International Society for Philosophers

International Society for Philosophers

Wisdom begins with wonder

PHILOSOPHY PATHWAYS                   ISSN 2043-0728


Issue number 63 27th July 2003


I. 'Nietzsche's Zarathustra: A New Dimension in Freud's Structural
  Theory of Mind' by George Mashour

II. 'Artifacts and Persons' by Alfredo Lucero-Montano

III. 'Imaginary Conversations - a la Landor' by Jurgen Lawrenz



1. Introduction

The figures of mythology and literature embody a plethora of human facets, and allow us to observe various aspects of our psyches as they stand before us, interact, and live out the implications of their essence. Since Freud's 'The Interpretation of Dreams', psychoanalysis has also employed such a myth: that of Oedipus Rex. The present essay attempts to develop other dramatis personae of the structural mind, elucidating an antithetical relationship of Jesus Christ to Oedipus, and exploring its psychoanalytic and philosophic implications. This exploration brings us to a fuller appreciation of the symmetry of the structural theory, deriving the association of Christ with the superego, and deducing from the structural theory the presence of a Christ complex. By understanding Oedipus as an anti-Christ, we are given access to Nietzschean philosophy, and more explicitly develop the conceptual relationship between Nietzsche and Freud via the figure of Zarathustra.

Christ and Oedipus stand as two mythical kings, with a remarkable and henceforth obscure relationship to one another. From birth to death, we find a number of striking parallels and anti-parallels. Both Oedipus and Christ were born under unique circumstances, with the identity of their parents cloaked in obscurity. Oedipus was taken away from his parents in order to thwart infanticide and the oracle's prophecy that he would slay his father and lay with his mother. Thus was it unknown to Oedipus that his father and mother were king and queen of Thebes. The identity of Christ's parents were also obscured, and in a similar fashion it was initially unknown that Christ's father was the King of Kings, and his mother the holiest of holy. Oedipus and Christ were both unwitting heirs to a throne, and each was destined for a unique kingdom.

Christ and Oedipus ultimately developed an antiparallel relationship to their parents: their respective triads were diametrically opposed. The father of Oedipus realized his mortality at the hands of his son, and his mother Iocaste subsequently had a directly sexual relationship with him. The father of Christ, however, was immortal, and his mother was virginal despite her conception and delivery. Oedipus destroyed the father and achieved union with the mother, while Christ shunned the mother and achieved union with the father. Oedipus destroyed the will of the father in order to inherit his kingdom, while Christ acquiesced to the will of the father in order to inherit his. Oedipus accomplished a worldly kingdom by the assertion of his will, while Christ accomplished a spiritual kingdom by the renunciation of his. We can observe that even the conclusions of each myth are anti-parallel. Oedipus was ultimately punished for affirming his will, while Christ achieved immortality for the renunciation of his. Christ and Oedipus thus appear in a state of dialectical antagonism with respect to one another.

2. Christ contra Oedipus/ Superego contra Id

The relationship of Christ to Oedipus has interesting implications both analytically and philosophically. We may first conceive of Christ as an anti-Oedipus, with particular respect to the structural theory of the mind. Oedipus may be thought to represent the libidinal drives of the id (viz. eros and thanatos), and has achieved satisfaction of these drives despite the socially organizing principles of family. I posit that as Oedipus is associated with the id, so should Christ be associated with the superego. It does not seem controversial to introduce a religious figure as the embodiment of the superego, for it is posited to be a source of our notion of perfection, as well as our moral compass and conscience. Like the Christ figure who strives for union with the Father, the superego too, according to Freud, represents a "longing for the father." In addition to sharing characteristics with the superego, Christ also satisfies a further requirement: as the superego is antithetical to the id, so should the embodiment of the superego be antithetical to the embodiment of the id. Unlike other religious figures, Christ both instantiates the principles of the superego and is antithetical to the id's Oedipus. Thus, dynamic elements of the structural theory may be played out in the personae of Christ and Oedipus.

By virtue of symmetry with the Oedipal complex, we may posit the existence of a Christ complex. The id-affirming activity of Oedipus is anathema to social and familial organization of the external world (in short, the reality principle), and the mythical Oedipus encounters demise because of it. We must note in the myth, however, that Oedipus does enjoy a degree of success and actualization because of his behavior in that he did acquire and serve the kingdom of Thebes--his will to power was satisfied. Simply stated, the drives of the id can and do bring about vitality, health, and success. While the superego appropriately counterbalances the drives of the id to achieve equilibrium, it is conceivable that these activities may also function pathologically, viz. one may overcome one's drives to the point of debilitation. The superego may drive an individual to an aberrant point of guilt (wanting, for example, to suffer for the sins of the world), to the idealistic and false notion that one's parents are perfect (my father is a God, my mother is without sin), and to the masochistic impulse that one must be crucified--if need be--in order to please them.

The Christ figure--as a personification of the superego--demonstrates a situation in which an individual is so acquiescent to the will of another (in this case, God the Father) that he loses his very life before he will assert his own will. Like the Oedipus myth, the Christ myth also presents heterogeneous results: Christ is punished by crucifixion, but is then rewarded by resurrection and ascension. Considering the "morals" to each myth collectively, we note that some form of balance between these two poles must be achieved, as we would state for the relationship of the id to the superego.

3. Oedipus as Anti-Christ: the Relationship to Nietzsche's Zarathustra

In the previous section we considered Christ as an anti-Oedipus, but now we shall consider Oedipus as an anti-Christ. The concept of an "anti-Christ," as well as the earlier suggestion that unbalanced Christ-like attributes are the mark of pathology rather than perfection, hearken us back to the work of Nietzsche. The antagonism of Christ and Oedipus bears an interesting relationship to Nietzsche's Zarathustra, and suggests a novel Nietzschean interpretation of Sophocles.

Zarathustra's name is a European modification of the ancient Persian Zoroaster, from whom the religion zoroastrianism is derived, a religion that asserts the near equal balance of good and evil gods. Zarathustra was the protagonist of Nietzsche's work 'Thus Spoke Zarathustra', an innovative literary-philosophical treatise published in four parts. Zarathustra, who retreated to the mountains at the age of thirty, has descended ten years later to share his insight with the people. Zarathustra is clearly presented as a quasi-religious figure, and delivers speeches that oftentimes reveal a formal--if not substantive--unity with those of Christ. Of course, Nietzsche made no secret of his fervent anti-Christian sentiments, and in fact hailed himself as the anti-Christ.

In various respects, Oedipus and Zarathustra stand in opposition to Christ, but what is their relationship to one other? Is there some order to the triad of Christ, Oedipus, and Zarathustra? I posit that these three personae bear a triadic relationship to one another that possesses a formal unity to the three spiritual metamorphoses introduced in the Prologue of 'Thus Spoke Zarathustra'. In the Prologue, Nietzsche describes three metamorphoses of the spirit, which take the form of the camel, the lion, and the child. The strength and the role of the camel is to bear the burden of old values--it acquiesces to the value system to which it is heir. The first metamorphosis transforms the camel into a lion, who proves victorious in the battle against tradition's value-laden dragon. The dragon is described as being covered with scales that read "thou shalt," while the lion battles with the "I will." By conquering the dragon, the lion can only create conditions for the creation of new values, but is incapable of creating values itself. This is the task of the allegorical child, who looks upon life freshly, and is able to be the creator of new values.

It is likely that the camel is representative of the Christian (if not Christ himself), who, in Nietzsche's perspective, accepts and bears the yoke of slave morality, as well as the mediocre culture of Christian pity. Nietzsche calls, ironically, for a move forward to the pre-Christian and pre-Socratic value schema, and looks to the Greek concept of virtue, as well as the "master morality" he describes in 'Beyond Good and Evil'. Thus, the camel must metamorphosize into the lion who is able to assert its own will and conquer inherited values, although it may not yet be able to create its own. I suggest that Oedipus is this lion in the desert. "Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt honor thy mother and father" speaks the dragon: Oedipus replies "I will" and is exalted for it. Oedipus has killed the father, and it is this id-like Oedipal spirit that has similarly killed God the Father. "God is dead" announces Zarathustra, and it is the Oedipal spirit of man who is the murderer.

This Oedipal persona, he who has killed the father, is powerful but nonetheless limited. Like the lion of the three metamorphoses, he can slay the dragon of old values but lacks the capability of creating new ones. This deficit derives from the fact that, like the 19th century European intellectual climate of Nietzsche's time, Oedipus cannot face the truth with his eyes open. Nietzsche's fear for European thought is rooted in the terror of man after the realization that God is dead, and that we have killed him. When the metanarrative of scientific truth collapses in a similar fashion, man is destined for nihilism. When Oedipus realizes his own truth, he too retreats to the comforting darkness of nihilism by plucking out his eyes. Thus can we see this Sophoclean tragedy in Nietzschean terms. Nietzsche, however, demands that man go further, that he overcome himself, that he see the truths and the lies while still opening his eyes to say Yes to life. Zarathustra is this child. The hermit who encounters Zarathustra on his descent from the mountain back to the world of man (a descent that is reminiscent of the philosopher's return to the cave in Plato's Republic) recognizes his awakening, saying: "Zarathustra has changed, Zarathustra has become a child, Zarathustra is an awakened one; what do you now want among the sleepers?" Zarathustra understands and accepts the death of God, but still abides by the wisdom of the earth with an affirming Yes. In this is he free for the task of valuation, the task of the child in the final metamorphosis.

It is perhaps strange that we even speak of a progression when in fact the movement of these mythical figures moves backwards in time, from Christ at the beginning of the first millennium, to Oedipus in the 5th century B.C., to Zarathustra (derived from the Persian figure Zoroaster) who dates back to two millennia B.C. We start at the phase of the camel, at the Christian phase, because that is where Nietzsche finds our cultural spirit. It would not be consistent with Nietzsche to envision a linear progression toward some future uebermensch, but rather more likely that the metamorphosis of the spirit is something that goes back to or recurs, a prominent notion in Nietzschean thought.

4. The Zarathustrian Ego and its Relationship to the Structural Theory

Given that the id is Oedipal, and the superego is Christ-like, could we reason backwards from the myth and consider an undescribed or perhaps unactualized structural element that is Zarathustrian? Is this mystery of Zarathustra not a historical figure resulting from the cultural evolution of man, but rather a psychological state that we ourselves may achieve when we synthesize the antagonism of Christ and Oedipus? If the ego is a battlefield of the id and superego, could the Zarathustrian ego be the battle already won?

According to Freud, it is through the ego we have our primary connection to the world through perception, and it is the ego that ultimately mediates the presence or reality of the external world within the mind. It is further responsible for censorship and repression into the unconscious, and attempts to achieve control of the id. Finally, it is important to recognize that the superego is a modification of the ego in response to the Oedipal drives of the id. How would the Zarathustrian ego compare? As an embodiment of the Nietzschean "will to power," it is reasonable to assert that the sine qua non of a Zarathustrian ego would be its strength. When we posit such strength we shall see how all other elements of the structural theory naturally conform to a Nietzschean mold.

Zarathustra is a philosophical and religious figure who is introduced to supplant Christ--how, therefore, would a Zarathustrian ego affect the ontogeny of the Christ-like superego? Although the origin of the superego as a reaction to the Oedipal drives of the id has been, the superego emerges from the ego (and subsequently dominates it) by virtue of the weakness of the ego. According to Freud (1923, p. 48):

     "[The superego] is a memorial of the former weakness and
     dependence of the ego, and the mature ego remains subject
     to its domination. As the child was once under a compulsion
     to obey its parents, so the ego submits to the categorical
     imperative of its superego."
It is clear that the birth of the superego is a result of the fragility of the ego, as well as its inability to harness the forces of the id. Thus, assuming a greater strength of the ego, we would expect less dynamic impetus for the formation of the Christ-like superego. In this way, the Zarathustrian ego would function as a Nietzschean anti-Christ. I posit that the strength of the Zarathustrian ego--with the subsequent lack of need for the superego--could be conceived as a either a step in the development of the individual (ontogeny) or a step in the development of the species psychologically (phylogeny).

Heidegger, a major 20th century philosopher and interpreter of Nietzsche, repeatedly puts forth the question in Nietzsche: who is Nietzsche's Zarathustra? He returns us to the notion that Zarathustra is some type of bridge to the uebermensch, and inquires into the nature of this bridge (Heidegger, 1961, pg. 219).

     "Nietzsche has Zarathustra say: 'For that man be redeemed
     from revenge
--that is for me the bridge to the highest
     hope and a rainbow after long storms.' How strange, how alien
     these words must seem to the customary view of Nietzsche's
     philosophy that we have furnished for ourselves...But then
     why is it that something so decisive depends of redemption
     from revenge? Where is the spirit of revenge at home?
     Nietzsche replies to our question in the third-to-last
     episode of the second part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which
     bears the heading "On Redemption." Here the following words
     appear: "The spirit of revenge: my friends, up to now that
     was man's best reflection; and wherever there was
     suffering, there also had to be punishment."
Overcoming the spirit of revenge, from one perspective a step from Judaism to Christianity, takes on a more psychological significance here. Christian thought attempted (in principle) to turn us away from the "eye for an eye" sensibilities of Judaism, in order to purge us of a vengeful and punitive attitude toward others. It appears as if Nietzsche wishes to cure us of the Christian sensibility that engenders a vengeful and punitive attitude toward ourselves. In the context of Nietzsche's thought, the association of punishment with suffering is also part of the Christian legacy. For those of "herd morality," the Christian superego adds insult to injury by associating guilt and causal significance to suffering, rather than viewing it as a part of the human, that is to say natural, condition. Not only must we suffer, but we must punish ourselves for the guilt that has brought this suffering about. Thus in The Anti-Christ (pg. 141) does Nietzsche praise Buddhism for its "struggle against suffering," as opposed to the Christian "struggle against sin."

For those of "master morality," suffering is also inflicted by a superego. The natural predilections of the master include the infliction of suffering on others. When this natural tendency is repressed, the impulse is turned inwards in the form of conscience: one comes to inflict pain on oneself, as well as moral censure for the very drive to inflict pain at all. Perhaps the Zarathustrian ego is strong enough to suffer and to inflict suffering without the need to punish itself masochistically through the superego.

The Zarathustrian ego will also have a unique relationship to the id, as well as the instincts of the id. Before Freud conceived of the id, Nietzsche recognized the power and importance of the instincts. In Beyond Good and Evil (Nietzsche, 1886, pg. 201), he points out the instinctual foundation of ostensibly rational thought, and furthermore suggests that the conscious, rather than the unconscious mind is the proper domain for these instincts. Thus, the rational ego is not opposed, and perhaps should not be opposed, to the instincts of the id.

We see a picture of the Zarathustrian ego emerging. It is strong, and thus limits the genesis or at least the power of the superego. It is able to suffer and to inflict suffering without the masochistic retribution of punishment. It does not attempt to conquer the id but rather absorbs it, integrating and recognizing its instincts as an appropriate part of its conscious activities. Instead of repressing and censoring instinct--and therefore mutating it--it accepts and envelops it, or at least does not split itself off into a rational ego and irrational id in the first place. With the psychic apparatus more wholly integrated at the surface and interface between interior and exterior, the Zarathustrian ego is capable of a richer and more natural interaction with the world. Unlike Oedipus, it is strong enough for truth; unlike Christ, it is strong enough for lies.

5. Discussion

We see a henceforth obscure relationship between the personae of Oedipus and Christ elucidated. Each born under some cloak of doubt, each destined to be heir to a unique kingdom--one by the satisfaction of his impulses and the other by denial of his. If Oedipus represents a particular aspect of the mind that may experience pathology if unbalanced, then so may Christ represent an aspect of the mind that may be pathological if unbalanced (viz., the Christ complex). From the perspective of Nietzsche--who no doubt recognized the great importance of Christ as evidenced by his fervent opposition to all things Christian--we may also consider the Christ complex in its cultural expression. The so-called slave mentality, the culture of pity and weakness, and the inhibition of cultural genius were, according to Nietzsche, in large part due to Platonic and Christian ideals. Once again, we may view the Christ complex in terms of psychic ontogeny (a Freudian perspective) as well as psychic phylogeny (a Nietzschean perspective).

The assertion of Oedipus as an anti-Christ led appropriately to the discussion of Nietzsche, and Nietzsche's own anti-Christ Zarathustra. "Who is Nietzsche's Zarathustra?" Heidegger asks. One answer is that he was a teacher of eternal recurrence and the uebermensch, although Heidegger directs us to a deeper consideration of the question. I posit that Zarathustra represents a new form of ego, strong enough to incorporate the instincts of the id, and therefore strong enough to have little need for the genesis of the superego. This is consistent, in many ways, with Nietzsche's vision: an ego strong enough to recognize and embrace instinct, and to trust the wisdom of the earth rather than the ephemera of a Christian superego. From our cultural beginning of the Christian superego, we make the first step of recurrence to the Oedipal lion, slaying the dragon of "thou shalt!" with the id's "I will!". Finally, the child of the Zarathustrian ego is born: a new developmental beginning, a recurrence to the ancients, an opportunity for new strength which sees the death of God, but does not yearn again for the father in the form of a superego.

6. Bibliography

FREUD, S. (1923). 'The Ego and the Id'. S.E. 19

HEIDEGGER, M. (1961). 'Nietzsche'. Translated by David Farrel Krell 1979. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

NIETZSCHE, F. (1886). 'Beyond Good and Evil' In 'Basic Writings of Nietzsche', translated and edited by Walter Kaufmann 1968. New York: The Modern Library.

NIETZSCHE, F. (1889). 'Thus Spoke Zarathustra'. Translated by Walter Kaufmann 1954. New York: Penguin Books.

NIETZSCHE, F. (1895). 'The Anti-Christ'. Translated by R.J. Hollingdale 1968. New York: Penguin Books.

(c) George Mashour 2003

George Alexander Mashour, M.D., Ph.D. Harvard University Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.A.




1. Introduction

This article shows that the concept of artifact as well as of person are social constructions, namely, that society shapes in a certain manner--at least partially--the identity of artifacts and persons.[1] This thesis assumes that what a person is depends on the interpretation that other members of that society make of his features. What is a person is a question of interpretation, and not merely that something--"a further deep fact"--is discovered. Thus, there is no such thing as "an essential reference to human beings as they really are", as if this "as they really are" could be understood independently of the social context and the conceptual frameworks according to which human beings see themselves as persons, and are seen by others as such kind of persons.

Here we will understand the notion of conceptual framework as the set of theoretical and conceptual means, norms and values, that persons have at their disposal to explain and understand the world, and also to act within it, including the assimilation of objects and processes in that world. At the same time, the conceptual frameworks are social constructions, that is, they are the outcome of the actions and interactions of many persons within the social group, which also explains its continuous transformations, and generally its dependence of social conditions.

We will argue why is not correct to hold that there could be a reference to persons "as they really are," if this "as they really are" is understood as independent of the conceptual frameworks that people have at their disposal to identify objects or persons, including themselves as persons. To support this thesis, we would stress the central role of conceptual frameworks, and the meaning of knowledge as well as its conditions, regarding the social context of the identity of artifacts and persons. We will deal, on section 2, with the conditions of identity of artifacts, and on section 3, we will extend the conclusions to the problem of the identity of persons in regard to what is it that makes them the kind of persons they are.

2. The identity of artifacts

The concepts that refer to artifacts determine the conditions of persistence (continued existence) in a way that completely depends of the conceptual framework in which those concepts are used. A conceptual framework underlies the beliefs and interests, the ends and values, in terms by which the artifact is conceived and created, maintained and used. Let us view how this idea functions with regard to the classical example of the ship of Theseus.

But before we begin the analysis of the example, we must clearly state that by artifact we will understand an object that is the outcome of the transformation of concrete objects by means of intentional actions. Within the concept of artifact, the network of intentional actions is oriented in an efficient manner toward the aim of a valuable outcome. In David Wiggins's words, artifacts are identified "by reference to a parcel of matter so organized as to subserve a certain function."[2] Artifacts then are collected and classified together "under functional descriptions."[3]

Wiggins has suggested that a condition of artifact identity is "the capacity to subserve whatever roles or ends the artifact was designed as that very artifact to subserve."[4] This condition clearly shows that the identity of an artifact depends of the roles and ends that it supposedly must fulfill as being produced through systematic intentional actions, which transform concrete objects, as well as its capacities to fulfill those supposed roles and ends.

But this means that artifact identity depends of the conceptual framework, according to which the intentional actions take place in order to achieve certain results, and of the particular conception of the world that will use the artifact and will judge about its identity. We must stress that it is possible to make judgments of identity from different points of view, from different conceptual frameworks.

Theseus' ship is a ship constructed, within a certain community, to be used as the sacred ship that will annually voyage from Piraeus to Delos. While the conceptual framework is preserved, according to which it is believed that that is the ship that fulfills the specific ends and roles--which conventionally has been decided it must fulfill--then that ship is Theseus' ship. In this case, it is not important how many changes the ship went through, and how much material has been added or removed to the original one as it went through some transformations.

Our starting point is Hobbes' words:

     "...concerning the difference whereof made by a continued
     reparation in taking out the old planks and putting in new
     [...] and if some man kept the old planks as they were
     taken out, and by putting them afterwards together in the
     same order, had again made a ship of them."[5]
Here obviously arises a dispute concerning what is really Theseus' ship: the reconstructed ship with all the original planks, which have been put in the same order and kept the same relations and proportions, or the "original" ship in which have been completely substituted all the planks.

Our proposal of solution to the problem is that the question what is really Theseus' ship is not adequately set out, because we cannot say what is really Theseus' ship. The reason is that there is no ship independently of the interests and points of view; there is no ship independently of the conceptual means, which are involved when the transformations of the ship have taken place so to continue using it for certain ends, as well as trying to answer to the question what is Theseus' ship.

There is not an independent decisive criterion from the context and interests of the men who made the transformations of the ship, as well as from the ends they pursue. Precisely, by virtue of the confrontation of interests and ends, which at the same time depend upon each point of view, the function that originally the ship should fulfill cannot constitute the decisive criterion, since that function depends of the particular point of view; otherwise the question would be begged. We can understand this better, for instance, if we consider the possibility that the community, which originally decided to ascribe certain functions to the ship, decides--before the ship went to any physical transformation--that at certain time that ship would not voyage anymore, but it would be erected as a monument. In this case, there would not be any reason to suppose that the ship that functions as a monument is not the same Theseus' ship. Certainly, the community that constructed the ship, and ascribed to it a certain role, would be the same one that will decide to change that role.

But on the other hand, the reconstruction of the ship itself, using the discarded planks of the original, could be executed with the interest of accomplishing other ends; while the ship with the new planks would continue voyaging and carrying out the original ends by which Theseus' ship was originally constructed. The reconstructed ship with the original planks could intentionally be ascribed to carry out another role, i.e., as a monument. However, the individual who reconstructed the ship, with the original discarded planks of the original ship, could precisely have wanted to have those original planks because, according to their point of view, that was the only way to have the original Theseus' ship, and not any other, in order to fulfill the ends as a monument. This artifact would not carry out the ends by which originally was conceived and constructed, but the same ship would carry out a different purpose, while a different ship would fulfill the original ends. With this argument, we dismiss the idea that the ship identity could be established from the mere functions that it is really carrying out or that depends upon them.

If we call A the original ship, B the ship reconstructed from the discarded planks, and C the ship that continues voyaging once that all its planks have been replaced, we can say that A and B are the same ship according to the point of view of the men that made the reconstruction with the interest that the reconstructed ship would be Theseus' ship, because it has the planks of the original ship, so it can be displayed as a monument. But A and C would be the same ship from the point of view of who someone considers that the essential identity of Theseus' ship is not the planks, but is determined by the function to fulfill the voyage from Piraeus to Delos.

Here we have a situation in which the artifact is identified from two different points of view. Could we say that we have different identities of the ship, in the same sense that we could diversely describe the same entity, but that there exists really only one ship? Our thesis is that we have two different entities, which exist as a function of the conceptual frameworks in terms of which the artifacts are identified and constituted.

Wiggins holds that we have only two different descriptions, or different uses of the term 'ship.' In effect, he maintains that for an antiquarian 'Theseus' ship' is the one that has been reconstructed with the discarded planks, and for a priest it is the one that has been continuously repaired, and functions as the sacred ship by which the annual voyage was made. "Both are stuck with the identification ship but, having different interests, they seem not to mean quite the same thing by 'ship.'"[6]

We can argue that maybe Wiggins is right when he asserts that the antiquarian and the priest do not seem to say the same thing, but not because they differ in their understanding and use of the term 'ship,' rather they differ in what they mean with the term 'Theseus' ship.' The point of disagreement precisely is that both meant different things, since they identify in different ways 'Theseus's ship.' But there is no reason to believe that they differ in their understanding and use of the term 'ship.' The crux of the problem is that there is no way for them, or for us as an external observer, to compare their judgments about 'Theseus's ship' with an entity that has a real existence, and is independent of the two points of view in dispute.

Furthermore, the set of interests and ends, beliefs and thoughts, and norms and values that they assume, constitute the conceptual frameworks that inevitably form each point of view. The agents cannot voluntarily change a point of view for another, and remain being the same agents. It is not a psychological question, as if one can freely choose a point of view. The issue is that the aspects of reality that could fulfill the concept have no essential or intrinsic features, rather its features are contextually given by the relation of the ship with other objects, and to the conceptual frameworks.

This means that in an epistemological sense there is no independent reality from the conceptual means that are at stake. There is no reality that by itself is 'Theseus' ship' or that does not depend in any sense of the conceptual means involved. From the two different points of view, in function of their different beliefs and interests, the aspects of reality which are relevant to an individual are determined by the context in ways which are radically different. So we could maintain that from the two different points of view there were constructed different artifacts. Therefore, from one point of view, someone can be right to affirm that A and B are the same; and from the other point of view, someone can correctly say that A and C are the same. And from both points of view they can acknowledge that B and C are not the same.

In other words, there is no way independent from the conceptual frameworks involved, in which we can resolve the question what is 'Theseus' ship,' since such an artifact does not exist independently of the conceptual frameworks of those who conceived and constructed, transformed and used it. The choice between one point of view and another is not just, as we already stated, a psychological question, but it could be the real difference between two different conceptions of the world. Therefore, the identity of A and B or A and C depends on the conceptual framework involved, and it is not a question of comparison with an independent reality.

Certainly, we have to acknowledge that once we choose the determinate concept, we cannot do anything to change the fact that a certain reality in a certain moment fulfills it or not. But here the issue is to admit, or not, that what is an artifact, and the conditions of its identity, are inherent to the conceptual framework. If we admit an internalist point of view of artifacts, then there could be two overlapping conceptual frameworks, and that by virtue of this overlapping it could be possible to identify, from both frameworks, A, B and C as ships. But from the priest's point of view, A and C are the same, but A and B are different; while from the antiquarian's point of view A and B are considered as the same, but A and C are different.

In sum, we can say that there is no absolute answer to the question what is really Theseus' ship, or with regard to the conditions of identity of artifacts. If our argument is right, the constitution of an artifact depends on the conceptual framework, which includes the beliefs and interests, values and ends, of the person that makes the identification.

3. The identity of persons

We have stated that persons are social constructions. We maintain that the problem of personal identity--in the sense of understanding what is that makes a person such a person--depends on what the person believes about the world, that is, the forms by which he understands and interprets it, as well as the ways of behaving within that world. We must stress that these theoretical and conceptual means necessarily come from the conceptual frameworks, to wit, that all these elements are necessary to understand the concept of person--in the sense that here it is assumed. But by no means do we contend that this line of analysis of the concept of person as a social being is the only one plausible.

To regard a person as a social being means that his beliefs and desires, needs and ends, as well as his judgements, are shaped by his interactions with other persons, and at the same time those persons are shaped by the communities and traditions that they belong to. This means that persons cannot understand themselves outside of the communicative frameworks within which the beliefs and judgements are conceived, expressed and maintained, criticized and modified.

We could state that human beings have an innate tendency to communicate and interact with other human beings. If a human being is a person, he must realize that tendency up to a point. This shows a conceptual difference between "human being" and "person." We think that these concepts are not co-extensive. We understand as a 'human being' a member of the homo sapiens species, in the strict biological sense; and 'person' as the human being that has achieved its tendency to interact and communicate by means of a language developed by a society of persons.

Thus the definition of communication between persons we provisionally assume is that "two or more people stand in a communication relation if the joint product of their displayed intentions in uttering and their uptake in hearing one or more speech-acts affords for each a common basis for relatively co-ordinated actions."[7] The idea that persons are social constructions means that they are, at least partially, constituted by their relations with other persons within interactive and communicative frameworks. The relevant properties of the identity of a person include the relational properties of being a member of a certain social group, which consist to have such beliefs and dispositions, to be seen by certain particular views by others in society, and to have a certain image and self-esteem.

Consequently, the thesis that we hold is that persons are constituted by the same mode as artifacts. That artifacts are constituted, in the weaker sense, means that it is not possible to decide the question 'what is really Theseus' ship' independently from the conceptual framework of the individual who makes the judgment of identity. But also, in the stronger sense, that there really is no artifact independently from the beliefs and desires, norms and values, needs and ends, of the concrete individual. In the same way, persons do not exist independently of the roles that they fulfill in their society, neither from the way they judge the actions and beliefs of others nor the way others judge them.

Muhlhausler and Harre have offered evidence for the thesis that the identity of person is strongly influenced by the conceptual framework used by the same person who identifies himself, or by the conceptual framework used by other persons who identified that same person. They particularly hold that "the use of person-indicating expressions in most languages include references to specific social relations."[8]

The thesis we want to stress, and that it is useful to our task, is specifically the following: "the verbal items used to create a context of communication [...] can be shown to include knowledge of the social and psychological conventions of the culture of the people that use [them.]"[9] If this idea is right, then, we could hold that what a person is cannot be related with a set of fixed features, and that the identity of person cannot be based on an absolute identity criterion. The identity of person is grounded on the set of beliefs, values and norms of his social context, which allow him to understand and interpret the world, and shape his necessities and desires, and which constitute him as a social being.

The concept of person, on the one hand, is constructed within a social context, and his identity is shaped according to identity criteria related to the relevant conceptual frameworks of the social context. On the other hand, the identification of the beliefs, values and ends is necessary to the identity of a person. At the same time, all these elements constitute the person as a social entity.

Therefore, persons are social subjects. Human beings are constituted as persons by the same society in which their personhood is deployed. The concept of person is of an individual human being constituted as person within a social context. Every human being potentially is a person, but some of his capacities must be exercised, and some of his potentialities must be realized within his social context so that he becomes a person. In Wiggins' words, "person is a 'social' concept with identity criteria of an adaptability and pliability suited to this role."[10]

Finally, we have to conclude that the existence of persons is partially determined by facts that are not just purely internal to the psychology of the individual. There are facts related to the social context that make an individual suitable to be treated as a person, and as such kind of person. In Locke's words,

     "person [...] is a forensic term, appropriating actions and
     their merit."[11]

and in this sense the social context at least partially determines what we take into account as a person.


1. The following draws heavily on Leon Olive. "Identidad Colectiva," in Leon Olive y Fernando Salmeron, eds. 'La Identidad Personal y la Colectiva'. Proceedings of Mexico's Colloquium of the Institut International du Philosophie, September, 1991. Mexico, UNAM, 1994, 65-84.

2. Wiggins, David. 'Sameness and Substance' (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1980), 90.

3. Ibid, 87.

4. Ibid, 97.

5. Hobbes, Thomas. From 'De corpore'.

6. Wiggins, op. cit., 94.

7. Muhlhausler, Peter and Rom Harre. 'Pronouns and People: The Linguistic Construction of Social and Personal Identity' (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), 12.

8. Ibid, 5.

9. Ibid, 16.

10. Wiggins, David. "Locke, Butler and the Stream of Consciousness: and Men as a Natural Kind." In Amelie Oksenberg Rorty, ed. 'The Identities of Persons' (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1976), 165.

11. Locke, John. 'Essay concerning Human Understanding,' Book II, Chapter XXVII, 26.

(c) Alfredo Lucero-Montano 2003





ZENO: Good morning, Master! Nice weather today. PARMENIDES: Don't be so ridiculous!


PETER ABELARD: That was a pretty lousy wicket. DON BRADMAN: My good fellow: I sympathise with your disappointment, but it is simply not possible to hit the stumps in the condition you're in.


DESCARTES: I had a dream last night. FREUD: Hm. DESCARTES: A man came up to me and handed me a ball. FREUD: One or two?


GOD: Three sixes again, Albert. Can't beat an old hand like me. EINSTEIN: You know, you make me look like a fool. Can't you play dice like a real person?


SHAKESPEARE: It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul. ARISTOTLE: Mumble, mumble, mumble. Get the causa finalis right, at least! SHAKESPEARE (tries again): Let me not name to you, you chaste stars. ARISTOTLE: Bloody hell! Soul and stars! What a mix-up! They're gonna ask me to refund your tuition fees! SHAKESPEARE (almost in tears): It is the cause.


PLATO: My dear Johannes: I'm proud of you. You thrilled me with your book on Harmonies. Almost perfect! KEPLER: Almost, Euer Gnaden? PLATO: Well ... (hiding, not very successfully, a slight shudder in the gesture of drawing his cloak around his shoulder): ovoids. KEPLER: But, Eure Herrlichkeit ... (uncomprehending) ... after 910 computations ... PLATO: I know. You are finicky, precise, adamant. But forgive a man grown old in the service the observation that your teutonic pedantry got the better of you.
KEPLER (somewhat mystified): Allerdurchlauchtigster, the numbers tell all; it is God's handiwork. PLATO: As far as the eye can see, Kepler: but the I of the world is not an ellipse.
KEPLER: I swear to you, Ausgezeichneter, that I had no choice ... PLATO (cocking his head and fixing a sort of sideways stare at him): You have heard the expression saving phenomena, yes? KEPLER: Oh indeed! But, with all reverence, dear Meister, your follower Ptolemy cheated. Epicycles, deferents ... PLATO: Granted. I prize honesty above all. Yet we are talking of the Truth, Kepler. Not facts: Truth! KEPLER (defensively): But it doesn't work, because ... PLATO: Circles, Kepler. Not ellipses. God does not move in ovoids. Ptolemy knew that Mars runs on an elliptical orbit. The task was to rescue the Truth, to save phenomena from offending against her. KEPLER: Hochwuerden, I pray you to attend how with this simple contraption. just a pencil and a piece of string, I draw two circles and then connect ... PLATO: I see an ellipse. KEPLER: Gesegneter, pray give me one minute to show that Ptolemy did not save phenomena. PLATO (hiding his exasperation): Proceed. KEPLER: Behold! *He draws a diagram: a large circle with the sun in the centre and the planet revolving around the sun on its own deferent circles. As Mars courses along the great circle, its position on successive deferents describes a geometrical figure. Plato watches, goggle-eyed and horror-struck as Kepler connects the actual positions of the planet relative to the sun. At length, even before the figure is finished, shaking and unable to restrain himself, he splutters:  PLATO: A square ! ! ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?


LEIBNITZ: I proved it to you, black on white. What more can I do? CAMUS: Your best world makes me want to puke. If that's the limit of your God's ingenuity, life isn't worth living. LEIBNITZ (mollycoddling him): You are an excitable young man, Albert. So much beauty, such richness: ah, the wonder of it all! CAMUS: Yeah, yeah, Don't look a gift horse in the mouth. But I do! I didn't ask* for this absurdity to happen; and had I been consulted beforehand, I would have declined. Just as well I have the means to end it! LEIBNITZ: Now why would you want to do a silly thing like that? Suicide! What a waste! Indeed what a waste of happiness! Sisyphus is happy, remember? You wrote so yourself. CAMUS (depressed): We all have our weak moments. LEIBNITZ: In any case, how would you do it? Think of the mess. CAMUS: One doesn't have to cut one's wrists or run in front of a train, you know. There are cleaner ways. LEIBNITZ: Such as? CAMUS: Gun at the temples. Cyanide. Etcetera. LEIBNITZ (suddenly greatly enthused): Blimey, Albert! Look at the choices you've got! Four compossible worlds rising before your very eyes! How can you bring yourself to complain?


DESCARTES: I had a dream last night. FREUD: Busy lad. DESCARTES: I dreamt an evil demon took my body away. FREUD: Male or female? DESCARTES (confused): A spirit being? FREUD: So? What the heck do you think libido is?

(c) Jurgen Lawrenz 2003


© Geoffrey Klempner 2002–2020