Posted by: dacalu | 25 September 2013

Changing Boats

I did some reading this week on an idea referred to as “Neurath’s Boat.” It is an idea, very common in Post-Modernist circles, that we constantly revise all of our ideas, like a crew of sailors repairing their boat one plank at a time.

Otto Neurath (1882-1945) was a social scientist and a philosopher famous for his thoughts on how we reason as a community.  During the modernist period, most philosophers (following Descartes, Kant, and several others) used a model of knowledge called foundationalism.  They thought there were certain things that might be known a priori, that is before observing.  These things could form a solid foundation upon which philosophy, science, and theology could be built.  By the early 20th century a number of philosophers were highly skeptical of this idea and Neurath presented his alternative.  What if our philosophical construction were not like a tower built on solid stone, but more like a boat.  The sailors are caught at sea so they cannot make repairs in dry dock.  Instead, they are forced to refit the boat one piece at a time while trying to stay afloat.

I find this metaphor really interesting and in some ways very useful.  I too am suspicious of a priori claims.  After all, Kant uses the permanence of matter as his prime example of an a priori truth.  We now define matter differently, and don’t think of it as permanent at all.  I also appreciate the idea that we are at sea.  Perhaps there isn’t a privileged place to stand.  We are always rocked by the waves and we cannot stop thinking about the world we find ourselves in.

I also find the metaphor troubling.  After thinking about boats for a while, I realized that some things about ships are critical.  You cannot convert a catamaran (a two hulled ship) into a galley (a one hulled oared ship) in any meaningful way.  You have to build the new ship alongside the old.  Likewise, you cannot simply convert a minesweeper into an aircraft carrier.  Sometimes you have to start over because the basic plan is so different that step by step conversion is basically meaningless.  Ships might not have foundations, but they do have systematic properties that cannot be changed without entirely recrafting the boat.We need to be aware of our systematic assumptions so we can be honest when we need to throw them out.  And when we throw them out, we need to be honest that we’ve compromised the integrity of the ship.  Neurath seemed to think we could get rid of metaphysics, but I don’t think so.  You may need a provisional metaphysics rather than a dogmatic one, but however you look at it, you need substantial and systematic assumptions.  In Neurath’s case, you need a hull plan.  It doesn’t work to change the curvature one plank at a time.  Sometimes you just have to start over.

In practical terms, this means sometimes you will have to listen to a new suite of ideas en masse and consider whether it constitutes a better system than the one you’ve been using.  You may even have to switch to another boat.  Strangely our post-modernist relativism seems to have reinforced our defense mechanism for not changing.  After all, if you’re always shifting planks in the same boat, you never have to abandon the majority of your ideas.  You can always insist that a new idea be explained in terms you are familiar with, rather than actually try something new.

This week I invite you to join me on my raft, floating on the sea and recognize that there are multiple boats out there.  The question of fundamental plans (for lives as well as for knowledge and boats) is neither trivial or boring.  It’s going to require work, both mental and physical, if you want to make the best choice.  You might even have to swim.


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