A brood comb

….philosophical and other notes….

`Chair` And the Phenomenon of Chairs

Posted by Tanas Gjorgoski on August 17, 2007

I want to give another example how in discussing what words refer to, we don’t need to assume some intra-mental concepts, in which the meaning of the term would be ‘encoded’ (be it as a list of necessary and sufficient conditions, genus/differentia, as nodes in theories, through prototypes, etc…), but as a relation to something which appears as content of our intentional acts.

I said that ‘bachelor’ is in such way related to a phenomenon of bachelorhood, a real phenomenon which appears in the specific context of social relations (but might not appear in others). That the phenomenon is dependent on the context, doesn’t make it any less real, just not self-subsistent. That is, its existence depends on the existence of the particular context. The word ‘bachelor’ then picks out one of those persons that share with each other the particular position in society organized by particular principles. In such way, though the ‘bachelor’ is not some intra-mental concept (as I think nominalists would say), and while also there is no assumed essence which is shared by all bachelors, the term picks out some aspect of reality. In such way one can be externalist about phenomenon of bachelorhood, and claim that the word ‘bachelor’ picks out something in the world (though in a roundabout way – only through the phenomenon of bachelorhood which appears on level of society, and only then applying it to a particular person as a part of that phenomenon).

I think same can be said about chairs. I think one shouldn’t search for some definition of what makes a chair, but look at chairs as particular phenomenon that appears in certain kind of societies. From that point of view, to explain meaning of ‘chairs’ we don’t look for a definition which every chair has to fulfill. Instead we talk about the phenomenon of chairs. And that there is phenomenon of chairs is unproblematic. People have factories in which chairs are produces, chairs are manufactured, sold and bought. Chairs come in different dimensions, styles and colors, and people usually place them in their homes, sit on them while they are eating something, to take a rest, to read, and so on.

So the phenomenon is there, and because it is there, we can become aware of it. And because it is phenomenon, and not something essential which is found in every chair, people have space to play with the individual chairs, which while being weird in some way are part of the phenomenon.

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4 Responses to “`Chair` And the Phenomenon of Chairs”

  1. Joe said

    For the most part, I believe your analysis is correct. There is nothing essential (no necessary and sufficient conditions) of chairs. But I wonder what the “phenomena” of chairs is?

    Couldn’t almost anything we can sit on or use in a way consistent with a chair count as a chair? For example, a table, i.e., something with four legs and a flat topside surface, be a chair. Just as I sit on a chair, I can sit on a table. What about a sturdy cardboard box? That too could be used as a chair.

    Tables and cardboard boxes aren’t produced by chair manufacturers. I imagine that producers of tables and cardboard boxes never intended their products to be used as chairs. So, perhaps the phenomena of chairs is much broader than and much more flexible than we think it is.

    Is the concept of ‘bachelorhood’ as elastic as that of ‘chairs’? If it is, then shouldn’t it be ascribed to animals, inanimate objects, etc.? If it cannot be attributed to other things, then maybe there’s reason to think that the two aren’t as similar as it first appears.

  2. Thanks for the comment Joe!

    What I want to point to is that there is a specific and real phenomenon of “chairs” in the world. So, instead of approaching the issue of what ‘chair’ means from the thinking about individual chairs, we approach it as a complex phenomenon of chairs (which relates to the other posts were I defended the position, that for those common nouns, it is the multitude which shows certain similarity that appears as intentional content, and which is ground for the usage of those terms). Can anything that we can sit on count as chair? I don’t think that it is question which has objective answer. I think it is a choice we made about some border-cases which appear in the phenomenon of chairs.

    While the usage of the word chairs is ‘elastic’ in such way (and probably of any word), still I think that we don’t have chair-concept in our heads. What I think is that we are aware of the multitude that appears in our lives (in the houses we go to, at work, in restaurants, etc…), a multitude that shows some similarities and which is part of the phenomenon (we don’t notice just chairs, but we notice people sit on them, pay money for them, work in factories to produce them, etc…)

    The analysis of the phenomenon can be done as deeply as possible, by looking at the world. We can point to the specifics of the people’s bodies, to how they feel more comfortable if they are sitting, how in the history this made people first use different things for sitting, but as the technology went forward, people could produce more comfortable chairs. Really depending on how far we want to go, there is myriad of things in the phenomenon of chairs we can put attention to. Social, aesthetic, biological, economical, and even philosophical (this post, and lot of others related to this phenomenon) and so on.

    So, while the nominalist might say that there are no chairs as chairs in the world, but the concept exist in our minds only, I want to say that even there is no essence which all chairs share, there is still a *real* phenomenon in the world that involves multitude to which our term ‘chairs’ refer.

    Anyway, the general idea is in direction of externalism about chairs, bachelors and other things, without a)assuming platonic forms/essences b)without assuming that the phenomenon is self-subsistent (the phenomenon of chairs, as that of bachelorhood, depends on specific context).

  3. Enigman said

    Interesting idea Tanasije, about which I’ll think some more. Do you think, of some particular chair, that it is objectively one object? I’m not sure myself, since scientists say that it’s a cloud of molecules, and I believe them; but if it is then would its thingness reside in it being a connected, solid lump of stuff? I’ve been thinking of its thingness as residing in it being the stuff picked out by “that chair,” but having read the above I’m more unsure about that…

  4. Thanks for the comment Enigman,

    Not sure if I have straight answer for the question you pose about the “thingness” of the chairs. The post was more about the “chairness” of the chairs.

    But it seems, that you notice rightly that thingness can’t be dependent on chairness, as chairness pressuposed multiplicity, which pressuposes thingness (i.e. to have a multiplicity is for there to be multitude of things).

    As for the relation of wholes and parts, I’m inclined to think that in many cases the wholes aren’t grounded in parts. I wrote a post about that some time ago. But I’m unsure really if this kind of view (as in the linked post) can be applied to artifacts like cars, chairs, etc…, and have no clear idea of any specific criteria which would be used in such view to distinguish “proper” wholes from the configurations of parts.

    Me too will think of the issue you raise some more. Thanks! :)

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