Ship of Theseus

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This article is about Theseus' Paradox. For the 2013 Indian film, see Ship of Theseus (film).

The ship of Theseus, also known as Theseus' paradox, is a thought experiment that raises the question of whether an object which has had all of its components replaced remains fundamentally the same object. The paradox is most notably recorded by Plutarch in Life of Theseus from the late first century. Plutarch asked whether a ship which was restored by replacing each and every one of its wooden parts remained the same ship.

The paradox had been discussed by more ancient philosophers such as Heraclitus, Socrates, and Plato prior to Plutarch's writings; and more recently by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Several variants are known, including the "grandfather's axe", which has had both its head and handle replaced.

Variations of the paradox[edit]

Ancient philosophy[edit]

This particular version of the paradox was first introduced in Greek legend as reported by the historian, biographer, and essayist Plutarch,

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 places, in so much 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.

— Plutarch, Theseus[1]

Plutarch thus questions whether the ship would remain the same if it were entirely replaced, piece by piece. Centuries later, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes introduced a further puzzle, wondering what would happen if the original planks were gathered up after they were replaced, and used to build a second ship.[2] Hobbes asked which ship, if either, would be considered the original Ship of Theseus.

Modern era[edit]

John Locke proposed a scenario regarding a favorite sock that develops a hole. He pondered whether the sock would still be the same after a patch was applied to the hole, and if it would be the same sock, would it still be the same sock after a second patch was applied, and a third, etc., until all of the material of the original sock has been replaced with patches.[3]

George Washington's axe (sometimes "my grandfather's axe") is the subject of an apocryphal story of unknown origin in which the famous artifact is "still George Washington's axe" despite having had both its head and handle replaced. in the case of the owner of George Washington's axe which has three times had its handle replaced and twice had its head replaced!

— Ray Broadus Browne, Objects of Special Devotion: Fetishism in Popular Culture, p. 134[4]

This has also been recited as "Abe Lincoln's axe";[5] Lincoln was well known for his ability with an axe, and axes associated with his life are held in various museums.[6]

The French equivalent is the story of Jeannot's knife, where the eponymous knife has had its blade changed fifteen times and its handle fifteen times, but is still the same knife.[7] In some[which?] Spanish-speaking countries, Jeannot's knife is present as a proverb, though referred to simply as "the family knife". The principle, however, remains the same.

The 1872 story "Dr. Ox's Experiment" by Jules Verne has a reference to Jeannot's knife apropos the Van Tricasse family. In this family, since 1340, each time one of the spouses died, the other remarried with someone younger, who took the family name. Thus, the family can be said to have been a single marriage lasting through centuries, rather than a series of generations. A similar concept, but involving more than two persons at any given time, is described in some detail in Robert Heinlein's novel The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress as a line marriage.

The French critic and essayist Roland Barthes refers at least twice to a ship that is entirely rebuilt, in the preface to his Essais Critiques (1971) and later in his Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes (1975); in the latter the persistence of the form of the ship is seen as a key structuralist principle. He calls this ship the Argo, on which Theseus was said to have sailed with Jason; he may have confused the Argo (referred to in passing in Plutarch's Theseus at 19.4) with the ship that sailed from Crete (Theseus, 23.1).

Writing for ArtReview, Sam Jacob noted that Sugababes, a British band,[8] "were formed in 1998 [..] but one by one they left, till by September 2009 none of the founders remained in the band; each had been replaced by another member, just like the planks of Theseus’s boat."[9] The three original members reunited in 2011 under the name Mutya Keisha Siobhan, with the "original" Sugababes still in existence.[10]

In the "Heroes and Villains" episode of popular BBC sitcom Only Fools and Horses, Trigger (a roadsweeper) declares he has won an award for keeping the same broom for 20 years — "17 new heads and 14 new handles".[11]

The 2013 game The Swapper's staple mechanic is a cloning device that allows the player to create perfect clones and swap consciousness between them. The majority of the game takes place aboard a spaceship named "Theseus", which is a heavy nod to the thought experiment's involvement in the game's use of themes such as the subject of consciousness and a lost sense of originality.

In the Futurama episode "The Six Million Dollar Mon," accountant Hermes Conrad replaces his body parts one by one with robotic ones. Dr. Zoidberg requests to keep the discarded body parts, fashioning them into a marionette of Hermes which he uses for a stand-up routine. When Hermes goes to replace his brain with a robotic one, Zoidberg puts the old brain into his marionette body, bringing Hermes back to life as his old self and leaving his previous body to be taken over by the new brain.

The 2012 movie "John Dies At The End", begins with a narration recounting the axe variant of the paradox, starting with "Solving the following riddle will reveal the awful secret behind the universe...".

Proposed resolutions[edit]


The Greek philosopher Heraclitus attempted to solve the paradox by introducing the idea of a river where water replenishes it. Arius Didymus quoted him as saying "upon those who step into the same rivers, different and again different waters flow".[12] Plutarch disputed Heraclitus' claim about stepping twice into the same river, citing that it cannot be done because "it scatters and again comes together, and approaches and recedes".[13]

Aristotle's causes[edit]

According to the philosophical system of Aristotle and his followers, four causes or reasons describe a thing; these causes can be analyzed to get to a solution to the paradox. The formal cause or 'form' (perhaps best parsed as the cause of an object's form or of its having that form) is the design of a thing, while the material cause is the matter of which the thing is made. Another of Aristotle's causes is the 'end' or final cause, which is the intended purpose of a thing. The ship of Theseus would have the same ends, those being, mythically, transporting Theseus, and politically, convincing the Athenians that Theseus was once a living person, though its material cause would change with time. The efficient cause is how and by whom a thing is made, for example, how artisans fabricate and assemble something; in the case of the ship of Theseus, the workers who built the ship in the first place could have used the same tools and techniques to replace the planks in the ship.

According to Aristotle, the "what-it-is" of a thing is its formal cause, so the ship of Theseus is the 'same' ship, because the formal cause, or design, does not change, even though the matter used to construct it may vary with time. In the same manner, for Heraclitus's paradox, a river has the same formal cause, although the material cause (the particular water in it) changes with time, and likewise for the person who steps in the river.

This argument's validity and soundness as applied to the paradox depend on the accuracy not only of Aristotle's expressed premise that an object's formal cause is not only the primary or even sole determiner of its defining characteristic(s) or essence ("what-it-is") but also of the unstated, stronger premise that an object's formal cause is the sole determiner of its identity or "which-it-is" (i.e., whether the previous and the later ships or rivers are the "same" ship or river). This latter premise is subject to attack by indirect proof using arguments such as "Suppose two ships are built using the same design and exist at the same time until one sinks the other in battle. Clearly the two ships are not the same ship even before, let alone after, one sinks the other, and yet the two have the same formal cause; therefore, formal cause cannot by itself suffice to determine an object's identity" or " [...] therefore, two objects' or object-instances' having the same formal cause does not by itself suffice to make them the same object or prove that they are the same object."

Definitions of "the same"[edit]

One common argument found in the philosophical literature is that in the case of Heraclitus' river one is tripped up by two different definitions of "the same". In one sense, things can be "qualitatively identical", by sharing some properties. In another sense, they might be "numerically identical" by being "one". As an example, consider two different marbles that look identical. They would be qualitatively, but not numerically, identical. A marble can be numerically identical only to itself.

Note that some languages differentiate between these two forms of identity. In German, for example, "gleich" ("equal") and "selbe" ("self-same") are the pertinent terms, respectively. At least in formal speech, the former refers to qualitative identity (e.g. die gleiche Murmel, "the same [qualitative] marble") and the latter to numerical identity (e.g. die selbe Murmel, "the same [numerical] marble"). Colloquially, "gleich" is also used in place of "selbe", however.


Main article: Perdurantism

Ted Sider and others have proposed that considering objects to extend across time as four-dimensional causal series of three-dimensional "time-slices" could solve the ship of Theseus problem because, in taking such an approach, each time-slice and all four dimensional objects remain numerically identical to themselves while allowing individual time-slices to differ from each other. The aforementioned river, therefore, comprises different three-dimensional time-slices of itself while remaining numerically identical to itself across time; one can never step into the same river-time-slice twice, but one can step into the same (four-dimensional) river twice.[14]

Cultural differences[edit]

In Japan, Shinto shrines are rebuilt every twenty years with entirely "new wood". The continuity over the centuries is spiritual and comes from the source of the wood in the case of the Ise Jingu's Naiku shrine, which is harvested from an adjoining forest that is considered sacred. The shrine has currently been rebuilt sixty-two times.[15] Where the traditional Greek discussions struggle is between two defined identities of the physical structure, the Shinto thought places the identity differently, and the argument vanishes.[original research?]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Plutarch. "Theseus". The Internet Classics Archive. Retrieved 2008-07-15. 
  2. ^ Page 89:The Ship of Theseus, Person and Object: A Metaphysical Study, By Roderick M. Chisholm - Google Books
  3. ^ Cohen, M. (2010). Philosophy for Dummies. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons. 
  4. ^ Browne, Ray Broadus (1982). Objects of Special Devotion: Fetishism in Popular Culture. Popular Press. p. 134. ISBN 0-87972-191-X. 
  5. ^ "Atomic Tune-Up: How the Body Rejuvenates Itself". National Public Radio. 2007-07-14. Retrieved 2009-11-11. 
  6. ^ Bruce Rushton (2008-02-22). "Ax turns out to be Lincoln's last swing". Rockford Register-Star. Retrieved 2009-11-11. 
  7. ^ "Dumas in his Curricle". Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine LV (CCCXLI): 351. January–June 1844. 
  8. ^ Sugababes crown girl group list
  9. ^ Jacob, Sam (December 2011). "What the Sugababes can tell us about the internal workings of the iPhone". ArtReview Ltd. Archived from the original on 2013-08-31. Retrieved 2012-12-14. 
  10. ^ Bray, Elisa (4 August 2012). "Will the real Sugababes please stand up?". The Independent. 
  11. ^ "Heroes and Villains". BBC. Retrieved 16 January 2014. 
  12. ^ Didymus, Fr 39.2, Dox. gr. 471.4
  13. ^ Plutarch. "On the 'E' at Delphi" Check |url= scheme (help). Retrieved 2008-07-15. 
  14. ^ David Lewis, "Survival and Identity" in Amelie O. Rorty [ed.] The Identities of Persons (1976; U. of California P.) Reprinted in his Philosophical Papers I.
  15. ^ Olson, Brad (30 August 2013). "Japan's most sacred site rebuilt, for the 62nd time". CNN News.