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The Philosophical Theories Ship Of Theseus And Tabula Rasa

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The abstract concept of mind, body and soul have perplexed philosophers and people for generations. The pivotal question “who am I?” seems so simple at first, although once you start to discover the different ways to interpret who you really are it can completely disorientate your sense of reality and can influence your individuality. Thomas Hobbes and John Locke have notably controversial theories on the concept of self. By analysing the underlying message in Thomas Hobbes and John Locke’s theories on self, we are able to reflect on who we really are and how we know everything we know.

Thomas Hobbes – Ship of Theseus

The Greek historian Plutarch originated the ‘ship of Theseus’ theory and philosophers have adopted the story and brought it up to relate it with the concept of our true selves and our ever-changing mind, soul and body. The ship of Theseus is known as a highly controversial topic as the story has puzzled many people. A great mythical hero known as Theseus had come back from slaying a mythical beast and the ship he had sailed in was kept in the harbour as a memorial and tribute. Over time the ship started to decay and parts of the ships were gradually replaced. As the whole ship had decayed and had been replaced with identical pieces, philosophers argued that even though the ship is honoured as the ship of Theseus, it is not the fundamental ship that was placed into the harbour.

Thomas Hobbes was an English philosopher who dwelled on the topic of who we really are and our originality as human beings. The philosophical thought experiment was famously brought about in philosophy and culture by Hobbes as he embedded the significant question to bear in mind when exploring this concept; ‘if it is a new ship when all the parts are replaced, then at what point does it become a new ship?’. We can then relate this to humans by questioning, “at what point do we become new people as we are replaced with new cells?” This concept can be interpreted in many ways and bring up discussion and can be debated to the point of going back to the original question of “who am I?”.

Thomas Hobbes would relate this theory back to the fundamental question of “who am I” as he would say the ship is not the original as all the pieces have been replaced, although it is still being honoured as the original. With the concept of self, Hobbes would say over time when you’re growing and developing you will never be the same person as you were months or years ago as all the cells in your body will eventually be replaced. At what point do you become a completely new person, including your memories and foundational values? This relates back to the ship of Theseus as Hobbes would further question the original theory in saying; If someone were to take all the old pieces of the ship and build another ship in their backyard with the same pieces of the original, is the one in the backyard the original or the one in the port the original? This sparks debate as Hobbes wants us to think about our own originality as humans and where the “old” you have gone as all the parts of our body are being replaced.

Personally, in my opinion, I go against the continuation of Hobbes’ theory as I believe that we are never replaced, even after considering that all of our cells are replaced. When I look over the theory I start to question, “if our entire body will one day be completely replaced with new cells, where did those new cells come from because we is having to generate those new cells, therefore we are still the same person?” If science disproves this statement, I still question the connection between the Ship of Theseus and the concept of mind, body soul. I have confidence in my opinion that we are still the same person deep down in our idea of our “soul”, as we are the person who would an idea of who we truly are because no one knows you better than yourself. Although, I do acknowledge that we could never be the same as we were years or even months ago physically, emotionally and our own mindset due to specific events and our experiences in life, but we are still the same person in morals and who we truly believe we are.

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Tabula Rasa – John Locke

John Locke was an English philosopher and physician who found an interest in the theoretical idea of how we become who we are. Locke originated the conflicted theory called Tabula Rasa. Tabula Rasa is often translated as clean slate which is appropriate to the theory. Tabula Rasa is the epistemological theory that individuals are born without built-in mental content such as knowledge, morals or original ideas and that therefore, all knowledge comes from influence, experimentation and experience without bias. We then gain our own understanding of things based off of what we have been exposed to, then, in turn, we can create our own morals, ideas and start to discover what humans are and how we have to be. Locke believes that there is no human nature and every individual person is the author of our own character.

This theory is contradictory to the pre-existing Cartesian philosophy, supported by Rene Descartes, which stated that we are born with innate ideas. This philosophical idea states that at the very least we are born with common knowledge and instinct and we simply can’t function as a human in society without basic rational understanding that gives us our human nature. John Locke argued against this saying everything that you know comes from experimentation, experience and observation.

This theory relates back to the question “who am I?” as we can never truly know how we know what we know. Obviously, we gain much of our knowledge off off experience, etc, but how does it make us who we are?

This theory can be interpreted in many ways but as I like to see it, I can see where both theories come from and the logic behind both. I agree with Locke’s theory saying that we gain character and knowledge from experience, influence and experimentation as that can determine how we interpret things without initial bias as you have nothing to base the bias off of. Although, I also agree with parts of the pre-existing Cartesian philosophy that we are born with instinct and common knowledge so that we can function in society. I also question much of the logic from both theories and how these ideas have come to be.

In conclusion, through Thomas Hobbes Ship of Theseus theory and John Locke’s Tabula Rasa (clean slate) philosophical ideas we are forced to question ourselves in saying “who am I?” We are forced to question our common knowledge on the mind, body and soul as both theories propose valuable logic. I believe we can never answer the question “who am I?” as it is proven to be too controversial and there is no real scientific or philosophical answer to the question.

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The Philosophical Theories Ship Of Theseus And Tabula Rasa. (2022, February 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 2, 2023, from
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