Errol Morris Refutes It Thus

The filmmaker’s new book continues an argument with the philosopher Thomas Kuhn begun in 1972.

Errol Morris in the Shawangunk Mountains, ca. 1971, book cover of The Ashtray.
Errol Morris in the Shawangunk Mountains, ca. 1971, book cover of The Ashtray. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by David Saum.

The 18th-century Irish philosopher Bishop George Berkeley concluded that, since all we know of the universe is what our senses convey to us, things in the world exist only to the extent that we perceive them. They have no material reality, but are phenomena in and of our minds, or the mind of God. Samuel Johnson famously countered this philosophy by kicking a large stone and saying, “I refute it thus!” Two hundred years later, while American campuses roiled with protests against the Vietnam War, the philosopher, historian, and physicist Thomas Kuhn met with a grad student at Princeton’s legendary Institute for Advanced Study to discuss the student’s paper. The professor and student disagreed on some fundamental ideas, and the conversation grew heated. Finally, the chain-smoking Kuhn got so irate that he threw a cut-glass ashtray, overflowing with butts, at the grad student.

Kuhn was the author of a hugely influential 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and the scholar responsible for the concept of the paradigm shift. The student he threw an ashtray at was Errol Morris, who in 1972 had no inkling that one day he’d become one of the most esteemed filmmakers of his time. In addition to making his true-crime masterpiece The Thin Blue Linea documentary that helped exonerate a man wrongfully convicted of murder—the Oscar-winning The Fog of War, and many other films, Morris has written three fascinating books derived from columns he wrote for the New York Times’ website. The Ashtray is his latest, a scrappy continuation of his 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 Kuhn lobbed at Morris embodies both the pointy-edged reality that (in Morris’ view) Kuhn denied and the professor’s brutal “intolerance” of any dissent from his own theories. The book is named for that ashtray, but it might have been titled Errol Morris Kicks a Rock.

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is a difficult book to summarize, as are Morris’ criticisms of Kuhn’s reasoning and some of his interviews with philosophers who share his skepticism toward Kuhn’s thought. Furthermore, Kuhn complained until his death in 1996 that his ideas had been misunderstood or misrepresented. This was at least partly his own fault. “What I hated most about Kuhn’s lectures,” Morris writes, “was the combination of obscurantism and dogmatism. On one hand, he was extremely dogmatic. On the other, it was never really clear about what.” Morris, who is always clear and often wickedly lively, can be pretty ferocious himself when it comes to defending his own beliefs.

Very roughly, Kuhn argued that the history of science consists of the reign of a series of paradigms—sets of concepts and practices in a framework of thought—that define how the scientists of any period understand the universe. At certain points in time, anomalies—phenomena that the prevailing paradigm cannot account for—accumulate to the degree that a new paradigm arises, comes into conflict with the old one, and eventually supplants it. The most familiar example of this is Einstein’s theory of special relativity, which usurped Newtonian mechanics in the early 20th century. So revolutionary are these shifts that people who see the universe according to one paradigm can’t, Kuhn claimed, truly communicate with those who have bought into another. They may use the same words, but they ascribe different meanings to them; the languages they speak are what Kuhn called “incommensurable.” They inhabit different realities.

In Morris’ eyes, this theory is “wanting and, more often than not, false, contradictory, or even devoid of content.” He considers Kuhn a champion of relativism who invalidated the very idea of a fundamental reality outside of our own minds. His work, Morris feels, is “an assault on truth and progress.” While studying at Princeton, Morris soon learned that Kuhn held in particular contempt any view of science as a triumphal procession toward a more accurate description of the universe and how it works, a view called “Whiggishness,” from British politics. The ultimate mouthpiece of Kuhn’s anti-Whiggish position in The Ashtray is an unnamed Harvard graduate student who insists that a new paradigm is not necessarily better than the old one, “just different.”

This is just the sort of thing to drive Morris nuts. In his previous book, 2012’s A Wilderness of Error, he considered the 1979 conviction of Jeffrey MacDonald, an Army doctor, for the murder of his wife and daughters. MacDonald’s case has spawned one best-seller, Joe McGinniss’ Fatal Vision, published in 1983. That book was in turn the subject of Janet Malcolm’s 1990 classic, The Journalist and the Murderer, about the lawsuit MacDonald filed against McGinniss, accusing the writer of eliciting his help by falsely claiming to believe in his innocence. Malcolm cared only for the drama between the two men, an exaggerated version, as she sees it, of the deception and betrayal inherent in every journalist’s relationship to her subject. She recounts deciding not to read through the stacks of evidence that the ever-hopeful MacDonald sent to her because “I cannot learn anything about MacDonald’s guilt or innocence from this material.” For her, this is an issue of character. For Morris, it’s a matter of evidence and truth. He angrily retorts, “The only way you can learn anything about MacDonald’s guilt or innocence is from this mountain of documents.”

Malcolm is less interested in MacDonald’s guilt than in McGinniss’, but to Morris this is unacceptable; what matters is whether an innocent man has been imprisoned for life. Many of his films explore crime, and in the final chapter of Ashtray he asks, “Is ultimate guilt or innocence of a crime a matter of opinion? Is it relative? Is it subjective?” While a jury charged with deciding the matter could get the answer wrong, they can only be wrong if we believe that an answer is possible, that “there is a fact of the matter. You either did it or you didn’t. Period.” For those condemned of capital crimes, there would be “nothing relative” about being strapped into an electric chair. As an alternative to what he regards as Kuhnian relativism—the assertion that absolute truth does not exist, that all truths are socially constructed—he offers what he calls “investigative realism. I am saying there is a real world out there.” But we can’t naïvely assume that the truth is self-evident, the stance of what’s often called “common sense.” This was Dr. Johnson’s mistake, and led to a logical fallacy—”appeal to the stone”—named after his inadequate refutation of Berkeley. Instead, Morris argues, we have to work hard to get closer to the truth, recognizing that we may never fully arrive. “We learn about it,” Morris writes, “through reason, through observation, through investigation, through thought, through science.”

And perhaps not always by listening to Errol Morris. Kuhn has defenders who insist that he was not in fact the relativist Morris makes him out to be, and that he did believe in an ultimate reality apart from the mind. The combative Morris also has a track record of misrepresenting the statements of others in order to gin up a rhetorical antagonist to battle. In his 2011 book on photography, Believing Is Seeing, he defended Roger Fenton, one of the first war photographers, from charges that he had staged a 1855 shot meant to demonstrate the devastation caused by the Crimean War by taking cannonballs that had rolled to the side of a road and moved them into the road itself. He presents Susan Sontag as a critic who “moralized” against Fenton for this alleged falsification, when, as more than one reviewer has pointed out, she did no such thing and instead praised Fenton’s work in Crimea. Morris mounted an elaborate experiment that involved traveling to Sebastopol, obtaining vintage cannonballs, and painstakingly recreating the scene in order to photograph it at various times of the day—all to establish the sequence in which the two photographs (cannonballs on the road and cannonballs off) were taken. It’s a fascinating exercise, but not perhaps entirely necessary.

Of course, Morris has a dog in this particular fight, not just an impartial appetite for the truth. The Thin Blue Line contains re-enactments of scenes from the murder case at its center, a technique controversial among documentary filmmakers at the time it was released. Objections to these re-enactments caused the movie to be shut out of the documentary category of that year’s Academy Awards. Just as infuriating to Morris were the people who assumed that his film asserted the ultimate unknowability or subjectivity of truth because its re-enactments presented differing versions of the circumstances of the murder, illustrating contradictory witness statements. (Kuhn is not the only one to fume over being misread.) One of the points Morris sought to make in Believing Is Seeing is that while there is no cinematic truth—that is, photography and film should not be perceived, as some naïve realists do, as simple records of fact—they can be tools in investigative realism, the long labor to get closer to a truth that does exist.

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.

Before reading The Ashtray, although I knew that Morris had been kicked out of philosophy and history-of-science programs at both Princeton and UC–Berkeley (it was Kuhn who got him ejected from the former), I had always seen his preoccupation with objects, particularly the sorts of objects commonly found in midcentury American middle-class homes—a pocket watch or a rocking horse, so saturated with potent yet remote significance that they resemble fetishes or icons—as a result of his past as both a fan of detective films and a working private detective. What is a clue, if not an object suffused with extraordinary meaning? But that assumption failed to account for one of the most striking formal aspects of Morris’ films: his use of repetitive images and sequences, typically photographed with a serene, almost cosmological beauty, like the milkshake that over and over again flies through a black void in Thin Blue Line to the iterations of Phillip Glass’ soundtrack.

The milkshake is indeed a clue, but the repetitions of that image and of other images throughout Morris’ work suggest something more than that. They suggest experiments: the recurring re-creation, in isolated and controlled conditions, of certain events in an attempt to establish a fact. Morris’ journey to Crimea and his strangely obsessive quest to reproduce Fenton’s two photographs, measuring and comparing the shadows cast by rocks and cannonballs at specific times and dates, bespeaks the inclinations of a scientist even more than those of a detective or documentarian. This realization casts all of his films in a different light; what once looked like an exercise in mood and style becomes an assertion about the universe itself. “At the time,” Morris writes of being expelled from Princeton by Kuhn, “I felt that he had destroyed my life. Now, I feel that he saved me from a career I was not suited for.” But a career not so very different after all.

The Ashtray: (Or the Man Who Denied Reality) by Errol Morris. University of Chicago Press.

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