Theseus' ship and other metaphysical puzzles: explore the concept of identity

Course Dates: 24/10/21 - 31/10/21
Time: 11:00 - 13:30
Location: Online
This course will introduce students to a number of well-known puzzles concerning the concept of identity – and to some of their solutions.
This course will be delivered online. See the ‘What is the course about?’ section in course details for more information.
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Full fee £59.00 Senior fee £47.00 Concession £36.00

Course Code: HP165

Please choose a course date 

Sun, day, 24 Oct - 31 Oct '21

Duration: 2 sessions (over 2 weeks)

Or call to enrol:020 7831 7831

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What is the course about?

Outside of the philosophy classroom, we tend to think we have a pretty good handle on the notion of identity. We think we know that the car outside in the carpark is the very same car that we used to drive here. We think we know that the jumper we’re wearing is the very same jumper that we put on when getting dressed this morning. And we think we know that the person we woke up as is the very same person that went to sleep last night.
However, once we start to interrogate the notion of identity, we find that it is horribly vague and murky.

Consider, for example, the famous case of Theseus’ Ship:

Suppose that the legendary ship sailed by Theseus is being kept in a harbour as a museum piece by the Athenians. As the years go by, parts of the ship begin to rot (being made out of wood) and so, gradually and piece by piece, they are replaced with new ones. After a century, all of the parts have been replaced, so that the ship in the harbour shares no parts with the ship sailed by Theseus.

Is the restored ship still the same ship which was sailed by Theseus?

If we say no, then it seems we are forced to conclude that, at some point during the restoration, the replacement of a single part caused Theseus’ ship to vanish and an entirely new ship to appear in its place. If, on the other hand, we say yes, then we seem forced to conclude that objects A and B may be identical despite not sharing any of the same parts. Neither conclusion seems especially attractive, and so it seems we do not understand the notion of identity as well as we first thought!

In this course, we will critically examine a number of these sorts of puzzles in an attempt to clarify this fundamental yet elusive notion of identity.

This is a live online course. You will need:
- Internet connection. The classes work best with Chrome.
- A computer with microphone and camera is best (e.g. a PC/laptop/iMac/MacBook), or a tablet/iPad/smart phone/iPhone if you don't have a computer.
- Earphones/headphones/speakers.
We will contact you with joining instructions before your course starts.

What will we cover?

During the day, students will work together to try and solve a number of these sort of identity puzzles themselves. They will also be introduced to some of the more modern solutions philosophers have proposed and encouraged to rigorously assess their merits and flaws. Solutions include mereological nihilism, four dimensionalism, and temporal counterpart theory. The experience of tackling these metaphysical puzzles will hopefully encourage students to engage with some logical paradoxes later on in the year.

Students will also be taught some formal (i.e. mathematical) principles widely agreed to govern the notion of identity. This will serve as a useful introduction and foundation for students interested in taking a logic course.

What will I achieve?
By the end of this course you should be able to...

- Understand and explain some major metaphysical puzzles concerning the concept of identity.
- Assess the strengths and weaknesses of the most prominent modern solutions to these metaphysical puzzles.
- Engage with other philosophical problems with logical rigour.

What level is the course and do I need any particular skills?

This course is appropriate for students of all levels. You do not need to have already taken a Philosophy course in order to be able to grasp the material.

How will I be taught, and will there be any work outside the class?

You will be taught through a mixture of class discussions and group activities. You will also be provided with a short reading list before the course begins.

Are there any other costs? Is there anything I need to bring?

You will probably find it helpful to bring along a small notepad and pen to jot down your ideas. All the reading materials will be sent to you as PDFs.

When I've finished, what course can I do next?

You might be interested in Logic and philosophy: an introduction (January 2021) taught by the same tutor.

Oliver Josiah

Oliver holds a postgraduate degree in Philosophy from the University of Oxford. Since graduating, he has taught a wide variety of courses to a broad range of students, from adults and children exploring the subject for the first time through to advanced undergraduates. His main areas of interest are the Philosophy of Mathematics, Metaphysics, the Philosophy of Language, and Logic. Recently, his research has focussed on developing medieval approaches to semantic paradoxes using modern mathematical methods. When Oliver’s not teaching or writing up papers, he’s either lost in a good book or somewhere deep in the English countryside.

Please note: We reserve the right to change our tutors from those advertised. This happens rarely, but if it does, we are unable to refund fees due to this. Our tutors may have different teaching styles; however we guarantee a consistent quality of teaching in all our courses.