Philosopher’s Question

A couple of weeks ago, when it was about time for finals, teachers handed out various study guides, practice sheets, vocabulary lists, etc. I got one in particular, a purple ACT practice sheet for the exam coming up that was in the testing format. The sheet was to practice reading nonfiction passages and answering questions, since that was one of the weakest points across the board for the benchmark (pretest) at the beginning of the year.

I thought nothing of it, just a regular testing sheet. The concept of nonfiction tends to hinder my excitement for various reasons, lack of creativity and freedom being among them. The article itself was one about an English philosopher recalling the events that led him to where he is today, from a blue-collar family expected to go into a trade, to a teenage drummer with a passion for music, finally ending as a philosopher.

In the article, he flows from topic to topic, none of which peaked my interest beyond the fact that it was an assignment expected to be completed. Until he presented a question, it’d become robotic, this kind of work.

He mentions the question in a brief sweep: Is an object (and its appearance) the mere sum of its properties or does it somehow lie past them, a structure on which its properties happen to hang? It’s not the exact wording from the article, but I got the question right. The thought peaked my interest, and for all this time, it hung back in my mind, prodding it to get lost in search of an answer. Well, in various bouts of lost thought, I believe I have an answer.

An object is neither the sum of its properties nor a structure for them to hang. Rather, an object goes beyond its properties because of human relations, human reactions, and human nature.

Think about this: a group of students walks into class on their first day, and the teacher tells them to pick any seat. Each student sits down and makes a mental note: I sit here. The teacher never writes up a seating chart, for it doesn’t matter to her where they sit. Each chair is the same, physically, metal legs, plastic seat, grey color etc. All chairs look identical. Now, let’s skip ahead a couple days. Everyone knows where they sit, in the same spot as the day before, but they discover a student is absent. Other students confirm that he is sick and will not be in class.

Now there is a free seat, and the teacher doesn’t care where the students sit. There’s nothing physically stopping another student from taking that chair. They’re all identical chairs, so one is not better than the other. Still, the chair is left alone, the extra seat remaining vacant. Now by the circumstances presented in the question the chair is either a sum of its properties or a structure for them to hang. Here we are presented with a situation where the chair is no longer a chair, but a particular student’s chair. As if by some unspoken rule, everyone leaves it alone even though nothing holds another student back from taking the seat. Human habit, common courtesy, whatever it is, something has been established in everyone’s mind that the chair is not for taking.

Let’s try another example: a recipe. Cooks will often say that if you give the same recipe to three people, it will come out three different ways. From working in a school classroom where the six kitchen stations are exactly the same all the way around the room, I can confirm this.

But take a more commonplace thing, say chicken and rice. Say your mother gives your aunt the recipe and while staying at your aunt’s she makes it for you. Same ingredients, same product, but somehow, when you take a bite, something’s different. It doesn’t taste the way it should, the way you remember it. Even if it’s fantastic, something is still off. In the recesses of your mind you long for the original that only your mother can make for you. The meal is the same physically, yet you wish it’d been your mother’s cooking.

One more: let’s say I give you a list of properties or characteristics for an object. Picture a one strap, blue denim purse with a large zipper pocket. The brown leather pull tab has long since been torn off, leaving only a small silver ring to zip the pocket shut.

Now I can guarantee everyone who happens to read this will come up with similar, but slightly different variations of the purse I described. Different shades of blue and brown, different locations of the pocket, different style for the purse’s appearance altogether. Even if I could somehow describe the purse in such detail that every reader will come up with the same picture, each reader has, beyond a doubt, taken possession of the mental picture in their heads as their own.

An object or product isn’t the sum of its properties or a mere structure. Any given object lies beyond its collective properties because of human perception and reaction. An object isn’t just an object. The chair isn’t just a chair; it’s his chair. The recipe isn’t a recipe, but my mother’s recipe, and her cooking. The purse isn’t a purse, rather my, your, her, his purse.

If you still don’t believe me, take these words. All of them on this post, they’re my words. I do not own the English language. There is nothing physically stopping you from taking these words, copying them, pasting them, and calling them yours. Yet only my mind could’ve worded this exactly as I did. Because I typed these words, they somehow became mine. Even if the words by themselves are only collections of letters, combined to make words, phrases, paragraphs, thoughts. Even if I do not own the English language, these words are mine and mine alone, and as if by some common decency, you feel compelled to leave them as they are.

Because I made the object, it is no longer just an object.

Conclusion reached: January 23, 2016

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