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  • Print publication year: 1996
  • Online publication date: December 2009

Part 2 - On Neurath's Boat



Otto Neurath's philosophy – or better: his ‘anti-philosophy’ – found its characteristic expression in the simile named after him, ‘Neurath's Boat’:

We are like sailors who have to rebuild their ship on the open sea, without ever being able to dismantle it in dry dock and reconstruct it from the best components.

In this part we will trace the history of Neurath's Boat. The formulation just quoted is the one most commonly referred to and dates from the heights of the Vienna Circle's protocol sentence debate. With it Neurath cast into dramatic form his insight that knowledge has no secure foundations, that it all depends on how we ‘make it up’. This was not the first time that Neurath employed the simile to this end; it was, in fact, the third of five. The Boat represents a recurring motif in Neurath's work. The ‘first Boat’ dates to 1913.

Neurath's Boat is a simile, a literary figure. Indications are that it is original with Neurath, even though he fashioned it from rhetorical driftwood of his time. The image of the gradual replacement of a ship's components figures in Plutarch's Ship of Theseus, long employed as an example of the problems of identity. It is clear, however, that Theseus' Ship is not at sea, but that its repair took place in the harbour of Athens.

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Otto Neurath
  • Online ISBN: 9780511598241
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