14 September 2012

I'm a Writer, not a Philosopher; or, Ownership and Identity: Resolving the Problem of Theseus’ Ship

Author's note: I write all the assignments I give out to my students, and this is my version of one of the writing assignments I gave to the students in my Advanced Composition class. Although not the most interesting thing I've ever written, it illustrates the basic trajectory of an argumentative essay and provides good examples of all the essential parts of any paper.

     What does it mean to own something? Does ownership even matter when something already has an established identity? In the case of Theseus’ ship, a philosophical problem based on the exploits of a Greek hero, concepts of ownership and identity become extremely unstable. Using the most fundamental definition of ownership, however, clarifies some of the trickier elements in this classic philosophical problem and shows that whoever is in possession of an object is ultimately responsible for its value and safety regardless of its symbolic identity.
     To fully understand the nuances of this conundrum, a basic understanding of both mythology and philosophy is required. Theseus was a Greek hero who voyaged to the labyrinth on the island of Crete and slayed the Minotaur. He returned to Athens a hero because the Athenians had been forced to send a certain number of their most courageous and beautiful citizens to Crete every several years as tribute to King Minos, and some versions of the story say they were devoured by the Minotaur. By slaying the Minotaur, Theseus released Athens of this responsibility and saved many Athenians. As a testament of his heroism, the Athenians raised his ship out of the ocean and established it as a monument in the city of Athens.
     The philosophical problem arises because over time, the parts of the ship became damaged or worn and needed to be replaced; eventually, every part on the ship was replaced, and philosophers wondered if the ship on display could still be called Theseus’ ship. Later philosophers elaborated on the problem by asking which ship would be Theseus’ ship if he replaced the parts of his ship during his voyage, a scavenger collected the discarded pieces, and someone rebuilt a ship out of those scavenged parts.
     One way to resolve the problems of identifying which ship is the ship of Theseus is to ask which ship Theseus actually owned. To own something, according to Dictionary.com (2012), is “to have or hold as one’s own; possess” (“Own”). Theseus’ ship, then, is only ever the ship of which he is in possession at any given time. While the reassembled ship of scavenged parts may have at one time been Theseus’ ship, it could only ever be someone else’s ship since it is in the possession of someone else; Theseus’ ship, then, would only ever be the ship on which he was sailing or that he possessed. This also clarifies the philosopher’s problem once the ship on display in Athens had had all of its parts replaced: Although the Athenians may have claimed the ship on display was Theseus’ ship and labeled the ship as Theseus’, it was only ever a ship that Theseus once sailed on because once he gave up possession of the ship, it ceased to be Theseus’ ship, regardless of whether it was built out of original or replacement parts.
      Another reason ownership is an important qualification to make in regards to an object is that it is the owner who is ultimately responsible for the object in question. If an individual, an art collector perhaps, purchases or acquires a famous painting by Leonardo Da Vinci, it is not Leonardo Da Vinci who would prosecute a thief if the painting were stolen; instead, the owner would prosecute because even though the painting may ostensibly still be called a Da Vinci painting, once it left Da Vinci’s possession its monetary and material value, not to mention the responsibility for its safety, no longer rested with Da Vinci himself. In the same way, once Theseus relinquished possession of his ship to someone else, whether that be by discarding unwanted scraps of his ship over time or by donating his entire ship to the city of Athens, the ship in question ceased to be his responsibility.
     Even though any or all of the different ships in the hypothetical problem may have still been called Theseus’ ship by the Athenians, scavenger, historians, or philosophers, any given ship could only ever actually be someone else’s ship once Theseus was no longer in possession of it or responsible for its value, upkeep, and safety. The problem, really, is a problem of symbols, not identity. By assigning a symbolic meaning or a symbolic name to something such as a ship, its owners or its onlookers are attempting to assign some sort of special value to it that transcends its actual material value. By saying it is Theseus’ ship, individuals are saying it is somehow more important, more valuable, more interesting than a regular ship, regardless of whether or not that ship was made of damaged parts or replaced parts, original parts or new parts, useful parts or useless parts.
     In the end, then, does it matter that it is Theseus’ ship or that it is a ship at all? Is the ship not just a physical token, a symbolic reminder of the valorous achievements of a man who braved the unknown and became a hero, and is that not exactly what myths are in and of themselves: symbolic fictions meant to convey some important truths about the human condition, meant to serve as examples of the ideals valued by a society, and meant to inspire listeners, readers, and tellers? Asking and arguing which ship is Theseus’ entirely misses the point. Instead, the philosophers, the historians, the teachers, and the students discussing this problem should ask why the Athenians decided to preserve Theseus’ ship at all, why scavengers would go out of their way to collect the discarded, damaged scraps of one man’s bark, or why Theseus is a name that has endured for thousands of years.


Own. (2012). Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com, LLC. Retrieved September 6, 2012, from http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/own?s=t

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