A funny thing happened on the way to the middle ages: Boethius and the ‘Identity of Indiscernibles’

It takes a long time following retirement from the public service after which you realize that you can write about anything you want. I had always wanted to publish a limerick that I wrote with a friend (now deceased) over 40 years ago.  In this blog, I take another item off my intellectual bucket list.

I was reading PhD level courses in philosophy in 1973 at York University (Social and Political Thought) when the course material required that the class read the Consolation of Philosophy by the mediaeval philosopher Boethius[1].

Boethius, born in 480 A.D., was an influential sort who reported directly to Theodoric the Great. But he got himself imprisoned for trying to navigate the difficult and treacherous process of bringing Constantinople and Rome closer together. Theodoric eventually had Boethius killed along with members of his family.

His Consolation of Philosophy, written while in prison was one of the ‘great reads’ of the dark ages and Dante includes references to Boethius in his Divine Comedy[2].

And it was while in prison that Boethius really hunkered down to investigate some of the major issues of his time.

The one that really got to me was the ‘identity of indiscernibles’. For people born in modern times, the identity of indiscernibles is a fantastically difficult concept[3] but even when you figure out what the intellectuals and exegetes were all in a sweat about, it is a head scratcher. It is almost impossible to even conceive of how or why anyone could get in a lather about it.

OK – so here goes! At the great risk of oversimplification, the principle of identity that comes from the Greek philosophers states that for one thing to be different from another, it has to have some property that distinguishes it; bigger smaller, heavier lighter, blue green etc.

If something is exactly the same in every respect, the principle of identity would begin to say that the two things are one and the same thing. But that is easily dealt with because any object is located spatially. Two identical iron balls for example cannot be the same ball because, even if side by side, they would have the property of being located in a slightly different place in relation to a person or a third object. They would therefore be ‘discernible’.

But Boethius took it a step further and posed the idea of a separate universe temporally and spatially distinct from our own and asked the question about the iron balls again. In other words, if two identical iron balls were in their own universe where nothing else existed, would the principle of identity not have to admit that the two balls were in fact just one iron ball since there would be absolutely nothing to distinguish between them?

As you can imagine, if you are a 23 year old student thinking about Watergate, Viet Nam, the breakup of the Beatles and whether Trudeau could beat Stanfield with the slogan ‘the land is strong’, the identity of indiscernibles as a pressing issue is not high up on your list of interests.

It is only today that I can start to see what old Boethius was getting at when trying to meld the doctrines of 5th century Europe. I start to think of religious headgear and begin to ask the question if one form is really different from the other when all the various antipathies are cast aside.

Forty two years later, I finally get what Boethius was talking about. Or at least I think I do.

And now the surprisingly prescient alcohol-assisted limerick that allows me to place another check mark on that long list of things I told myself I would do if I ever got the time:

“There were two sisters I knew

Who so identically grew

That they could not converse

In their own universe

For to say there were two wasn’t true.”


//js-Mar 22,2015


I am fairly certain that not many people read Boethius nowadays but I am hoping that some desperate mediaeval philosophy students will google ‘Boethius and the identity of indiscernibles’ and come upon this limerick and use it in their term papers. It won’t help them pass but at least their professors will get a laugh out of it.


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boethius

[2] Now if thy mental eye conducted be

From light to light as I resound their frame,

The eighth well worth attention thou wilt see.

The soul who pointed out the world’s dark ways,

To all who listen, its deceits unfolding.

Beneath in Cieldauro lies the frame

Whence it was driven; from woe and exile to

This fair abode of peace and bliss it came.


[3] http://maverickphilosopher.typepad.com/maverick_philosopher/2010/10/the-bundle-theory-and-the-identity-of-indiscernibles.html