Errol Morris, the noted documentary filmmaker, has recently published a book entitled, The Ashtray (Or the Man Who Denied Reality). It’s about my father, Thomas Kuhn, and the views on the history and philosophy of science that he initially set forth in his 1962 book, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” As you might gather from the title, it is not a sympathetic account; the philosopher Philip Kitcher says, in his excellent review in the Los Angeles Review of Books, that “Morris disarmingly confesses [that] this book is a vendetta.”
Since the book’s publication, Morris has been appearing here and there on the radio, and friends have been asking me about my take on the book. Rather than saying the same thing over and over, I have decided to put my thoughts together in one place. I haven’t read Morris’s book, for reasons that will become clearer to those who read further, but I was a careful reader of his five-part 2011 series on the New York Times Opinionator website, which the book is based on. I find Morris’s reading of my father’s work a vast oversimplification, to the point where the straw man is easy to knock down. Many people have taken that approach over the years, but Morris has a higher profile than most. There are many people more qualified to deal with his criticisms on whatever merits they may have, and I will mostly leave it to them. What impelled me to write this is my belief that the episode from which the book draws its title, in which my father supposedly threw an ashtray at Morris, never actually happened.
Is it important whether it happened or not? Everyone will have to come to their own conclusion on that. To be very clear up front: I would love to be wrong about this. I would love to hear from Morris’s classmates, family, or anyone else, that he told them that my father threw an ashtray at him at or close to the time that it allegedly happened. Because as misguided as I think his attacks on my father are intellectually, I believe that they come from a place of wanting to defend truthfulness. Defending truthfulness was important in 2011, and it is painfully obvious that it is more important than ever in 2018. I have great respect for Morris’s film work, and I think I share much of his political orientation. But just as the Buddha says hatred does not cease through hatred, falsehood does not cease through falsehood, and I believe that some of our current ills as a society stem from our delight in calling out falsehood among our opponents while ignoring it or even condoning it on “our team” and, more important, in ourselves. Continue reading “Errol Morris Resurfaces”