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«Errol Morris – The Ashtray. 1. THE ULTIMATUM I don’t want to die in a language I can’t understand. — Jorge Luis Borges (as quoted in Alberto ...»

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Errol Morris – The Ashtray.



I don’t want to die in a language I can’t understand.

— Jorge Luis Borges (as quoted in Alberto Manguel, “With Borges”)

It was April, 1972. The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N. J. The home in the 1950s

of Albert Einstein and Kurt Gödel. Thomas Kuhn, the author of “The Structure of Scientific

Revolutions” and the father of the paradigm shift, threw an ashtray at my head.

It had all begun six months earlier.

“Under no circumstances are you to go to those lectures. Do you hear me?” Kuhn, the head of the Program in the History and Philosophy of Science at Princeton where I was a graduate student, had issued an ultimatum. It concerned the philosopher Saul Kripke’s lectures — later to be called “Naming and Necessity” — which he had originally given at Princeton in 1970 and planned to give again in the Fall, 1972.

But what was Kuhn’s problem with Kripke?

Kuhn was becoming more and more famous. He would become not just a major figure in the history and philosophy of science, but an icon – and his terms “paradigm” and “paradigm shift” became ubiquitous in the culture-at-large. An astrophysicist and rock-climbing friend from Princeton, Dick Saum, later sent me a picture of a bumper sticker that said, “Shifts happen.” [1] Errol Morris with Dick Saum Kripke was slight, bearded, in his early thirties. He was not well known but had a reputation as a genius. He had provided a completeness proof for modal logic (which deals with necessity and possibility) while still a teenager — and in the process reinvigorated Leibniz’s ideas about possible worlds. [2] There was also the amusing anecdote of Kripke being offered a chair at Harvard when he was 16. He supposedly wrote back, “Thank you, but my mother thinks I should finish high school first.” Nonetheless, it was hard to see how Kripke’s theories had much to do with Kuhn. Or at least, it seemed so, at first.

I ignored Kuhn’s ultimatum and went to Kripke’s lectures anyway. My relationship with Kuhn ended badly. But more about that later.

Kripke addressed the 20 or so graduate students and professors assembled in a small seminar room by looking at them through an empty water glass as if it were a telescope or the lens of a camera. The water glass created all sorts of optical distortions, making Kripke’s left eye distend like the eye of a flounder. I assume that the glass had the same effect for him — rendering the seminar into an aquarium of academics.

I didn’t really understand Kripke’s lectures. It was only a year or so later at the University of California, Berkeley, that I began to understand Kripke’s ideas, due to the efforts of my friend and fellow

–  –  –

Kuhn in those days was an incredible chain-smoker. First Pall Malls and then True Blues (a low tar and low nicotine alternative). Alternating. One cigarette lighting another. Matches were irrelevant. Maybe six, maybe seven packs of cigarettes a day. All that was essential was burning and smoke. And a massive cut-glass ashtray filled with the debris of an endless series of burnt-out butts.

The seminar was filled with an odd collection of people. Some of his graduate students from the Program in the History and Philosophy of Science, and a couple of visiting academics. He had already attracted the interest of social scientists around the world, and there were a couple who made a pilgrimage to Princeton to attend his lectures.

His often repeated, most scathing complaint concerned Whiggishness — in history of science, the tendency to evaluate and interpret past scientific theories not on their own terms, but in the context of current knowledge. The term comes from Herbert Butterfield’s “The Whig Interpretation of History,” written when Butterfield, a future Regius professor of history at Cambridge, was only 31 years old. Butterfield had complained about Whiggishness, describing it as “…the study of the past with direct and perpetual reference to the present” – the tendency to see all history as progressive, and in an extreme form, as an inexorable march to greater liberty and enlightenment. [3] For Butterfield, on the other hand, “…real historical understanding” can be achieved only by “attempting to see life with the eyes of another century than our own.” [4][5] Princeton was sort of a consolation prize. I had not been accepted in Harvard’s history of science program, and Erwin Hiebert, a professor at Harvard, had written a letter of recommendation to Kuhn for me. I should have known that there was going to be trouble. I had imagined graduate school as a shining city on a hill, but it turned out to be more like an extended visit with a bear in a cave.

I had written a paper on James Clerk Maxwell’s displacement current for Kuhn’s seminar on 19th century electricity and magnetism. The paper might have been 30 or so double-spaced pages. Kuhn’s reply, typed on unlined yellow paper, was 30 pages, single-spaced, with Courier marching all the way from the left to the right side of the paper. No margins. He was angry, really angry.

He had written at the very end of his comments, “You have long since passed the end of the road on which you began.” I asked, “What is that supposed to mean? I’m 24 years old.” He said that I was a “good” first-year graduate student but would become “less good” in subsequent years.

Our discussion took place at West Hall, a new building at the Institute for Advanced Study.

Kuhn had taken a leave of absence from Princeton to write the book “Black-Body Theory and the Quantum Discontinuity, 1894-1912.” We began arguing. Kuhn had attacked my Whiggish use of the term “displacement current.” [6] I had failed, in his view, to put myself in the mindset of Maxwell’s first attempts at creating a theory of electricity and magnetism. I felt that Kuhn had misinterpreted my paper, and that he — not me — had provided a Whiggish interpretation of Maxwell. I said, “You refuse to look through my telescope.” And he said, “It’s not a telescope, Errol. It’s a kaleidoscope.” (In this respect, he was probably right.) [7] 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?’ ” [8] 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.

I see the arc, the trajectory. As if the ashtray were its own separate solar system. With orbiting planets (butts), asteroids and interstellar gas (ash). I thought, “Wait a second. Einstein’s office is just around the corner. This is the Institute for Advanced Study!!” [9] I call Kuhn’s reply “The Ashtray Argument.” If someone says something you don’t like, you throw something at him. Preferably something large, heavy, and with sharp edges. Perhaps we were engaged in a debate on the nature of language, meaning and truth. But maybe we just wanted to kill each other.

The end result was that Kuhn threw me out of Princeton. He had the power to do it, and he did it. God only knows what I might have said in my second or third year. At the time, I felt that he had destroyed my life. Now, I feel that he saved me from a career that I was probably not suited for.


–  –  –

Saul Kripke is considered one of the seminal thinkers of our time. Philosophers can and will endlessly debate the content of “Naming and Necessity.” Currently, there are hundreds if not thousands of journal articles devoted to this series of three lectures. [10] His lectures realigned our ideas about meaning and reference — essentially, about how language “connects” to the world. And affirmed a decidedly un-postmodern idea of meaning, reference and truth. In Kripke’s view words are attached to things in the world through an historical (or causal theory) of reference. [11] And although Kripke’s theories examined proper names, like “Julius Caesar” or “Moses” or “Kurt Gödel,” they also apply to terms like “water” and “gold.” [12] [13] Kripke’s theory provides an alternative to what had become known as the description theory, an amalgam of ideas proposed by Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

(And to that mix, in the ‘50s and ‘60s you can add Peter Strawson and John Searle.) Here’s one way to distinguish between Kripke’s theories and the description theory that preceded it.

You have two fish in a fishbowl. One of them is golden in color; the other one is not. The fish that is golden in color, you name “Goldie.” The other fish you name “Greenie.” Perhaps you use the description “the gold fish” and point to the one that is golden in color. You are referring to the gold fish, Goldie. Over the course of time, however, Goldie starts to change color. Six months later, Goldie is no longer golden. Goldie is now green. Greenie, the other fish — the fish in the bowl that was green in color — has turned golden. Goldie is no longer “the fish that is golden in color.” Greenie is. But Goldie is still Goldie even though Goldie has changed color. The description theory would have it that Goldie means the fish that is golden in color, but if that’s true then when we refer to Goldie, we are referring to the other fish. But clearly, Goldie hasn’t become a different fish; Goldie has merely changed his (or her) appearance. [14] It’s Kripke’s version of “Where’s Waldo.” If the description theory (courtesy of Frege, Russell and Wittgenstein) is correct, then Goldie is on the right. If Kripke’s historical-chain of reference theory is correct, then Goldie remains Goldie no matter what color Goldie is. [15] You could also think of Goldie and Greenie in terms of beliefs, although this is not how the description theory was originally framed. Goldie is the fish that you believe is golden in color.

But Goldie starts to change color. I can believe anything I want about Goldie. I can even believe that Goldie isn’t a fish, but Goldie — that fish out there swimming around in a fishbowl — remains Goldie.

Here is Kripke’s central intuition: descriptions help us to fix a reference, that is, to attach a name to a thing, but descriptions (and beliefs) do not determine reference. There is a historical connection between words and things. Our beliefs about Goldie could be all wrong, and we can still refer to Goldie. It doesn’t matter what belief or what theory we have about Goldie. We can grab a hold of Goldie independent of that belief or that theory. And we can say true or false things about him. Is it true that Goldie is green? Or gold? Or red? (Or that Goldie has two heads.) There is a historical connection between words and things.

Here’s another way of looking at it. We can reach outside our theories and pick out things in the world. [16] Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” however, was far more influential than “Naming and Necessity” — possibly because it fit into the pop-culture of the moment, the idea that truth is culturally determined and depends on your “frame of reference.” It produced a cottage industry around itself. And became a kind of postmodernist Bible. [17] [18] [19] Kuhn’s book introduced its own nomenclature — normal and revolutionary science, paradigms, paradigm shifts, anomalies, etc. Here is a brief description. According to Kuhn, science is parsed into normal and revolutionary science. In normal science a group of “practitioners” have settled on a way of defining and solving problems — a paradigm. They have a way of looking at the world and are by and large happy with it. And then there are anomalies. Anomalies shatter the tranquility of the paradigm. An anomaly, for example, could be an unexpected experimental result. Something happens that prevents things from going on as before. The anomaly leads to a revolution, and a shift to a new paradigm.

The most important and most controversial aspect of Kuhn’s theory involved his use of the terms “paradigm shift” and “incommensurability.” That the scientific terms of one paradigm are incommensurable with the scientific terms of the paradigm that replaces it. A revolution occurs. One paradigm is replaced with another. And the new paradigm is incommensurable with the old one. He made various attempts to define it — changing and modifying his definitions along the way. In the 1962 edition of “Structure” incommensurability was likened to a Gestalt-flip. Presumably, it was about how we see the world.

I found this unconvincing. 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.” [20] What!? Is this about our perception of reality or about reality itself? Did the ducks become rabbits?

Here is where the dangerous, slippery slope begins.

Kuhn writes, “We may want to say that after a revolution scientists are responding to a different world.”[emphasis mine] Attribution: Jastrow, J. (1899). The Mind’s Eye. Popular Science Monthly, 54, 299-312, via Wikimedia Commons By 1969, in his postscript to “Structure,” incommensurability had become linguistic. Kuhn wrote, “Two men who perceive the same situation differently but nevertheless employ the same vocabulary in its discussion must be using words differently. They speak, that is, from what I have called incommensurable viewpoints.” [21] People in different paradigms speak different languages, and there is no way to translate the scientific language of one paradigm into the scientific language of another. [22] Even when they use the same words.

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