What can philosophical reflection contribute to an understanding of such an event as the Titanic disaster? In what ways might thinking philosophically about this disaster 100 years ago contribute to an investigation into the theme of this year’s colloquium ‘The Titanic and the first age of globalization’. Most contemporary philosophers convinced by traditional conceptions that argue philosophy is only concerned with perennial questions of a timeless nature would certainly scoff. At first face, the classical branches of philosophy and their fundamental questions appear to have very little to say about a contingent historical event such as the sinking of a cruiseliner, no matter how dramatic. To be sure, philosophers take up historical events and thorny ethical problems in their writings. The aim, however, has mostly, if not always, to use these particular problems as vehicles for testing and illuminating larger principles and philosophical concepts. Inquiry into metaphysics, epistemology, logic, aesthetics, and ethics appear too abstract and rarefied too illuminate the meaning or consequences of the sinking of a ship one hundred years ago. Even American pragmatism’s most popular and active champion, John Dewey, who was 53 at the time of the sinking lived four decades after this singular spectacle, never saw fit to mention the Titanic in this most concrete, and practical of all philosophies.
In our own time, a time where once again different philosophical traditions engage in a renaissance of cross-fertilization with each other giving rise to new fields of inquiry as ‘comparative philosophy’ , and indeed the history of cross-cultural appropriation of different philosophies, the situation is only slightly different.
So philosophical inquiry in searching for something to say about such a catastrophe leans on in the first instance, history, the historical record of the disaster. But it also abstracts from particular historical facts and classifies them alongside other such events as it sees fit: in the case of the Titanic, shipwrecks. It is an instance of intellectual distancing and abstraction that necessarily accompanies the 100 years since the disaster.
However, and this shifts the event closer to philosophical terrain, it is as much what the Titanic means for humans today as it is the particular empirical features of the size of the ship, the material out of which it was made, the cause of its sinking, the numbers lost, and the numbers saved. The Titanic is much more than the event that initiates a causal series of representations in our culture leading up to and beyond Leonardo DiCaprio arms flung open on the prow of the mammoth studio-constructed model of the ship, to a Broadway musical, to a traveling exhibit whose latest stop was Copenhagen, Denmark. So, it could be that philosophy is not so strange a way to approach this and even the most spectacular accidents that history provides.
Philosophers have made much of the issue of meaning, and theories as to how humans make events meaningful abound. That humans do, or appear to, or want to find some sense, make some meaning of what begins in the first instance as a ‘blooming, buzzing confusion’, is captured in perhaps the boldest recent statement with respect to the presence of questions of meaning in human life: human being ‘is the only being for which the meaning of their being is an issue’.
The material out of which the Titanic arrives to us today, so laden with meanings, is so much more than the sinking of a large ship. Rather today the Titanic is lodged in our minds as much as a metaphor as anything else. It is regularly used in common analagoies of humorous self-deprecation or castigation upon failing at, or suffering, a performance . ‘Well that went over like the Titanic’ . It is employed in situations where a heralded project falls flat on its face. And has even become something of a meta-metaphor for those who want to point out the futility of working on the detailed parts or facets of a doomed larger whole venture. ‘This busy work feels like we are arranging desk chairs on the Titanic’. The ‘Titanic’, though is not just any metaphor, according to the late intellectual historian Hans Blumenberg. Rather Blumenberg suggest that looking backwards to retrieve the sunk ship once again for our reflection, is in philosophical terms, nothing other than working with something that is at once a historical event and also a token of a type of experience. Investigating the Titanic today is to participate in the activity at the heart of a metaphor that contains within itself what it means to be human.
In fact, in a philosophical manner, generalizing our position in investigating the Titanic across time and space, Blumenberg suggests that the metaphor of a shipwreck with spectator is our human condition most exactingly represented. That is, the idea of a shipwreck being watched by those not participating in it serves as an archetypical representation of our position as humans born on earth, the kind of beings we are. We are setting out on doomed voyages, witnessing shipwreck, either drowning or being saved, and musing about what shipwreck means in our position on the shore throughout our history.
As Blumenberg’s dizzying mastery of ancient texts in this text shows, seafaring is a common theme and metaphor in describing human existence, and referred to as one of the fundamentally paradoxical facts of how we understand ourselves: “Humans live their lives and build their institutions on dry land. Nevertheless, they seek to grasp the movement of their existence.” (7). And so Blumenberg wants us to retrieve something about this metaphor by seeing its roots, by actually digging up the sedimented ruins of our culture that shows that to be watching or suffering a shipwreck, is one of the most basic human positions to be in, literally and metaphorically.
It might help to acknowledge that, with what Richard Rorty immortalized as the twentieth century’s “Linguistic Turn”, metaphor has been the subject, as a particularly slippery aspect of language even for philosophers who were convinced that language is really the sole and foundational object of philosophizing. This is nicely captured in the subtitle to the philosopher Richard Boyd’s paper “Metaphor and Theory Change: What is “Metaphor” a Metaphor for?”. However, let us take metaphor in its most classic philosophical sense as articulated by Aristotle. Hannah Arendt in her discussion “Language and Metaphor” from Vol. 1 of her last work The Life of the Mind describes the structure this way:
Every metaphor discovers an “intuitive perception of similarity among dissimilars” And, according to Aristotle, is for this very reason “a sign of genius,” “the greatest thing by far”. But this similarity, for Aristotle, too, is not a similarity present in otherwise dissimilar objects but a similarity of relations as in an analogy which always needs four terms and can be presented in the formula B:A=D:C. “Thus cup is in relation to Dionysus what a shield is to Ares. The cup accordingly will be metaphorically described as the ‘shield of Dionysus.’
In this paper I would like to present a basic schematic of this metaphor for human existence according to Blumenberg, and to ask the question, in a more meditative and perhaps existential vein, What constitutes spectatorship today and what counts as a shipwreck? What position are we in with respect to a disaster one hundred years old? and What position with respect to the ‘shipwrecks’ all around us? And, finally, to see if ‘Shipwreck with Spectator’ can be enlisted as a useful metaphor for human existence under conditions of globalization, if we can employ our intuitive perception of ‘similarity among dissimilars’ today, if we can locate ourselves in this metaphor as spectators of a shipwreck in the past.