Skip to main content

If the word "chair" packed a punch

Image result for comfy chair drawing

If the word "chair" packed an emotional punch: if for example, people measured their neighbor's worth by the number of chairs owned, considering it a disgrace even to visit a house with an inadequate number of chairs, then there would of course be lots of disputes over the meaning of the word.

What exactly is a chair? As a first approximation, we might define a chair as a piece of furniture designed to seat one person. But this counts a stool as a chair, and that might be controversial. In our hypothetical world, elitists who were proud that they had a lot of chairs in their homes might resent the poseurs who boost their numbers by bringing in inexpensive stools.

As a more demanding definition: a chair might be defined as a piece of furniture, defined with a single seat, that is also supplied with a back. But does it need to have arms as well? Is it something that looks a lot like the paradigmatic chair portrayed above?

There might be semantic pressure in the opposite direction, from populists proud of their sparsely furnished homes who think their sofas and love seats ought to count. Why aren't they chairs? Is the one-person requirement arbitrary?

This is an example of what Ludwig Wittgenstein called a "language game." It isn't one of his examples (he did have an example involving a chair, but he developed it along different lines from those above). Still: the above is a fair example of the style of his thought. I believe that it is likewise fair to say that through the growth of his understanding of the game-like nature of any human language, he freed himself from the logical positivism/atomism of his early phase, that of the Tractatus.

Now, excuse me, I'm trying to remember the right verb for the act of presiding over a meeting. And is the word the same even if the presiding official is standing the whole time?  


  1. Christopher,

    As I am sure you know, but do not make clear, Wittgenstein thought the sort of questions you ask about chairs to be misguided. He claimed that abstract concepts such as "chair," "game," "truth," or "beauty" cannot be defined by a set of necessary or sufficient conditions--in other words, by listing their features (in the case of a chair: legs, back, seat, and so forth). The meaning of an abstract concept is its use: A chair is whatever we as a group would call a chair. (And we certainly call some things without arms "chairs.")

  2. Henry, that is certainly true and I should have been clear about Ludwig's attitude toward this sort of dispute. Thanks.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Great Chain of Being

One of the points that Lovejoy makes in the book of that title I mentioned last week is the importance, in the Neo-Platonist conceptions and in the later development of the "chain of being" metaphor, of what he calls the principle of plenitude. This is the underlying notion that everything that can exist must exist, that creation would not be possible at all were it to leave gaps.

The value of this idea for a certain type of theodicy is clear enough.

This caused theological difficulties when these ideas were absorbed into Christianity.  I'll quote a bit of what Lovejoy has to say about those difficulties:

"For that conception, when taken over into Christianity, had to be accommodated to very different principles, drawn from other sources, which forbade its literal interpretation; to carry it through to what seemed to be its necessary implications was to be sure of falling into one theological pitfall or another."

The big pitfalls were: determinism on the on…

A Story About Coleridge

This is a quote from a memoir by Dorothy Wordsworth, reflecting on a trip she took with two famous poets, her brother, William Wordsworth, and their similarly gifted companion, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

We sat upon a bench, placed for the sake of one of these views, whence we looked down upon the waterfall, and over the open country ... A lady and gentleman, more expeditious tourists than ourselves, came to the spot; they left us at the seat, and we found them again at another station above the Falls. Coleridge, who is always good-natured enough to enter into conversation with anybody whom he meets in his way, began to talk with the gentleman, who observed that it was a majestic waterfall. Coleridge was delighted with the accuracy of the epithet, particularly as he had been settling in his own mind the precise meaning of the words grand, majestic, sublime, etc., and had discussed the subject with William at some length the day before. “Yes, sir,” says Coleridge, “it is a majestic wate…