Take a seat

[This photo was selected as an “Honourable Mention” for the 3rd Annual Philosophical Photography Contest hosted by the Rotman Institute of Philosophy at the University of Western Ontario.]

Philosophers have long had a fascination with contemplating chairs. They are probably so often used in thought experiments because they’re one of the objects closest to the person formulating his or n her philosophical argument.

For example, do chairs actually exist?

As material objects in space and time — the “real” world — chairs have a certain physical quality to them. They have a physical structure with a continued existence in an external environment independent of our relationship to them. So argue the Realists. But objects are merely concepts, and concepts are ideas that do not exist independent of the mind. Chairs cannot possibly exist independent of the minds used to contemplate them. Perhaps they don’t actually exist after all. So argue the Idealists.

To complicate the situation, each chair in a set of chairs — all chairs that have ever existed or will ever exist, in fact — no matter how alike they seem, are all in some way dissimilar. Each chair is unique and different from the next.

Why, then, do we classify chairs according to their similarities? If they are in fact all different, what warrants them to be called by the same name, “chair”? Do they possess some kind of mysterious force within them or an immaterial Platonic Form that gives them their “chair-ness”? Or is the only thing that binds one chair to the next human consciousness itself?

I don’t have the answers. But I know that if you want to get to the bottom of these questions, you had better take a seat…