Monday, March 7, 2011

Grumpy Kuhn

Lot's of people (here, here, here and here) are picking up on this story about Thomas Kuhn throwing an ashtray at Errol Morris. Morris shares:

"The conversation took a turn for the ugly. Were my problems with him, or were they with his philosophy?

I asked him, “If paradigms are really incommensurable, how is history of science possible? Wouldn’t we be merely interpreting the past in the light of the present? Wouldn’t the past be inaccessible to us? Wouldn’t it be ‘incommensurable?’ ”

He started moaning. He put his head in his hands and was muttering, “He’s trying to kill me. He’s trying to kill me.”

And then I added, “…except for someone who imagines himself to be God.”

It was at this point that Kuhn threw the ashtray at me.

And missed

Wow! So I have a few thoughts on this. The first one being the obvious one that everyone is pointing out - "holy cow, Thomas Kuhn had a temper!". This sounded like an agitated and easily agitatable guy (which was very interesting to find out, because he seemed very calm and methodical in his book). Morris also discusses his six-or-seven pack a day smoking habit and his growing fame. You very clearly get a picture of a guy that could lash out.

That, I think obscures the second thought I had for a lot of people, namely that Errol Morris really doesn't seem to understand Kuhn at all and he seems deliberately provocative as well. That doesn't justify ash-tray hurling, of course. It's simply to say that these two personalities seemed destined to clash. What's particularly surprising to me is that this student of Kuhn doesn't seem to grasp what Kuhn was saying about incommensurability at all. I thought his apparent misunderstanding might just be an impression I got from a short blog post, but he goes on in part two (of five) to talk more about incommensurability (and the second edition of Structures of Scientific Revolution, which takes even more pains to point this out than the first edition) in completely the opposite way that Kuhn talked about it.

Morris writes: "In a Gestalt-flip, we never lose our ability to see the rabbit or the duck, even if we can’t see them at the same time. We see the rabbit, then the duck. Or the duck, then the rabbit. Rabbit, duck. Duck, rabbit. (I’m sure Elmer Fudd figures in here, somewhere.) But then Kuhn went on to say, “What were ducks in the scientist’s world before the revolution are rabbits afterwards.”, but Kuhn said about the Gestalt-flip metaphor exactly what Morris accused him of failing to note - that we could see incommensurable paradigms in both ways, but simply that we could not see them in the same way simultaneously or compare them simultaneously. This was the whole point of Kuhn's book, after all! To see and talk about prior paradigms on their own, incommensurable terms! Kuhn obviously believed you could see both the rabbit and the duck because his whole project was to engage and talk about Newton on his own terms, Einstein on his own terms, etc. etc.. The whole point of the book is that we never lose our ability to see the rabbit or the duck, but that two paradigms are still as incommensurable as the rabbit and the duck - you can't accept both at the same time, although you can see each on its own terms.

It would be one thing for Morris to dispute a minor point or phraseology of Kuhn, but in his first post (on the ashtray) and in this second post even more so he seems to have no concept of what Kuhn was saying, instead simply taking Kuhn's critics at their word. Throwing ashtrays is poor etiquette to say the least, but I can completely understand why Kuhn would be so frustrated with Morris.

My third thought is that this mirrors a lot of the critics of pragmatism who unthinkingly equate pragmatism with relativism, nihilism, post-modernism, etc. (and I think some people are probably similarly unfair to post-modernism although I don't know it very well). People think in terms of everything being nailed down or nothing being nailed down, but they have trouble with views that say "lots of things or even all things may be nailed down, but our perceptions can't always get to that and there's always going to be a fundamental uncertainty". Non-relativists see that and think relativism, when it's really not.

Anyway, we're forty percent through these blog posts from Morris, and while he strikes me as being a little obtuse, he's definitely intelligent and interesting - I look forward to the others.

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