I don’t know if you guys heard about this, but Errol Morris, who is one of the most prolific and respected documentarieans of our time wrote a book. I was pleased to find that it’s a philosophy book of sorts, dealing with the nature of truth.
I’ve of course always been a fan of Errol’s movies, and based on the nature of the questions he’s asking, the the level the conversations in his movies usually reach, I was always certain he’d had an intellectual background. Well, now that I’m finally delving into his book, I can’t help but admire him even more. As it turns out, he has a background in philosophy (as I do) and had some of the same encounters with great postmodern thinkers as a young grad student that I had (with similar frustrations, as fate would have it).
I want to present this bit of reading to you so that you might better understand the type of work that goes on under the surface when constructing a documentary film (or a book for that matter). Werner Herzog famously tells his student to “read, read, read, read, READ!” Should they want to become great filmmakers. Well, Errol Morris does exactly that, and the rigor of his intellectual exercise comes to the fore in his writing.
He’s been making the rounds with his book tour and writing articles in various publications, this one for Time Magazine. For me, this bit of reading is such a treat. It reminds me of my days studying philosophy by the beach in California, sitting at my favorite coffee shop with a cigar (for some reason they let me have it on their patio) and gearing up for the mental challenge of encountering one of the great minds of history. Let me tell you guys, it’s such a rush.
Morris’ book deals with crticism for an author that I actually spent quite a lot of time on in grad school for my own philosophical education: Thomas Kuhn, who wrote about the nature of paradigms in the mid 20th century, most notably his “Structure Of Scientific Revolution.” Kuhn famously coined the phrase “paradigm shift” and I’m not ashamed to say that his book blew me away.
His thesis is very simple, and summarized nicely by Morris in the article. A dominant paradigm or metaphor is used to explain the world, and this is called “normal science.” However, there are anomalies that exist outside of the dominant metaphor that challenge the status quo. When enough of these accumulate, people begin to question the existing paradigm and formulate new theories, and a new way of doing science emerges.
Morris, unlike myself, knew Kuhn personally (studied under him) and apparently, an inconsistency in his thought (Kuhn’s) has been bothering Morris ever since grad school.
I won’t spoil it any more for you. I’ll just recommend that you read it because Morris is as good a great writer as he is a filmmaker.
For a more in-depth (and excellent) read, check out his five part NY Times piece from 2011. It covers much of the same ground.
Ultimately, Morris concludes that incomensurability does not represent an actual, well “incomensurability”between the past and the present, rather, it highlights the difficulty of getting out of our own historical paradigm to truly understand the past. Ultimately, this should lead us to humility.