The Ship of Theseus



    Repetition and Identity by Catherine Pickstock, Oxford University Press, 2013, 211pp, £12.99 (paperback)

    The teasing paradox that takes its name from the thirty-oared galley in which Theseus sailed to Crete to kill the Minotaur and release the young Athenian hostages was most notably set down by Plutarch (c.46–120AD) in his Parallel Lives. When Theseus returned to Athens, Plutarch recounts, the Athenians carefully preserved the hero’s ship: whenever a timber de- cayed they replaced it until, in due course, the entire vessel had been re- built. With every component renewed, is it still the same ship? That’s the question that has troubled philosophers down the ages, and it’s a conun- drum whose capacity to perplex remains unimpaired.

    Apply the logic to a bicycle, for example: you replace the seat, the handle- bars, the brakes, the wheels, the gears, the chain, the pedals, the forks, and the frame. Is that still the same bike you got for Christmas all those years ago? A familiar variation is heard in discussions of football: ‘England have never beaten Uruguay in competitive games, losing once in 1954 and then drawing at Wembley in 1966’ (Daily Telegraph). Yes, but is the team that lost in 1954 really the same team that will take to the field against Uruguay in Brazil in 2014? And Wembley Stadium (relocated in 2007) isn’t actually Wembley anymore. Or is it?

    It doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to see how the Theseus para- dox might apply to thinking in general. As the philosopher and psycholo- gist William James remarked in The Principles of Psychology (1890), ‘in strict theoretic accuracy’ every sensation we have is new; accordingly, it is ‘obvious and palpable that our state of mind is never precisely the same. Every thought we have of a given fact is, strictly speaking, unique’. As far as our mental image of it is concerned, Theseus’s ship is a different vessel every time we conceive of it.

    James goes on to draw a vexing conclusion: the very thought that a thing is ‘the same’ makes it different. He contemplates his chair: ‘if I think of it to-day as the same arm-chair which I looked at yesterday, it is obvious that the very conception of it as the same is an additional complication to the thought, whose inward constitution must alter in consequence’. Thinking of it as ‘the same’, in other words, revises the idea of the chair such that it is ‘logically impossible that the same thing should be known as the same by two successive copies of the same thought.’

    It was, of course, William James (the older brother of Henry James, the novelist) who in The Principles of Psychology brilliantly coined the ex- pression ‘stream of consciousness’ to describe the dynamics of ‘subjective life’. He was well aware that the metaphor carries an idea of ceaseless mo- tion that brings it into contact with another famous Greek paradox, that of Heraclitus: we never step into the same river twice. Inside as well as out- side our heads, radical flux is the inescapable condition of things. Thinking is what can be rescued from what James calls the ‘free water of conscious- ness’; it is finding what remains in ‘a sort of sieve’ when that which is ‘either too subtle or insignificant to be fixed in any conception’ has fallen through the mesh. It is like panning for gold or catching fish with a net in a fast-flowing stream.

    It is also a mundane and necessary fact of existence. It is what we do every moment of every day, burying the paradoxes and philosophical complica- tions in humdrum habits of recognition: picking out significant entities, disregarding the inconsequential, noting the unfamiliar. But what of things themselves? Should subsequent iterations of Theseus’s ship be judged in- authentic by comparison with an immaculate original, or is the object by its very nature to be regarded as the never-quite-stable product of ongoing processes? In an influential little book entitled Repetition (1843) the Dan- ish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, distinguished between ‘repetition’ and ‘recollection’. Writing under the playfully ironic pseudonym, Constantine Constantius, Kierkegaard says that repetition is for the moderns what rec- ollection was for the Greeks. Where the Greeks conceived of knowledge as a kind of remembering (thus in the Meno Socrates demonstrates that Meno’s uneducated slave is able to ‘recollect’ geometrical knowledge that he didn’t know he had), repetition is essentially forward-looking, bringing knowledge that is at once fresh and yet familiar: ‘The dialectic of repetition is easy, because that which is repeated has been, otherwise it could not be repeated; but precisely this, that it has been, makes repetition something new’ (trans. M. G. Piety, Oxford 2009).

    This, broadly speaking, is the starting point of Catherine Pickstock’s Rep- etition and Identity. The selfhood of things is paradoxically preserved by virtue of ‘non-identical repetition’: ‘a thing must be doubled or repeated in order to exist as a thing’ (p.46). But what of the origin of that which is repeated? For materialists, as nature itself is the sufficient cause of exist- ing things, the philosophical problems that underlie our knowledge of the external world are to be solved by referring back to natural processes. For Plato, physical things are mere copies of ideal forms: the concrete manifes- tation of an object being the shadowy glimpse of a prior reality that might be recovered (recollected) with the help of Socratic tutoring. For Pickstock (Reader in Philosophy and Theology at Emmanuel College, Cambridge), the answer lies in Christian belief. Christ’s Incarnation signals the sustain- ing immanence of the eternal in creation: ‘Christianity conceived the re- turn and retrieval of all things in Christ in terms that are at once inclusive and festive’ (p.182). Repeating the actions of Adam by recapitulating and reversing them (as St Paul states in Ephesians 1:9–10), Christ atones for original sin, restoring both Adam and humanity ‘to their created destiny’ (p.174). Developing her thesis in response to Kierkegaard, Pickstock rhe- torically asks (p.147) whether ‘human identity, and the identity of all things … is secured through the historical reduplicating, and so continuous repre- sentation of the atonement achieved by the God-Man?’

    Pickstock’s argument from repetition has ramifications for the arts. In the Republic Plato famously degraded mimetic art as a third-hand copying of copies, an activity that trivially or dangerously distracts from the pursuit of knowledge. For Pickstock, the present moment is itself a kind of fabrica- tion. Like the Euclidean point in geometry (a ‘fictional supposition’, p.44) the present instant is no more than an axiomatic assumption: a construct, elusive by definition, required to mediate between the completed past and the expected future. The basis of repetition in immediate experience is a sequence of such suppositions, each of which (recalling St Augustine) is ‘a pure interval almost as it were outside time’ (p.53). Reality thus ‘problem- atically’ substantiates itself in fiction: ‘the doubling of reality as fiction is … a fundamental aspect of reality itself’. History, literature and ontology are intimately intertwined: ‘the entry of the historical into the ontological via repetition is all of a piece with the entry of literature into the historical and ontological spheres’ (p. xii).

    Where literature is instrumental in the recovery of reality, one may in- fer that the literary tradition is potentially purged of what Harold Bloom in 1973 memorably called the ‘anxiety of influence’. For Pickstock, the thematic ‘repetition’ of paradigmatic precedents becomes part of a philo- sophical quest for ‘the pure origin that never quite appeared in its purity’, a reaching back for ‘the remote ground of transcendence’. Deriving its potency from that association, creative originality becomes another kind of ‘non-identical repetition’, which asserts its newness not by striving to break with the past but by incorporating tradition into itself (see ch. 8).

    Such a cursory overview cannot pretend to do justice to the subtlety of rea- soning and formidable wealth of reading that Pickstock brings to bear on these matters. It is perhaps surprising to discover that a daunting literature has grown up around the idea of repetition, one that boasts contributions from some of the most innovative and provocative thinkers of recent times, including Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze. Pickstock meets such chal- lenges head-on. She also works to ensure that every detail of her thinking can be traced back to her framing thesis. In consequence, it would be ab- surd to suggest that Repetition and Identity is an easy read. For those (like me) who do not share Pickstock’s enthusiasm for the leap of faith, it may be that the parts of her argument where philosophy and theology touch the arts (in particular, literary theory) will be of most interest. The book opens with a long poem, ‘The snowdrop sequence’, which condenses its princi- pal themes into a meditation on the alchemy of growth, conceived of in imagery associated with coding, writing and printing. This is a fascinating and touching piece, testament to the sincerity of Pickstock’s belief in the necessary alliance of literature and philosophy.

    Repetition and Identity is published as part of The Literary Agenda, an OUP series edited by Philip Davis, Director of the Centre For Research In Reading, Information And Linguistic Systems at the University of Liver- pool. (Other titles in The Literary Agenda include Reading and the Reader by Philip Davis and Poetry by David Constantine.) The aim of the series, as Davis indicates in his introductory manifesto, is to confront what he describes as the ‘great fifty-year-long cry of distress, outrage, fear and mel- ancholy’ that afflicts the humanities. Its approach is to make the case for literature in arguments that are both ‘strongly tested by thought’, but also ‘given presence, performed, and brought to life’. The inclusion of Repeti- tion and Identity in The Literary Agenda is striking testimony to the fact that the series is striving to put these aspirations into practice.