Errol Morris, Kuhn & the Ashtray

Errol Morris published the fourth installment of his five-part personal essay on Kuhn in today’s NY Times.  All of it is worth reading (except perhaps part III, which drags on somewhat), and I definitely encourage everyone to take a look!

What is Morris’ beef with Kuhn?  In a nutshell, he thinks that Kuhn provided volatile ammunition for “postmodernists” (that’s Morris’ term): people who want to deny there is a truth (rather than many truths), a real world (rather than multiple realities), and a compelling distinction between ethical and unethical actions (rather than just social mores).  Now, I suspect that Morris is mostly tilting at windmills here, or, at the very least, that his argument is about ten years behind the times.  But for historians of science, I think, it is worth thinking about what’s got him so upset. 

Morris’ central objection centers on the relationship between paradigms and incommensurability.  What is a paradigm and what does it mean for two paradigms to be incommensurable?  In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn equivocates on both scores. But as far as I can tell, paradigms are basically how we understand the world.  They are general frameworks we use to organize our experience.  For example, Kuhn invokes Einstein’s theory of general relativity.  Initially, many people rejected the idea that space has a curvature.  This is because in the existing paradigm, space is simply not the kind of thing that can be curved; to say that space is curved is like saying triangles are virtuous.  This is where incommensurability comes in: if two paradigms are incommensurable then the conceptual content of one cannot be articulated in terms of the other (“space has a curvature” simply makes no sense on the old interpretation of “space”).  Hence, people operating in different paradigms are going to have a hard time talking sense to each other.  Sometimes, Kuhn went so far as to say that people who operate in different paradigms literally live in different worlds!

Morris dislikes this line of thinking because it suggests the search for truth is bound to be forever elusive.  Differently put, the history of science is just one damn thing after another!  If there is no way to get outside of a paradigm, then there can be no basis for comparison between different paradigms.  Hence, we cannot say that one is better than another.  Paradigm shifts are a social, political, or perhaps psychological process.  They are not rational.  At the end of his latest installment, Morris says that in this, Kuhn sided with the later Wittgenstein: “we could agree that the earth is flat and that would make it so.”  Morris goes on to quote from Structure itself: “We may … have to relinquish the notion … that changes of paradigm bring scientists … closer and closer to the truth.”

Earlier, I said that Morris was tilting at windmills.  Let me say something more about what I mean by this.  Historians of science often like to remark on the irony that although Kuhn probably did more damage to the logical empiricist research tradition than anyone, Structure was initially published as part of the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, which also counted Carnap, Hempel, Nagel, and Neurath among its contributors.  How are we to make sense of this fact?  There’s a couple of things we can say.  First, it was simply the case that logical empiricists were big-shot philosophers at the time, so even if you disagreed with them it made sense to submit your work to their publication venues.  This may indeed be what happened.  Still, although Kuhn certainly disagree with much of the positivist tradition he did share a deep set of assumptions with them.  Perhaps the most important of these is a focus on linguistic structures.  Both Kuhn and the logical empiricists had a deep conviction that language provides the interface between the world and ourselves.  Hence, if you want to understand everything from metaphysics to the philosophy of science the thing to do is to focus on language.

Let’s just look at Rudolf Carnap as an example.  In 1950 he published a fascinating paper in the Revue International de Philosophy called “Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology.”  I don’t want to get bogged down by the details of his argument, so let’s focus on one idea in particular: that of a linguistic framework.  Carnap introduced this concept because he wanted to distinguish between two kinds of questions.  The first kind ask things such as “do unicorns exist?” or “is there a prime number above 100?”.  The second are more general, and inquire whether there are physical objects or abstract entities.  He designated the former internal questions and the latter external questions.  The notion of a linguistic framework was introduced to distinguish between them.  He wrote: “If someone wishes to speak in his language about a new kind of entities, he has to introduce a system of new ways of speaking, subject to new rules; we shall call this procedure the construction of a linguistic framework for the new entities in question.”

Carnap’s move here is a very attractive one.  All he is trying to do is make sense of what is required for people to be able to talk meaningfully.  For example, asking questions about prime numbers requires that we have some framework with which to talk about numbers.  In the case of arithmetic, this might be predicate logic enriched with Peano axioms.  These give you the rules for how to adjudicate a question like “is there a prime number greater than 100?”.  Or, if you want to ask about the existence of some particular physical object we turn to the framework of natural science.  The point is, to quote from Carnap again, that to “recognize something as a real thing or event means to succeed in incorporating it into the system of things … according to the rules of the framework.” 

So much for internal questions.  What about external ones like “do numbers exist?”.  These, Carnap thinks, are questions that cannot be answered within any given framework.  Rather, they are questions about the framework itself.  Now, the whole point of frameworks is that they give you the rules with which to adjudicate ontological questions.  Without the framework there are no rules and hence no way to answer the question.  To quote from Carnap one last time, “To accept the thing world means nothing more than to accept a certain form of language, in other words, to accept rules for forming statements and for accepting or rejecting them.”  Moreover, “the thesis of the reality of the thing world cannot be among these statements, because it cannot be formulated in the thing language or, it seems, in any other theoretical language.”  The choice of frameworks, he thinks, is, if not exactly arbitrary then certainly heuristic: “The efficiency, fruitfulness, and simplicity of the use of the thing language may be among the decisive factors” in choosing to adopt it.

I don’t mean to suggest the Kuhn ripped off Carnap and simply re-christened frameworks as paradigms.  But I do think there is a deep set of shared assumptions at play here.  The most important one, the one that I want to highlight here, is that it is language or some other analogous, abstract, rule-governed structure that determines our experience of the world.  We are, in some sense or another, trapped within language, whether we want to call it a paradigm or a framework.  I think this is what Kuhn might have meant with his infamous remark that two scientists operating in different paradigms do not share the same world: our language constitutes our world because it provides the rules according to which we accept or reject the existence of certain entities, events, and relations.

Let’s follow Morris one step further in the argument.  I do think he is onto something when he makes the connection to postmodernism.  This is perhaps even more ironic, because postmodernists (whoever they were) certainly would have been terribly unhappy to be mentioned in the same breath as Rudolf Carnap.  But I do think the two schools of thought share some very deep assumptions about language and ontology, namely, the notion that our world is never simply given to us, but rather, that our experience of it is fundamentally structured by language or some other abstract symbolic system.  Now, of course there are questions about how this system works—the post-structuralists, for example, would disagree that it is fundamentally logical or rule-governed—but the role of  abstract systems is taken to be pervasive across the board.  The radical move that postmodernism made is to sever all connections between the abstract system and what it represents, to emphasize the vast gulf that separates signifiers from their signifieds.  Or, to put it another way, although the fundamental epistemology remained the same–a picture theory of truth–a change took place in that the picture was made more real than what it represents.

To conclude: Morris is tilting at windmills.  Why?  Because, at least to my mind, we have been moving steadily away from this basic set of assumptions in the last ten or twenty years.  Rather than worry about abstract systems, language, and signifiers, we have become much more concerned with things, practices, and experiences themselves.  Ian Hacking’s wonderful book Representing and Intervening is an excellent early example. Hacking was a philosopher of science, but I think there is a really important trend  that generalized to historians as well.  We have begun to write more about material culture and laboratory practices than language or hegemonic political structures.  Similarly, philosophers of science these days rarely still try to solve logical puzzles about black and white ravens.  Rather, they tend to look in detail at what scientists actually do.  What I see, then, is a fundamental move from large-scale epistemic questions to more local ones (which often have a more ontological flavor).  I don’t mean this in a shallow way, because of course Carnap himself was very concerned with ontology.  In a sense I do mean it literally though, in a very flat-footed way.  Let me pose it as a question: Have we indeed become  more interested in the world rather than abstract structures representing it?  If so, Morris may have a point, but he’s at least ten years too late for it to make much of a difference.

4 thoughts on “Errol Morris, Kuhn & the Ashtray

  1. Hank

    Hi Lukas: Very fun post, and a great entree into the stuff that grabbed me in these Morris columns. I wonder how you might respond to a few questions:

    First, is Morris out-of-date, as you suggest in your final paragraph, or is he onto something (albeit mistakenly)? That is, yes, in the last two decades historians have been turned on to more “local” questions of material culture and practice, but isn't this changing again? Can't the road out of Objectivity be a paradigm-shift for the discipline on par with the (forced?) shift that Kuhn himself represented?

    Second, and last (for now), I've been poking around in All Things Shining on my commute to Hyde Park, and what Kelly and Dreyfus are suggesting (in an extremely entertaining volume I'd like to write about!) is that the shift you're highlighting between questions of experience and questions of epistemology (is this right?) isn't a neat one in any period.

    In short, are you saying we've become post-post-modern? And, if we've never been modern, then where does that leave us?


  2. Dan

    I'll second Hank: this is fun stuff. I haven't finished the Morris essays yet, but I think your insights provide a useful counterpoint.

    The fact that today we tend to distance ourselves from linguistic incommensurability—heck, as Morris shows, but doesn't admit, even Kuhn tried to retreat to more stable ground—surely makes a difference. To whom does Morris preach?

    But I take your deeper point to be that post-modernism and positivism shared a set of linguistic questions and/or methods. Do I have that right? My own grounding in both “isms” is too weak to establish any certain opinion, but your position makes sense. I was struck on finally reading Foucault — particularly the Order of Things—by how scientistic it was. Rather than being loosey-goosey, as one would expect from the common critique of the post-modern and post-structural, Foucault presented himself as a disciplined self: sacrificing precision for the sake of accuracy, or dare I say truth.

    I wonder how Morris would respond. (Hey Errol Morris! Respond to this!) He sets Kuhn against Kripke in a way that supposes an opposition of the linguistically fixated against the positive positivists. Yet Lukas denies such an easy opposition.

    Or is the opposition really one of the historicist (contingency!) against the historical (progress!)? Hmm. Perhaps I'll come back to my own question in a post.


  3. Lukas

    Hank and Dan –

    thanks for your comments!

    It should come as no surprise that I would find something in Hank’s comments with which I disagree. You say, yes, “in the last two decades historians have been turned on to more “local” questions of material culture and practice” but then ask: “isn't this changing again?” Then, you ask: “Can't the road out of Objectivity be a paradigm-shift for the discipline on par with the (forced?) shift that Kuhn himself represented?”

    Even if we leave aside the question of whether paradigm shifts really happen, I don’t think we are witnessing a shift back to a pervasive concern with large-scale symbolic structures. I think you are making the same mistake I accused you of in a previous post. That is, I think you are confusing a historiographical question about narrative scope with a philosophical question about structure and agency. It is very much possible to write longue duree histories about large-scale patterns and processes (like Piracy or Objectivity) that do not assume human actors are ruled entirely by abstract systems (symbolic or otherwise). Just as it is possible, by the way, to write biography (of Darwin, for example) that does not give individual scientists the omnipotence to calibrate their self-interested strategies with a perfect omniscience about the current and future state of our world.

    And, yes, I guess there is a sense in which I am saying that regardless of whether we’ve ever been modern, we certainly aren’t any longer (so much so that we’re not even post-modern).

    I found less to disagree with in Dan’s comments, so that’s good. (If only because it means I don’t have to come off as quite as much of a curmudgeon.) One thing I would say, though, is this:

    I’d have to think about it more, but my sense is that Kripke is actually an early example of what I mean when I say that over the past several decades we’ve started to become more interested in things than abstract systems. One of Kripke’s main arguments in Naming and Necessity, the one that Kuhn himself picks up on, is that the reference of a word is not fixed by its relationship to other words in a symbolic system but rather by a kind of baptism. This is going to be a tendentious example, but I think it makes the point well: the meaning of a biological name is fixed by the particular type specimen, stored in a museum, from which the first description of that species was written. So what the word “homo sapiens” picks out, for example, is not an object that meets a certain abstract linguistic description. Rather, it is all the material things (you and I and all other humans) that stand in a genealogical relationship to one another, which includes the individual specimen to which Linnaeus ascribed the name “homo sapiens” in the first place. Again, it is a causal or ontological story rather than an abstract or logical one.


  4. Hank

    Good stuff you two. I have only two objections to Lukas' response to me, to which he can respond in turn either here in the comments or in a more Latourian fashion

    (1) You again accuse me of “confusing a historiographical question about narrative scope with a philosophical question about structure and agency,” and I again reject the distinction – as far as my position is concerned, it's sans différence. The idea that our decisions about what to write about (and how to write it) are separable from our philosophical commitments about what *really was* (or how knowledge works, &c.) is incorrect.

    Objectivity may not “assume human actors are ruled entirely by abstract systems” (or does it? we can talk more about that, too..), but their (philosophical) commitment to the imbrication of ethics and epistemology, their (narrative) account of the career of one epistemic virtue across a couple centuries, and their (historiographical) insistence that we need to focus more on how such virtues structure (or provide the conditions of possibility for, or explain) knowledge-creation by actors all go together.

    Knowing you, you'll simply assert that I've misunderstood their position, so let me clarify: my assertion is that by focusing on more abstract phenomena (epistemic virtues, or “the scientific self,” as it changed over a few centuries), D&G insist that big, abstract, conceptual changes (bigger, that is, than the sum of the human agencies that contribute to them, or than contemporary actors would've been able to fathom) need to be a part of our stories again.

    (2) I reject, too, your subsequent analogy to biography. To mirror (a) an assertion that books about “large-scale patterns and processes” don't necessarily entail a circumscribed view of human agency with (b) an assertion that biographies don't necessarily entail an opposite, boundless view of human agency is to miss the point, at least as I understand it.

    Why? Because (and here I reduce the examples) the choice to write (a) is to attend to structure in a way that the writing of (b) won't allow. Sure, Daston and Browne might insist that share a view of how and why historical processes unfold (they don't…), but the effect of writing in the manner of (a) – as Daston tends to – is to submit structures to analysis in a way that (b) – Browne's biography – doesn't. For Browne, Darwin's world and his position in it explain (to a certain extent) his actions.

    My claim is this: what we might get, post-Objectivity, is an effort to turn Browne's explanans – wider processes – into an explanandum again.



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