Moustache of Theseus

An interesting post at our companion site – World of Beards – discusses the idea of heap theory within the realm of facial hair growing.

To summarise: if one hair is not a moustache, and two hairs are not a moustache, then at what number of hairs does a moustache become a moustache? I think its slightly more complicated than that, so please read the original.

I am minded of the relation of a similarly antiquated philosophical paradox to the growing of a moustache – the Ship of Theseus.

The Ship of Theseus is reported by Plutarch as “The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned (from Crete) had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius 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 of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same” taken from the Wikipedia post.

Therefore, we can appreciate that over time as a moustache is trimmed and as hairs reach their finite length and then fall out, a man will actually grow a number of moustaches within his conceptual goal of merely having one.

The Wikipedia article discuss the relation of Theseus ship to the four causes of Aristotle and it may be useful here to look at these in relation to the moustache. The four causes are:

1. The Formal cause – is the defining idea of a thing, the purpose behind the originator. In this case, the notion of growing the moustache in the first place. This, obviously, does not change with the moustache. The notion of growing and having the moustache is set from the outset, and whilst the subtle form of the moustache may change (through shaping or modelling) the actuality of it exists as long as the moustache itself exists. There may be some relation here with the Platonic form (and Jungian theory of collective unconscious) – we are all striving to grow that one ideal moustache of which we all have a collective, but unstated, understanding.

2. The material cause – the stuff of which the object is made. Here there is flux. As mentioned above, the specific hairs within a moustache (which collectively make the moustache – see heap theory) do change over time. However, all matter – especially organic matter – changes. We shed and regenerate our cells many times over the span of our lives, and therefore we are ourselves in flux. Are we the same person (not psychologically or spiritually but actually organically) as we were at a given previous stage in our lives? Our moustaches become a symbol for our own constant regeneration and rebirth.

3. Final cause – the purpose. What is the purpose of a moustache? To look dapper? To signal our being as man? But if we take the moustache as symbol for ourselves – what is the purpose of our own lives? Aristotle discussed a general “goodness” as being essential, but what makes a good moustache?

4. Efficient cause – who makes the thing? In this case the answer is clear, the grower makes the moustache. There is little scope for outside assistance. But to what extent are we owners of our moustaches? It is not an active mechanism we use to grow – but actually an absence (of shaving). Therefore, the moustache becomes no longer our own but an extension of our own growing and existence – from whichever originator you believe to be responsible.


Published in: on September 15, 2006 at 9:58 am  Comments (7)  

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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Sometimes, when I drink Guiness I have a little white fluffy moustache. I have to wipe it off, but I like it. That is my theory.

  2. I think we can link the third and fourth causes. As previously stated, by not shaving, we are causing the moustache to grow. It’s an active decision to break a deeply entrenched custom or habit that most of us have stuck to throughout our lives. Thus, the act of not shaving shows the fourth cause (what makes the thing?) but could indicate a reason or purpose – the third cause. The purpose being to demonstrate that we can break from our chains of habit and ritual. We could also see the third cause as being a simbol of lethagy and slackdom(can’t be bothered to shave) worn proudly on the face. Not wanting to promote any gender stereotypes here but would such a symbol fit with the observation that men make comfortable slackers while women feel more at ease keeping busy?

  3. An interesting piece! I fear however that the author has been influenced by the ballons of ‘hot air’ and ‘retoric’ eminating from across the channel that have plagued this isle in modern times when he prescribes, as it were, an autonomous existence of ‘the moustache’…Balony! Prehaps Genesis chap 4 might help when one reads ‘while God maketh the human, the moustache maketh the man’ John iv.

  4. I do fear it is ontologically problematical to jump in headlong and make an unjustified sweeping leap of semiosis from a sign, in the Sausserian sense, of moustache as a thing-as-of-itself to a signifier of some form of “ourselves-ness”.

    Leaps similar to these are roundly criticised by Hayles [How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1999] in the context of the shortcomings of the “floatingsignifier” – that imprecise and convenient ‘get-out clause’ of literary and cultural studies.

    In the author’s argument, the moustache is presented as a prime example of a floatingsignifier – not surprising, given the author’s training in post-structuralist literary study.

    By sticking to this leap of association, the author fails to consider current theoretical developments in the concept of a ‘flickering signifier’. That being that sign that evolves from its Sausserian counterpart through development and experience (both of the object and of the observer).

    The author, therefore, sells short the experience and development of his moustache and the similar (and, indeed, interdependent) development and experience of the viewer or contactee of the moustache, preferring instead to tread the well-worn solipsistic path of considering his moustache as a floatingsignifier relevant only (in terms of decoding) to itself and its wearer.

    And he looks like Ian Beale.

  5. Clearly a schoolboy error.

    As far as the Sorites paradox goes I had many a commentator ask me “are you trying to grow a beard?” instead of the slightly more flattering “Are you growing a beard?” And once the beard was there for no one to deny, the question was: at which point had it become truly a beard?

    As for the Ship of theseus “problem” (not a paradox): It could grow all it wants and be trimmed all it wants in different ways and styles and it could well remain a beard. The only point at which the Sorites paradox would raise its ugly head (are we agreed on what is ugly?) is if I took a drastic step to remove all facial hair except one strand (hereafter S1) or to just 2 S2, 3? S3… oh wait… how many strands can remain in my stylish new beard before it ceases to be one?

  6. Sometimes, when I am having a bubbly bath, I like to make a big fluffy bubbly bath moustache goatee beard. When my wife see it, she make me wash it off. Why? Why does she do that. I know she like the goatee beard, the man from next door has one and he always round.

  7. Let us also consider John Wilkins’ classifications as described in ‘An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language’ (600 pages in large quarto, 1668).

    The eighth category; the category of moustaches. Wilkins divides them into common (such as; toothbrush, scrubby, or droopy), modics (ginger, blond, dyed), precious (handbar, waxed), transparent (white, diseased) and insolubles (full of bits of cake, a futile effort to look butch). Almost as surprising as the eighth, is the ninth category. This one reveals to us that moustaches can be imperfect (of only one hair, or on the forehead), artificial (bronze, brass), recremental (one-sided, painted on with charcol) and natural (bushy, or religiously inspired).

    These ambiguities, redundancies and deficiencies remind us of those which doctor Franz Kuhn attributes to a certain Chinese encyclopedia entitled ‘Celestial Empire of Benevolent Knowledge’. In its remote pages it is written that the moustaches are divided into: (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tamed, (d) a hindrance to eating, (e) attractive, (f) fabulous, (g) gone astray, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) large, (k) as if drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just been immersed in water, and (n) that which from a long way off look like a caterpillar.

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