Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

Heraclitus and the art of car maintenance

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I’ve just walked back from my local garage. Given that I did not walk to it, this is no good thing. My poor car has had a lot of repairs recently, and now it looks like some clutch related component is to be added to the list. As I walked back from the garage I thought first about how high labour costs in France mean that they end up skimping on build quality (I own Renault) and second, about the philosophy of the Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus.

Heraclitus was interested in how our identities persist over time: given that we change over time, how is it that we remain can the same being?

Everything flows and nothing abides; everything gives way and nothing stays fixed.

This puzzle was later famously illustrated by Plutarch in the story of The Ship of Theseus.

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.

Is my car more than a collection of parts, and, if it is, how many of those parts can be replaced before it is no longer the same car? If my car’s identity is rooted in something other than its initial components then what? How can it be that my car, made of of a different set of parts today than it was when it was built, remains the same car? Imagine that every time my car needed a repair that I took it to the same garage. Imagine also that they kept all of the replaced parts and used them to build another car. Which of the two cars is my car? Surely they cannot both be the same car?

After my nine year old son read Stephen Law’s excellent book, the Philosophy Files, he responded to a telling-off from his mum by saying: ‘but mum, you can’t blame me for that, I’m qualitatively a different person now than I was when I did it.’ Not only does this reveal the dangers of letting children anywhere near philosophy, but it also show how important the persistence of our identities over time is to the notion of moral responsibility.

There may not be easy answers to these questions, but philosophy certainly makes an otherwise disheartening walk back from the garage much more interesting!

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Author: Steve Cooke

I work in normative ethics, specialising in animal and environmental ethics and political philosophy.

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