In 1972, philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn threw an ashtray at Errol Morris. This book is the result.
At the time, Morris was a graduate student. Now we know him as one of the most celebrated and restlessly probing filmmakers of our time, the creator of such classics of documentary investigation as The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War. Kuhn, meanwhile, was—and, posthumously, remains—a star in his field, the author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a landmark book that has sold well over a million copies and introduced the concept of “paradigm shifts” to the larger culture. And Morris thought the idea was bunk.
The Ashtray tells why—and in doing so, it makes a powerful case for Morris’s way of viewing the world, and the centrality to that view of a fundamental conception of the necessity of truth. “For me,” Morris writes, “truth is about the relationship between language and the world: a correspondence idea of truth.” He has no patience for philosophical systems that aim for internal coherence and disdain the world itself. Morris is after bigger game: he wants to establish as clearly as possible what we know and can say about the world, reality, history, our actions and interactions. It’s the fundamental desire that animates his filmmaking, whether he’s probing Robert McNamara about Vietnam or the oddball owner of a pet cemetery. Truth may be slippery, but that doesn’t mean we have to grease its path of escape through philosophical evasions. Rather, Morris argues powerfully, it is our duty to do everything we can to establish and support it.
In a time when truth feels ever more embattled, under siege from political lies and virtual lives alike, The Ashtray is a bracing reminder of its value, delivered by a figure who has, over decades, uniquely earned our trust through his commitment to truth. No Morris fan should miss it.
In Paradigms and Barriers Howard Margolis offers an
innovative interpretation of Thomas S. Kuhn's landmark idea
of "paradigm shifts," applying insights from cognitive
psychology to the history and philosophy of science.
Building upon the arguments in his acclaimed Patterns, Thinking, and Cognition, Margolis suggests that the
breaking down of particular habits of mind—of critical
"barriers"—is key to understanding the processes through
which one model or concept is supplanted by another.
Margolis focuses on those revolutionary paradigm shifts—
such as the switch from a Ptolemaic to a Copernican
worldview—where challenges to entrenched habits of mind
are marked by incomprehension or indifference to a new
paradigm. Margolis argues that the critical problem for a
revolutionary shift in thinking lies in the robustness of the
habits of mind that reject the new ideas, relative to the
habits of mind that accept the new ideas.
Margolis applies his theory to famous cases in the history of
science, offering detailed explanations for the transition
from Ptolemaic to cosmological astronomy, the emergence of
probability, the overthrow of phlogiston, and the emergence
of the central role of experiment in the seventeenth century.
He in turn uses these historical examples to address larger
issues, especially the nature of belief formation and
contemporary debates about the nature of science and the
evolution of scientific ideas.
Howard Margolis is a professor in the Harris Graduate School
of Public Policy Studies and in the College at the University
of Chicago. He is the author of Selfishness, Altruism, and Rationality and Patterns, Thinking, and Cognition, both published by the University of Chicago