Errol Morris’ Whiggish History of Incommensurability

“Weird.” That was my reaction to Morris’ ashtray story when I first heard it in on a Princeton University podcast. Lukas has since offered his own reaction—one that’s much more sophisticated than mine, in which he argues that the positivists and truth seekers care about the limits and limitations of language too.

Sad. That’s how I feel now that I’ve finished reading Morris’ expansion on that story in the NYT Opinionator Blog. More on why in a moment.

Pleased (to have anyone talking about philosophy). That’s the consensus over at “Leiter Reports: A Philosophy Blog.” There’s some fascinating debate in the comments, with varied points of view, but I stand by my characterization. I see their point: I knew nothing about Kripke before this.

Laudatory. That’s the dominant feeling of the comments following Morris’ blog. One gets the sense that most commenters were just happy to have something that challenged them to think a bit, even as the tone and presentation entertained them. A few applaud Morris for defending science and truth against relativism.

Skeptical (or downright disgusted). That’s the apparent response of some who know Kuhn (or might have known Kuhn—I haven’t been a good reporter and checked out these claims). Witness a commenter claiming to be Kuhn’s daughter (could be…). Or accusations from an author claiming to be the logician Warren Goldfarb (might be…). Even Norton Wise, quoted extensively in part 5, evades judgment of Morris’ story that Kuhn forbade him to see Kripke.

So why am I sad?

I hate to see a debate get ugly. This one appears to have gotten ugly early. In the Fall of 1972, Tom Kuhn tried to get Errol Morris to think about James Clerk Maxwell’s displacement current in the terms and frame that Maxwell would have used. He wrote 30 pages of comments in response to a 30 page paper! Morris came to Kuhn’s office and refused to listen. He denied the utility of thinking in the terms or frame of Maxwell. He picked up the word “incommensurability” and started claiming all manner of horrible consequences for its use. He insulted Kuhn—claiming that Kuhn’s concept of incommensurability put Kuhn in the position of being all-knowing while his historical actors (and everyone else) sat around blinkered. He implied that Kuhn must think himself God. At this point, according to Morris, Kuhn threw an ashtray at Morris’ head? Did Kuhn throw the ashtray? Did he throw it at Morris’ head? Who knows. I’d like to give Morris and Kuhn the benefit of the doubt: Kuhn threw the ashtray, but with no intention of hitting any animate objects.

Morris now argues that Kuhn threw the ashtray because he could come up with no better argument to refute the young Morris’ claims. Morris’s moral: relativistic thinking (“incommensurability”) precludes rational debate and ends in violence (heaved ashtrays). Because of Kuhn’s ideas, Morris continues, people deny climate change and innocent prisoners rot in jail—that’s only a mild caricature of Morris’ position. He is onto something: precluding rational debate can lead to violence. Yet the evidence here suggests that Morris cut off rational debate first and continues to do so. I wish it weren’t so.

(In the spirit of good faith, I’ll offer that the young Morris might have experienced Kuhn’s famously intense and—in Norton Wise’s word “adversarial” style—as a closing of debate even earlier. Could well be. I’m also not a big fan of intense adversarial styles, so I feel no need to defend them too strenuously.)

Morris’ footnotes are lovely, expansive, and a pleasure to read. In them, he quotes Kuhn at length from a variety of his published works. If you ignore Morris’ commentary, you get to see a serious thinker trying to refine his ideas—especially complicated ideas grounded in metaphor, like the notion of “incommensurability.” If you read only Morris’ commentary, you miss a story of serious intellectual engagement with the past and the present.

I think Morris cannot afford to allow “incommensurability” to be an idea in flux and subject to refinement. Like “Goldie” (a goldfish used to exemplify Kripke’s causal theory of naming) or “displacement current,” Morris needs “incommensurability” to always be one thing, and whatever that thing is, it inevitably leads to moral and intellectual relativism.

Morris continually rebels against Kuhn’s insistence on avoiding “whiggism” because he thinks getting inside the (necessarily limited) heads of one’s historical subjects denies the ultimate truth. But he misses the point: getting into other people’s heads—understanding them in their own terms—can be a tool for truth-seeking. It’s also a terrific way to begin and sustain rational debate. Morris never—it appears—bothered to understand Kuhn in his own terms. He simply talks past Kuhn.

In “Reflections on My Critics” from The Road Since Structure, Kuhn suggests his own academic interest in “partial or incomplete communication—the talking-through-each-other that regularly characterizes discourse between participants in incommensurable points of view.”(124) Morris quotes Kuhn here by way of showing how incommensurability closes off debate. Morris’ transcriptions from this essay are not word-for-word, but they are pretty close. His contextualization and reading of the comments, however, suggest bad faith: Morris doesn’t want to engage with Kuhn, but instead wants to use Kuhn’s words to prove Morris’ own preconceived idea. Kuhn, in his essay, attempts and achieves a rational debate with his critics, despite the fact that he thinks he holds with them an incommensurable point of view. Incommensurability does not lead to all the horrible things Morris thinks it does.

Finally, I’m sad because people who read Morris’ essay might not give Kuhn a chance and they might miss out on the opportunity to better understand science in the past and present. I don’t mind if they are scared of the word “incommensurability”—as Morris demonstrates inadvertently, Kuhn meant it as a metaphor, and as such it may have outlived its utility. But Kuhn’s fundamental insight—still valid today—was that science and human knowledge evolves from; it doesn’t progress toward. A reader of Kuhn can still believe in reality and truth and act on the best knowledge we have at any given time of both reality and truth—many of us do— but we don’t have to believe that either we or our historical subjects know for certain what the truth is, once and for all. A little bit of epistemological humility and more of an effort to talk with each other and not past each, that’s all I’m asking for.

Tom Kuhn and Errol Morris may be incommensurable, but I see no reason that their ideas can’t be brought together in a happier conversation.


7 thoughts on “Errol Morris’ Whiggish History of Incommensurability

  1. Tim

    Very nice post, Dan. I was disappointed with Morris's series, too, especially the way in which in Morris's account, Kuhnian “incommensurability” gets permuted into “untranslatability,” the impossibility of even understanding in any language what another person means.

    There's no evidence that that's what Kuhn means, even between scientific practitioners working in different “normal science” paradigms, and very good evidence that it's not. The best evidence is that Kuhn thinks that the history of science is possible — but Morris uses that as evidence of Kuhn's God complex. In short, Morris invents incommensurability as an impossibility, then shouts “tu quoque” at Kuhn for thinking he can overcome an entirely imaginary impossibility.

    Also, Morris's account of Kripke's philosophy and why he thinks Kripke is important are just as unrecognizable to me as his account of Kuhn. Kripke sometimes gets teased in philosophical circles for his book “Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language” for inventing a version of Wittgenstein that isn't quite the historical Wittgenstein and very much like Kripke himself, so much so that the Wittgenstein in Kripke's book is sometimes called “Kripgenstein.” There isn't a natural portmanteau for Morris's version of Kuhn, but I think the same criticism applies.


  2. Dan

    Kripgenstein—that's funny. It suggests an entirely new genre of names based on the mash-up of two philosophers, who combined become a famous monster of Romantic literature.

    In that spirit, I offer Morruhn, as in “the Island of Dr. Morruhn,” or even better, “the Astray of Dr. Morruhn.”

    More seriously, I like your diagnosis of Morris' approach. I can even understand why Morris might make the leap from incommensurability to intranslatability—it isn't right, but it's understandable. That's one reason I so much like the mathematical metaphor from sqrt(2). Sure, there's no simple rational number to translate to, but we can get to a decimal approximation with whatever level of precision you ask for. There may not be perfect translation, but you can get something good enough to build a rocket, etc.

    Kuhn's ideas about progress in science also raise Morris' hackles and lead Morris to over-shoot Kuhn's point. Kuhn asserts that progress happens in normal science, by definition. But he claims that transitions between paradigms may or may not lead to progress. He leaves open the possibility that no progress occurs, but Morris reads this as a dictate that scientific revolutions deny progress.

    In the continued spirit of fairness, Morris is hardly the only person to make these leaps and his essay might be read as an indictment less of Kuhn and more of the Kuhn constructed by all those who made these leaps (and applauded them) in the past. If the essay had been actually written as such, I might have liked it more.


  3. Hank

    Hi Dan: Could you clarify, just a bit, where the “Whiggishness” in your title applies? Is it that Morris reconstructs the intellectual history of Kuhn and his ideas whiggishly, or that he rejects Kuhn's purported anti-Whiggism – or both? And, whichever it is, maybe you could just clarify what *you* mean by Whiggish, so I get a better sense of what's at stake here (beyond your problems with Morris' tone, his debate tactics, &c.). Thanks!


  4. Dan

    Hank, I'm using Whiggishness in the same way that we see Kuhn (via Morris) use it in the essay: it means doing teleological history, which includes that imagining that because an idea has some effect in the world it must have been always destined to have that effect. In this case, I think that Morris starts from the fact that some post-modernists appropriated Kuhn's ideas of incommensurability and tells a story in which incommensurability always had to become a tool of post-modernists, and was basically such a tool even in Kuhn's hands. In a similar way, Maxwell developed the idea of the displacement current in its “ur-” form even before he developed the idea of the displacement current—or so I gather was young Morris' working assumption.


  5. Peter

    This is interesting guys, but you gotta do something about the web design. Links are indistinguishable from normal text to my protanopic eyes. Probably anyone with any of the common red-green color vision anomalies will have trouble.

    The font is kind of scary too…


  6. Dan

    Hey Peter, thanks for the input. The links were supposed to be blue, and yet you're right: they are red on each individual post page. It looks like a blogger bug that we'll try to fix.



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