Thursday, December 20, 2018

The Ashtray

Do you want to read a book by the filmmaker Errol Morris about how he faced off with Thomas Kuhn who wrote The Structure of Scientific Thought? Further would you like to read a tome about the relativism and realism controversy and the work of Saul Kripke, the one-time Princeton colleague of Kuhn’s who took the opposing position? Or would you rather read a review of the work in question, with the arresting and show-stopping title, The Ashtray Or the Man who Denied Reality, in the TLS? (“Words and Worlds,” TLS 11/2/18). Bt the way, the ashtray in question was thrown at Morris's head by Kuhn when he threatened to go to one of Kripke's lectures, "The Ashtray: The Ulimatum (Part 1),NYT, 3/6/11.  It may be sacrilegious to say, but when it comes to philosophy even handed down by a colorful non-academic personality like Morris, reviews seem to be great time and space savers. Is that in and of itself a problem of say esthetics? If you take this idea to the extreme you may find yourself reading the pornographic version of the Dickens classic, Great Sexpectations,which is short and to the point, rather than the real thing. As a side issue, the reviewer, Joe Isaac’s description of Kuhn’s paradigm shift sounds curiously similar to Stephen J. Gould’s concept of “punctuated equilibrium.” But returning to The Ashtray, Isaac asks, “Why does Morris, one of the most creative documentary filmmakers around, care about any of this?...if Kuhn is right, Morris insists, many of us hoping to grasp the truth must be deluding ourselves. Our knowledge of the world would be relative to our historically formed conceptual scheme.” Hence it would be hard to make conclusions about the nature of reality and produce hard-hitting documentary films in which investigative reporting can free a wrongfully accused defendant, as Morris did in The Thin Blue Line.

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