Theseus' Paradox:

History, Authenticity and Identity


  • Benjamin Bross


In the Life of Theseus, Plutarch observes: "The ship on which Theseus sailed with the youths and returned in safety, the thirty-oared galley, was preserved by the Athenians down to the time of Demetrius Phalereus. They took away the old timbers from time to time, and put new and sound ones in their places, so that the vessel became a standing illustration for the philosophers in the mooted question of growth, some declaring that it remained the same, others that it was not the same vessel.” (Plutarch, Perrin, 1914, V 1,49). Thereafter, the paradox sparked discussion regarding an object's authenticity and identity. For Barthes (1974), the paradox presents form-permanence as a Structural argument. Walter Benjamin (1969) disagreed noting that "[t]he presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity.” When original producers are not available we can evaluate the relationship of contemporary design with historic modes of production through Material Culture. By privileging knowledge of what the spatial product is and how it was produced, the essay examines the role of History in addressing spatial authenticity. The essay uses Theseus' Paradox as a theoretical framework to evaluate authenticity and identity. Architectural objects either continue or discontinue the aesthetic language of their context; as designers cite History to generate designs claiming contextual site sensitivity, it is important to evaluate the validity of this approach. Specifically, Theseus' Ship is deconstructed using the philosophical arguments of atomism and essentialism. Atomism, a Positivist tool, determines elementary physical characteristics of a society's spatial practice. Essentialism (Aristotle) focuses on the nature of the spatial product: what it has been, it is, and could be. Designers can use Theseus' Paradox as a comparative framework to evaluate to what degree their proposal continues authentic modes of production rooted in historic spatial traditions and identity-based placemaking.




How to Cite

Bross, B. (2019). Theseus’ Paradox:: History, Authenticity and Identity. ARCC Conference Repository, 1(1). Retrieved from