Errol Morris on Wittgenstein, or someone like him in certain respects

by Dave Maier

A few months ago, on the New York Times Opinionator blog, filmmaker Errol Morris posted a remarkable five-part series of articles, which dealt with a wide range of fascinating topics, all in search of an understanding of a traumatic incident in his past. This is a time-honored literary exercise, and Morris is a knowledgeable and skilled writer. Yet not everyone was pleased with his efforts, and some harsh words were exchanged in the ether before all became quiet once again.

Not one to let sleeping dogs lie, but also in the hope that tempers have cooled enough for us to take a sober look at the matter, I would like today, for what it is worth (and if you find it worthless, your money will be cheerfully refunded) to throw in my own two cents.

Perhaps you remember the story. As he tells it, in 1972 Morris was a graduate student at Princeton studying with Thomas Kuhn. During a heated discussion, Kuhn, a chain-smoker, threw an ashtray at Morris, missing his target but searing an unforgettable image into the young man's soul: “I see the arc, the trajectory. As if the ashtray were its own separate solar system. With orbiting planets (butts), asteroids and interstellar gas (ash).” Below this description, Morris provides for the reader a specially reenacted photograph (photo credit: Errol Morris).

Morris_ashtray7-blog427 What concerns me in this fantastic apologia cum vendetta is not the terrible wrong that was done to Morris (which included not simply the threat of bodily harm, but also ejection from the graduate program), but the rather more boring issue of the philosophical corners Morris necessarily – and unnecessarily – cuts in telling his story.

Just be glad this isn't a five-part series.

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