Theseus' Paradox: History, Authenticity and Identity

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution


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.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Future of Praxis: Applied Research as a Bridge Between Theory and Practice
Subtitle of host publicationARCC 2019 International Conference Proceedings
EditorsChris Jarrett, Philip Plowright, Hazem Rashed-Ali
PublisherArchitectural Research Centers Consortium
StatePublished - May 2019
EventARCC 2019 International Conference - Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada
Duration: May 29 2019Jun 1 2019


ConferenceARCC 2019 International Conference


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