Popular Philosophy and Kuhn’s Ashtray

John Holbo over at the Crooked Timber (which for a long time I have look at every morning before I look at the New York Times):

I’ve enjoyed the Kuhn’s Ashtray series (to which my attention was drawn by our Kieran). It has a lot of good points and I’m basically sympathetic to Morris’ skepticism about Kuhn; but, all the same, this may be the moment to nip a pernicious new literary sub-genre in the bud. Wittgenstein’s Poker. Kuhn’s Ashtray. The trope: philosopher reduced to inarticulacy by devastating objection exhibits instability of character by resorting to ineffective physical violence. What’s next? Kant’s Mustard Pestle? Hume’s Sock Full of Pennies? It’s funny until someone gets hurt.

More seriously, there is a problem in Morris’ series that you get a lot in popularizations of intellectual controversies, when you are trying to convey the gist of an allegedly devastating objection to someone’s position. In this case it goes like so: Kuhnian incommensurability is self-undermining. If the view makes sense, then the view says we can’t attain to the vantage point we would need to achieve the view, so it doesn’t make sense.

But a popular, simplified account of the anti-Kuhn argument shouldn’t make it sound as thought the popular, simplified version of the anti-Kuhn argument itself – as opposed to the more sophisticated thing it is simplified down from – is sufficient to knock the actual Kuhn, as opposed to the simplified-for-the-NY-Times Kuhn. It isn’t as though Kuhn had just never heard this objection, before a youthful Morris brought it up.

Of course, if someone threw an ashtray at my head, I might not be feeling intellectually charitable either.