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The Ashtray - Errol Morris *****

Wow. When someone suggested I read a book called The Ashtray, written by a documentary film-maker, it didn't strike me that it would be a book that gave deep insights into the history and philosophy of science - while also being a remarkable reading experience. In fact, I almost didn't bother with it, but I'm glad that I did.

The titular ashtray was thrown at the author when he was a grad student - thrown by one of the two best known names in the philosophy of science, Thomas Kuhn, he of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and the concept of paradigm shifts. Kuhn didn't like the young Errol Morris daring to challenge his ideas and reacted with what some would regard as a less than philosophical reply by hurling a heavy glass ashtray at him.

Part of the reason that reading The Ashtray is a remarkable experience is because it's a book that feels in some ways like watching a documentary. I have to confess I've never seen any of Morris's work, but he uses visual imagery both to make his point and to be playful. I don't usually like semi-coffee table format books, but this was a delight to read. Even the copious marginal notes (more stylish than footnotes) have a little edge as the inline reference numbers are elegantly shaded red. (Also one of the margin notes quotes me, so what's not to like?)

My position on Kuhn's work is primarily ignorance. As a science writer, my interest in history of science is to give context and narrative structure to explaining aspects of science - and I tend not to think of philosophy of science much at all, except to make the point that science isn't about finding 'the truth', but is about our best theories given the current data. I've never read Kuhn's book, and all I had assumed it covered was the idea of having sudden shifts of scientific viewpoint - effectively the philosophy of science equivalent of catastrophism (as opposed to gradualism) in geology. What I hadn't realised was that Kuhn's ideas are thoroughly embedded in post-modernist woo.

I ought to emphasise that my only exposure to Kuhn is via The Ashtray, and Morris clearly detests Kuhn's ideas - but assuming Morris is telling it straight, it's hard to understand why Kuhn is even mentioned anymore, unless, like me, most people who do so aren't aware that he wasn't just talking about sudden shifts in scientific viewpoints, but that a) he thought this meant the world itself was changed, because there is no reality, only the words we use to describe it, b) progress in science is a meaningless concept and c) we can't really say anything about, say Newton, because when he used words, he didn't mean the same thing as we do by those words. His 'gravity' is not our 'gravity'. (I may be a little adrift in the subtle detail in that whirlwind summary, but that seems to be the message.)

I'd honestly thought that history and philosophy of science had pretty much abandoned  post-modernism after the Sokal hoax and the realisation that it seemed far more about its advocates pretensions than having anything useful to say about science, so it was a revelation to me that Kuhn was a full-blown advocate of this approach.

Bearing in mind Morris is dealing with an approach to philosophy where it's almost impossible to discern meaning and unless words like 'hermeneutics' and 'exegesis' are part of your everyday vocabulary it's easy to get lost, his explanations are almost all easy to follow. There were a couple of pages near the middle where my eyes did start to glaze over, but Morris was soon back to form.

In the end, this is still a very odd book. It's an anti-love letter to Kuhn, a powerful introduction to one aspect of history and philosophy of science and a dramatic dismantling of a horror that has loomed over science and scientists like a Frankenstein's monster since the 60s. I loved it.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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