Joining a debate in the New York Times.
Thomas Kuhn, the influential American philosopher argues that every so often science comes up with a breakthrough that amounts to a “paradigm shift” in our understanding of the world and that it is incommensurable. That is, it is irreconcilable with the previous understanding because it requires entirely new concepts and it is incomparable by commonly understood measurement tools. The switch from the Ptolemaic understanding of the solar system (with earth at the centre) and the Copernican understanding of the solar system with the sun at its centre is an example that Kuhn himself uses. His ideas have been applied (by him and others) to the social world to say, among other things that it is impossible to examine history from the perspective of the 21st century. Errol Morris, in a five-part series of articles in the New York Times, argues that there is no such thing as incommensurability, especially in the historical and cultural world; that there is one, objective truth; and that its translation is always possible—his fourth article is below mine and you might want to read it first. I argue that both are right.
by David McLaren
As it happens Errol Morris and Thomas Kuhn are both correct. It is unlikely that events in history or ideas in different societies are so incommensurable that we cannot engage them or translate them. Likewise it is true that events, ideas and norms experienced by people in one culture are so different from the way in which similar events, ideas and norms are experienced by people in another culture as to be very nearly incomprehensible.
I have lived and worked for over 20 years in an Anishinaabe (Ojibway) community in southern Canada. I am white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. My family and neighbours are not. The language and the culture that belongs here are disappearing as quickly as they are in other Aboriginal communities, particularly from those in the south.
And yet, there are still features of the way things are done here that I cannot comprehend. How much more incomprehensible is it for those who don’t live and work on a reserve? In fact, the gulf that even now exists between the Band and their white neighbours in surrounding municipalities is all but unbridgeable.
An example is in order.
I attended an environmental hearing, run by the provincial government, on the disposition of lands claimed by the First Nation to be of huge cultural significance. Indeed archaeological investigation had shown that the area was one of the most important sites in southern Ontario. (By the way, First Nations are known as tribes in the US—translation is necessary even between close cousins such as Canada and America.)
The question before the environmental tribunal was how much land to protect and how to protect it. Testifying (for it was a quasi-judicial hearing before a panel of environmental lawyers) for the First Nation was a Band member who was schooled in the way of the Midewiwin, an Anishinaabe spiritual society, once banned by the government. He was being cross-examined by a land owner of one of the lots just north of the area under consideration.
At one point each talked about their attitudes toward “land”—a common enough term, right? Surely there would be no argument about what is meant by land, after all the whole hearing was about land and a particular piece of it to boot. Nevertheless the two men talked past one another for a good two hours about how each “respected” the land and “cared for it” and wanted to “protect it.”
But the white land owner was talking about the land as property and how, using his property rights he could care for and protect the land—even “improve it”. The Anishinaabe man talked about the land as relationship. What should be the right relationship with land and this particular plot in particular: how to respect it by leaving it be; how to protect it by not “improving it”; how it should be walked on and the proper ceremonies to perform when you do.
As I say, they talked at one another for two hours and neither understood what the other was saying. They were each speaking in the English language. It was the first language of both and each could understand perfectly the words, phrases and sentences of the other.
It was the culturally laden ideas of the other that escaped each of them.
The idea of “improving” land, of doing something with it, of making something of it is imbedded in the Western way of looking at land. His idea of land is tied up with our ideas (largely Victorian but earlier too) of private property and the rights of land-lords to do with land as they will. The idea of the commons is part of our culture too, but that has always waged an uphill battle with private property rights. And besides, the commons would be an inexact translation of the Aboriginal view of land.
The Aboriginal view of land is reflected in their languages. “Aki”, the Anishinaabe word for “land” means more than what you see under your feet. It means earth, air and water. It includes the creatures that live on the patch of land under your feet. The word finds its way into other ideas as well. “Akiwenzie” is an “old man”, literally (but not exactly) “one who bends closer to the earth.” “Akinoomaaugae-win” is a word for learning, literally (but not exactly) “what the land (including everything in it, on it and over it) teaches.”
I can see some of these ideas more clearly now after 20 years of living with them. If I had learned Anishinaabemowin (the language) I would understand more. But even then, it would take a “paradigm shift” (to quote Kuhn) away from my “bred in the bone” (to quote Robertson Davies) cultural ideas to fully appreciate (in the legal and epistemological sense) Anishinaabe ideas about the world.
Aboriginal views of the world exist still, even after 500 years of Western nations trying to erase them. Look at the rhetoric in the speeches of Native leaders from the time of contact until now. In every one you will find an affirmation of the differences between their ways and ours. And after every one, we went right on assuming we knew what they were telling us.
The sort of profound cultural differences Aboriginal leaders expressed time and again, continue to escape most people, including the panel of environmental lawyers who made up the Tribunal. Their ultimate decision clearly misunderstood what the First Nations people were telling them about the land they were ruling on.
As Native leaders have told us time and again, their ideas exist beside ours in a kind of parallel universe. The Haudenosaunee (Iroquoian, Mohawk) Two-Row wampum is a tangible expression of that understanding and a practical plan for allowing room for both Aboriginal and Western views and practices.
Both views of the land—the land-lord’s and the Midewiwin—are valid and true. Both exist side by side in current time, even if the one cannot see the other. So Kuhn is right there. And so are the Haudenosaunee, whose Two-Row Wampum codifies the dual reality of 18th century North America when two paradigms, two true but very different systems of thought and government existed, for a brief time, side by side. But it is possible to communicate accurately across the cultural barrier, so Morris is right there. But it means that each interlocutor has to step outside their own cultural bubble and into the shoes of the other. And that’s not as easy.
Kuhn is right about needing to place yourself in the shoes of the people you are dealing with – whether they are from another culture today or our own culture 200 years ago. And Morris is right – commensurability is not impossible, or I would not have been able to make the comparison I just did. But it might be inexact and it takes more work and more time than most people care to give it. A lot more.
See also: The Ipperwash Inquiry website: Scroll to Chippewas of Nawash: “Encountering the Other” for more on the paradigmatic differences between Western and Anishinaabe cultures.
© September 2011
The fourth of a five-part series on Kuhn by Errol Morris in the New York Times …
I have suggested that Kuhn had created his own reductio ad absurdum – not unlike the proof of the incommensurability of √2. If everything is incommensurable, then everything is seen through the lens of the present, the lens of now. All history is Whiggish history. There is no history. There is no truth, just truth for the moment, contingent truth, relative truth. And who is to say which version of the truth is better than any other, if we can’t look beyond the paradigm in which we find ourselves.
But there is a messier problem. Why stop at historical relativism? Why not imagine each and every person in a different island universe? And indeed, Kuhn at least in one instance seems to embrace that possibility. In one particularly bizarre passage in “The Road Since Structure,” he suggests that his critics are writing about two different Thomas Kuhns – Kuhn No. 1 and Kuhn No. 2.
I am tempted to posit the existence of two Thomas Kuhns. Kuhn No. 1 is the author of this essay and of an earlier piece in this volume. He also in 1962 published a book [The Structure of Scientific Revolutions]. Kuhn No. 2 is the author of another book by the same title…
That both books bear the same title cannot be altogether accidental, for the views they represent often overlap and are, in any case, expressed in the same words. But their central concerns are, I conclude, usually very different. As reported by his critics (the original is unfortunately unavailable to me), Kuhn No. 2 seems to make points that subvert essential aspects of the position outlined by his namesake. 
To me Kuhn’s claim – that there are two Thomas Kuhns plus two books by the same name and author – suggests that there may be no coherent reading of Kuhn’s philosophy. Kuhn, of course, sees it differently. For Kuhn, the multiplicity of Kuhns and Kuhn-authored-books-with-the-same-title provides further proof of his belief that people with “incommensurable” viewpoints can’t talk to each other. That they live in different worlds. He writes, “This collection of essays…provides an extended example of what I have elsewhere called partial or incomplete communication – the talking-through-each-other that regularly characterizes discourse between participants in incommensurable points of view.” 
I suppose Kuhn No. 1 is the Kuhn you can criticize, and Kuhn No. 2 is the Kuhn you can’t. As the philosopher Donald Davidson, an early critic of Kuhn, has written, “Conceptual relativism is a heady and exotic doctrine, or would be if we could make good sense of it. …what sounded at first like a thrilling discovery — that truth is relative to a conceptual scheme — has not so far been shown to be anything more than the pedestrian and familiar fact that the truth of a sentence is relative to (among other things) the language to which it belongs. Instead of living in different worlds, Kuhn’s scientists may, like those who need Webster’s dictionary, be only words apart.” 
Kuhn’s remarks remind me of a story by Jorge Luis Borges, “Pierre Menard: Author of the Quixote.” Instead of two Cervantes, Borges imagines a second author, Pierre Menard, a fictional character, who manages to recreate “Don Quixote,” word for word with the original. And yet, creates an entirely different work of art. Borges writes, “[Menard] did not want to compose another Quixote — which is easy — but the Quixote itself. Needless to say, he never contemplated a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it. His admirable intention was to produce a few pages which would coincide — word for word and line for line — with those of Miguel de Cervantes.”  
Borges’s story – quite likely an elaborate literary joke – has spawned a world of commentary. What is history – a collection of real events or of subjective memories? Borges compares two identical passages from the “Quixote,” part one, chapter 9 — one written by Cervantes, the other by Menard:
…truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor.
Written in the 17th century, written by the “lay genius” Cervantes, this enumeration is a mere rhetorical praise of history.
Menard, on the other hand, writes:
…truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor. 
Borges elaborates on how this same passage means something completely different to Menard. According to Menard: History, the mother of truth: the idea is astounding.
Menard, a contemporary of William James, does not define history as an inquiry into reality but as its origin. Historical truth, for him, is not what has happened; it is what we judge to have happened. The final phrases — exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor —are brazenly pragmatic. 
What is being argued here? That every text is endlessly reinterpreted? That every reader re-writes the book they are reading? That our beliefs change over time? That history changes the meaning of history? And how does Borges fit into this? Does Borges see himself as Menard or Cervantes? Neither? Both? 
The story appeared in May, 1939 — shortly after Madrid fell to Franco’s forces. Borges had written movingly against the fascist powers overtaking Europe. And against anti-Semitism. “…in vain I quoted the wise declaration of Mark Twain’s that a man’s race was unimportant, for, after all he was a human being, and no one could be anything worse.” But moreover, against the denial of reality.
In Borges’s review of “Citizen Kane,” “An Overwhelming Film,” published in 1941, he called the movie “a kind of metaphysical detective story… Forms of multiplicity and incongruity abound in the film: the first scenes record the treasures amassed by Kane; in one of the last, a poor woman, luxuriant and suffering, plays with an enormous jigsaw puzzle on the floor of a palace that is also a museum. At the end we realize that the fragments are not governed by any secret unity: the detested Charles Foster Kane is a simulacrum, a chaos of appearances.” Borges concluded by quoting Chesterton, “there is nothing more frightening than a labyrinth that has no center.” 
I wondered about the labyrinth with no center. For me, it is a mystery without a solution. A murder without a murderer. A world without answers, without truth or falsity. It is the nightmare offered by postmodernism. It’s chaos. What is the answer to the question – What really happened? When did it happen? Who really did it? There is no answer.
Years ago, Bertrand Russell wrote “Nightmares of Eminent Persons” (1954). (Supposedly, he was trying to meet alimony payments.) Among the various nightmares – the Mathematicians’s Nightmare, Stalin’s Nightmare, the Psychoanalyst’s Nightmare, Dr. Bowdler’s Nightmare – is the Existentialist’s Nightmare. At the conclusion of the nightmare, the existentialist is screaming, “I don’t exist. I don’t exist.” Poe’s raven appears, speaking in the voice of the French poet Mallarmé: “You do exist. You do exist. It’s your philosophy that doesn’t exist.” 
Russell did not write a postmodernist’s nightmare – in 1954, postmodernism did not exist – but it is not difficult to imagine a possible scenario of which he might approve. The postmodernist is seated in a chair. An off-screen voice is screaming, “Truth exists. Reality exists.” The postmodernist screams, “No, they don’t.” The off-screen voice returns, “Oh, yes, they do. Reality and truth both exist. And if you don’t believe it, jump out that window. We’re on the 39th floor.”
Which brings me to Alice’s question to Humpty Dumpty in “Through the Looking-Glass.” It addresses the issue: can words mean anything we want them to? Humpty-Dumpty is suggesting an “authoritarian” theory of meaning. Words mean whatever I want them to mean. It is easy to see it as an earlier version of “The Ashtray Argument.”  
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ ” Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ ”
“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. “They’ve a temper, some of them—particularly verbs, they’re the proudest—adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs—however, I can manage the whole lot! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!” 
The question that lingers: was Kuhn’s philosophy an assault on truth? Had he turned history into a vast prison – something like Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon – a circular building with cells along the circumference. And then thrown away the key? “These cells are divided from one another, and the prisoners by that means secluded from all communication with each other, by partitions in the form of radii issuing from the circumference towards the centre… The apartment of the inspector occupies the centre; you may call it if you please the inspector’s lodge.”  No prisoner can communicate with any other prisoner, only with the inspector. Unlike Bentham’s panopticon, however, Kuhn’s prison is a prison in time, not space.
The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. IV, 172-3
It is a prison of historical paradigms where only the inspector at the center of the edifice can compare one paradigm with another. But who gave Kuhn this supreme job of watching prisoners in different cells (read paradigms)? The job of ultimate observer? How did he become the inspector?
I believe that the ashtray incident was motivated by Kuhn’s own doubts about his work, as well as his annoyance with me. My belief was reinforced by a recent memoir, “Little Did I Know” (2010) by Stanley Cavell, who had been at Harvard with Kuhn in the 1950s and subsequently a junior faculty member with him at the University of California-Berkeley.
Kuhn was in the process of writing “Structure.” And as it turns out, Kuhn had Wittgenstein and Hitler on his mind. Was Kuhn, like any good Jewish boy of the period (myself included), struggling with the meaning of the Third Reich? If there are no absolute value judgments to be made about one historical period (read: paradigm) or another, what about the Nazis? Following a department meeting, Kuhn had accompanied Cavell home for a drink.
“…talking past midnight Tom was becoming agitated in a way I had not seen. He suddenly lurched forward in his chair with a somewhat tortured look that I had begun to be familiar with. “I know Wittgenstein uses the idea of ‘paradigm.’ But I do not see its implications in his work. How do I answer the objection that this destroys the truth of science? I deplore the idea. Yet if instruction and agreement are the essence of the matter, then Hitler could instruct me that a theory is true and get me to agree.” My reply I cast as follows, using the words I remember using then. “No he could not; he could not educate you in, convince you of, show you, its truth. Hitler could declare a theory to be true, as an edict. He could effectively threaten to kill you if you refuse to, or fail to, believe it. But all that means is that he is going to kill you; or perhaps kill you if you do not convince him, show him, that you accept and will follow the edict. I don’t say this is clear. But it is something I cannot doubt is worth doing whatever work it will take to make clear.” Tom’s response was startling. He arose almost violently from his chair, began pacing in front of the fireplace, saying something like, “Yah. Yah.” What causes conviction? What, perhaps rather, may undo an unnoticed conviction?” 
I asked Cavell about this passage. About Kuhn and Wittgenstein and about how Wittgenstein had opened the door to relativism.
STANLEY CAVELL: Kuhn really was terribly alarmed that Wittgenstein was denying the rationality of truth. That somehow, everything, was going to come down to agreement. It would be circling around that… Which I don’t think is a non-issue. I think it’s quite real.
ERROL MORRIS: And what were your feelings about it?
STANLEY CAVELL: …that it was a genuine issue, that Wittgenstein was opening that up. Part of it was a matter of getting down, in the mud, and figuring out what “agreement” meant.
ERROL MORRIS: This would be in “Philosophical Investigations”?
STANLEY CAVELL: Yes. “Philosophical Investigations.” That’s what we talked about. The early Wittgenstein, as far as we were concerned, was frozen history. Nobody was really interested in trying to make that work, it was “Philosophical Investigations” that was really hot. The issue about what human agreement could establish, and how deep that agreement was. Wittgenstein’s quote, “We don’t agree in judgement, we agree in form of life.” Whether that meant that knowledge of the universe was relative to human forms of life. We went around the track with that a lot, and, why not?
The actual quotation is from paragraph 241 of “Philosophical Investigations”:
“So you are saying that human agreement decides what is true and what is false?” –– It is what human beings say that is true and false; and they agree in the language they use. That is not agreement in opinions but in form of life.
This passage, as well as many others in “Philosophical Investigations,” has produced extended commentary. But Wittgenstein, notoriously difficult to pin-down, at least in this one instance, seems to be saying what he’s saying. And he opens the door (or the lid of Pandora’s Box) to a relativistic notion of truth.   In paragraph 241, it’s agreement between human beings that decides what is true or false. It suggests that we could agree that the earth is flat and that would make it so. So much for the relationship between science and the world. And yet, Kuhn made peace with this idea. He even made it the cornerstone of his philosophy of science. A couple of years later in “Structure,” Kuhn would write, “We may, to be more precise, have to relinquish the notion, implicit or explicit, that changes of paradigm bring scientists and those that learn from them, closer and closer to the truth.” 
 Thomas Kuhn,”The Road Since Structure: Philosophical Essays, 1970-93.” Chicago: University of Chicago Press.2000, pp. 123-124.
 Thomas Kuhn, “The Road Since Structure: Philosophical Essays, 1970-93,” Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2000. pp. 124.
 Donald Davidson, “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme.” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, Vol. 47, pp. 5-20. 1973-1974.
 Jorge Luis Borges. “Pierre Menard: Author of the Quixote.” Collected Fictions. New York: Viking. 1998.
 The entire passage, “…historians must and ought to be exact, truthful, and absolutely free of passions, and neither interest nor fear, hatred nor love, should make them swerve from the path of …truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor. In this account I know there will be found all that can be rightly desired in the most pleasant history, and if something of value is missing from it, in my opinion I maintain that the fault lies with the dog who was its author rather than with any defect in the subject.”
 This passage in Borges (and, consequently, also in Menard and Cervantes) concerns the nature of historical truth. Cervantes is a historical realist; Menard, a historical relativist. For Cervantes history is objective; for Menard, history is socially constructed.
 An updated version of the “conflict” between Menard and Cervantes is embodied in an quote from a Bush aide. It appeared in a New York Times Magazine article, Oct. 17, 2004, and was later attributed to Karl Rove. It pits those that are influenced by facts against those that (take your pick) create them or make them up. “The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
 Jorge Luis Borges, “Selected Non-Fictions,” New York: Viking. 1999. p. 258-9. In Alberto Manguel’s memoir, “In Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, he argued that a book changes according to the reader’s attributions… Pierre Menard is, of course, an invention, a superb and hilarious imagining, but the notion that a text changes according to the reader’s assumptions is old… Once, after noting that we read now Dante in ways he couldn’t have imagined…Borges recalled an observation by the 9th century mystic, Scotus Erigena. According to the author of On the Divisions of Nature, there are as many readings of a text as there are readers…” Indeed. What is novel is the claim that Menard and Cervantes cannot be compared.
 The actual quote is from a Father Brown mystery, “The Head of Caesar,” “‘What we all dread most,’ said the priest in a low voice, ‘is a maze with no center. That is why atheism is only a nightmare.’ ‘I will tell you everything,’ said the red-haired girl doggedly, ‘except why I am telling you; and that I don’t know.’” Borges presumably translated Chesterton into Spanish, and it was translated back into English in a slightly different form. From “a maze with no center” to “nothing is more frightening than a labyrinth with no center. Nevertheless, Borges’s interpretation of Chesterton’s English translated from Spanish back into English is perfectly intelligible. In fact, I prefer the Chesterton after the two translations. G.K. Chesterton. “The Head of Caesar,” “The Wisdom of Father Brown.” Dodd, Mead. 1924.
 Bertrand Russell, “Nightmares of Eminent Persons,” London: Bodley Head. 1954, pp. 36-39. The illustrations by Charles W. Stewart, an ex-ballet dancer, are extraordinary. Here is his obituary in The Independent.
 I have occasionally fantasized about a possible seminar with Humpty Dumpty, Wittgenstein, and Quine.
 A Wittgensteinian might be tempted to see this as an example of “private language,” and hence, impossible. But Humpty Dumpty’s language isn’t private, it’s publicly imposed by Humpty Dumpty.
 Lewis Carroll, “Through the Looking-Glass.” London: Macmillan. 1872.
 Stanley Cavell, “Little Did I Know: Excerpts From Memory.” Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. 2010. Cavell, also wrote, “Once, lingering over too much coffee and many too many cigarettes, after a particularly resonant blast of disagreement from him, I replied: ‘Tom, please do not address me. I am not a convention.’ He was shocked, put his forehead to the table, and banging it gently several times, he said, in rhythm, and softly: ‘I know. I know I do that.’”
 This is, of course, my interpretation. With Wittgenstein, there are bound to be disagreements. There are many philosophers who would argue vociferously that Wittgenstein is not a relativist. However, here is a relevant passage from the “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy” entry on Wittgenstein, “In Wittgenstein’s terms, agreement is required ‘not only in definitions but also (queer as this may sound) in judgments’ (PI 242), and this is ‘not agreement in opinions but in form of life’ (PI 241)… Used by Wittgenstein sparingly — five times in the Investigations — this intriguing concept has given rise to interpretative quandaries and subsequent contradictory readings. Forms of life can be understood as changing and contingent, dependent on culture, context, history, etc; this appeal to forms of life grounds a relativistic reading of Wittgenstein…” Definitions, judgments, agreement in opinions. I can see in Wittgenstein’s “forms of life” an early version of Kuhn’s paradigms. Groups of people who use language in the same way, disagreements and agreements about the rules, etc. Evidently, given the passage in Stanley Cavell’s memoir, Kuhn saw an early version of his paradigms in Wittgenstein’s form of life.
 Kuhn may have wanted to formalize Wittgenstein’s idea that we are “trapped” in language, that there is no independent way of determining “true” from “false.” But to formalize Wittgenstein correctly, Kuhn would have to abandon any distinction between “true” and “false” even within a given paradigm.
 Thomas Kuhn, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 1996 p. 170.