The Ashtray: A Series on Incommensurability
March 9, 2011 7:47 PM   Subscribe

The Ashtray: The Ultimatum. Part one of a series by Errol Morris on meaning, truth, intolerance and flying ashtrays.

The Ashtray: Shifting Paradigms. In part two of the series, an exploration of whether language helps us uncover the world, or obscure it.

The Ashtray: Hippasus of Metapontum. A third installment, in which it turns out that the confused postmodern term ‘incommensurability’ is really about intolerance.

The Ashtray: The Author of the ‘Quixote’. The series on incommensurability continues with ‘The Existentialist’s Nightmare’ and the Humpty Dumpty Theory of Meaning.
posted by homunculus (20 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
If you haven't seen it, do yourself a favor and rent Morris's Vernon, Florida. A truly awesome collection of endearing real-life oddballs and one of the most strangely touching, poetic, and sincerely weird documentaries of all time.
posted by ORthey at 8:20 PM on March 9, 2011

Reading stuff like this makes me aware of how much of an intellectual midget I am. If I turn green and have two heads am I no longer unliteral?
posted by unliteral at 8:29 PM on March 9, 2011

I had no idea that the greatest living nonfiction filmmaker had such an intimate (?!) relationship with Kuhn, whom I had never thought of as a living human being when I read one of his books in college...Great find!
posted by kozad at 8:35 PM on March 9, 2011

This is a really wonderful series. I had no idea that Morris started out in history of science, and had no idea that he was good at philosophy. His criticisms of Kuhn are spot on. I'd heard that Kuhn was a jerk, and it's fun to have more gossip about that.
posted by painquale at 8:51 PM on March 9, 2011

Yeah, this is a real pleasure. Thanks!
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 8:52 PM on March 9, 2011

Kuhn's book gets hated on an awful lot nowadays by philosophers and historians of science, mostly because of the hasty conclusions about incommensurability and the lack of progress in science. They were picked up by postmodernists and others in the humanities and helped fuel the ugliness of the science wars. But it's a shame that the book gets dismissed, because the incommensurability thesis is only a part of the book: the distinction between normal science and revolution was a really valuable contribution, and the first half of his book is all about that. (I think that's a distinction that historians and sociologists of science still accept.) And his arguments for the social nature of scientific assumptions and discovery were well-states, even though they weren't anything particularly new at the time.
posted by painquale at 9:04 PM on March 9, 2011

*well-stated. Stupid autocorrect.
posted by painquale at 9:05 PM on March 9, 2011

I agree that I've been very surprised to realize Morris's connection to Kuhn and that whole era at Princeton. It doesn't surprise me at that he was preparing for a heavy duty academic philosophical/historical career; some of his films are extremely philosophically sharp and his previous columns in the NYT have been very scholarly (in a good way) and clear-thinking. This has been a very fun series, even if I have quibbles with a few ways he phrases things I think his main points are spot-on and I'm impressed to see him conveying this stuff in such an (it seems to me) accessible way.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:12 PM on March 9, 2011

On Truth? Uh-Oh. In this one, does he undertake a mission to Mars to prove that ashtrays were invented by the Incas or something?
posted by fullerine at 11:18 PM on March 9, 2011

Cor, this is pretty savage stuff. Anything less than a midnight grave desecration in part five will feel anticlimactic.
posted by hawthorne at 5:10 AM on March 10, 2011

When I read the first installment I was excited to find out that Morris had been at the Kripke Naming and Necessity lectures, sort of like finding out that two friends of mine from different parts of my life are actually friends with each other. I wish Errol Morris actually were my friend. Anyway, as an aside, Kripke likes to mention how he's pals with Terrence Malick, another filmmaker with a philosophy background.
posted by tractorfeed at 6:06 AM on March 10, 2011

Errol Morris: What's in my bag
posted by homunculus at 9:06 AM on March 10, 2011

I love this series. and Kuhn has some pretty good ideas. love it or hate it, it is standard reading. he's like elvis--everything that comes after is a reaction against or a copy of him.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:38 AM on March 10, 2011

This bit from the fourth article seemed odd to me. Morris quotes this paragraph from Wittgenstein:

“So you are saying that human agreement decides what is true and what is false?” –– It is what human beings say that is true and false; and they agree in the language they use. That is not agreement in opinions but in form of life.

...and glosses it with:

In paragraph 241, it’s agreement between human beings that decides what is true or false. It suggests that we could agree that the earth is flat and that would make it so.

...which seems to be the opposite of (or at any rate, something quite different from) what the paragraph is saying. If Wittgenstein meant what Morris claims he did, I'd expect the paragraph to read something like:

“So you are saying that human agreement decides what is true and what is false?” –– Yes.

posted by uosuaq at 2:00 PM on March 10, 2011

It's a little more complicated than that. Basically there is a view that the semantics of natural language is decided by usage. So it's not exactly that we could agree that the earth is flat and that would make it so, but if we agree that "the earth is flat" is a true statement, then that alters the meaning of 'the earth' and/or 'flat' to be such that of the things that are considered to be 'flat', 'the earth' is one of those things. This seems weird if you look at very non-vague predicates, such as 'is prime' where there isn't very much wiggle room (if at all), but look at terms like 'marriage' where there are all kinds of debates as to how it is defined. Or 'baby' -- when does 'X is a baby' stop being a true sentence for any human X? Or 'bald'? How many hairs can you have on your head and still be bald?
posted by tractorfeed at 5:12 PM on March 10, 2011

The Ashtray: This Contest of Interpretation. The series on incommensurability concludes with a trip down the minefield of memory lane: a return to Princeton.
posted by homunculus at 5:37 PM on March 10, 2011

Well yes, I agree that it's more complicated than that. What bothers me is that Morris has Wittgenstein saying it's not. I'm not a Wittgenstein scholar (or even a fan), but I take him to be saying that how our language works has a lot to do with the fact that (for the most part) we have arms, legs, a tongue, wear certain clothes, eat certain things, bow to or shake hands with each other, etc. What I don't see him saying, in that paragraph at least, is that for two people who "agree" completely in their "form of life", the world itself doesn't ultimately determine what is true or false to say (perhaps excepting statements like "True Blood is a lame-ass show"). So I found Morris' statement kind of a turn-off.
As for "How many hairs can you have on your head and still be bald?"...that's a sorites paradox, and not really to the point.
posted by uosuaq at 5:40 PM on March 10, 2011

I think I read all five parts pretty close and I still do not know: why would Kuhn forbid Morris from attending Krupke's lectures? That doesn't make any sense!
posted by bukvich at 5:31 AM on March 11, 2011

Yeah that post on Wittgenstein's poker is pretty good. Sometimes I think that domestic violence creeps either have universally horrible aim or, more likely, their victims exaggerate an intention which never existed. If you throw an ashtray at the wall to startle someone, or intimidate them, this is a very different act from throwing the ashtray at their head with an intent to injure them and missing. I have lost count of the number of times somebody told me about their father putting a hole in the wall throwing a carton of milk "at their mother" when the reality was a 99% probability they were throwing the carton of milk at the wall.
posted by bukvich at 7:49 PM on March 11, 2011

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