Theseus’s paradox

Theseus is remembered in Greek mythology as the slayer of the Minotaur. For years, the Athenians had been sending sacrifices to be given to the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull beast who inhabited the labyrinth of Knossos. One year, Theseus braved the labyrinth, and killed the Minotaur.  The ship in which he returned was long preserved. As parts of the ship needed repair, it was rebuilt plank by plank.

The Ship of Theseus, also known as Theseus’s paradox, is a paradox that raises a question of identity – whether an object which has had all its components replaced remains fundamentally the same object. The paradox is most notably recorded by Plutarch in Life of Theseus from the late 1st century. Plutarch asked whether a ship which was restored by replacing all and every of its wooden parts, remained the same ship.

The paradox had been discussed by more ancient philosophers such as HeraclitusSocrates, and Plato prior to Plutarch’s writings; and more recently by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. There are several variants, notably “my grandfather’s axe”, and in the UK “Trigger’s Broom”. This thought experiment is “a model for the philosophers”; some say, “it remained the same,” some saying, “it did not remain the same”.[1]

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.

“…as 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!” [2]


[1] Rea, M., (1995) The Problem of Material Constitution, The Philosophical Review, 104: 525-552.

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

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Filed under Paradoxes

10 responses to “Theseus’s paradox

  1. Paul Harrison

    We can take the Theseus Paradox another step, by considering all the parts of the wooden ship of Theseus, having been discarded to float about the ocean, have been collected by a beach combing boat builder and cleverly reassembled into the form of a ship. He did this without knowing of the other Ship of Theseus. As a student of Philosophy, the beach comber chooses to name his ship, Theseus. Of course, the question is, “Would the real Ship of Theseus please stand up?”


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  4. bjammin

    I saw your Facebook post asking if anyone knew why traffic on this post has spiked today and since I don’t have a Facebook I figured I’d give you the answer on here.

    There is a popular Reddit post from today discussing yearly marriage limits. It can be found at this URL:

    The conversation takes a turn into the question of identity and one of the users posted a link to your blog post on Theseus’s paradox to explain the philosophical concept.


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  6. Dsdsd

    Thx for the information


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  8. Pingback: “For the wise man looks into space and he knows there is no limited dimension” A Discourse on Form, Matter and Superposition in the Paradox of The Ship of Theseus | The Leather Library

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