument” seriously. Many writers who had taken over various pieces of the caricature (and here I must confess my own guilt) came to recognize what lay behind Kuhn’s more-or-less patient explanations: a Mercutian expostulation — “A plague on both your houses!”
What sorts of lines or shapes, then, did the cartoonists draw, and how exactly did they distort what Kuhn intended? It still persists in some circles, particularly among philosophers who spend little time on the history and philosophy of science. What is known is that the incident was followed, quite quickly, by Morris’s forced exit from Princeton. Reality admits many ways of dividing it — although by no means all; it often pushes back. History is written by the survivors. Johnson. The position Kuhn envisages — derived from James, and elaborated in Kuhnian directions by Dewey — may turn out in the end to be incoherent or unsustainable. Central to the book as well is the work and character of the man who threw it and allegedly “denied reality.” As Morris disarmingly confesses, this book is a vendetta. Kuhnian relativism had to be destroyed. Reconciling these thoughts requires understanding the kind of “faith” involved. How different must be the worlds in the consciousness of ant, cuttlefish, or crab! Thanks to the efforts of one of the field’s major stars, Thomas Kuhn, he did eventually find his way to Princeton’s program in the history and philosophy of science. So, initial success, at least in some quarters, and for some aspects of Kuhn’s book. No — he said that such communication was inevitably partial. Rather, at his most charitable, Morris presents a caricature of Kuhn, juxtaposing it with a partial sketch of a rival realist approach, one with debts to Kripke and Putnam. ¤
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was published in 1962, as the last volume in the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science. The episode is over. Yet where exactly does the contradiction come? To quote a phrase from Hilary Putnam, the brilliant subject of one of Morris’s interviews, there isn’t “a ready-made world.” (In their way, those interviews, too, are brilliant, lively contributions to the case against the accused. And the book suffers from that implacable pursuit, as violent in its way as the original throwing of the ashtray. Nobody will ever know if the projectile was thrown at Morris or whether it was simply thrown. Surviving documents suggest that they were happy with what they received. It is a structured world, not a chaos, not a “blooming, buzzing confusion.” We naturally think of our world as containing levers and pendulums, hormones and neurons, financial exchanges and court procedures. His efforts failed to satisfy him, and the version left at his death (shortly to be published) should not be regarded as the definitive presentation of his ideas. Often, no single term in one language will do for a scientifically important term in the other. Returning from church one day, Johnson encountered a former fellow-student, a Mr. Brilliantly chosen images adorn the pages. ¤
Boswell relates another pertinent anecdote about the Great Doctor. Using a suggestive (but not altogether straightforward) analogy, James proposes that human beings compose, or construct, the world of their experience, just as a sculptor “works on his block of stone.” He concludes his discussion by recognizing the possibility of different worlds, obtained “from the same monotonous and inexpressive chaos.”
My world is but one in a million alike embedded, alike real to those who may abstract them. But it is far more complex and interesting than Morris allows. They typically found the description of “normal science” (occupying the first half of the book) far more insightful about scientific practice than the usual formalized reconstructions of theories, beloved of other philosophical treatments. I have tried too in my time to be a philosopher; but I don’t know how, cheerfulness was always breaking in.” One of the delights of The Ashtray is that Morris constantly allows cheerfulness to break in — indeed he dazzles his readers with charming excursions on all manner of topics, from Cervantes and Borges to the Pythagoreans, linguistics, and biological taxonomy. In short, they provide defensive weapons. Thus the caricature was born. Initially undaunted, he pursued further graduate study (at Berkeley) before deciding that academic life was not for him. Within a decade, however, a tempest erupted. Many of the scientists who read Kuhn’s book were also positive about it. Morris does not actually try to articulate Kuhn’s ideas, even if only just to show us how they collapse. A one-sided vendetta, of course. It lay in Errol Morris’s way, and he found it. His new book, The Ashtray, revisits this now transcended past and records his intellectual enthusiasms. Truth had been discarded. Early on, a new paradigm cannot deliver all the predictions, explanations, and solutions of puzzles offered by the traditional approach it is trying to replace. Kuhn was confused, unable to see that his position was self-contradictory — or, more likely, he spoke with forked tongue, expressing himself differently when talking to philosophers than when talking to others (historians, sociologists, et cetera). Better to see himself as a Stoppardian figure, generously lavishing his broad and quirky learning on a comedy of ideas. There are no privileged joints at which it must be carved. Focusing on the second half of the monograph and its treatment of revolutions, and particularly on a few colorful formulations (Kuhn’s “purple passages,” as they have been called), philosophers were outraged. So far as I know, Kuhn never recorded his views about what happened that afternoon in a room in Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. S. Vendettas are typically grim. What one paradigm sees as a “natural” division of the subject matter appears as odd and disjointed to its rival. Kuhn’s notorious Chapter X seems moved by the thought that there may be myriad human worlds, differentiated by changes in human ways of thinking. Certainly not one of exposing the errors of Kuhn’s ways. Repeatedly it stabs. Standing up for realism and so occupying the role Morris assigns himself in this book, the great doctor dramatically kicks a stone. The worlds of human experience result in part from our biological capacities, and in part from the divisions and connections we construct in attempts to serve our evolving purposes. Why write about the pugnacious behavior of a first-year graduate student? According to the cartoon — and according to Morris: Kuhn denied the possibility of communication across the revolutionary divide. T. Matters came to a head in a one-on-one discussion of a paper he had written for Kuhn’s seminar. Equally welcome: Kuhn’s emphases on tacit knowledge, and on how puzzles test the ingenuity of scientists and their unwillingness to abandon existing approaches in the absence of a promising successor. Just as Johnson made no attempt to interpret Berkeley’s position, Morris has no interest in considering what Kuhn might have had in mind. Just as Kuhn’s better self emerged when he was able to escape his sense of being misunderstood and vilified for sins he had never committed, so Morris might aspire to write the delightful book he partially offers here. Indeed, Kuhn tells his readers that the decision to embrace a new paradigm (purple passage) “can only be based on faith.” But, on the same page no less, he also characterizes scientists as “reasonable men,” each persuaded by some argument or piece of evidence, although no single argument will serve for all. Until no doubt remains about the death of the victim. Yet we always return to the principal theme, to the attempt to find a final revenge. The story Morris tells reminds me of a famously grand gesture by a great 18th-century celebrity. He even attempted to recall the term. To be sure, professional philosophers might pay more attention to crossing t’s and dotting i’s, but none would rival Morris’s élan. It consists of the claim that reality comes pre-packaged, divided up in advance of our cognition of it. Even when its successes are striking, they are few — and scientists reasonably wonder whether they can be extended to embrace the full range of what has previously been achieved. There would have been no reason for him to do so. And then rose some more, until the tête-à-tête was ultimately punctuated by an overflowing ashtray. Without a source of resistance, puzzle-solving would never fail. When the world — in the person of a first-year graduate student — called his bluff, the charlatan’s only recourse was to throw a heavy object. And, of course, the idea of something lurking behind normal science, not to be identified with an articulated theory or a set of rules for research, but from which articulated theory and rules might flow — a paradigm — caught their imagination and that of the broader public. Much of The Ashtray is witty, ebullient, and generous in spirit. The emotional temperature rose. In Morris’s telling, the man who denied reality could not face up to what he had done. But my judgment is slightly unfair. In doing so, we reorganize the world our predecessors inhabited. ¤
Yet the stiletto has to be thrust home. The final, central charge: Kuhn denied reality. Invoking the ideas of some of the most eminent American philosophers of the recent past, Hilary Putnam and Saul Kripke in particular, he writes as if Kuhn’s position is quite simply absurd. Morris draws his conclusion from a popular cartoonist line: “Kuhn saw revolutions as changing the world. Passages in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions provide an important clue. Those who “convert” early do so on the basis of “faith” that the old successes will be replicated. Different scientists will take different problems, as yet unsolved, to be crucial. Like James, Kuhn recognizes something independent of observers, something that pushes back against their efforts to interact with it. Revolutions were now seen as actually “changing the world.” In the manner of Cato on Carthage, Kuhn’s deviations were fervently denounced. Even so, the young man had clearly gotten under his skin: Kuhn had typed 30 pages of comments on what he viewed as Morris’s misguided essay. For Morris, it was not always thus. It is also an odd vendetta. For the last 20 years of his life, Kuhn attempted to write a successor to The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in which he would elaborate more clearly the views the earlier monograph had struggled to express. Morris attacks Kuhn in the time-honored Johnsonian style. What role do they play in the vendetta? Is it possible to suppose that, after a revolution, scientists live in a different world while also supposing that reality pushes back against their efforts (their previous and their subsequent efforts)? The diarist and biographer James Boswell describes his friend Dr. Rather, Kripke and Putnam provide tools for developing a resolutely realist account of scientific practice and its history. James contrasts the worlds of different animals to suggest that each species has its own world of experience, dependent on its sensory faculties. Kuhn took up this idea, and further developed it. Edwards, whom he had not seen for many years. Kuhn found himself at odds with both sides, arguing with his philosophical critics and with his would-be relativistic allies. This one is more of a romp. Kuhn has been dead for more than two decades. Berkeley’s idealism was itself a riposte to Locke’s invocation of a world of substances beyond the “ideas” perceiving beings come to have. The ashtray has landed. Kuhn admitted the ambiguities inherent in his usage. He is not Prince Hamlet, nor was he meant to be. Launched from Kuhn’s hand, the ashtray hurtled across the room. His repeated efforts to distance himself from both views — his repudiations of swarms of would-be disciples claiming him as their guru — strike Morris as evidence of confusion or dissimulation. But his time there did not go smoothly. It missed. Morris is not the originator of the cartoon. The languages of different paradigms are not straightforwardly inter-translatable. That world contains objects, with determinate boundaries; it contains kinds of things; it contains processes with beginnings and endings. So he can’t think there’s a fixed world, existing independently of human beings and of human knowledge.” Even for many sophisticated scholars, the 10th chapter of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in which the idea of world changes appears, is “the X-rated chapter X.” Here, then, a longer explanation is needed. ¤
Philip Kitcher, John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, has discussed Kuhn’s ideas more extensively in The Advancement of Science and in Science, Truth, and Democracy. His most recent treatment of them is in “After Kuhn,” a chapter in the Oxford Handbook on the Philosophy of Science. MAY 18, 2018
DURING THE PAST DECADES, Errol Morris has established himself as a distinguished filmmaker whose documentaries, notably The Thin Blue Line, have won prestigious awards and wide acclaim. The first paragraph of Chapter X (whose title is “Revolutions as Changes of World View” [my italics]) ends with a modest proposal: “In so far as their only recourse to that world is through what they see and do, we may want to say that after a revolution scientists are responding to a different world.” Two pages later, at the close of another paragraph, Kuhn invokes William James, declaring that, in the absence of the kind of training that teaches scientists (and, we might add, children) to see, “there can only be, in William James’s phrase, ‘a bloomin’ buzzin’ confusion’.”
The phrase appears in Chapter XIII of James’s The Principles of Psychology, where he describes the experience of the baby, who “assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming, buzzing confusion.” By contrast, the experience of normal adults, described in a famous earlier chapter (Chapter IX, “The Stream of Thought”), takes their experience of a world as achieved through a process of selection and connection. “Paradigms” had legs of their own; they are, apparently, here to stay. Their structures no longer suit the way we live now. But it was too late. Again: Kuhn saw transitions from one paradigm to another as irrational, as acts of conversion. Both acknowledge reality. In any event, no physical harm was done. Many of these interludes are as effervescent as they are informative. Does the length signal obsessive hostility, as Morris interprets it; or was it an admirably conscientious effort at helping a talented but errant tyro? When Johnson’s gouty toe met with stone, he acquired a sequence of undoubtedly painful “ideas.” Some of those ideas belong to the object we think of as the stone. As he did so, the contours of the space he hoped to occupy gradually became clearer. Kuhn was neither a relativist nor an irrealist. Let’s call this independent source of frustration “reality.” Kuhn presupposes reality. As their favorite critical examples are tackled, they (reasonably!) switch their allegiance. The lively expositions of Putnam and Kripke are part of what make The Ashtray worth reading. But they distinguish reality from the world in which the subject of experience lives. During the 1970s and thereafter, the caricature inspired more radical thinkers to embrace relativistic heresies. Yet the words on the page are, inevitably, a selection from what those interviewed said, and it is reasonable to ask if they would always endorse the decontextualized implications of the printed version.)
The realism Kuhn denies is much stronger than any dreamed of in Morris’s excursions into philosophy. The Ashtray goes astray already at its subtitle. Morris shares his wide range of interests, and his enthusiasm for philosophy is infectious. It has been around for decades, readily available to anyone who wanted to carry out a vendetta. In the ensuing conversation, Edwards humbly offered an interesting confession: “You are a philosopher, Dr. It poses interesting challenges to the hyper-realism of the ready-made world, and should not be brushed aside by dismissive gestures, citations of authority, or Johnsonian exercises. Taking himself to be the advocate of common sense, Berkeley viewed all things as complex collections of perceptual states. At its center is the memorable episode of the flying ashtray — hence the title. ¤
The idea behind Morris’s subtitle, “the man who denied reality,” founders on an elementary observation. Morris has an answer to the question. Almost half a century ago, as a recent graduate from the University of Wisconsin fascinated by the history of science, the young Morris was rejected by some of the most prestigious graduate departments.