“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.