Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Neurath's Boat

Neurath's boat metaphor for how we seek and apply knowledge seems popular among pragmatists, I've seen it feature quite prominently in recent defenses of pragmatism by Richard Rorty and Bryan Norton.

The basic metaphor is pretty simple (and no doubt they like being able to bring the positivists back into their camp), so there is intuitive appeal to it. We start out with the boat we have, rotting timber and all. And we don't have the luxury of replacing all the planks (which one would think of as propositions with relative degrees of truthfulness corresponding with how "sound" they are as planks), so we have to stand on other planks to replace those that are failing. As one is forced to stand on other planks, one can never start at the beginning, i.e. adopt a position of radical doubt. To not take a pragmatic stance, fix those planks most urgently need or repair while standing on those in ok, but perhaps not ideal condition, is to go into the drink. Given that the whole point of the knowledge boat in the first place is to avoid the drink, Descartes' project, er, founders.

My sympathies are with the pragmatists on this one, I mostly agree with Rorty's characterization of radical skeptics as "obsessive" is often apt. But it does seem pretty clear that the selection of the metaphor preselects the pragmatic conclusion. A boat is to keep you out of the water, that's what it's for. Of course it fails as a boat and you fail as a boat operator if you let it go down. Why are you voyaging might be a better question. Is it for pure knowledge and discovery, for conquest, to escape something, for profit, or to catch a tasty fish?

Having sailed a little, I also hate to let Neurath know, that most boats are made of fiberglass or steel these days, and if your boat is in trouble, you'll bring it into dock. The decision making will mostly involve which boat you decide to get on in the first place, not which non-existent planks you repair. So boat design actually is the pressing concern. What is it designed for, what tradeoffs has the designer opted for, how does it fit your purpose, how does it compare to othe boats designed for similar purposes.

I don't think that picking boats, instead of picking planks is at all problematic to the pragmatist project. How does one pick a boat, one finds a community of practitioners who generally shares the same purpose for boating, and looks at the types of boats they use. As one learns more about that specific area of boating, one may find one particular design suits oneself best, and will take a stance on various design choices. If one gets REALLY into boating, one can design and build a boat of one's own, and build it from the ground up. This might be an exercise in skepticism of current designs, and exercise in learning and understanding them, or simply a way to try one's hand at something new. At the end of the day the design will be judged by how well it performs in accordance to what it was designed for. So skepticism, even radical skepticism is permitted, but the proof is in a very pragmatic pudding.