A philosophy teacher of mine once asked me to define a chair.
At first, I thought he was joking, but he pressed me for the definition, so I eventually offered that a chair is something you sit on. Simple.
“But,” he replied, “you could sit on a table, right? And that wouldn’t make a table a chair.”
“Okay,” I said—not quite sure where he was going with this—”a chair is something with four legs and a back for sitting on.”
“A couch or bench,” he quickly pointed out (he had been lying in wait for that answer, too), “could have four legs and a back.”
“Well then, it’s something with four legs and a back which is made for one person to sit on.”
“What about those art deco chairs that just have two legs? Or those chairs I’ve seen at IKEA with just one post for a leg?”
You get the gist of how the conversation went for a few minutes. In the end, I admitted that I couldn’t define a chair properly. And that unsettled me: of course I knew what a chair was! But I just couldn’t seem to get my mouth around the right words to define it in any meaningful way. I knew enough Aristotle at the time to realize that my attempts at defining the chair were totally inadequate. They were either too broad or too narrow, or focused on the non-essential and variable attributes of a chair.
The professor’s point, it became clear during the class, was not simply to be pedantic, annoying, or frustrating. The exercise was part of a political philosophy course, and the lesson that day was dealing with the concept of human rights.
Read more at Salvo Magazine.