A Formative Account

This puzzle about the 1982 spaceship derives from an ancient philosophical problem known as the “Ship of Theseus” and a seventeenth-century variation introduced by Thomas Hobbes (15881679). Fortunately, with a little help from Aristotle, we can begin to solve the puzzle, at least as it applies to our question about the DeLorean(s). According to Aristotle, it’s not just the matter that makes up a substance; the substance also has a form. A lump of clay is not a statue until a sculptor gives it shape, and it is in that shaping that the statue comes into being. The statue is a combination of matter (clay) and form (the shape and arrangement). Every non-living physical substance comes into being when matter is given form, whether it’s a dining room table or a LEGO spaceship. LEGO bricks are a particularly good illustration of the matter vs. form distinction, because the same matter (set of bricks) can be arranged in numerous forms. The DeLorean Time Machine, set #21103, consists of 403 pieces, and the same set can be used to build three different DeLoreans, corresponding to the way the car appeared in the three Back to the Future movies. Indeed, part of the joy of LEGO is that the same matter can be recombined into so many different forms.

In some way, form is what’s relevant to crediting the invention to the original Cuusoo designers. After all, when someone submits a LEGO Idea, they are not submitting the matter of a model, but its structure, design, and arrangement of parts. As the LEGO Ideas Guidelines and House Rules specify, a submitted project “includes photos of a LEGO model you create as well as a written description that becomes your proposal for a potential LEGO product.”1 No one, Masashi Togami and Sakuretsu included, has to send a physical model to submit a project to LEGO Ideas. Furthermore, the instructions included in LEGO sets (and the instructions often accompanying LEGO Ideas submissions) provide a way to identify the form of the set. Each person who buys a set purchases matter and the recipe to arrange that matter in the intended form. Once built, the model is a particular substance, in Aristotle’s view.

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