Monday, April 17, 2006

Philosophical metaphor of the day

"We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction." - Otto Neurath

Neurath was using the metaphor to explain his view of how human knowledge is constructed, but it was popularized by W.V. Quine who used it to help describe his view of naturalized epistemology, in which he sought to make epistemology a subset of psychology.

I was going to explain further, but while searching for Quine's original essay, "Epistemology Naturalized", I came across this post from Lindsay Beyerstein who has already said it better than I think I can.

1 comment:

Psyberian said...

I’m far from an expert on the topic, but here is the most profound insight I know of addressing epistemology. (Sorry for the bold text, but blockquote tags aren’t allowed.) It is Nietzsche from Beyond Good and Evil:

Even behind all logic and its apparent dynamic authority stand evaluations of worth or, putting the matter more clearly, physiological demands for the preservation of a particular way of life—for example, that what is certain is more valuable than what is uncertain, that appearance is of less value than the "truth." Evaluations like these could, for all their regulatory importance for us, still be only foreground evaluations, a particular kind of niaiserie [stupidity], necessary for the preservation of beings precisely like us. That's assuming, of course, that not just man is the "measure of things" . . .

In another part he elaborates:

For us, the falsity of a judgment is no objection to that judgment—that's where our new way of speaking sounds perhaps most strange. The question is the extent to which it makes demands on life, sustains life, maintains the species—perhaps even creates species. And we are even ready to assert that the falsest judgments (to which a priori synthetic judgments belong) are the most indispensable to us, that without our allowing logical fictions to count, without a way of measuring reality against the purely invented world of the unconditional and self-identical, without a constant falsification of the world through numbers, human beings could not live—that if we managed to give up false judgments, it would amount to a renunciation of life, a denial of life. To concede the fictional nature of the conditions of life means, of course, taking a dangerous stand against the customary feelings about value. A new philosophy which dared to do that would thus stand alone, beyond good and evil.

Nietzsche saw that the truth is not a static thing to us, but it evolves.