Theseus' Ship

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The Ancient Identity Crises

The transitivity of identity is a question often contemplated by philosophers through philosophical puzzles of change. A popular version of the puzzle includes a man named Theseus and his ship. A ship in which has undergone a gradual change where all of the lumber was replaced by the new cargo of lumber it carried. The question then remains, is this still the original ship of Theseus?

Philosopher John Locke attempts to answer this question by stating that identity is a subjective matter rather than objective. He begins by separating the idea of a substance, organism, and a person and the different criteria used to determine each type of identity. Naturally we would agree with Locke that a ship is a not a living thing capable of thought and assume that it can only be talked about in reference to matter. However, Locke proposes that a substance like the Ship of Theseus can be talked about with reference to a conscious subject’s beliefs towards it. This is based off the fact that a concept of the ship’s identity could not exist without human consciousness. Locke also provides a further suggestion that two things should not be questioned as whether or not they’re simply the same. The reason for this being that criteria differs among concepts so we must be careful in specifying “the same what” when making comparisons. Therefore, Locke concludes that the idea belonging with the ship is the identity of the ship itself. In other words, identity is a relative aspect rather than absolute, one that heavily depends on context.

Identity can be defined as the distinct characteristics by which something is recognized. In other words, identity is an idea created by and for people and does not exist without them. This directly links with Locke’s idea of relative identity, as the perception of an idea is a relative concept depending on what, where, when, and whom you are asking. We must also keep in mind that just because things are...
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