CHANGE AND IDENTITY: a meditation on the paradoxical world of cities
Updated: Dec 17, 2018
We regularly say that cities change over time and, as urbanists, we are quite aware that urban territories have no sharp boundaries. Given our limited human understanding of the concept of change, despite our defiance of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s Law of Identity, and in the absence of better linguistic tools, we cannot help but call our ever-changing cities by their original names. If you would ask me where I live, I would not hesitate to answer that I live in the City of Miami; nevertheless, as a real entity, the City of Miami barely resembles the physical qualities, perceptual characteristics, or socio-political and economic aspirations at the moment of its early foundation nor, mind you, would it recall the city it was just about five minutes ago. If the technology of time travel could be possible, the founding fathers of cities across the globe would not be able to recognize their original abodes, and despite the empirical evidence surrounding them, they would categorially deny their presence and/or their current state of existence; it would be unbearable for Julia Tuttle or Henry Flagler to call the current City of Miami by its original name. So, how can one and the same city be different and yet the same at different times? Given that everything in cities is in constant flux, how can we know that we are occupying the same urban space where we think we were just five or ten seconds ago? Understanding that everything in cities is persistently changing, why do we insist on calling these changing places by the same name? Why is it easier to re-name software programs with consecutive numerical sequential versions and so difficult to do the same with our immediate reality?
The most perplexing feature of identity begins to materialize when we consider this concept in combination with the phenomenon of change. Heraclitus of Ephesus (535 BC - 475 BC) was perhaps the first known philosopher in the western tradition to realize that, as quoted by Plato, “one never steps into the same river twice”. In other words, everything is in constant flux and nothing stays still. But, upon closer inspection, Heraclitus’ statement is not short of contradictions for it seems impossible to be standing at the same river and yet not standing at the same place. To solve this complicated conundrum, philosophers have drawn a distinction between what is called “numerical” and “qualitative” identities; for them, when a thing changes, it remains numerically the same but it becomes qualitatively different. When we admit that a certain thing has different qualities over various time iterations, we are simply acknowledging that the same thing might be evolving in front of our own two eyes; yet numerically, it is the same thing. For instance, when we buy a banana at the supermarket, it might have a certain degree of greenness; two days later, it will show a certain degree of yellowness; and, if we don’t eat it, it will develop a degree of blackness and odor that were absent in the original banana at the supermarket. In other words, numerically, it is the same banana but, qualitatively, it is three different bananas. We could say with no trouble that we have “Banana v.1” at the supermarket, “Banana v.2” at the kitchen counter, and “Banana v.3” in the trash can. So, again, why is it so easy to understand the phenomenon of change and identity in a banana but so difficult to apply the same logic of time iterations to urban territories?
It occurs to me that the difficulty arises from the fact that cities not only change their basic qualities over time but also their internal and external composition. In other words, cities are like many of the everyday objects surrounding us at all times; cities, like everyday objects, are also compounds made out of a complex kit of parts. Just like an IKEA table is a composite of a top and four legs made out of wood from a tree that has a type of soft or hard bark, leaves, a trunk, branches, and root system composed of cells and micro-organisms, with steel screws and nails extracted from the depths of the earth, plus a set of graphic instructions, and so on ad-infinitum, cities are also complex compounds of a multiplicity of independent and co-dependent objects in constant flux. A city is composed of disparate elements. A city is not like a basket of apples; it is a basket of mixed-fruits. When one has a basket of apples, the apples can be distinguished from the basket; if one removes one apple, the general composition of the basket of apples remains more or less intact; if the basket were empty, one would not call it a basket of apples. Now, a basket of fruits is a bit different; when one has a basket of mixed-fruits, one cannot distinguish every single fruit in the basket, yet one can see the basket more or less clearly; if I remove one of the fruits in the basket, I can still see the others and, in my mind, it would be essentially the same; numerically, the basket of mixed-fruits is the same but, compositionally, the basket of mixed-fruits has changed. This simple paradox has enormous urban consequences: I believe that the reason why the concept of “wholeness” in cities is so difficult to understand is because it would require us to be aware of every potential change in this “basket of mixed-fruits” we call cities, plus we would need to define their every possible formal category and sub-category, every aspect of their overall composition, every one of their hierarchical elements, every characteristic of their history and economic development, every single person now and in the past, etc. Nobody in their right mind would dare to say that they have this type of a comprehensive understanding of cities; such assertion would simply require a sub-human brain power with a “god-like” potential. Nevertheless, just as we find it normal to say that a certain city can change its qualities over time and yet remain essentially intact, we also find it perfectly normal to say that a city can change its parts over time and yet be the same city.
For the sake of argumentation and to illustrate our contradictory understanding of the concepts of change and identity in cities, let me introduce a series of philosophical paradoxes. By far the best known “change and identity” thought experiments include those around the notion of a car/clock mechanical repair or, most famously, the paradox of the Ship of Theseus as examined by Thomas Hobbes on the basis of an ancient Greek passage by Plutarch. So, let’s begin with one focusing on mechanical repairs: let’s suppose that your car has one punched tire; upon arrival to the car repair shop, they bring you bad news: apparently, the four tires of your car are practically worn out and they must be replaced with new ones. After a few minutes, the repairman shows up with your car at the front door. Upon close inspection of the final results, I notice that the four worn tires have been replaced with new ones. Then, should I complain that I was given the wrong car because it is not the same car I had presented to them an hour ago? Well, it is in fact a different car but, it is numerically the same. Its qualities have changed, its composition has changed but, numerically, it remains the same. Welcome to the world in which our rationality is set spinning into the outer universe while leading us into the untapped world of rational irrationalities; perhaps, this is the reason why I don’t challenge our perception of urban change and identity so often; maybe, without intellectual entanglements, this is why I pretend to be comfortable when I say that I live in the City of Miami.
As if this was not enough, let’s explore one of the most important paradoxes in the history of philosophy and its direct application to the subjects of urban change and urban identity: when the war hero Theseus died, the Athenian people decided to preserve his boat in posterity as a symbol of true Greek military success. The boat was placed in the harbor of Athens for everyone to see. As time passed by, some of its parts began to decay and the people of Athens decided to take care of this situation; for this purpose, an official repairman was called into the port to replace the decayed parts with new parts of the same form and materials in the original ship. Eventually none of the original parts remained, poising the philosophical question by the people of Athens of whether the ship in the harbor was still the same ship on which Theseus had sailed in. Although the ship in the port appeared to be identical with the original, would you feel comfortable saying that the new ship in the harbor is indeed the same heroic Ship of Theseus? Should we forced to impose some limit on the proportion of parts replaced before this new ship ceases to be the Ship of Theseus? Given that the actions of the repairman were incremental and executed in a piecemeal fashion, when did the Ship of Theseus lose its identity? Obviously, the answer to this paradoxical puzzle is not a matter of identity but an issue of continuity and incremental development. It seems to me that the Ship of Theseus would have been perceived the same if and only if its parts were replaced in an incremental manner over the course of multiple time iterations. Obviously, this notion of “incremental continuity over time” as a solution to the riddle of Theseus makes me feel more comfortable regarding my own existence in the ever-changing City of Miami. At this point, it should also be clear that the notion of “incremental continuity over time” has tremendous intellectual and pragmatic consequences in the field of historic preservation as well as on the production of real informalities and the picturesque in urban design.
To make things a little bit more complicated, let us suppose that the repairman stored all the decayed pieces of the original Ship of Theseus in his personal warehouse. Now that he had collected all the original pieces, he decided to re-assemble them in their original position and, in the middle of the night, he placed the repaired object side-by-side to the so-called Ship of Theseus in the harbor of Athens. When the citizens of Athens woke up that morning, they found two almost identical Ships of Theseus side-by-side. Now that both ships claim to be identical to the original Ship of Theseus, and after the fact that all the parts of the ship were repaired at the same time, our answer to the Theseus riddle would take us to a completely different moment of intellectual speculation. Obviously, the reassembled artifact was numerically and qualitatively identical to the original Ship of Theseus but, symbolically, the image of the incrementally repaired ship had acquired new “qualitative and perceptual meanings” for the citizens of Athens. Despite the fact that, in this case, we had two identical objects occupying a similar space at the same time, both of these objects were not perceived as one and the same. Both of them were perceived as distinct objects in space and, as a consequence, it was futile to talk about the authenticity of the Ship of Theseus in such a context. The answer to the riddle exists only at a metaphysical level: from a pure ontological perspective, it is not possible to stipulate that both ships are one and the same; but, from a pragmatic perspective, it is possible to advance the claim that the symbolic references attached to the repaired Ship of Theseus changed the qualitative and perceptual meaning in this scenario and, as a result, the repaired ship is more original than the original Ship of Theseus. As paradoxical as it may sound, it seems to be that two of the same stories may end up composing two very different discourses, depending on the perceptual meanings attached to the objects in the composition of the individual stories. As in the previous case, this notion of change of “qualitative and perceptual meanings” is of outmost importance in the production of real cities and architecture.
Now, let us take this argument to the limits of its metaphysical implications. Please consider for a moment a scenario in which the repairman decides not to use the original parts he had collected in his warehouse to replace the Ship of Theseus but to repair a multiplicity of ships in the harbor of Athens and in the harbors of neighboring cities nearby. In other words, the original parts of the Ship of Theseus are now atomized and embedded into many other Greek ships. Would we dare to say that the Ship of Theseus in its original status has now ceased to exist? Or, could we argue that, given its current state of atomization, the Ship of Theseus is now present all over Greece? This is precisely one of the most difficult problems with composite objects; let me clarify that, in the case of a living organisms, it would be impossible to atomize them and, simultaneously, allow them to survive its dissembled state i.e.: an animal would not survive a total disassembly of its body parts. So, when we consider the city as a “living organism”, we are certainly contemplating the potential for very complex metaphysical difficulties because, as stated above, it would never survive its total disassembly and, as a consequence, it would disprove the human experience of cities in our everyday lives. In my opinion, the third answer to this puzzling paradox has to do with the delineation of the “intrinsic nature of things”. Cities are not living organisms; cities are composite objects of perception which only exist in the minds of the perceivers. Therefore, every city is dependent on the actions and the individual minds of the perceivers. My most revolutionary statement would be that, cities cannot be planned and expected to hold to the master plan of one single individual because cities are a collection of individual decisions taken, one at a time, by individuals with selfish goals and objectives. The collective result of these ever-changing decisions is what we call a city. That is why I feel uncomfortable when I say that I live in the City of Miami.
Cities generally develop along non-linear time iterations – unless they are severely intervened by wraths of nature or human destruction. Even in the midst of physical catastrophes and socio-political chaos, cities carry enormous local meanings and symbolic values; as a consequence, citizens get attached to their ideal state of being even when such an idea does not exist but in the mind of a few. Cities are vague objects of perception; in the mind of city residents, cities are perceived as one and the same objects of perception at various points in time; nevertheless, qualitatively and compositionally, their multiple components are in a permanent state of flux; as such, their present moment is difficult to decipher and its future behavior is impossible to predict. A city is not a living organism; a city cannot be atomized because a city is a collection of separate rational and/or irrational decisions taken by single individuals along contiguous time iterations; as a consequence, it is futile to say that cities can be planned.
Urban design is death. Long-live urban design!
NOTE: this article was originally commissioned by "La Casa de la Ciudad "in Oxaca, Mexico for their periodical magazine "GAZETA".