• Sazi Bongwe

The Ship of Theseus and Identity

There’s an ancient thought experiment designed by the Greek historian, Plutarch, which seeks to navigate the complexity of the concept of identity. As the tale goes, Theseus, the mythical founder King of Athens, single-handedly defeated one of the fiercest and most evil creatures in all of Greek mythology, and returned home on a ship. To honour this heroic feat, for 1000 years Athenians meticulously maintained his ship in the harbour, and annually reenacted his voyage. Whenever a part of the ship became worn or damaged, they replaced it with an identical piece of the same material. Eventually, there came a time when no parts of the original ship remained.


Plutarch noted that the Ship of Theseus was an example of the philosophical paradox revolving around the persistence of identity. The nature of the shape probes into our understanding of what we define identity as. How can every single part of something be replaced, yet it still remains the same thing? The original story behind the Ship of Theseus has often branched out into the juxtaposition of two ships : the ship that Theseus originally brought back to Athens, and the ship sailed by the Athenians 1000 years later. While the two ships are visually almost indistinguishable, are they the same?


Some might submit that for the 1000 years since, there has only ever existed one Ship of Theseus, and because the changes made to it happened gradually, it never at any point stopped being the originally cherished ship. Thus, despite the two ships being comprised of completely different paths, they are ultimately one and the same.


Others might argue that Theseus himself never set foot on the second ship, and that his presence is an essential property of the Ship of Theseus. In other words, it cannot exist without him - the identity of the ship is dependent on the historical significance of Theseus’ presence. And so, while the ships may be, at surface level, the same, they differ fundamentally.


Now take this: what if throughout the thousand years somebody had been collecting the original, worn down pieces of the ship and constructing their own Ship of Theseus? At a point, two ships would exist - both of which could make claim to the title of The Ship of Theseus. Invariably, there are hundreds of ways in which this paradox could be continued and altered (and indeed each version of the ship could justifiably and uniquely claim the title of Theseus’ Ship). Yet, thought experiments are designed to do what the term suggests: prompt ideas. The Ship of Theseus speaks to a number of different things on a number of different levels, each as compelling as the next. There are, however, two distinct yet intersecting extensions of this paradox which I find valuable to consider: how the Ship of Theseus reflects an individual’s identity and that of an institution.



On an individual level, the Ship of Theseus gives us insight into how we define our unique selves and our identities. Our social order tells us that those are largely dependent on the more commonly held definitions: race, gender, sexuality, religion. Now only a fool would dismiss the significance that these parts of our identities hold within our world driven by identity politics. It is important to note, however, that we hold onto them at the risk of neglecting so much else. In 2015, Bill Gates encouraged people to make videos about what it means to be human. In response to this, John Green went on to contemplate some incredibly valuable ideas. Many of us see dehumanisation on the interpersonal level in strictly stark terms, and hold a very narrow view of what dehumanisation actually looks like. But, as he goes on to say, we dehumanise someone every time we imagine them as less complex than ourselves. Too often we fail to recognise that other human beings are as multifaceted as ourselves, and so we see other people as merely sick or merely poor or merely ‘them’ to some selectively inclusive ‘us.’


The Ship of Theseus prompts us to imagine ourselves and each other more complexly, to deconstruct and examine the many parts that make us up as human beings and to maintain those over time. And so while we need to imagine ourselves more complexly - and think deeply about the many parts that make us up and how our biases and values project that - we also need to imagine others more complexly. Refugees are among the most severely dehumanised individuals across the world, and there are many refugees telling their stories in an effort to be seen and heard for what they are - human beings. They seek to live full lives, not merely survive hardships - and we owe them and marginalised people everywhere the recognition of their personhood. How we imagine personal identity is, in the end, incredibly important, because it goes on to inform which people our definitions of humanity include, and which they marginalise. Behind each protest movement is an essential outcry from groups of people to be regarded as fully human. Throughout history, systems of oppression have actively worked against this, and they continue to do so - even if it has become more nuanced or covert. And so, in a way, Theseus’ paradox is a way into empathy - it moves us toward a fuller understanding of the lives of others and helps us imagine those lives in the same light that we do our own. Frantz Fanon writes:


"Man is human only to the extent to which he tries to impose himself on another man in order to be recognised by him. As long as he has not been effectively recognised by the other, it is this other who remains the focus of his actions. His human worth and reality depend on this other and on his recognition by the other. It is in this other that the meaning of his life is condensed."

Empathy, compassion, and respect are essential abilities, because they help us confer personhood on each other. They help us celebrate the lives of other people, not condense them. They help us define what it means to be human.


Perhaps the biggest learning from the many conversations that have emerged from this year’s reinvigorated Black Lives Matter Movement is that personal identity cannot be separated from collective identity. And so on a much broader level, the considerations behind the Ship of Theseus are the same ones behind the question of whether institutions (and certain practices within them) should be reformed or abolished. If an institution seeking to transform or diversify replaces all its explicitly exclusionary or oppressive structures with a host of new, inclusive policy changes, does it remain that same problematic establishment? Or can it now become a new institution, a haven of equal treatment? Does a society founded on racism remain a racist society, regardless of what comes next? Can somebody who says something bigoted or does something socially and morally reprehensible ever be considered somebody outside of the person who did that thing or said those words (and thus holds those beliefs)? Invariably, applying Theseus’ paradox to any institution or government body grossly simplifies the matter. It does, however, provide an incredibly useful framework through which to understand the central tensions between those who hold power and those who speak out against them and the structures they represent.


For many if not all prominent South African private schools, this year would have seen them in a similar paradox. Schools, amongst most other institutions, have faced growing and continuing pressure to decolonise and transform. Yet the word transformation details a journey - a transition from X to Y - which schools seem to be somewhere in the middle of. But what does that endpoint look like? When can we conclusively say that a school has transformed itself and has become truly inclusive? When can we conclusively say that an institution (or indeed a country) has truly decolonised itself? I guess it’s here where the words of Angela Davis become incredibly pertinent :


"I have a hard time accepting diversity as a synonym for justice. Diversity is a corporate strategy. It's a strategy designed to ensure that the institution functions in the same way that it functioned before, except now that you now have some black faces and brown faces...Diversity without structural transformation simply brings those who were previously excluded into a system as racist, misogynist, as it was before"

It goes without saying that entire institutions are more complicated than a single wooden ship, but there are parallels that resonate between the two. One of the features that Theseus’ paradox seeks to imagine is whether the original identity of the ship has endured over time. Now there has been progress made to move away from the white, racist schools of the 20th century and that shouldn’t be ignored - good work has been done (and is being done). Yet there is still evidence that those undertones remain. It is also true that not all the exclusionary policies and sentiments that currently exist are founded in the original establishment of these institutions. As each institution seeks to grapple with the nuances behind this journey toward ‘structural transformation,’ the Ship of Theseus presents pressing and fundamental questions which cannot be ignored. Do subtle shifts in policy undo the core logic and sentiment behind the societal environment of a school? Yes, policy change matters and it is vital to transformation. But the conception of those policies is equally if not more important. The difference between the new parts and the old parts of Theseus’ ship is not the only consideration which defines its identity, and in the same way, the identity of an institution does not solely rest on its policies. Some people argue that for these institutions to truly decolonise, they need to be picked apart from the roots. Others see true structural transformation being realised through a series of gradual, persistent steps. Whatever the process looks like, let me submit to you that the essential questions posed by Theseus’ paradox need to be confronted head on for these institutions to truly claim new identities.


The paradox of Theseus’ Ship - whether looked at on an individual or collective level - emphasises that there is something deeply universal about identity. Beyond that, there is a bridge between the identity that we currently hold and the identity that we seek to embrace - and that bridge is time. After a thousand years, the Athenians were still thinking about which was the actual Ship of Theseus. In the same way, we must think long and hard about what change truly does to our identities - both individually and collectively. The final test is this : whether these newfound identities can withstand the test of time. In a 2016 speech, Zadie Smith said:

"Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated, and reimagined if it is to survive."

I believe that if our progress survives - if we hold onto continual learning and a commitment to constantly revaluate our ways and improve upon them - our identities will follow suit.






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