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)
"A wonderful read, combining memoir, epistemological reflection, the ethnography of academic philosophy -and confession of faith. The Ashtray will provoke and stimulate any serious reader, but it will provide particular insights for anyone familiar with Morris's important films."
"A compelling send-up of contemporary relativism about truth and epistemology by the distinguished film-maker and writer Errol Morris. He bases it on his own personal interactions with Thomas Kuhn, one of its most influential practitioners. But there is a little bit of everything in the book. Interviews with philosophers and scientists are intertwined with stories from many of my own favorite authors (Lewis Carroll, Russell, Borges), and discussions of notions such as reference, natural kind, paradigm, and incommensurability. Throughout we find, as we have come to expect from him, Morris's commitment to find out the truth. This time about truth itself."
"Errol Morris is a remarkable documentary film maker. He pursues his craft in the conviction that there is truth to be found and that creative and determined efforts will uncover it. In this extraordinary book, Morris explores his animating philosophical commitments about truth, reality, and knowledge. He presents his outlook in sharp opposition to ideas about relativism and incommensurability that he associates with Thomas Kuhn’s profoundly influential The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Morris's book is entertaining and engaging, but above all else it offers us a compelling exploration of the value of truth."
"This book is brilliant, thought-provoking, sometimes infuriating, and nearly always convincing. Everyone interested in the fate of truth and knowledge in these postmodern, alternative fact times should read it."
"Many readers will know Errol Morris for his superb films that have won an Academy Award and other high honors. He has given us a book of the same quality and importance. It is a sustained argument in defense of Truth and Reality. At the same time, it is the story of a life in passionate pursuit of these vital ideas, not as distant abstractions but as things that actually exist in the world and demand our respect. It is about time! In an era of false news in our media, pseudo facts in politics, and political correctness in academe, no cause is more urgent than the cause of Truth and Reality."
"Is truth real or is it a matter of opinion? That is the question Errol Morris ponders in this fascinating book. His argument for the reality of truth is compelling, informative, and lively. And there's another powerful lesson in it that goes far beyond the seemingly abstract philosophical issues: We escape the bubble of relativism precisely when we reach out to other human beings, when we care about something more than the 'little me,' when we offer the world our loveas Morris has done with his inspiring films, and now with this book."
A scrappy continuation of Morris's disagreement with Kuhn and an explanation of why he thinks Kuhn’s ideas, which bear a certain resemblance to Berkeley’s, are so pernicious. . . . The Ashtray strikes me as an unlikely source for reaching a better understanding of Kuhn.; Morris dislikes him too much and can’t be trusted not to stack the deck against him. He ignores, for example, the excellent arguments against Whiggishness as a form of propaganda used to justify the historical dominance of Westerners over the rest of the world. But the book is a marvelous tool for the better understanding of Errol Morris, who is both a great artist and a fascinating individual in his own right.”
The documentarian Errol Morris gives us The Ashtray, a semi-autobiographical tale of the supremely influential The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn. A spellbinding intellectual adventure into the limits, fragility, and infirmity of human reason. Morris’s tale is picaresque. Anecdotes, cameos, interviews, historical digressions, sly side notes, and striking illustrations hang off a central spine that recounts critical episodes in the history of analytic philosophy.”
What is it about philosophers? A more fissiparous bunch it would be hard to find: if they aren’t threatening each other with pokers, they are flinging ashtrays at each other’s heads. . . . The Ashtray is passionate, polemical and defiantly written in chatty, accessible language with copious amusing footnotes. Frequently scabrous, Morris acknowledges that it could be seen as a vendetta, and freely admits that it is, as he views Kuhn’s idea of the social construction of knowledge as pernicious and disturbing. As befits a man whose life has been dedicated to documentary films, Morris sets great store by the existence of an objective truth, and this book is his passionate defence of that truth. . . . I found this all rather enjoyable. If you want an opinionated, impolite page-turner picking a fight with half of the modern philosophy of science, this is definitely the book for you.”
America's favorite myth-buster settles an old—and very arcane—score.In 1972, Morris (Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography, 2011, etc.) was nearly brained by a flying ashtray; his would-be assailant was the physicist Thomas Kuhn, author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The two were at odds over James Clerk Maxwell's theory of the displacement current, but the dispute went much deeper: whether truth is real (Morris) or relative and beholden to "paradigm shift" (Kuhn). In the years since, Morris has become the lively documentarian who obsessively follows the strange paths truth can take (The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War, Tabloid, Wormwood et al.), and he has taken similar investigative trails in several books. Through it all, the Kuhn contretemps has apparently continued to gnaw at him; this book is his attempt at putting the matter to rest. For Morris, Kuhn's legacy is little more than a general distrust of words and history. "For Kuhn, the meaning of words is endlessly in flux," writes the author. "Changing your paradigm is not like changing your oil. You end up with a completely different set of meanings—except maybe you can't know it, because the meanings are inaccessible to you." Morris charges that Kuhn has likewise contributed to the "devaluation of scientific history" by arguing that truth isn't so much discovered as created. The book can be tough sledding for readers a little shaky on modern trends in linguistic theory or historiography, and the constant digressions—Morris chases one rabbit after the next in footnotes stacked in the margins—can get annoying. One also senses a missed opportunity: in the era of fake news and alternative facts, the author might have made a stronger connection to the relativity of modern life.The book may prove illuminating for patient readers, but Morris the scorned student is not Morris the filmmaker: he makes you work.