Kuhn’s Ashtray

7 March 2011 at 10:56 am 4 comments

| Peter Klein |

You know about Wittgenstein’s Poker. But have you heard of Kuhn’s ashtray?

We began arguing. Kuhn had attacked my Whiggish use of the term “displacement current.” I had failed, in his view, to put myself in the mindset of Maxwell’s first attempts at creating a theory of electricity and magnetism. I felt that Kuhn had misinterpreted my paper, and that he — not me — had provided a Whiggish interpretation of Maxwell. I said, “You refuse to look through my telescope.” And he said, “It’s not a telescope, Errol. It’s a kaleidoscope.” (In this respect, he was probably right.)

The conversation took a turn for the ugly. Were my problems with him, or were they with his philosophy?

I asked him, “If paradigms are really incommensurable, how is history of science possible? Wouldn’t we be merely interpreting the past in the light of the present? Wouldn’t the past be inaccessible to us? Wouldn’t it be ‘incommensurable?’ ”

He started moaning. He put his head in his hands and was muttering, “He’s trying to kill me. He’s trying to kill me.”

And then I added, “…except for someone who imagines himself to be God.”

It was at this point that Kuhn threw the ashtray at me.

The account comes from filmmaker Errol Morris, then Thomas Kuhn’s graduate student at Princeton, who adds that “I had imagined graduate school as a shining city on a hill, but it turned out to be more like an extended visit with a bear in a cave.” (HT: Pete Boettke). I have not used Kuhn’s particular technique with my own students, though I admit it has a certain visceral appeal. Nor have I been on the receiving end of such behavior, though a conference participant once opened his presentation by saying, “My paper is basically devoted to refuting everything in Klein’s paper.” (Fortunately, I was the moderator, and responded immediately, “Thank you, your time is up.”)

Back to students: I do keep this decorative item by the entrance to my office, placed for all to see:

Entry filed under: - Klein -, People, Teaching. Tags: .

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Richard Ebeling  |  7 March 2011 at 12:21 pm

    If this story about Kuhn is true, will it require a paradigm shift?

    Richard Ebeling

  • 2. Randy  |  7 March 2011 at 1:07 pm

    My favorite smoking story is about a senior prof whose Kuhnian chain-smoking habit was blindsided by the interdiction against smoking the the office (early1980s). He took to chewing paper. During a very long and heated exchange with a doctoral student, he tore up and consumed the abstract and TOC of the thesis.

  • 3. Joe Mahoney  |  7 March 2011 at 5:56 pm

    Shifts happen.

  • 4. Rafe’s Roundup 11 March at Catallaxy Files  |  10 March 2011 at 5:06 pm

    [...] Recently breaking story of Kuhn’s Ashtray (compare with Wittgenstein’s Poker). Nice comments! [...]

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