The Ashtray: The Ultimatum (Part 1)

Morris_ashtray4-blog427Errol Morris in the NYT:

I don’t want to die in a language I can’t understand.
— Jorge Luis Borges (as quoted in Alberto Manguel, “With Borges”)

It was April, 1972. The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N. J. The home in the 1950s of Albert Einstein and Kurt Gödel. Thomas Kuhn, the author of “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” and the father of the paradigm shift, threw an ashtray at my head.

It had all begun six months earlier.

“Under no circumstances are you to go to those lectures. Do you hear me?” Kuhn, the head of the Program in the History and Philosophy of Science at Princeton where I was a graduate student, had issued an ultimatum. It concerned the philosopher Saul Kripke’s lectures — later to be called “Naming and Necessity” — which he had originally given at Princeton in 1970 and planned to give again in the Fall, 1972.

But what was Kuhn’s problem with Kripke?

Kuhn was becoming more and more famous. He would become not just a major figure in the history and philosophy of science, but an icon – and his terms “paradigm” and “paradigm shift” became ubiquitous in the culture-at-large. An astrophysicist and rock-climbing friend from Princeton, Dick Saum, later sent me a picture of a bumper sticker that said, “Shifts happen.”

Kripke was slight, bearded, in his early thirties. He was not well known but had a reputation as a genius. He had provided a completeness proof for modal logic (which deals with necessity and possibility) while still a teenager — and in the process reinvigorated Leibniz’s ideas about possible worlds. [2] There was also the amusing anecdote of Kripke being offered a chair at Harvard when he was 16. He supposedly wrote back, “Thank you, but my mother thinks I should finish high school first.” Nonetheless, it was hard to see how Kripke’s theories had much to do with Kuhn. Or at least, it seemed so, at first.