The Ship of Theseus is a thought experiment about whether an object that has had all of its original components replaced remains the same object. According to legend, Theseus, the mythical Greek founder-king of Athens, had rescued the children of Athens from King Minos after slaying the minotaur and then escaped on a ship to Delos. Every year, the Athenians commemorated this legend by taking the ship on a pilgrimage to Delos to honor Apollo. The question was raised by ancient philosophers: After several centuries of maintenance, if every part of the ship of Theseus had been replaced, one at a time, was it still the same ship?

In contemporary philosophy, this thought experiment has applications to the philosophical study of identity over time, and has inspired a variety of proposed solutions in contemporary philosophy of mind concerned with the persistence of personal identity.


A Fresco from Pompeii depicting Theseus and Ariadne escaping from Crete. According to Plutarch, the Athenians preserved the ship that Theseus used to escape, by replacing the parts one by one as they decayed.
A Fresco from Pompeii depicting Theseus and Ariadne escaping from Crete. According to Plutarch, the Athenians preserved the ship that Theseus used to escape, by replacing the parts one by one as they decayed.

In its original formulation, the "Ship of Theseus" paradox concerns a debate over whether or not a ship that has had all of components replaced one by one would remain the same ship.[1] The account of the problem has been preserved by Plutarch in his Life of Theseus:[2]

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, 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.

— Plutarch, Life of Theseus 23.1

Centuries later, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes extended the thought experiment by supposing that a custodian gathered up all of the decayed parts of the ship as they were disposed of and replaced by the Athenians, and used those decaying planks to build a second ship.[2] Hobbes posed the question of which of the two resulting ships, the custodian's or the Athenians, was the same ship as the "original" ship.[1]

For if that Ship of Theseus (concerning the Difference whereof, made by continual reparation, in taking out the old Planks, and putting in new, the Sophisters of Athens were wont to dispute) were, after all the Planks were changed, the same Numerical Ship it was at the beginning; and if some Man had kept the Old Planks as they were taken out, and by putting them afterwards together in the same order, had again made a Ship of them, this without doubt had also been the same Numerical Ship with that which was at the beginnings and so there would have been two Ships Numerically the same, which is absurd.... But we must consider by what name any thing is called , when we inquire concerning the Identity of it... so that a Ship, which signifies Matter so figured, will be the same, as long as the Matter remains the same ; but if no part of the Matter be the same, then it is Numerically, another Ship; and if part of the Matter remain, and part be changed, then the Ship will be partly the same, and partly not the same.

— Hobbes, "Of Identity and Difference"[3]

Hobbes considers the two resulting ships as illustrating two different definitions of "Identity" or sameness that are being compared to the original ship: 1) the ship that maintains the same "Form" as the original, that which persists through complete replacement of material, and 2) the ship made of the same "Matter," that which stops being 100% the same ship when the first part is replaced.[3][4]

Proposed resolutions

The Ship of Theseus paradox can be thought of as an example of a puzzle of material constitution, that is, a problem with determining the relationship between and object and the material that it is made out of.[1]

Constitution is not identity

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the most popular solution is to accept the conclusion, that the material that the ship is made out of is not the same object as the ship, but that the two objects simply occupy the same space at the same time.[1]

Temporal parts

Main article: Temporal parts

Another common theory, put forth by David Lewis, is to divide up all objects into three dimensional time-slices which are temporally distinct; which avoids the issue that the two different ships exist in the same space at one time and a different space at another time by considering the objects to be distinct from each other at all points in time.[1]

Cognitive science

According to Noam Chomsky, the thought puzzle arises because of extreme externalism: the assumption that what is true in our minds is true in the world.[5] Chomsky says that this is not an unassailable assumption, from the perspective of the natural sciences, because human intuition is often mistaken.[6] Cognitive science would treat this thought puzzle as the subject of an investigation of the human mind. Studying this human confusion can reveal much about the brain's operation, but little about the nature of the human-independent external world.[7]

Following on from this observation, a significant strand[who?] in cognitive science would consider The Ship not as a thing, nor even a collection of objectively existing thing-parts, but rather as an organisational structure that has perceptual continuity.[8] When Theseus thinks of his ship, he has expectations about what parts can be found where, how they interact, and how they interact with the wider world. As long as there is a time/space continuity between this set of relationships, it is The Ship of Theseus.[citation needed]

Alternative forms

In Europe, several independent tales and stories feature knives that have had their blades and handles replaced several times, but are still used and represent the same knife. France has Jeannot's knife,[9][10] Spain uses Jeannot's knife as a proverb, though it is referred to simply as "the family knife", and Hungary has "Lajos Kossuth's pocket knife". Several variants or alternative statements of the underlying problem are known, including the grandfather's axe[11] and Trigger’s broom,[12] where an old broom or axe has had both its head and its handle replaced, leaving no original components.

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 Ise Jingu's Naiku shrine, which is harvested from an adjoining forest that is considered sacred.[citation needed]

The ancient Buddhist text Da zhidu lun contains a similar philosophical puzzle: a story of a traveler who encountered two demons in the night. As one demon ripped off all parts of the traveler's body one by one, the other demon replaced them with those of a corpse, and the traveler was confused about which body he was.[13]

In The Three Basic Facts of Existence, Piyadassi Thera uses the teachings of Dharma to suggest that nothing in the universe is ever the same:[14]

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).

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e Wasserman 2009.
  2. ^ a b Blackburn 2016.
  3. ^ a b Hobbes 1656.
  4. ^ Rea 1997, p. xix.
  5. ^ Chomsky 2009, p. 382.
  6. ^ Chomsky 2010, p. 9.
  7. ^ McGilvray 2013, p. 72.
  8. ^ Grand 2003, Introduction.
  9. ^ "Dumas in his Curricle". Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. LV (CCCXLI): 351. January–June 1844.
  10. ^ Laughton, John Knox. Memoirs of the Life and Correspondence of Henry Reeve, C.B., D.C.L. In Two Volumes., Volume 2. Hamburg, Germany: tredition GmbH. pp. Chapter XXIII. ISBN 978-3-8424-9722-1.
  11. ^ Browne, Ray Broadus (1982). Objects of Special Devotion: Fetishism in Popular Culture. Popular Press. p. 134. ISBN 0-87972-191-X.
  12. ^ "Heroes and Villains". BBC. Retrieved 16 January 2014.
  13. ^ Huang & Ganeri 2021.
  14. ^ "The Three Basic Facts of Existence: I. Impermanence (Anicca)". Archived from the original on 2019-07-09. Retrieved 2015-11-01.


Further reading