cover image The Ashtray (Or the Man Who Denied Reality)

The Ashtray (Or the Man Who Denied Reality)

Errol Morris. Univ. of Chicago, $30 (192p) ISBN 978-0-226-92268-3

Oscar-winning filmmaker Morris (A Wilderness of Error) was once a graduate student under philosopher Thomas Kuhn, author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and this intimate analysis of flaws in that 1962 treatise is driven by Morris’s smart, conversational tone. Calling Structure, which introduced the phrase paradigm shift to mainstream culture, a “kind of postmodernist bible,” Morris writes that Kuhn’s much-lauded work is in fact “more often than not, false, contradictory, or even devoid of content.” Kuhn’s concept of how scientific change occurs through “incommensurability” between differing conceptual paradigms and his skepticism about the actuality of a real and verifiable world are denounced with logical and commonsense arguments resting on Morris’s insistence on the importance of objective truth. Numerous insights from past scientists, philosophers, and linguists are enlisted, including from Lewis Carroll, Bertrand Russell, and, most importantly, Ludwig Wittgenstein, whom Morris credits as a key influence on Kuhn. Living thinkers interviewed here include Ross MacPhee and Noam Chomsky, who tells Morris that in his experience scientific debate is characterized not by “incommensurability” but the “commonality of cognitive capacities.” Throughout the heady discussion, Kuhn’s cantankerous personality is revealed: he once threw an ashtray at Morris, who is responding—albeit 45 years later—by lobbing this combative tome into the academic and practical world. (May)