Thursday, March 10, 2011

My comment on Errol Morris's 4th installment of "The Ashtray" ran over 5,000 characters


I finally hit my limit today, and I had some time, so I wrote a comment on Errol Morris's 4th installment of his  "Ashtray" series on the Times web site.  Comments are limited to 5,000 characters and the site cheerfully informed me that I had minus 1520 characters remaining.  So here it is in its entirety:

There is apparently yet another Thomas Kuhn here, one I don’t think he would have ever anticipated: the Thomas Kuhn who threw the ashtray.  Speaking as his son I have to say that, try as I might, I just can’t get myself to believe that he threw that ashtray.

I am not someone to take the ramparts to defend my father against every allegation.  He was a complicated guy and he did a lot of things.  Many were admirable.  Some were absolutely indefensible.

What we’re seeing here is not a rejection of his views; it’s a rejection of a caricature of his view.  He never believed in any sort of relativism that says there is no truth other than the point of view people take on it.  He believed very much in truth, but he also knew that understanding what it is to be true is much more complicated than it might first appear.

He certainly made mistakes, and I certainly heard him say things that I knew to be false but that he believed based on his own distorted point of view.  But I don’t believe I ever saw him say anything that he knew to be untrue.  He believed in truth, and he believed in truthfulness.  He had a bad temper at times.  He could be angry, he could yell, he could behave quite badly, but I never, ever saw him be violent, threaten violence, or throw anything, not even the pencil that was perpetually tucked behind his ear.  I’m prepared to believe quite a few unflattering things about him, and to say some myself (though mostly in private), but I just can’t get myself to believe that he threw that ashtray, and neither can anyone I’ve talked to who knew him well—among whom there is quite a spectrum of overall opinion about him.  (I should say here that, as a few commenters have noted, he could also be generous, helpful, understanding, encouraging, and more).


So I don’t believe he threw the ashtray.  I don’t know whether he threw it or not.  But I have a great deal of certainty that he either threw it or he didn’t.  I know he would join me in that certainty; clearly Mr. Morris would and so, I think, would the vast majority of readers of this series.

I also have a hard time believing that he would “forbid” someone to go to a lecture.  Again, there’s plenty that he could say in such a discussion that might not reflect well on him, but “forbidding” simply wasn’t his style.  On the other hand, I don’t have any difficulty imagining that he might have said something that could honestly but inaccurately be remembered that way.

But the ashtray is harder.  I can’t think of anything he might have said or that could honestly be remembered as throwing an ashtray.  Of course I have learned time and again that the strangeness of the world surpasses my imagination, but that knowledge doesn’t seem to help me here.

Which leaves me only two conceivable conclusions: that (A) my deep conviction about this man I knew intimately is simply wrong, or that (B) the “remembering” here is not honest.  (Of course it’s possible that (C) the truth of the situation is inconceivable to me, but thankfully I will be silent about that).

But why would someone fabricate something unflattering, when there are many truthful unflattering things one could say?  I had to wait to the third installment to get a clue.  Incidentally, references to the ashtray mostly started out with readers being appalled (obviously an appropriate reaction, if the story is true); by the third installment they were running more like “I can see why he threw the ashtray.”  Only one commenter did anything but take the story at face value (my sister, Sarah).  In the third installment, we hear extensively about the legend of Hippasus of Metapontum—a name I never heard my father utter, though he did talk extensively about the genesis of his various ideas, which confirms my belief that this story has nothing to do with why he used the word "incommensurable."  As many commenters have pointed out, he was in fact using the term for its mathematical meaning, which is quite apt: two line segments are incommensurable when there is no segment of which they are both integral multiples: in other words, there is no simple, single standard by which they can both be straightforwardly characterized.  (That does not mean they can’t be compared, and it is a crowning technical achievement  that Greek mathematicians found a rigorous way to do this.  Modern mathematics had to wait until the 19th century—long after Newton, Leibniz, Euler, and others—to assimilate this achievement).

But buried in this perhaps interesting but wholly irrelevant side-trip, we find the following: “One of the oddities of history is that legends often supersede facts. Historical evidence accumulates, monographs are written; but the number of popular accounts retelling the apocryphal story … proliferate. Why? Because we love to read about crisis and conflict. It’s drama. It makes a better story.”

We can say many things about my father, but he would never knowingly sacrifice the facts to “make a better story.”  In our cultural context, that job falls to fiction writers and non-documentary filmmakers.  It is disturbing to me to be drawn to the conclusion that that line is being crossed without acknowledgment.

Reading today’s installment, I have to wonder if I am witnessing an elaborate but subliminal staging of a purported “Thomas Kuhn’s nightmare” in which he screams that truth and reality exist only insofar as we say things are true or real, and the off-screen voice screams back, “In that case, I’m saying that you threw an ashtray at me, so you did!”  Even if my father did actually believe those things, it’s hard to fathom why this would be worth both the trouble and the risk involved, but since he didn’t the strangeness only deepens; he did have nightmares but that ain't one of them.  By this point things are sufficiently creepy that I find myself wishing that I could find a way to believe (A), that I am simply mistaken.

Ultimately, I don’t think it makes that much difference whether my father is remembered as an SOB or not, or perhaps as a different degree of SOB.  Ultimately, I don’t even know whether my father’s intellectual legacy, or Wittgenstein’s for that matter, makes that much difference.  What I do believe makes a difference to us, as a species, is whether we can find a way to disagree in some way other than caricaturing our antagonist’s position and then scorching the earth that the straw man stands on.   Whether you believe that “talking past each other” is a result of incommensurability or not, we are in the process of talking past each other to ecological catastrophe.  Even if the ashtray was thrown, this series seems to me to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

3 comments:

  1. Goodness. I have no idea -- I say in true positivist spirit... whether or not your father threw an ashtray. I do know people now seem to misunderstand him very badly indeed, in a way I don't recall them doing when I studied him. (Perhaps this is guilt by association with some of the more radical sociologists of science who drew on his work.) Of course he wasn't a cognitive/factual relativist.

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  2. I have long been a defender of your father's work and a critic of egregious misinterpretations -- the latest is “Ideology and the Philosophy of Science: An American Misunderstanding,” Journal of Political Ideologies 14 (2009)in which I take on those who claim he was an apologist for Cold War. I think that the best and most objective book about him is by the English philosophers Rupert Read and Wes Sharrock

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  3. @clemmati: my father would certainly say he was very much misunderstood from the beginning, and I doubt he would think it was any worse now. $JGG: thanks, the idea that he was a cold-war apologist never crossed my mind and I can promise you was very far from his.

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