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No ashtray-throwing here

Here’s a smart, thoughtful post from old-school Snarkmarket pal Dan Bouk over at AmericanScience. It’s about Thomas Kuhn (of the Structure of Scientific Revolutions fame), Errol Morris (of Errol Morris fame), and the way we have debates (or don’t). I think there’s a lot there that Snarkmarket fans will enjoy, not least of which is Dan’s voice.


The story rings of Wittgenstein’s Poker. I’m shocked that no one, to my knowledge, has made a comparison.

[Comment I just posted over at AmericanScience]

Very nice post, Dan. I was disappointed with Morris’s series, too, especially the way in which in Morris’s account, Kuhnian “incommensurability” gets permuted into “untranslatability,” the impossibility of even understanding in any language what another person means.

There’s no evidence that that’s what Kuhn means, even between scientific practitioners working in different “normal science” paradigms, and very good evidence that it’s not. The best evidence is that Kuhn thinks that the history of science is possible — but Morris uses that as evidence of Kuhn’s God complex. In short, Morris invents incommensurability as an impossibility, then shouts “tu quoque” at Kuhn for thinking he can overcome an entirely imaginary impossibility.

Also, Morris’s account of Kripke’s philosophy and why he thinks Kripke is important are just as unrecognizable to me as his account of Kuhn. Kripke sometimes gets teased in philosophical circles for his book “Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language” for inventing a version of Wittgenstein that isn’t quite the historical Wittgenstein and very much like Kripke himself, so much so that the Wittgenstein in Kripke’s book is sometimes called “Kripgenstein.” There isn’t a natural portmanteau for Morris’s version of Kuhn, but I think the same criticism applies.

Dan says…

[also x-posted at AmericanScience]
Kripgenstein—that’s funny. It suggests an entirely new genre of names based on the mash-up of two philosophers, who combined become a famous monster of Romantic literature.

In that spirit, I offer Morruhn, as in “the Island of Dr. Morruhn,” or even better, “the Astray of Dr. Morruhn.”

More seriously, I like your diagnosis of Morris’ approach. I can even understand why Morris might make the leap from incommensurability to intranslatability—it isn’t right, but it’s understandable. That’s one reason I so much like the mathematical metaphor from sqrt(2). Sure, there’s no simple rational number to translate to, but we can get to a decimal approximation with whatever level of precision you ask for. There may not be perfect translation, but you can get something good enough to build a rocket, etc.

Kuhn’s ideas about progress in science also raise Morris’ hackles and lead Morris to over-shoot Kuhn’s point. Kuhn asserts that progress happens in normal science, by definition. But he claims that transitions between paradigms may or may not lead to progress. He leaves open the possibility that no progress occurs, but Morris reads this as a dictate that scientific revolutions deny progress.

In the continued spirit of fairness, Morris is hardly the only person to make these leaps and his essay might be read as an indictment less of Kuhn and more of the Kuhn constructed by all those who made these leaps (and applauded them) in the past. If the essay had been actually written as such, I might have liked it more.

I was waiting for Morris to make a turn, to try to grapple with his understanding of Kuhn & what Kuhn was on about. You know, try to do some of what he usually does in his writing and films. He basically looks back and says, “nope, 24-year-old me was so right that Kuhn just couldn’t handle it,” pats himself on the back, and walks away.

PS: I actually misspelled the name of the Kripke-Wittgenstein monster: traditionally, it’s “Kripkenstein,” not “Kripgenstein.” See

Oh I like this idea a lot: the Earth 2 version of a philosopher/writer, mutated by some other mind. I have several, I’m sure. One that I’m aware of is Harold Bloom, whose ideas about Shakespeare & consciousness I have totally misappropriated & mangled for my own purposes. Maybe I should call him Sloom? Bloan?

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