96. Meaningful Guitars

Carolan’s recent surgery to replace its bridge (see Post 93) alongside other changes over the years (Post 66) have got us pondering. In some respects Carolan today is a very different guitar from the one we first encountered seven years ago (Post 23). It certainly feels different to play. It probably sounds different too, though this is harder to judge in hindsight. And while it clearly retains its distinctive appearance, it has since acquired a patina of wear (Post 75).

How much can Carolan – or indeed any guitar – change before it is no longer the original? This turns out to be a knotty philosophical question, but also one with practical implications for the guitar industry.

A short voyage through philosophy

Let’s begin with a little philosophy. There is an ancient Greek paradox concerning the Ship of Theseus that carried the hero Theseus and the youth of Athens home from battle in Crete [1]. This ship was preserved and displayed in Athens harbour over centuries, during which time the original rotting timbers were gradually replaced by new stronger ones. This provoked Greek philosophers to debate the question of whether the ship on display could be considered to be the same one that had returned from Crete many years before?

The ship of Theseus

Heraclitus suggested the metaphor of a flowing river – you would recognise the same river each time you stepped into it even though the water that flowed past was completely refreshed.

Aristotle argued that a thing can be described in terms of four ‘causes’: its design (or form), its intention, the materials from which it is made, and the process by which it was made. He considered design to be the most important cause for determining the essential ‘what it is’ of a thing. Under this view, Theseus’ Ship remains the same ship as its design remains consistent even though its material may be different.

One underlying challenge here lies in two definitions of ‘sameness’. There is qualitative sameness in which different instances of a thing can be considered to the same because they share the same properties, and then numerical sameness in which there is only one unique material instance of a thing.

This paradox of Theseus’ Ship and the wider question of the nature of ‘thingness’ has continued to be debated over the millennia. Thomas Hobbes extended the paradox with a further puzzle – what would happen if the original planks were gathered up and used to make a second ship? Which, if either, would now be the Ship of Theseus?

A more cognitive perspective on the paradox argues that any sense of ‘thingness’ lies in the mind of the observer. Noam Chomsky considered the ship to be an organisational structure in our minds that exhibits temporal continuity – so long as the changes to the ship and its parts over time conform to our expectations (or mental schema) as to what the ship should be, we consider it to be the same ship.

Recent branches of philosophy have continued to explore the essence of ‘thingness’. Heidegger argued that objects become noticeable things in the moments when they break down and so are brought to our attention in a new way. Bill Brown built on this idea to develop ‘Thing Theory’ that analyses how noticeable things that circulate in our lives shed light on our history, society, nature and culture [2]. Finally, the emerging branch of Philosophy that is Object-Oriented Ontology rejects the cognitivist view of thingness as being grounded in subjective human perception and instead, argues that things should be considered to exist independently of – and be placed on an equal footing with – humans in philosophical thought [3].

Carolan’s performed identities

We can appraise the thingness of Carolan against these various philosophical stances. It has retained its distinctive form, especially it’s decoration, throughout its various surgeries. However, this is not unique to just one material object, having also been applied to another guitar (Post 69) and also to various accessories (plectra, badges) that – like the original guitar – can be scanned to access its blog (Post 44).

Carolan might also be considered to be a construct of the mind that exhibits temporal continuity, supported by its blog that documents the progression of changes to the guitar over time and so allows a thread of continuity to be established.

There is also a sense that Carolan enjoys an elevated status as an object, often being written about from the perspective of an individual entity that experiences the world, including encounters with human players, in its own terms.

On reflection though, perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Carolan as a thing has been the overt attempt to establish its identity from the moment of its conception right throughout its lifetime. The documentation of Carolan’s carefully constructed identity spans all of Aristotle’s four causes – design, intention, materials and making, supports the cognitive schema of Carolan as a guitar over time, and tries to elevate Carolan to the status of an independent thing.

A key aspect of Carolan’s identity is that, at any given moment, it is materalised through a combination of physical and digital materials. This materialisation can be through a physical guitar which can be scanned to conjure up digital materials, but can also involve accessories that can also be scanned, or simply browsing the blog in which case the materialisation is through conventional computers, tablets and phones.

Carolan’s identity is also performed – its materialisation typically involves one person telling a story to others, perhaps by playing a song, talking about some aspects of its life story, or by publishing a blog post. The recognition of Carolan as a thing therefore extends beyond an individual cognitive perspective to become a social affair. It’s identity as a thing is materialised between people through performance. In this sense, Carolan is closely aligned to media theorist Arjun Appadurai’s notion of The Social Lives of Things [4] in which “all things are congealed moments in a longer social trajectory” and “The material that constitutes objects has a social history and takes on different objectivities as the subjectivities come into contact with it. The history of the subjectivities is then told by the history of the things.”

Of course, there is no single story of Carolan. There can be many different stories performed by different tellers to different audiences under different circumstances, each drawing on some parts of Carolan’s physical and digital materials and materialising these in an appropriate way. A story might be the performance of song, an account of how the guitar was made or an explanation of the research that underlies it.

Perhaps ultimately all things are stories. Any notion of ‘thingness’ is conjured up in the moment by performing a story that draws on various materials (physical and digital) and performance to activate an identity. What matters is that the story is coherent and credible – even if it may be fictional – so that those involved are able to believe in the continuity of the thing.

So back to Theseus ship. The ship can be thought of as a collection of stories. These draw on a common pool of materials including all of the planks of wood that could credibly be argued to have ever been part of the ship, along with accounts of its history in either oral or written form. These materials are logically interconnected to form a web – each plank can be traced to the idea of the ship somehow – which is then traversed to perform a story of the ship to an audience. Potential stories might claim that the maintained ship in the harbour was the true ship, or that the one reconstructed from discarded old planks was the true ship, or perhaps something else. They are all Theseus Ships!

It is interesting to reflect on the role of digital technologies in this. While this performance of things is of course quite possible (and indeed already widespread) without them, the digital greatly amplifies the connectedness of documentation (the World Wide Web) and increasingly its connection to physical materials (the Internet of Things).  As we considered in Post 91, there are powerful similarities between traditional oral storytelling and the experience of browsing the web, with both involving creating ‘pathways of the mind’ by traversing webs of interconnected materials as part of a performance.

Meaningful guitars (and other things)

This is not just a philosophical exercise – interesting and important as that may be – there are practical implications, including for the guitar industry.

The industry invests a great deal of effort into creating identities for guitars as a way to elevate them above being commodity objects into being meaningful things for their owners and players. Here are some ways in which it which it does this:

  • Establishing the provenance of collectibles, including determining in what ways they have physically diverged from their original forms over the years as this may affect their value. This involves considerable detective work for experts assessing the provenance of vintage guitars but is also reflected in newly made being issued with certificates. It is also increasingly needed to prove the provenance of protected tone woods for import and export under under CITES legislation [5].
  • Signature editions that associate famous players with a bespoke design, typically a customised version of an existing brand that they have been involved in designing or is based on their own modifications to standard issue instruments.
  • Reissues as recreations of iconic designs from the past, often of sought after vintage editions of a brand and sometimes even recreations of a specific guitar as played by a famous player.
  • Relics when new guitars are deliberately damaged to give them an apparently patina of road worn wear and tear, sometimes applied according to a particular persona of a fictional player who might have owned them. This is a controversial practice to be sure, but many manufacturers now have custom shops that are able to undertake relicing.
  • Modding which typically involves upgrading cheaper guitars with custom hardware – pickups, tuning heads, tremolo units and so forth – and is often carried out by players themselves.

A deliberately ‘reliced’ guitar

While such strategies could be dismissed as mere marketing ploys that encourage players to spend more money and fetishise (rather than play) their guitars, evident demand suggests that they meet an important need among some players, a need for more personal and meaningful connections with their instruments. While some guitarists undoubtedly see guitars as interchangeable tools for a job, others become deeply connected to the identities of their guitars through activities such as collecting and modding, which in turn mirrors their own sense of identity as players.

Carolan suggests a further strategy – one of gradually building up a guitar’s identity throughout its lifetime by documenting its making, maintenance and playing and providing ways to perform or otherwise materialise this. This is more of a personalised and bottom-up strategy; rather than connecting a famous identify to a new guitar, owners are given the means to gradually build a new identity over a guitar’s lifetime. Such an identity may be less famous to be sure, but in turn may be more far more personal – being directly connected to this player – and perhaps meaningful.    

We envisage various interesting ways in which these strategies might be combined. Imagine that – by using a Carolan-like technology – all instances of a famous artist’s signature edition guitar share a common history, contributed both by the original celebrity player and the wider community of owners who buy it. Owning one of the instances would then provide access to a stream of stories as part of a wider community of players. The signature edition, materialised through each of its instanced, would become its own social network.

So what at first seems like an abstract philosophical question concerning the identity of everyday objects may have implications for guitar players and even the wider industry. Perhaps luthiers need to be taking courses in philosophy as well as woodworking?


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ship_of_Theseus

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thing_theory

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Object-oriented_ontology

[4] Appadurai, Arjun, ed. The social life of things: Commodities in cultural perspective. Cambridge University Press, 1988.

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CITES

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