Who are you? Are you really sure?

Be true to yourself! Trust your inner self! Just be your-self! Sound advice that at some point you might have received or given. Yet, how does one be ones self? At what point are you being yourself, and at what point are you not? Are you the same true self as you were yesterday? 

Es tu derecho y obligación ser quien realmente eres. 

Lo mejor que puede suceder es que te conviertas en alguien auténtico.

Jorge Bucay 

The famous paradox about the Ship of Theseus comes to mind here. Theseus’s ship was gradually repaired until the ship was made out of completely different pieces of wood. Interestingly the Barcelona Pavilion designed by Mies van der Rohe, and constructed in 1929, demolished in 1930, and then rebuilt on the original site at the foot of Montjuic in 1986, presents us with the same problem. Is it the same building designed for the International Exhibition in 1929 or is it a phony imitation? The parts are completely new. The architects were different. The purpose for constructing the building is different. Even the names of the building are different: the “German National Pavilion” as it was known in 1929 and the “Mies van der Rohe Pavilion” as it is known now built in 1986. 

The lifespan of an average human cell is seven years and it is often said that all our cells replace themselves every seven years. Under this understanding we are not the same physically and our bodies have been rebuilt much like Theseus’s ship and the Pavilion. Yet, it is a fallacy that all our cells replace themselves every seven years. Only some of them do. Some of our cells stay with us throughout the duration of our lives. In this respect we are, in part the same physical entity. However, many of us would argue we are not the same as we were 5 years ago, 10 years ago or even yesterday. 

Our self-identity can change. What makes you ‘you’ can evolve over days, weeks, months or perhaps hours. It seems too simple an explanation. To have the same cell structure and inhabit the same body makes you ‘you.’ When referring to ourselves, we cite our psychological states. Which include hopes, dreams, desires and so forth. These interconnect over the passing of time to create a timeline or sense of self. Something the Ship of Theseus and the Barcelona Pavilion also have. A history. They exist physically yet, also in our memories. Thus, the answer here appears be that humans are both memories (psychological) and bodily (physiological) states. 

John Locke discusses this problem. If the body of student woke up one day with the psychological states and memories of a teacher and the body of a teacher with the memories and psychological states of a student, Locke argues the student and teacher would have swapped bodies. Thus, Locke is arguing that personal identity travels with one’s psychological states and memories.

As a consequence, ‘we’ are our memories. Memories connect and create a sense of ‘ourselves’. The nature of the Pavilion and the Ship are connected through memory. Thus, the nature of ‘ourselves’ is in part created by memory. The Ship and the Pavilion also exist in the memories of those who saw the original and the replicas. So long as we can remember being a child, a young adult and finally an old person we are psychologically connected and thus, are the same person. That is not to say we are condemned by our memories, we are also the creators of memories. 

Speaking as a teacher I enjoy working with students in part, because it reminds me of when I was a student. Therefore, this job nourishes me in creating and remembering myself. Along the way I am (I hope) helping students to create memories to be true to themselves and those around them. Thus, when we tell others to be true to themselves perhaps we are thinking about past selves and expressing a desire about our own psychological states and memories. We are also trying to be true to ourselves! 


Bucay, Jorge [Accessed 09-05-21] 

Tchiki, Davis, How to Be Yourself in Five Simple Steps. Pyschology Today 

Libre Texts. Introduction to Philosophy and the Ship of Theseus  [Accessed 09-05-21]

Hosey, Lance. The Ship of Theseus Identity and the Barcelona Pavilion(s) in Journal of Architectural Education Volume 72, 2018 Issue 2, pages 230-247 [Accessed 09-05-21]

Kundra, Milan. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Harper and Row, New York, 1984 

Philsophy Now, Issue 97 July/August 2013 London 

P.Lizza, John, Brain Death Philosophy of Medicine, in Handbook of the Philosophy of Science Volume 16, 2011, Pages 453-487 [Accessed 09-05-21]

Westreich, Sam. Science Monday: If Our Cells Replace Themselves, Why Do We Have Lifelong Scars?,between%207%20and%2010%20years. [Accessed 09-05-21] 

Gordon-Roth, Jessica, “Locke on Personal Identity”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), [Accessed 09-05-21]


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