Friday, February 03, 2012

Kay Ryan Rides on Neurath's Raft (Kay Ryan Week™, Day 3)

Remember, today is Special Class Cross-Over Day as Attempts' Epically Earth-shattering Kay Ryan Week™ continues...

As I mentioned a few days ago, I am once again teaching The History of American Thought Since 1865 this semester. And starting last Wednesday, we began covering Pragmatism; I'll continue lecturing on it today (and we'll discuss William James Monday).

Pragmatism is a complex philosophy -- check out this post for several different definitions of it -- and not easily nutshellable, but one of its key characteristics is an anti-foundationalist epistemology. Anti-foundationalism is, again, complicated, but it's been well captured in a number of different metaphors -- the most famous of which is actually from a philosopher who was not, himself, a Pragmatist at all. Philosopher Otto Neurath (1882 - 1945) famously compared inquiry to a boat being rebuilt while underway:
Imagine sailors, who, far out at sea, transform the shape of their clumsy vessel from a more circular to a more fishlike one. They make use of some drifting timber, besides the timber of the old structure, to modify the skeleton and the hull of their vessel. But they cannot put the ship in dock in order to start from scratch. During their work they stay on the old structure and deal with heavy gales and thundering waves. In transforming their ship they take care that dangerous leakages do not occur. A new ship grows out of the old one, step by step—and while they are still building, the sailors may already be thinking of a new structure, and they will not always agree with one another. The whole business will go on in a way that we cannot even anticipate today. That is our fate.
Now, as I said, Neurath himself was no pragmatist -- he was in fact associated with the logical positivists -- but his analogy was adopted by W. V. Quine, who is often described as a pragmatist. (He's not one of the classical pragmatists, but he definitely has pragmatist tendencies in a way that the description is not unreasonable, in my opinion.) In fact, it was Quine, in his most famous book, Word and Object (1960), who popularized Neurath's notion, saying that "Neurath has likened science to a boat which, if we are to rebuild it, we must rebuild plank by plank while staying afloat in it. The philosopher and the scientist are in the same boat." (p. 3) And certainly the idea captures well a concern that the Pragmatists too shared.

Note that Neurath himself used the words "vessel" and "ship"; Quine called it a "boat" -- but if Google is to be trusted (and Caveat Surftor is definitely the word of the day there), Neurath's raft is a more common a search than either "Neurath's boat" or "Neurath's ship". And that is the version that Kay Ryan (Remember Kay Ryan? This post's about Kay Ryan.) used when she took Neurath's vessel out for a little cruse of her own:

We're Building the Ship as We Sail It

The first fear
being drowning, the
ship's first shape
was a raft, which
was hard to unflatten
after that didn't
happen. It's awkward
to have to do one's
planning in extremis
in the early years --
so hard to hide later:
sleeking the hull,
making things
more gracious.

-- Kay Ryan
It's a cute use of the metaphor, although I'll admit that I don't think I agree with the philosophical point it's making. (In fact, I think I rather strenuously disagree with it (at least with what I take it to be.)) I also don't like it quite as much as I do either of the poems from the first two days of Kay Ryan Week -- and I'm frankly unsure if that's because of the philosophical disagreement, or is simply an aesthetic judgment, or some mixture of the two. But I do like it -- and I really, really like that she wrote it. Neurath's boat is a fine craft, and I love to see it get more attention.

Stay tuned tomorrow for another exciting day of Attempts' already-hyped-almost-to-metaphorical-bankruptcy Kay Ryan Week™!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

IMO naturalism is the more fundamental theme in US thought. Everyone talks about pragmatism but that is largely because Rorty and Putnam decided to revive it for their own reasons (ie as a way to escape Quinean naturalism). Of course this form of 'pragmatism' moves in the opposite direction of the 'pragmatism' of most of the early pragmatists who were naturalistic (Dewey) or proto-naturalistic (Peirce) in orientation. Quine is in many ways the culmination of this development (or rather its synthesis and reaction to/with the logical positivism of the Vienna circle and the distinct form of naturalism represented by Neurath).