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. Continue reading “Errol Morris Resurfaces”

Final comment on Errol Morris’s series

Added later: at the time I wrote this, I was able to provide links to the individual comments on Morris’s series that I was responding to; sadly, they were not “permalinks” but “ephemalinks,” and  I did not think to preserve the text of the comments themselves.

I can’t resist taking one last stir at the dying embers here.  @LG #6: I join many others in thanking you for what seems to me to be a very able and cogent summary.  And as you say, it has been an interesting week, certainly very different from just reading a series in the newspaper.  @Skoorby #66: thank you for your very interesting description of the process of following this and other writings and discussion; I can relate to pretty much all of what you said, and I think it’s a valuable contribution as we adapt to this brave new world (in small letters, i.e. Shakespeare more than Huxley) of the web.

Continue reading “Final comment on Errol Morris’s series”

My comment on Errol Morris’s 4th installment of “The Ashtray” ran over 5,000 characters


I finally hit my limit today, and I had some time, so I wrote a comment on Errol Morris’s 4th installment of his  “Ashtray” series on the Times web site.  Comments are limited to 5,000 characters and the site cheerfully informed me that I had minus 1520 characters remaining.  So here it is in its entirety:

There is apparently yet another Thomas Kuhn here, one I don’t think he would have ever anticipated: the Thomas Kuhn who threw the ashtray.  Speaking as his son I have to say that, try as I might, I just can’t get myself to believe that he threw that ashtray.

I am not someone to take the ramparts to defend my father against every allegation.  He was a complicated guy and he did a lot of things.  Many were admirable.  Some were absolutely indefensible.

What we’re seeing here is not a rejection of his views; it’s a rejection of a caricature of his view.  He never believed in any sort of relativism that says there is no truth other than the point of view people take on it.  He believed very much in truth, but he also knew that understanding what it is to be true is much more complicated than it might first appear.

He certainly made mistakes, and I certainly heard him say things that I knew to be false but that he believed based on his own distorted point of view.  But I don’t believe I ever saw him say anything that he knew to be untrue.  He believed in truth, and he believed in truthfulness.  He had a bad temper at times.  He could be angry, he could yell, he could behave quite badly, but I never, ever saw him be violent, threaten violence, or throw anything, not even the pencil that was perpetually tucked behind his ear.  I’m prepared to believe quite a few unflattering things about him, and to say some myself (though mostly in private), but I just can’t get myself to believe that he threw that ashtray, and neither can anyone I’ve talked to who knew him well—among whom there is quite a spectrum of overall opinion about him.  (I should say here that, as a few commenters have noted, he could also be generous, helpful, understanding, encouraging, and more.)

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“The Legacy of Thomas Kuhn”


Errol Morris, whom I otherwise greatly respect, is in the midst of posting a five-part series on the New York Times web site entitled “The Ashtray” about my father, their vexed relationship, the nature of truth, etc.  The series is by turns…  well, I’m hoping to write more about it here later—we’ll see whether that happens.

In the meantime, it reminded me of some remarks I made at a November 1997 “Symposium on the Legacy of Thomas Kuhn,” at MIT’s (late) Dibner Institute, in response to another former student of his who had suggested in a presentation that the most sensible way to account for the widespread dissemination of Kuhn’s ideas was because he had Narcissistic Personality Disorder (as defined by the by-then-already-outdated revised 3rd edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of…]). Never mind the fact that most people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder don’t get their ideas disseminated very far. Continue reading ““The Legacy of Thomas Kuhn””


Every so often I read a book and think, “I wish my dad were around to read this.”  The most recent is “Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth” by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou—a graphic novel centered around the life of Bertrand Russell and detailing the “Quest for the Foundations of Mathematics” through the development of the discipline of mathematical logic.

I found it on one or two “ten-best” lists and gave it to my son Ben for Christmas.  On the way to wrapping it I picked it up and started to read it (being as careful as I could not to break the spine).  I enjoyed what I read and kept going.  To my surprise, I wound up loving this book. Continue reading “Logicomix!”