Saturday, March 12, 2011

Final comment on Errol Morris's series

I can’t resist taking one last stir at the dying embers here.  @LG #6: I join many others in thanking you for what seems to me to be a very able and cogent summary.  And as you say, it has been an interesting week, certainly very different from just reading a series in the newspaper.  @Skoorby #66: thank you for your very interesting description of the process of following this and other writings and discussion; I can relate to pretty much all of what you said, and I think it’s a valuable contribution as we adapt to this brave new world (in small letters, i.e. Shakespeare more than Huxley) of the web.

@Mike G (#78 from installment #4): dude, the question about whether the ashtray was thrown or not is certainly peripheral, and perhaps inconsequential to all but a handful of readers here.  If by “keeper of the faith” you mean that I believe we do better as a society when people engage with one another with honesty and humility, and try to understand the strengths and weaknesses of their own and their interlocutor’s positions, then I happily accept what I take as a high compliment.  “The problem” which I failed to spell out clearly enough is that the “dog fight” or entertainment model of how to deal with (much less settle) differences is continuing to eat away at our public discourse with disastrous consequences, and if we want something different we gotta start being the change we want in the world.  From that point of view, the question of whether the ashtray was thrown or not has more weight.  (Incidentally, “bloodline” is a little tricky here, because although my father might well have subscribed to that faith or something like it, there is no disputing that by its standards he could be a pretty significant sinner.)  On the other hand, if you mean “defender of Kuhnianism” (if that’s what it’s called), you don’t know me very well.  I’ll buy you a beer sometime.

@sba #67: I had not heard your remark that “those wounds which we do not somehow allow to transform us we will in some way continue to transmit.”  As a psychiatrist and psychotherapist I live with the truth of it every day and I am very happy to have these words to say it.

@Errol Morris: It has been fascinating to be part of the reading community as this unfolded, and for that you have my thanks.  I look forward to seeing more of your films.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

My comment on Errol Morris's 4th installment of "The Ashtray" ran over 5,000 characters

I finally hit my limit today, and I had some time, so I wrote a comment on Errol Morris's 4th installment of his  "Ashtray" series on the Times web site.  Comments are limited to 5,000 characters and the site cheerfully informed me that I had minus 1520 characters remaining.  So here it is in its entirety:

There is apparently yet another Thomas Kuhn here, one I don’t think he would have ever anticipated: the Thomas Kuhn who threw the ashtray.  Speaking as his son I have to say that, try as I might, I just can’t get myself to believe that he threw that ashtray.

I am not someone to take the ramparts to defend my father against every allegation.  He was a complicated guy and he did a lot of things.  Many were admirable.  Some were absolutely indefensible.

What we’re seeing here is not a rejection of his views; it’s a rejection of a caricature of his view.  He never believed in any sort of relativism that says there is no truth other than the point of view people take on it.  He believed very much in truth, but he also knew that understanding what it is to be true is much more complicated than it might first appear.

He certainly made mistakes, and I certainly heard him say things that I knew to be false but that he believed based on his own distorted point of view.  But I don’t believe I ever saw him say anything that he knew to be untrue.  He believed in truth, and he believed in truthfulness.  He had a bad temper at times.  He could be angry, he could yell, he could behave quite badly, but I never, ever saw him be violent, threaten violence, or throw anything, not even the pencil that was perpetually tucked behind his ear.  I’m prepared to believe quite a few unflattering things about him, and to say some myself (though mostly in private), but I just can’t get myself to believe that he threw that ashtray, and neither can anyone I’ve talked to who knew him well—among whom there is quite a spectrum of overall opinion about him.  (I should say here that, as a few commenters have noted, he could also be generous, helpful, understanding, encouraging, and more).

So I don’t believe I threw the ashtray.  I don’t know whether he threw it or not.  But I have a great deal of certainty that he either threw it or he didn’t.  I know he would join me in that certainty; clearly Mr. Morris would and so, I think, would the vast majority of readers of this series.

I also have a hard time believing that he would “forbid” someone to go to a lecture.  Again, there’s plenty that he could say in such a discussion that might not reflect well on him, but “forbidding” simply wasn’t his style.  On the other hand, I don’t have any difficulty imagining that he might have said something that could honestly but inaccurately be remembered that way.

But the ashtray is harder.  I can’t think of anything he might have said or that could honestly be remembered as throwing an ashtray.  Of course I have learned time and again that the strangeness of the world surpasses my imagination, but that knowledge doesn’t seem to help me here.

Which leaves me only two conceivable conclusions: that (A) my deep conviction about this man I knew intimately is simply wrong, or that (B) the “remembering” here is not honest.  (Of course it’s possible that (C) the truth of the situation is inconceivable to me, but thankfully I will be silent about that).

But why would someone fabricate something unflattering, when there are many truthful unflattering things one could say?  I had to wait to the third installment to get a clue.  Incidentally, references to the ashtray mostly started out with readers being appalled (obviously an appropriate reaction, if the story is true); by the third installment they were running more like “I can see why he threw the ashtray.”  Only one commenter did anything but take the story at face value (my sister, Sarah).  In the third installment, we hear extensively about the legend of Hippasus of Metapontum—a name I never heard my father utter, though he did talk extensively about the genesis of his various ideas, which confirms my belief that this story has nothing to do with why he used the word "incommensurable."  As many commenters have pointed out, he was in fact using the term for its mathematical meaning, which is quite apt: two line segments are incommensurable when there is no segment of which they are both integral multiples: in other words, there is no simple, single standard by which they can both be straightforwardly characterized.  (That does not mean they can’t be compared, and it is a crowning technical achievement  that Greek mathematicians found a rigorous way to do this.  Modern mathematics had to wait until the 19th century—long after Newton, Leibniz, Euler, and others—to assimilate this achievement).

But buried in this perhaps interesting but wholly irrelevant side-trip, we find the following: “One of the oddities of history is that legends often supersede facts. Historical evidence accumulates, monographs are written; but the number of popular accounts retelling the apocryphal story … proliferate. Why? Because we love to read about crisis and conflict. It’s drama. It makes a better story.”

We can say many things about my father, but he would never knowingly sacrifice the facts to “make a better story.”  In our cultural context, that job falls to fiction writers and non-documentary filmmakers.  It is disturbing to me to be drawn to the conclusion that that line is being crossed without acknowledgment.

Reading today’s installment, I have to wonder if I am witnessing an elaborate but subliminal staging of a purported “Thomas Kuhn’s nightmare” in which he screams that truth and reality exist only insofar as we say things are true or real, and the off-screen voice screams back, “In that case, I’m saying that you threw an ashtray at me, so you did!”  Even if my father did actually believe those things, it’s hard to fathom why this would be worth both the trouble and the risk involved, but since he didn’t the strangeness only deepens; he did have nightmares but that ain't one of them.  By this point things are sufficiently creepy that I find myself wishing that I could find a way to believe (A), that I am simply mistaken.

Ultimately, I don’t think it makes that much difference whether my father is remembered as an SOB or not, or perhaps as a different degree of SOB.  Ultimately, I don’t even know whether my father’s intellectual legacy, or Wittgenstein’s for that matter, makes that much difference.  What I do believe makes a difference to us, as a species, is whether we can find a way to disagree in some way other than caricaturing our antagonist’s position and then scorching the earth that the straw man stands on.   Whether you believe that “talking past each other” is a result of incommensurability or not, we are in the process of talking past each other to ecological catastrophe.  Even if the ashtray was thrown, this series seems to me to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

"The Legacy of Thomas Kuhn"

Errol Morris, whom I otherwise greatly respect, is in the midst of posting a five-part series on the New York Times web site entitled "The Ashtray" about my father, their vexed relationship, the nature of truth, etc.  The series is by turns...  well, I'm hoping to write more about it here later—we'll see whether that happens.

In the meantime, it reminded me of some remarks I made at a November 1997 "Symposium on the Legacy of Thomas Kuhn," at MIT's (late) Dibner Institute, in response to another former student of his who had suggested in a presentation that the most sensible way to account for the widespread dissemination of Kuhn's ideas was because he had Narcissistic Personality Disorder (as defined by the by-then-already-outdated revised 3rd edition of the American Psychiatric Association's DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of...]). Never mind the fact that most people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder don't get their ideas disseminated very far.

Looking it over, I see that much of it is relevant to the contretemps with Mr. Morris, so I thought I would go ahead and post this (lightly edited) transcript of what I said:
I’m not an expert on Kuhn, but I was looking forward to Mike Mahoney’s talk this afternoon, because as a former mathematician I thought it might be a place where I’d have some opportunity to contribute something.  But it turns out I’ve had an earlier opportunity, since I’m now a psychiatrist.
I had decided to steer clear of the things that I don’t have any expertise in, but I would like to say that I believe it’s not an accident that the collection of papers was called “The Essential Tension.”  When you look at questions like, “Was he an internalist or was he externalist?” the answer is, I think, that that’s not a good question, that internalism and externalism are things that were both important to him, and that must necessarily be held in tension, and you can’t try to resolve them; that any resolution in one direction or the other is necessarily superficial, reductionistic, and eventually just won’t work.  I think that’s relatively straightforward.  I think that there’s a similar tension between realism and relativism that is equally unresolvable and reflects a tremendously difficult problem.  It’s not necessarily resolvable at all, but again, it’s something that needs to be held in tension.  When you try to hold apparently incompatible things in tension, it requires great subtlety; it’s very tempting to abandon that subtlety and follow the thought in one direction or the other.  When you say something like, “people approach observations with preconceived notions”—that, I think, is something that he believed in deeply.  To say that their observations are determined entirely by their preconceived notions is abandoning that sort of tension and is certainly not, in my experience, his way of trying to understand things.  This isn’t to say that he never fell into that trap of abandoning the tension and swinging in one direction or the other, but I think that that maintaining that tension is what you need to do if you want to negotiate your way through what are fundamentally very challenging and difficult problems.
The problem of authority in science is also a complicated one, and so I would just like to inject a cautionary note: that the DSM-III-R and the DSM-IV as we saw today are certainly controversial within psychiatry.  They are documents about which I myself am highly ambivalent, but I think that they wield a dull knife in the understanding of people and I think that that’s probably one of the least controversial things that you can say about them.  There are deep problems with the whole idea of categorical diagnosis, which is not say that I think that the DSMs are useless as documents, but I think it would be a great shame to see historiography sink to that level of understanding of people and how they work and what their motivations are.  In particular, the DSM is a completely atheoretical document—by design—because it’s an attempt to build a consensus in a community that had no consensus; it's an attempt to build a language community in a way that really, quite shockingly, didn’t exist in psychiatry before that time.  So the DSM as a document has its own very particular historical roots and it’s complicated to view it as a reification of truth about people although it certainly can contain a kernel of truth; I don’t want to be seen as a rejectionist about the DSM.  But it certainly needs to be regarded with at least the same amount of skepticism—and really actually more—than most of the other documents that people have discussed today.
I don’t think that anyone in this room would argue with the statement that my father was a complicated and often difficult person.  One of the truths about difficult people is that the people around them are often swept up into their interpersonal field.  The problems with psychiatric diagnosis in terms of observer bias are very complicated.  Even for psychiatrists, diagnoses, especially of personality disorders, are often highly subjective.
What I really wanted to say in closing is that we all carry wounds in our lives, and my father was certainly no exception to that.  I think that the task of development over the entire lifecycle is to do what we can to metabolize those wounds; and I think part of the task of professional development is to see what we can do to step back from our own wounds in the context of our work.  I think that the extent to which my father was able to do that is something that presumably will be long debated.  Often a realistic assessment of that sort of thing takes a certain amount of distance, and it’s a distance that children and students are necessarily not able to provide.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The first armband!

Well, I did wear the armband to Fenway.  Many thanks to my wife, without whom this would not actually have happened.

Somewhat the worse for wear at the end of the day, but you get the idea.

There was a long line for blood donations, so I was there for about two hours.  No one said a word to me about it.  But I'm guessing some people did notice it, and thought about it.

I heard a chunk of Tom Ashbrook's On Point today, which was a show on Islam in America.  It included a good discussion on the diversity of opinions and beliefs among muslims in the US and around the world.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Does the 9/11 Qur'an-burning make you sick? Here's something we can DO!

7pm Thurs 9/9 update: So the media are reporting that the Qur'an burnings are off (this may link to the Times article, or not due to some "issues" at, though the pastor in question has made a questionable claim that he obtained an agreement to move the mosque.  I'm still planning to wear my armband, and I hope other folks will, too.  This is a lot bigger than one guy in Florida.

So despite Gen. Petraeus's pleas, the Florida "pastor" says he will go ahead with his planned burning of the Qur'an on September 11th.  But somehow allowing a moderate Muslim to erect a community center near ground zero is a "desecration"?  I never expected that Michael Bloomberg would show up on my list of American heros, but I'm glad someone is showing up.

OK, I signed the petition saying I would "stand with American Muslims."  But I started to wonder whether there was a way to actually do something.

I thought about the (sadly apocryphal) story about King Christian X of Denmark donning a Star of David after the Nazis ordered Danish Jews to wear them.

So here's my idea: on September 11th, wear a black armband with a Star-and-Crescent, a Star of David, and a crucifix.  Wear it doing whatever you'd be doing that day, or make a special trip.  I plan to wear mine to the 9/11 Blood Drive at Fenway Park.

And here are a few facts you may want to keep in mind, if anyone wants to start a conversation with you (or vice versa):

Worldwide, the overwhelming majority of victims of "Islamic terrorists" are Muslims.  Over 3,000 Pakistanis were killed by terrorists in 2009 alone.

In the US and Europe, attacks by Islamic extremists account for a very small percentage of total terrorist attacks.

Well over fifty Muslims were killed in the 9/11 attacks.

I've put some public domain images of the symbols below.  It's Thursday; Saturday is eons away in web-years.  Tell your friends, email it, put it on your Facebook, or Twitter or whatever—maybe it can be a movement.  See you at the ballpark!

Saturday, December 26, 2009


Every so often I read a book and think, "I wish my dad were around to read this."  The most recent is "Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth" by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou—a graphic novel centered around the life of Bertrand Russell and detailing the "Quest for the Foundations of Mathematics" through the development of the discipline of mathematical logic.

I found it on one or two "ten-best" lists and gave it to my son Ben for Christmas.  On the way to wrapping it I picked it up and started to read it (being as careful as I could not to break the spine).  I enjoyed what I read and kept going.  To my surprise, I wound up loving this book.

I was thinking that it was the first graphic novel I'd ever read, but I realized that actually I'd read quite a few—because of all the Tintin books my sisters and I had read as kids.  And in fact, the drawing style is quite Tintinesque; the artists, Annie Di Donna and Alecos Papadatos, studied in France and worked on Tintin-related projects.

So of course there is a lot of intellectual history of mathematical logic—Russell, Whitehead, Cantor, Frege, Hilbert, and Gödel.  The "Vienna Circle" of logical positivists gets quite a bit of screen time, and there's more Wittgenstein than I had expected from the relatively narrow history that a mathematician gains by osmosis.  There isn't a lot of technical detail—which Ben found somewhat disappointing—but that's probably best for the general audience.

There is a complicated narrative structure—a first level of "narration" in which we intermittently see the authors, the illustrators, and the researcher discussing the book and how it should be written (I put "narration" in quotes because we see the characters interacting in these discussions, they aren't simply voice-overs).  The "actual" material is framed as a lecture given by Russell at an American university in 1939, with some interaction with pacifists/isolationists in the audience.  The lecture is structured as Russell's personal reminiscences, so that most of the action takes place as extended flashbacks.  It sounds complicated, but it works quite seamlessly—much more seamlessly than it would in a novel, because you have the pictures which clearly indicate which narrative stream you're in at any given point.

Beyond the history of logic, there is a quite a bit of cultural/social context, especially of World War I and Russell's pacifist activism; the 1939 lecture device takes us through the rise of Nazism (including the assassination of a Vienna Circle leader) and the audience interaction takes us to Russell's attitude toward the Second World War.

All of this was well done, but it wasn't what made me love the book.

Much of the present-day narrative is taken up with the relationship of logic to "madness," noting a high prevalence of mental illness among logicians and what we psychiatrists call their "first-degree relatives."  There is quite a bit of back-and-forth about whether logic leads to madness or vice-versa, which I didn't find all that engaging.  But the final conclusion seems to be that the obsessional, exacting traits that drive one to be a logician are not conducive to a balanced life, and we see a great deal of evidence for this in the logicians' domestic lives, which is a third important strand in the book.

As portrayed in the book, Russell's fascination with logic and rationality starts as an escape from his overbearing and religiously domineering grandmother.  Russell and his fellow travelers believe in the liberation of humanity from religion and superstition (or, as they put it repeatedly in the book, "instinct, emotion, and habit") through science and rationality, and they pursue this liberation with at least as much fervor and dogmatism as Russell's grandmother pursued her religious subjugation.  In their world view, rationality should encompass not just mathematics, but international affairs, education,  child-rearing, and presumably every other aspect of human life.  Russell's career may represent the high-water mark of this viewpoint, and Gödel's incompleteness theorem is perhaps its most significant internally-generated challenge.  The Russell portrayed in the 1939 lecture is a man who has evolved beyond simple skepticism of the irrational to skepticism of absolutism and certitude of all sorts.  This shift is apparently based not just on the failure of mathematical logic to live up to his ambitions for it, but also on his own experiences as an educator and father.

The "Finale" of the book is a performance of Aeschylus's The Eumenides.  The connection is made through the contemporary narrative in a way that is somewhat tenuous, and I expect that some readers will find it out of place or excessive.  For me, though, it somehow brought the whole story together in a way that I found unexpectedly moving.  When Athena doesn't banish the furies but rather tries to engage them as a positive force in Athenian civic life, we learn that there is a strand of Greek thought that stands not simply for the rationalism of Euclid, but that strives to balance and integrate logic and rationality with the "ancient wisdom"—wisdom which almost certainly would have been disparaged as "instinct, emotion, and habit" by Russell's rationalist colleagues.  But in this book, it's Aeschylus who gets the last word.

My father's work was very different from Gödel's, but in his own way he drove some nails into the coffin of the rationalist/positivist world-view.  In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, he maintained that science is a fundamentally human endeavor rather than an inevitable march to a fixed, absolute truth.  I have to say, though, that he was very much cut from the same cloth as the historical figures in this book.  He didn't set out to attack the rationalist world-view any more than Gödel did; both of them arrived where they did by following the rationalist program—for Gödel through the study of mathematical logic, and for my father through empirical observation of the history of science.  My father was by no means a relativist who believed that science was some arbitrary sort of social convention.  And when things got down to the mat, I promise you that "objective" was something positive and "irrational" was something negative.  By and large, as far as he was concerned, there was a right way to do things and a wrong way to do things, and if you want to know what the right way is, you should ask the smartest guy in the room.  There wasn't a lot of room for integration with Aeschylus's "ancient wisdom" or respect for "instinct, emotion, and habit."

There are undoubtedly many things in this book he'd quibble with, but I'm sure he would get a big kick out of it, and I'm sorry he isn't around to share it with.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Taming of the Shrew

Yesterday I saw the Boston-area Actors' Shakespeare Project's production of The Taming of the Shrew.  It was the first production of theirs that I'd seen; I'd heard great things about them and it didn't disappoint.

But what are we to make of a play that so unabashedly supports male dominance of marriage?  I saw the play on Sunday afternoon, and that performance had a brief question-and-answer session with the cast.  I asked them how they dealt with the issue, ending up by saying (in jest, mostly), "How do you look at yourself in the mirror each morning?"  Clearly, it was something that they all struggled with, and how could they not?  One actor said that while it is true that the play is patriarchal, it's not true that the play is misogynist, that they're not the same thing.  True enough.  The woman who played Katharina, said, if I'm recalling correctly, that she tried to look at the play mainly as a love story and she was glad that while she was playing the character she didn't have to think about the broader implications.  She did a fantastic job, so I'm glad she didn't have to look at them while she was at it either.  I don't mean to be getting down on the cast here in any way, incidentally: they did a fantastic job with a play that can't be anything but deeply troublesome these last forty years or so.

In any case, there's no need to needle the cast: how can I look at myself in the mirror after acknowledging that at the end of the play, Katharina's apparently total subjugation to Petruchio felt to me to be not merely acceptable, but happy and even necessary?  After such feelings, what forgiveness?

Here's the best answer I can give you (and myself): Katharina is a woman in a bind.  She is difficult to the point of being loathsome, not just to suitors, but to her sister and everyone else who is unfortunate enough to cross her path.  Even her father's generosity seems to spring more from fatherly duty than fatherly affection.  Putting aside the question of what might have driven her to be like this, she has painted herself into a corner: obviously, the more she treats people this way the more they despise and shun her, and the more they despise and shun her the more hostile she becomes.  It is a way of being in the world that dooms her to misery and isolation.

Enter Petruchio: though he starts in search of a fortune, there is something of her spirit—at least as ASP plays it—that he is drawn to; he sees a way that they are made for each other.  But how in the world can they arrive at a place where they can enjoy that?  How can they achieve peace?

For them, peace is achieved through her subjugation and obedience.  I believe that you feel a sense of "rightness" at the end because you could see that they had achieved peace, and you can't imagine any other way that they might have.  Certainly there would be no peace if Petruchio had subjugated himself to Katharina; and in this relationship there would be no peace without some subjugation, only endless struggles, because that is Katharina's nature throughout most of the play.

In other words: obedience is not the end, it's the means.  Peace is the end.

Why does Katharina subjugate herself to Petruchio?  Is it because he deprives her of food and sleep?  (Thankfully, ASP did not play up any parallels to Guantanamo, at least not that I noticed).  Certainly that's not what this production leads you to believe.  In the play we saw, it's because she comes to love him, and (to borrow a word from her sister) to trust him.  She loves him, in part, because he is the only person to offer her an escape from the prison she has constructed for herself: but the only way out is through peace, and the only way to peace is through obedience.  Obedience is the way to peace not because Petruchio is a man, it's the way to peace because Petruchio has not just strength and power, but wisdom and love to guide it—which she doesn't have.  While he uses his behavior toward others to hold up a mirror to her own behavior, he treats her with courtesy and (in some deep sense) respect.  She learns not just that Petruchio is trustworthy, but also that she is untrustworthy.  And he shows her an escape route—not to escape hunger and fatigue, but to escape loneliness, isolation, and spleen.  He offers it to her, patiently, over and over, until she finally takes it.

So to my mind, it's not that subjugation of women to men is the answer, it's that subjugation of wilfulness and spite to wisdom, kindness, generosity, and love (including, when necessary, tough love) is the answer.  In this case, that turns out to look like patriarchy.