Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Dooyeweerd's Philosophy of Furniture

I think I mentioned a while ago that I'm reading Dooyeweerd's New Critique of Theoretical Thought. I have read it before, but it was some years back; and I find that there's a great deal in it that I didn't remember at all. This isn't really surprising, given how large the book is. I don't find his history of philosophy any more persuasive than I did when I first read it -- I think a great deal of it is inaccurate (which is not to say that there aren't really great moments of insight; anyone who recognizes the importance of the Alciphron to understanding Berkeley's thought gets massive kudos in my book, even if he overestimates the degree to which it represents a break from Berkeley's earlier work). Unsurprisingly, I think his account of Aquinas is off, although given the resources he was drawing on, understandably so; and as a Thomist of sorts, I have the gut reaction to much of it that any Thomist would have to the philosophy of the cosmonomic Idea, namely, that it's great as far as it goes, but makes the typical modernist mistake of confusing descriptions of human experience with descriptions of the real world, that, indeed, it is saved from being merely secularist nonsense in this regard almost entirely by the fact that tries to accommodate within that framework a Christian view of the world. Having an imagination that does a good job of sympathizing widely, I fully recognize, of course, that such a description would drive a Dooyeweerdian as crazy as Dooyeweerd's descriptions of Thomism do, and that this is in some sense just Dooyeweerd's view of Thomism seen in the opposite direction, and an artifact of the fact that both camps see themselves as solid, even if improvable, examples of Christian philosophy (where that is understood as necessarily Catholic in the one case and necessarily Reformed in the other).

But I am digressing, and getting into subjects that would eat up many, many posts on their own. One of the things that makes Dooyeweerd a great philosopher is that he doesn't merely retread old paths. Indeed, one of the strengths of his philosophy, and particularly of the doctrine of modal spheres, is that it forces him to take a more comprehensive view of human life, and this leads him to discuss philosophically things that are often not discussed much by philosophers. A good example of this is his discussion of furniture (in volume 3 of the Freeman-Jongste translation). In fact, in this context Dooyeweerd expressly discusses this:

This may seem to be a trivial subject. Does it really imply philosophical problems?...Is it, in other words, necessary for philosophy to lose itself into a detailed examination of the typcial structures of such things as these?

We can reply that our philosophy cannot neglect the things of naive experience....Any resemblance of triviality is the result of the attitude of apostate human consciousness casting its shadow over the richness of God's creation and levelling out its structural particularities in the monotonous uniformities of general schemes. Naive experience, when viewed in the light of Divine Revelation, becomes rich in meaning. (p. 128)


So what richness of meaning do we find in tables and chairs? Like aesthetic objects, furniture is "formed out of specific materials in accordance with a free human project" (p. 129). We have a set of materials, with their own physical and chemical features, and these physical and chemical features are taken in hand (so to speak) by the artisan and used to fulfill the artisan's design. In Dooyeweerd's terminology this is called enkaptic binding: the structures involved in its being the material it is are 'enkaptically bound' to the structures involved in its being the object of use it is made to be; and the latter depends crucially on the former.

Let's confine our attention for a moment to wood furniture. Wood comes from trees; and the most salient fact about trees is that they are living things -- in Dooyeweerd's terminology, their qualifying or leading function is biotic. But, of course, once we take it from the tree the cells begin to die; this physico-chemical aspect of the wood is no longer 'enkaptically bound' in the living tree. So the most salient facts about the wood are simply facts about its physics and chemistry; and thus its 'qualifying function' is physico-chemical. However, it's also fairly clear that wood retains some sort of secondary relation to the original biotic function; after all, oak wood is very different from, say, chestnut wood, whether it's on the tree or off. The way Dooyeweerd calls this its variability-type: oak wood betrays the fact that it came from an oak, even though it no longer has a number of key features that it had when it was part of the living oak, and even though its organs have lost their standard functions (the capillaries no longer conducting water to where the tree needs it, for instance).

One can, of course, simply use this wood to build your furniture with. But for a number of reasons, not least of which is durability, we usually prefer to refine it into a technical product (e.g., we treat it and saw it into planks). In so doing the wood becomes 'enkaptically bound' to a different type of structure, and begins to take on a function in the 'cultural' or 'historical' modality. (The historical modality has to do with the formation and production of things, and so includes, among other things, technology and handicraft.) We might say, loosely, that its wood-ness is 'enkaptically bound' to its plank-ness.

I said however, that it begins to take on a function in the historical modality. In fact, a wooden plank is not much of anything; it's just materials, like the original wood, made a bit more ready to be used, and it's only when it is used that it really takes on a new kind of function. Dooyeweerd refers to it as a "semi-formed technical product". As a plank it has a cultural destination, we might say; its most salient feature is that it is a physico-chemical product suitable for cultural use.

Now, when we take this suitable wood-material and make it into a chair, it is clear enough that the chair-aspect is not the same as the wood-aspect; you can make a chair out of all sorts of different materials, so while you need some materials to have a chair, being a chair involves taking on features that are not simply identical with any features of the materials used to make it. There is a sense, of course, in which a wooden chair just is its wood. The way Dooyeweerd cashes this out is by distinguishing between subjective functions and objective functions. The chair's ultimate subjective function is physico-chemical; we get the other functions not by considering it as a subject but by considering it as an object.

Like everything in the world, a chair has some sort of function in all the modalities. It has mathematical features, for instance, that are necessary conditions for its functioning as furniture. But we notice a curious thing here. For the mathematical features of a chair, while necessary for its functioning as a chair, depend in a way on its being a chair. We might say the artisan picks out these mathematical specifications rather than those in order to make it the right sort of chair. As Dooyeweerd says, "they are freely projected in the internal conception of their designer, and are realized in the actual thing by a free formative activity" (p. 133). To function as furniture presupposes mathematical and spatial characteristics; but the particular mathematical and spatial characteristics the furniture has is chosen in order to fulfill the function of being furniture.

We find the same thing when we look to its dynamical features. To function as a chair presupposes, for instance, certain load-bearing properties; but these are freely chosen precisely so that they may subserve the function of being a chair. The fact that the wooden materials were capable of bearing such-and-such load meant that their physical aspect had an anticipatory potentiality for certain technical functions. They're a good fit; they cohere well.

Chairs are designed to accommodate themselves to the human body. Well, at least good chairs are designed to accommodate themselves to the human body; they serve as objects for human biotic functions by giving us rest and support, and are specifically designed to do so. But, of course, they don't serve as objects for just any human biotic functions. They serve as objects for human biotic functions insofar as they anticipate certain cultural functions. We build chairs not merely to have something to sit on -- rocks and floors would do for that -- but to facilitate civilized life. You can sit on rocks of a certain shape in much the same way you do a chair; but the chair is more suitable for playing certain roles, like being part of a dining set, or lounging on while you read or watch TV, and this, of course, is entirely deliberate. Chairs are not mere seats; they are historical objects, elements of human culture, features of our particular form of civilization.

But, of course, even within chairs the exact character of this will vary depending on what, precisely, we have in mind, and this will be even more true of furniture in general. As Dooyeweerd puts it,

The typical objective destination of furniture is inseparably interwoven with the entire arrangement of a human dwelling. The further differentiation of the structural type, table or chair, depends upon whether they are to furnish a living-room, kitchen, garden, library, restaurant, office, etc. (p. 137)


One of the things this brings us up against is that, however beautiful, there's a very straightforward sense in which a real chair is not a work of art. That is, it may be a 'work of art' in a loose sense, but it will never really be a work of art in the sense that this is its leading function. It will have an aesthetic function if done by a great artist; but if it's well-made as a chair, this is not, and cannot be, its dominant function. It can be stunningly beautiful; but this beauty is a 'bound' beauty, i.e., it is bound over to serve a function other than just being beautiful. Chairs are not art for art's sake. This shouldn't be taken to minimize the aesthetic aspect of the chair; the aesthetic aspect of furniture, that is, the furniture-style, has a real importance. After all, you'll often want your dining set to match, rather than just look like it was a sort of yard sale accident. You don't want to try to make a Louis XIV arm-chair serve the function of a lawn chair; the style, the beauty, subserves the function of being a chair, but it's not a style or beauty that you want in a lawn-chair. Similarly, even a very elegantly designed wooden-lawn chair just won't work in a formal waiting-room in the Palace of Versailles.

The Louis XIV arm-chair is interesting in that it is not just any sort of chair, nor indeed just any sort of arm-chair. It's the sort of arm-chair designed to express a society. It's an arm-chair designed to put you in your place; it thus in some sense serves a social function, since you wouldn't generally want a Louis XIV arm-chair except where you were trying to overwhelm people with how rich and powerful you are. We're told that when Benjamin Franklin visited Versailles he was utterly shocked by all the materials put to no use but to look fancy; and we could very well have a similar response to the Louis XIV arm-chair. It's beautiful certainly, and it has not sacrificed all use; but with it we're starting to reach a point where a flawed society is trying to make a chair not be a chair just in order to prove a point. Being a chair is beginning to take back-seat to being flashy and ostentatious. Dooyeweerd suggests that in this case we're starting to lose the distinction between furniture and architecture: the arm-chair is to some extent just a less durable and more detachable part of the building.

But this begins to bring us to a problem. I can take a chair, say, the chair George Washington sat in, and not use it as a chair. I can, for instance, put it in a museum as a display-piece. This is a distinct subjective purpose for it. We can say that this is rather different from the 'objective destination' of the chair; after all, I'm still fully aware that it is a chair, because the whole reason I'm putting it on display is that it is a chair, one of a particular sort. But is this too simple? The objective destination of a church is religious; but sometimes churches devolve into museums. They are given a different destination. In a sense the religious function has been deactivated. We can still say it is there, because it was given to it by design; but we are no longer able to activate it, any more than we are any longer able to activate the suit of armor in the museum as a major element in war. Thus, says Dooyeweerd, we should distinguish

(1) the intentional representational relation (as we find it in its being formed as the object it is by the designer, according to the designer's design)
(2) the explicational relation (as we find it in the object's having the objective character it does within human experience)
(3) the actualization relation (as we find it in the object's being used according to its various functionalities)

Dooyeweerd suggests that the church that has become a museum hasn't changed its original character; the intentional and the explicational relations are both unchanged. Rather, our practical relation to it has changed, that is to say, the actualization of it has shifted, since certain of its functionalities have become deactivated. Think of a robot: a robot's a robot whether it's being used as a robot or as a garden-piece, but in the former case its functionality as a robot has been activated, whereas in the latter case its functionality as a robot has been deactivated. When I take a chair and put it in a museum, it's still a chair; I've just deactivated its full functionality as a chair.

That gives some notion, I hope, of the sort of philosophical reflection we have on chairs. Actually, of course, we've only touched the surface; we've only discussed the chair's existence in a handful of modalities, so there are plenty of enkaptic bindings and anticipatory potentialities we haven't explored. But what we've done should be enough to see some of the richness of the sort of philosophical reflection Dooyeweerd thinks we should bring to bear even on something that most people would normally think too trivial for serious philosophical reflection: furniture.

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