[UCP Books]: The Ashtray: (Or, the Man Who Denied Reality) by Errol Morris

One of our greatest filmmakers

takes on his biggest subject yet:

Reality itself.





(Or, the Man Who Denied Reality)




Publication date: May 22, 2018  
International publication date: June 3, 2018 $30.00/£22.50



What is reality? What is a fact? How can we know?


Who is better positioned to offer answers to those questions—suddenly more relevant than ever in our era of worries over fake news and fact-free bubbles—than Errol Morris? No documentary filmmaker has ever been celebrated like Morris, whose explorations of human oddity, obsession, and darkness in such films as The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War, and Gates of Heaven have made him a household name.


This book presents a new side of Morris, but one that is closely tied to his explorations behind the camera. It’s rooted in an incident from his graduate student days, when famous philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn, exasperated at Morris’s refusal to agree with Kuhn’s arguments about the nature of knowledge and its (far from complete) relationship to reality, threw an ashtray at him. Decades later, Morris argues here against Kuhn’s position, and his lauded theory of paradigm shifts that transform our understanding of the world, and in favor of a view that attempts to establish as clearly and thoroughly what we know about the world and can say about it. It’s the fundamental desire that animates his filmmaking, whether he’s probing Robert McNamara about Vietnam or listening sympathetically to the oddball owner of a pet cemetery.


Truth may be slippery, but that doesn’t mean we have to grease its path of escape through philosophical evasions. Rather, Morris argues powerfully, it is our duty to do everything we can to establish and support it.


Errol Morris is a director of films, primarily documentaries, including The Thin Blue LineGates of HeavenFast, Cheap, and Out of Control; and The Fog of War, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for 2003.


“Oscar-winning filmmaker Morris was once a graduate student under philosopher Thomas Kuhn, author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and this intimate analysis of flaws in that 1962 treatise is driven by Morris’s smart, conversational tone. . . . Throughout the heady discussion, Kuhn’s cantankerous personality is revealed: he once threw an ashtray at Morris, who is responding—albeit 45 years later—by lobbing this combative tome into the academic and practical world.”

Publishers Weekly, starred review


“A compelling send-up of contemporary relativism about truth and epistemology by the distinguished film-maker and writer Errol Morris. He bases it on his own personal interactions with Thomas Kuhn, one of its most influential practitioners. But there is a little bit of everything in the book. Interviews with philosophers and scientists are intertwined with stories from many of my own favorite authors (Lewis Carroll, Russell, Borges), and discussions of notions such as reference, natural kind, paradigm, and incommensurability. Throughout we find, as we have come to expect from him, Morris’s commitment to find out the truth. This time about truth itself.”

Saul Kripke


“A wonderful read, combining memoir, epistemological reflection, the ethnography of academic philosophy -and confession of faith. The Ashtray will provoke and stimulate any serious reader, but it will provide particular insights for anyone familiar with Morris’s important films.”

Charles E. Rosenberg, Harvard University


“Errol Morris is a remarkable documentary film maker. He pursues his craft in the conviction that there is truth to be found and that creative and determined efforts will uncover it. In this extraordinary book, Morris explores his animating philosophical commitments about truth, reality, and knowledge. He presents his outlook in sharp opposition to ideas about relativism and incommensurability that he associates with Thomas Kuhn’s profoundly influential The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Morris’s book is entertaining and engaging, but above all else it offers us a compelling exploration of the value of truth.”

Joshua Cohen, Apple University


"This book is brilliant, thought-provoking, sometimes infuriating, and nearly always convincing. Everyone interested in the fate of truth and knowledge in these postmodern, alternative fact times should read it.”

David Wootton, author of Power, Pleasure, and Profit


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