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The Ashtray 
(Or the Man Who Denied Reality)
by errol morris
university of chicago press, 192 pages, $30

Suppose that nearly fifty years ago you were a doctoral student in the history and philosophy of science, in a program headed by an autocratic scholar with an international reputation and with whom you had serious disagreements. A conversation in his office became so heated that he threw his cut-glass ashtray at you, “spewing ash and butts”; soon after that, he had you thrown out of the program. Instead of pursuing an academic career elsewhere, you became a filmmaker, and later a writer as well, but you never lost your interest in philosophy, nor did you ever forget that day in 1972. Now, from your position of eminence, you revisit the conflict, in a book published by the University of Chicago Press—the same publisher that issued, in 1962, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas S. Kuhn, the ashtray-thrower himself.

It sounds like a revenge fantasy, with a whiff of The Count of Monte Cristo, but it is true, and the talent of Errol Morris justifies any presumption in the telling. The Ashtray (Or the Man Who Denied Reality) is sui generis. I’ve been baffled, as I’ve read and re-read Morris’s book over the course of this summer, why reviews haven’t been appearing in all the major outlets. Such a brilliant, impudent, idiosyncratic book on one of the most widely cited works of our time—including transcripts of conversations between Morris and various scholars as well as his running text, a volume beautifully designed and sumptuously produced—how could it not be generating raves and pans and learned close readings? But slowly I’ve realized how difficult it would be to find the right reviewer. Do you want a philosopher, someone capable of making Saul Kripke (one of Morris’s heroes here) intelligible to civilians? Do you want a historian of science? And whom is the book actually written for? It seems to be addressed, in part, to the ideal General Reader, with sections that don’t require grad-level study of philosophy and also with lots of well-chosen and witty images. It’s a very funny book, among other things. And when you come across passages that you can’t grasp, as I certainly did, you skip to the next bit, which will come soon.

You will have heard of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, whether or not you have ever read it. And you will have heard, for the most part, two takes on Kuhn’s book. One is that Kuhn—with his talk about “shifting paradigms”—was among the chief villains responsible for the “relativism” and muddle that has undermined Western society for decades now; the counter-take, coming mostly from within the academy, holds that this is an elementary misreading of Kuhn, that—whether or not you agree with his broad program—he was not denying the rationality of science and the imperative of truth-seeking. Morris (as the title of his book makes clear) is unambiguously in the first camp, and this makes him something of an embarrassment. (For an example of the sanitized account of Kuhn, see the introduction by the very interesting scholar Ian Hacking to the fiftieth anniversary edition of Kuhn’s book.)

This conflict of interpretation is at the heart of Morris’s book. Not only in science but in other domains (politics, for instance), differing paradigms are “incommensurable” (a key assertion of Kuhn’s). They can’t be compared to see which accords better with reality. (Kuhn: “I am not suggesting, let me emphasize, that there is a reality that science fails to get at. My point rather is that no sense can be made of the notion of reality as it has ordinarily functioned in the philosophy of science.”) How, Morris asks, could Kuhn know this, unless he could somehow be positioned above the fray, able “to compare the meanings of words in one paradigm to the meanings of words in another”? And then this question: “But who gave Kuhn this supreme position—the job of ultimate observer?”

At the very end of the book, Morris—who describes himself as “a secular Jew”—writes about the search for truth that has been central to his work as a filmmaker:

I feel very strongly that, even though the world is unutterably insane, there is this idea—perhaps a hope—that we can reach outside of the insanity and find truth, find the world, find ourselves. … There are endless obstacles and impediments to finding the truth. You might never find it; it’s an elusive goal. But here’s something to remember. The world is out there—like an undiscovered continent. And it’s our job to go out and discover it. It’s one of the deepest lessons I’ve taken away from my experiences at Princeton and beyond.

Reading this at the end of Morris’s dazzling book, I was very grateful that the Truth found me.

John Wilson was the editor of Books & Culture from its first issue (in 1995) to its last (in 2016).

Photo by Justin Brendel.

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