Jean-Jacques Rousseau said: “Definitions would be good things if we did not use words to make them.” I couldn’t agree more. But this whole series is about coming up with a definition; and if we can’t use words, it is going to be a very short series. But maybe it would be helpful to think about the whole art of defining words because I would like to contend it is not as easy as we often think.
To this end, I offer this script. Some of you may have seen this before (some of you may have even been readers before!). As an apology for making you read a script, instead of reading a narrative, I offer this insight: Shakespeare wrote in scripts. So, friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your eyes, for what light through yonder window breaks? It is a script! Now, to read or not to read, that is the question. I’ve even given you a role, so be sure to read along!
Imagine a group of five young friends gathered together in a living room (And, holy cow! You’re one of them! –That’s what I call acting!).
Act One, Scene One, Only and Last One
Romeo: Okay, help me out here. Hey you, define a chair for me.
You: A chair is something you sit on.
Romeo: Oh, that is brilliant! Just brilliant. So, while the rest of the world calls what THEY sit on, their “butt,” but call your butt a chair. Brilliant. Thanks for sharing.
You: No. No. No. What I meant was a chair is a thing that people can sit upon that has four legs and is comfortable so that you don’t have to sit on the ground or the floor.
Romeo: Interesting, I often sit on my desk. It has four legs. It is comfortable; and when I sit on it, I’m not sitting on the ground or the floor. So, according to you, my DESK is a chair. Am I hearing you correctly? My DESK is a CHAIR? Either I’m confused or you are a pinhead. Would somebody please help us out here?
Juliet: I sense that you are not looking for a definition, as much as uncovering the very essence of “chair-ness.” I feel like you are looking to Plato and his theory of forms to help you isolate the very essence of what a chair is, as opposed to the accidental qualities that chairs have in our reality that makes them appear of one color or another or of one shape or another.
Romeo: Go ahead, I’m listening. You’re not making much sense, but I am listening. And are you going to give me a definition or are you just going to talk around the subject and have the essence of intelligence, but never really have any smarts at all?
Juliet: Fine. A chair is a piece of furniture with four legs that has as its main purpose, you sitting on it.
Romeo: I have a beanbag chair at home. Do I have to go home and tell it, “You are not a chair because you don’t have four legs?” I would feel really bad doing that. Poor beanbag chair! It will feel crushed!
Count Paris: No, your beanbag chair is a chair because its purpose is to have people sit on it. Your desk’s primary purpose is to provide a flat top so that you may do various administrative tasks, like writing, calculating, or reading. You may even put a desktop computer on it. All of that is suitable because the purpose of a desk is to enable administrative or office work to be done. A chair’s purpose, on the other hand, is for people to sit on it. Purpose defines furniture.
Romeo: So, does purpose define other things? Does purpose define music? Does purpose define raccoons? Does purpose define “up”? Who says purpose defines furniture, Laz-y-boy? Does your purpose to be annoying define you?
Count Paris: Thanks for that. You are so kind. Purpose often helps us distinguish one item for another, say the difference between a hammer or a flyswatter. They both can kill flies; but if a fly is on your window, I would argue that you ought to take the tool that has as its main purpose swatting flies. But since your purpose is to be irritating and obstinate, you probably won’t take my advice, so hit the fly with anything you want.
Romeo: I’m sorry, but I feel like I am getting the run-around here. Is a statement of purpose and a definition one in the same? I’m not convinced. True, it may be helpful, but I’m not sure it is the defining element of a definition. So, I am still not sure what a chair is.
Friar Laurence: A chair is one of the basic pieces of furniture that generally features two pieces of durable material, one a back and one used as a seat. These two pieces are then attached together at approximately a 90 degree or slightly greater angle. Then, four legs are usually attached to the underside of the seat, one at each of the four corners. However, it is also possible that only a single shaft is attached to the underside, if that single shaft then spreads out near the bottom into four or fire arms onto which rollers can be connected as in an office chair. It is also possible to have three legs or even two curved side legs which would then allow the chair to rock as in a rocking chair. As you can see, there are many options; and you would need to specify exactly what type of chair you are talking about for us to give you a specific definition. However, the main thing to remember is this: a chair is a piece of furniture, generally comprised of a back and a seat used for sitting upon, that may or may not have legs, and is strong enough to support the person who sits on the seat so that they can sit in a comfortable way with their legs bent at knees and their lower legs dangling off the seat in a relaxed fashion. Oh, and by the way, chairs vary in design. An armchair has armrests fixed to the seat; a recliner is upholstered and is able to tilt back; a rocking chair rocks on curved slats; a wheelchair has wheels fixed to an axis under the seat; and a beanbag chair is filled with comfy packing peanuts that engulf you in love as you sit in the chair. And, oh yes, a chair is usually intended for one person which distinguishes it from a couch or a loveseat.
You: Wow! That was really an impressive piece of defining skill. It was like you became a dictionary. You are Dictionary-Man.
Juliet: I was going to say a chair was an inanimate object expressly designed and manufactured for the purpose of having humans sit on it, but your definition is far more comprehensive. Great job!
Count Paris: Indeed, that was spectacular. That really put Romeo in his place. Look at him! He is speechless.
Romeo: No, I’m not speechless. I am trying to figure out how I should now word the letter I am writing. So far this is what I have: “To the inanimate object expressly designed and manufactured for the purpose of having humans sit on it of the Department of History at the University of Maryland.”
You: Wait! What? I am completely confused. Who are you writing to?
Romeo: Well, I was going to send it to the Chair of the Department of History, but I wasn’t exactly sure all that the word “chair” as in “the chair of the department” entailed, and so I asked the question. But this I have learned from all of this: defining things is hard work. Hey, by the way, does anyone know who the second chair violinist is for the Baltimore Symphony? Do you think they bend at 90 degrees, and do you think they are comprised of two pieces? And does anyone know if Hogan is going to chair the meeting this week in Annapolis? And if so, do you think people will try to sit on him? And who is the chair of the FCC these days? Boy, I hope I don’t ever get the chair! They gave my uncle the chair, and it was not a fun day for him at all. He kept screaming, “Hey, does anyone have anything else to sit in, this chair is killing me!”
End Act, Scene, Script
I rest my case. Defining something is hard work. And all of that leads me to this one very important question. I will leave it with you for homework, and we will come back to it next week. The question is: How do you define what a Christian is?