The Ships of Theseus and Otto Neurath

The Ship of Theseus was a famous vessel

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrus Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question as to things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending it was not the same.

In his De CorporeThomas Hobbes followed up an ancient suggestion that the ship’s original planks might have been hoarded by a collector on land and reassembled, once every part had been replaced. Hobbes offered the reassembled ship as the true original. But he may have had his tongue in his cheek about the ambiguous use of language in truth claims. It is the true original, qua material, but not qua a functioning ship.

Information philosophy resolves the paradox

From an information philosophy perspective, the Ship of Theseus is just a quibble about naming. But the full facts of the matter provide the information to name a ship uniquely.

We have perfect information about the constituting planks, especially if they are carefully distinguished and stored for reassembly of the original planks as a museum copy (presumably the ship reassembled from old planks will not be seaworthy).

We have perfectly understandable and meaningful names for all the parts in this problem. We have the original ship. We have for example original plank 224, replacement plank 175, etc. We have the repaired ship with specific replacement planks in position. We can keep a diagram showing where all the planks fit. Finally we have the reassembled ship. We can see two numerically distinct ships (or at least collections of ship parts) at all times

The comparable problem of identifying parts of an organism, – specific cells, even atoms, is extremely difficult if not impossible. The exact boundaries of organs and limbs are vague, etc.

So apart from denials that composite inanimate objects exist at all, where is the deep metaphysical problem?

If it is the problem of identity through time, the information philosophy solution is straightforward.

Otto Neurath was an founding member of the Vienna Circle. Starting in the 1920’s, he developed what he called the Vienna Method of Pictorial Statistics (Wiener Methode der Bildstatistik) in which simple and attractive icons were used to communicate knowledge.

After emigrating from Nazi Germany, while working in London, he renamed the method Isotype (International System Of TYpographic Picture Education) 

The idea of communicating ideas with pictures is a part of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, the early Ludwig Wittgenstein‘s work for Bertrand Russell inspired by logical positivism. And it is the foundation of information philosophy, which analyzes the physical arrangement of material particles in any information structure.

Neurath’s image of knowledge (our SUM) as a ship that must be built while out at sea is his most lasting metaphor.

There is no way to establish fully secured, neat protocol statements as starting points of the sciences. There is no tabula rasa. 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 its best components. 

3 thoughts on “The Ships of Theseus and Otto Neurath

  1. Thanks for the clarification. Hopefully, I will have time to do some more digging. BTW, today is my favorite I-Phi day. It’s known around the house as, “Einstein Day”. 🙂


  2. I have critique… The article starts off talking about the ship of Theseus and rightfully so summarizes the point as one of Identity. However, I am a little confused why the connection is made and flow of the article transitions to Neurath’s Vienna Method of Pictorial Statistics? I just think the transition could be clearer, especially when you preface the transition by saying, “If it is the problem of identity through time, the information philosophy solution is straightforward.” There is an attempt at the closing of this article where you quote Theseus (I think) but it leaves the reader in the open sea. I can draw the conclusion that changes over time, through experiences, are tied to identity but this doesn’t explain the Isotype.


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