Thursday, March 10, 2011

"The Legacy of Thomas Kuhn"

Errol Morris, whom I otherwise greatly respect, is in the midst of posting a five-part series on the New York Times web site entitled "The Ashtray" about my father, their vexed relationship, the nature of truth, etc.  The series is by turns...  well, I'm hoping to write more about it here later—we'll see whether that happens.

In the meantime, it reminded me of some remarks I made at a November 1997 "Symposium on the Legacy of Thomas Kuhn," at MIT's (late) Dibner Institute, in response to another former student of his who had suggested in a presentation that the most sensible way to account for the widespread dissemination of Kuhn's ideas was because he had Narcissistic Personality Disorder (as defined by the by-then-already-outdated revised 3rd edition of the American Psychiatric Association's DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of...]). Never mind the fact that most people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder don't get their ideas disseminated very far.

Looking it over, I see that much of it is relevant to the contretemps with Mr. Morris, so I thought I would go ahead and post this (lightly edited) transcript of what I said:
I’m not an expert on Kuhn, but I was looking forward to Mike Mahoney’s talk this afternoon, because as a former mathematician I thought it might be a place where I’d have some opportunity to contribute something.  But it turns out I’ve had an earlier opportunity, since I’m now a psychiatrist.
I had decided to steer clear of the things that I don’t have any expertise in, but I would like to say that I believe it’s not an accident that the collection of papers was called “The Essential Tension.”  When you look at questions like, “Was he an internalist or was he externalist?” the answer is, I think, that that’s not a good question, that internalism and externalism are things that were both important to him, and that must necessarily be held in tension, and you can’t try to resolve them; that any resolution in one direction or the other is necessarily superficial, reductionistic, and eventually just won’t work.  I think that’s relatively straightforward.  I think that there’s a similar tension between realism and relativism that is equally unresolvable and reflects a tremendously difficult problem.  It’s not necessarily resolvable at all, but again, it’s something that needs to be held in tension.  When you try to hold apparently incompatible things in tension, it requires great subtlety; it’s very tempting to abandon that subtlety and follow the thought in one direction or the other.  When you say something like, “people approach observations with preconceived notions”—that, I think, is something that he believed in deeply.  To say that their observations are determined entirely by their preconceived notions is abandoning that sort of tension and is certainly not, in my experience, his way of trying to understand things.  This isn’t to say that he never fell into that trap of abandoning the tension and swinging in one direction or the other, but I think that that maintaining that tension is what you need to do if you want to negotiate your way through what are fundamentally very challenging and difficult problems.
The problem of authority in science is also a complicated one, and so I would just like to inject a cautionary note: that the DSM-III-R and the DSM-IV as we saw today are certainly controversial within psychiatry.  They are documents about which I myself am highly ambivalent, but I think that they wield a dull knife in the understanding of people and I think that that’s probably one of the least controversial things that you can say about them.  There are deep problems with the whole idea of categorical diagnosis, which is not say that I think that the DSMs are useless as documents, but I think it would be a great shame to see historiography sink to that level of understanding of people and how they work and what their motivations are.  In particular, the DSM is a completely atheoretical document—by design—because it’s an attempt to build a consensus in a community that had no consensus; it's an attempt to build a language community in a way that really, quite shockingly, didn’t exist in psychiatry before that time.  So the DSM as a document has its own very particular historical roots and it’s complicated to view it as a reification of truth about people although it certainly can contain a kernel of truth; I don’t want to be seen as a rejectionist about the DSM.  But it certainly needs to be regarded with at least the same amount of skepticism—and really actually more—than most of the other documents that people have discussed today.
I don’t think that anyone in this room would argue with the statement that my father was a complicated and often difficult person.  One of the truths about difficult people is that the people around them are often swept up into their interpersonal field.  The problems with psychiatric diagnosis in terms of observer bias are very complicated.  Even for psychiatrists, diagnoses, especially of personality disorders, are often highly subjective.
What I really wanted to say in closing is that we all carry wounds in our lives, and my father was certainly no exception to that.  I think that the task of development over the entire lifecycle is to do what we can to metabolize those wounds; and I think part of the task of professional development is to see what we can do to step back from our own wounds in the context of our work.  I think that the extent to which my father was able to do that is something that presumably will be long debated.  Often a realistic assessment of that sort of thing takes a certain amount of distance, and it’s a distance that children and students are necessarily not able to provide.

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