What makes a chair a chair?
Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz
I suspect you’re angling for a Platonic form and have, perhaps, a killing riposte up your sleeve, like the one Parmenides gave to the young Sokrates in the dialogue where they both appear — not to mention Aristotle’s dismissive evaluation. But even these two critics missed a fundamental point. Unlike Christians, who imbibe notions of infinitude and eternity with their mother’s milk, they had no genuine conception of either; it was an ‘irrational’ conception, along with such items as the impossibility of assigning a cardinal number to the hypotenuse of a square, if the sides are whole numbers (or vice versa). An important additional corollary was their inability to envisage a future, as we do routinely with our expectations (on the back of 600 years of unremitting progress) of ever more knowledge, expertise and technology still to come.
Where this becomes a telling limitation is in the Platonic notion of an ‘eternal’ idea. It’s probably not a good idea to try and make a list of them, if only because many of them (e.g. the form of ‘Man’) look so much alike they seem to twins, quintuplets, 12 to a dozen etc. Most importantly, however, Plato made a huge omission that really ought to puzzle us. Where are the perfect utilitarian forms? Where in God’s name is the most crucial resource of humans, the intentional ideas and acts that spawn the overwhelming percentage of our actual being? I mean to protest, as after all: if I thump some fellow on the nose for being an ass, there must be a template somewhere for this kind of behaviour, which indeed is likely to be a thousand-fold daily occurrence on earth. And, ceteris partibus, owing to some such utilitarian intentional templating, it is where we also find the templated ingredients for the device under consideration, the chair.
Now on account of his omission, it could not genuinely occur to Plato that a multitude (if not infinitude) of such ideas belong to a future over which Ananke had drawn her veil. Moreover a future in which his heaven also changed its ‘whereabout’. What I mean by this is that his heaven was never ‘up there’ in the nether-nether, but always a ‘virtual heaven’ in a virtual location called Utopia.
This Utopia is a collective ideal site in which the basic forms of human inventions are housed. Being lodged here, but being intrinsically portable, they comprise a resource from which further basic, but also composite forms can be derived. E.g. the invention of the wheel rested on the insight that a circle offers a more efficient resource for continuous movement that any polyhedron. In this context Plato’s methexis becomes self-explanatory: it is a ‘self-help resource’ for humans dispensing with the cumbersome apparatus of urging the rain clouds to drop a load of ideal forms on the head of an enquirer or inventor.
If you’ve followed me so far, then I can dispense with all the intermediate steps from the ideal forms of 3 or more ideal lines (sticks) arranged to support a platform of ideal quadrilateral, oval or circular shape, to explain chairs. This practical invention might have occurred to Homo erectus and become a resource for all its variations from stools, wheelchairs, chaiselonges and thrones to helicopters and whatever else may still prove useful for the purpose of putting a bum on a seat (or for that matter, putting a chair into a painting or doll’s house).
Therefore (coming to an end of these long-winded preliminaries) the ultimate source of a chair — that which makes a chair a chair — is nothing other than a human being’s intention to make such a contraption, based on precedents fetched from Utopia and the all-too-human urgings to make some aspects of life less cumbersome. The only things remaining to be said is the puzzlesome fact that other fauna, e.g. spiders building a web or bees forming honeycombs, seem also to be relying on the reciprocation of some ideal forms residing in Utopia. But this might be a question for another day!