Errol Morris Resurfaces

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.

Starting right from the book’s cover, Morris’s point of view is that my father denied that there was such a thing as truth or reality and that this is both wrong and dangerous.  I agree that such a denial would be wrong and dangerous. The only difficulty is: that is not what my father believed or was trying to say; he would also have agreed that such a denial is wrong and dangerous. What he did say about truth and reality, among other things, is that they are more complicated than a naïve stance on them acknowledges. He didn’t always do a good job of reconciling the existence of an external reality with the limits of our ability to describe it.  This was no doubt a result partly of his own limitations as a thinker and writer, but partly—maybe mostly—because it’s just a really hard problem. More concretely, while he may have believed that you could not say that a scientific theory was “true” in some absolute sense, my father certainly did not believe that any so-called scientific theory is just as good as any other. I would join Morris in finding such an opinion “revolting,” but that is not what my father believed; it is a caricature of what he believed. As I said, there are people more qualified than I am to focus on the merits of the discussion.  Jacket blurbs aside, serious reviews do not seem to be coming down in Morris’s favor.  In addition to the Kitcher piece cited above, which I highly recommend to anyone looking for a summary of the intellectual issues, there are also reviews by Steven Poole in The Guardian, and Laura Miller at slate.com.

The Times series starts with an argument between my father and Morris, then a graduate student studying with him at Princeton, which supposedly culminated in the throwing of the ashtray. I was disturbed by that story the moment I read it, because I simply didn’t believe it, and neither did anyone I spoke to who knew my father at all well. I wrote some comments on the series on the Times website and some blog posts (links below), as did my sister Sarah. My sister and I both respect Morris’s work, and we were reluctant to believe that he was peddling a false story, but that is where we ended up.

Of course, in the age of #metoo, we are all more aware than ever of the flimsiness of the “he just never seemed like that kind of guy” defense. But we are also more aware of how one might come to a more credible resolution of this kind of “he said-he said” disagreement. In particular, are there any accounts in the intervening time that shed light on it one way or the other? I do have one: when the 2011 series appeared, my stepmother, Jehane Kuhn, told us about an encounter with Morris that provides some reason to believe that his story is not true. Jehane was always quite a private person, and at the time her preference was to not make her account public.  Sarah and I chose to respect her wishes, believing and hoping that the series would have a short half-life. Now that Morris’s claim has reappeared in more durable form, I am going to tell the story.

As Jehane related it, she and my father went to a restaurant in the Boston area, where they then lived. There they ran into Morris, whom she had not previously met. Morris recounted a meeting with my father during his student days, culminating with his saying, rather gleefully in her recollection, something like, “He pushed me out of his office! He pushed me!”  This is quite a different story from the much more inflammatory “He threw an ashtray at me.” I can’t think of a credible reason why, if my father had in fact thrown an ashtray at him, he would have focused on being pushed. Jehane is no longer able to speak for herself on this matter, and I don’t know that she told the story to anyone other than my sister and me. But there are people who can tell you that she would not fabricate a story of this sort to defend my father’s “reputation.”

Are there other accounts closer to the event in which Morris tells the ashtray story? I have seen Morris quoted from the 1980s as saying “my adviser actually assaulted me,” but a person nursing a sense of grievance could well describe being pushed out of an office in those terms. Despite requests from my sister through his publishers at the Times and the University of Chicago Press, Morris has not produced any contemporaneous or subsequent interlocutors who could vouch for his story. He did say something to her along the lines of “I’m sorry if I offended you,” entirely missing—or evading—the point. According to the slate review, Morris “has a track record of misrepresenting the statements of others in order to gin up a rhetorical antagonist to battle.” Perhaps he has misrepresented not just statements, but actions.

Despite our hopes that the story would sink out of view, Morris resurfaced in May of 2017 in a piece by John Horgan on the Scientific American website, “Did Thomas Kuhn Help Elect Donald Trump?” Horgan does a reasonably good job demonstrating that even “anti-Kuhnians” think that this claim gives an absurd amount of credit to the influence of intellectuals. He also published a follow-up piece in which he gives others an opportunity to present a more nuanced version of Kuhn.

Now that Morris’s book is here, I have taken the occasion to dust off the pieces I wrote back in 2011. The main one is My comment on Errol Morris’s 4th installment of “The Ashtray” ran over 5,000 characters. It still seems apt, except that my bemoaning of the state of our public discourse may feel rather quaint in light of more recent events. I had remembered talking about why I found the story impossible to believe in the first place; I had forgotten that I had highlighted a passage in the midst of a long digression in Part 3: “One of the oddities of history is that legends often supersede facts. Historical evidence accumulates, monographs are written; but the number of popular accounts retelling the apocryphal story of that non-crisis proliferate. Why? Because we love to read about crisis and conflict. It’s drama. It makes a better story.” There is no doubt that having an ashtray thrown at you makes a better story than being pushed out of an office. He goes on to say, “A legend that is not true can never become fact, but it can get printed as fact, anyway.”

While that blog post of mine was gestating, I posted some extemporaneous remarks that I had made after my father’s death at a symposium in honor of his intellectual legacy. Initially, I was tempted to say that I posted it in order to assert my bona fides as a non-apologist for Kuhn. Re-reading it now, I am struck by its additional relevance, on two points. The original remarks were in response to a presentation by a former student of my father’s who, like, Morris, seems to have been deeply wounded by their interactions. I don’t doubt for a minute that they may have been wounded in this way, and if so I don’t doubt that my father bore significant responsibility for it. That may well be a story worth telling, but I believe that if you are telling it in public on a broad stage it is incumbent on you to do so in a way that is as honest as possible. The remarks I made also speak to the difficulty of holding what may seem like irreconcilable truths in tension, rather than collapsing into oversimplification. This was a difficulty my father was quite explicit about in titling a collection of essays “The Essential Tension.” (For die-hards, there is a third post in which I respond to some of the other comments that were made, but unfortunately the links to the original comments no longer work.)

In the process of writing this piece, I recalled an anecdote which is germane to my father’s views on the “one scientific theory is just as good as another” caricature. In the 1970s, he was approached, as a renowned “expert on science,” to be a witness for the evolution side of an evolution-vs-creationism-in-the-classroom lawsuit. As a teenager, I thought this was pretty cool, and when my father declined, I asked him why. It was not (as I already knew) because he thought that evolution and creationism were “equally valid” and should be presented side-by-side in high school classes. He told the people who approached him that he agreed with them, and hoped they would prevail, but that in the face of an antagonist who is determined to oversimplify what he is saying and discredit it for the sake of discrediting it, his testimony might well do more harm to their cause than good. Of course, in our adversarial legal system, that is exactly what the lawyers on the other side are paid to do. It doesn’t mean that’s what the rest of us should be doing.

So I am left with the uncomfortable belief that Morris’s story, which he’s made the title piece of his book, is false. As I said above, I would love to be convinced that I’m wrong, apologize to Morris for casting aspersions on his honesty, and just forget the whole thing. If on the other hand I’m right, perhaps he sincerely believes that the story is true; perhaps someone else threw an ashtray at him, and it has become conflated in his memory with the painful interaction with my father. Or perhaps it is a deliberate fabrication. For that to be a plausible conclusion, there would need to be a motive. What motive could there be? To sell more books? Well, it is a good “hook,” as he has demonstrated. But he is perfectly capable of selling lots of books without it. Why would you undermine your defense of truth by marketing it around a falsehood which is in no way essential either to your argument or to your goal of selling books? Especially when your legacy as a documentary maker is largely dependent on your credibility. It makes no sense at all. Perhaps the goal is not to sell books, but to achieve the sort of immortality that goes along with being part of a legend that is printed and reprinted as fact because “we love to read about crisis and conflict.” One needn’t go to ancient history for examples—Morris’s anecdote has already been compared to Wittgenstein’s Poker (which despite being a celebrated dust-up took 55 years to appear in book form). And perhaps the sly satisfaction of using untruth to settle a vendetta against someone who you think is denying the very existence of truth (and therefore also of untruth) is irresistible. These are all speculations; there may be truth to all, some, or none of them. All I can say is that, as a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, I am a frequent witness to the fact that when people act out of their wounds they often do so in ways that don’t make sense and may in fact be highly self-defeating.

So if I believe that Morris is relating a false episode and titled his book on that basis, what should I do about it? It doesn’t speak to Morris’s intellectual argument one way or another. The allegation has no bearing on my father’s intellectual legacy; it may do some damage to his reputation as a human being, but that was already not pristine. What does not sit well with me is that, in the process of supposedly defending the truth from debasement, Morris seems to be taking his own shot at debasing it. I just don’t believe you can release yourself from your wounds unless you do it with integrity. Hatred does not cease through hatred. That goes for people, and it goes for countries. And silence in the face of truth’s debasement does not seem like the thing to do.

[I am grateful for editorial feedback from Sarah Kuhn, Claudia Matzko, and Anna Walker.]

[March 29, 2019. A friend alerted me to John Horgan’s review of The Ashtray; I was interested to note that sitting with Morris’s bile for an extended period seems to have caused Horgan to come closer to defending my father’s work. Horgan was kind enough to add a link to this piece, and also alerted me to David Kordahl’s review, which I think is wonderful.]

[April 15, 2019: John Horgan has posted a thoughtful letter from a colleague and former student of my father’s under the title Thomas Kuhn Wasn’t So Bad.]

One Reply to “Errol Morris Resurfaces”

  1. Nat,
    I’m a hopeless student of philosophy of science and through reading the post revolutions debates, particularly Criticisms and the Growth of Knowledge, and thinking about subsequent work by folks like Larry Laudan, who unpacked the paradigm so we can understand it better, am in no doubt your father was a realist. To assert that he murdered science and was merely providing a fake alibi, is character assassination, for the words are there for anyone who cares to read them and put some effort into understanding what was said.
    I thought John Horgan’s recounting of the complexity of your father’s thinking and his sometimes excoriation, sometimes encouragement of his own students, in getting them to think and to write clearly, was telling. It seems he might have reacted to a young smart-arse who was accusing him of faking it – if after writing a long response and that too, was dismissed …
    However, despite being a realist, when it came to the problem of incommensurateness, when presented with two or more theories, how do you know which is more real? His own training and application to history told him that in the past, scholars and the learned community were convinced that new theories were more real than the one they overturned. And he was able to show this was not the case. Progress is not unilateral. While it is possible to use scientific methods to prefer one over the other, when it comes to reality, how close is the preferred hypothesis to reality? This question is still fiercely debated. And is one reason why Feyerabend stops at empiricism, because strong empiricism might be a decent stab at reality (sure I’m doing him a disservice here). So it’s possible to be a realist and doubt whether your science is real.
    Laudan’s unpacking of the paradigm into theory, values and methods (also described that way by Margaret Masterman), and insistence that these do not get overturned all at once, but piece by piece and in different order, is valuable. A paradigm is constructed by a community and overturning that is a social activity, long after the theory has been updated. The discoverer(s) may eventually be credited (or the professor who stole the idea from a grad student – which ever the case may be), but the overturning, if it can be called that, comes way later. If that isn’t a social act of belief, you can call me Hannibal and pat my elephants.
    As to leading to Trump. I believe Latour has given something of a half-hearted apology and endorsed science as more reliable (and way less risky) than fake news. I think more apologies may be in order. Trashing Kuhn’s reputation unfairly actually degrades the importance of what he wrote, because the antiscience movement is using degraded Popperian positivism to debase science, and killing Kuhn is part of that program. In that case, Morris is being a patsy for pomo antiscientism, the very thing he abhors.

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