There’s a cliched story about what a philosopher does. The story goes that a professor asks
of his students whether the chair in the front of the classroom exists. One student replies,
“what chair?”, precipitating laughter, then a round of applause, and top accolades from the
faculty because he has, with brevity and wit, soluded three philosophical conundrums in one.
Whoop whoop! Hurrah!
Like all good myths, the story has a core which touches on some truth. What chair indeed?
Well, if you want to refer to a thing, such as a chair, we all ought to be able to agree about
what the hell you’re talking about. That’s the point of referring to anything. But of course, it is
not always easy to know what we are talking about. An inanimate thing with four legs and a
flat top could be a chair, but it could equally be a table, a desk, or a taxi-dermied bear
depending on how you qualify the definition. When faced with the infuriating pedant that is
the philosopher, we mostly go on to say oh gosh but you know what i mean! And most of the
time, of course, we do. But just as exceptions proof rules, so we can examine this
If we try to understand a thing by its definition (a four-legged thing with a flat top) then we run
the risk that we can misinterpret each other. (Imagine that you think of a dead bear whilst I
think of a table). On the other hand, if we try to get to the truth of things by intuition or
feeling, then we may disagree about what a thing is or what is being referred to. This is
because in intuition we do not have a good arbiter and my intuition may well be different
from yours. I feel I know this thing, you feel you know the thing, but relying on our feelings
toward a thing doesn’t reveal anything objective to us, so we may be talking about totally
different things, sometimes without even realising it. This is ultimately because our intuitions
are our own, and broadly inaccessible to others.
So in crudely laying out the difference between knowing-by-definition and
knowing-by-intuition, we have raised a question of epistemology. What is good about
epistemology – the study of knowledge – is that it can be said to presuppose the existence of
Truth, capital ‘T’. And although it seems that much of the ‘culture wars’, if they exist at all, are
down to an epistemic mis-match, it seems obvious to me that everybody talks as if the Truth
exists. In his Metaphysics, Aristotle argues that words (or labels) are correlative reality, not
merely tools in a sophistical or rhetorical game. If words don’t refer to the things they
attempted to grasp, then all the world is lost; we could never discretely express the
difference between this or that or any other thing if words were indeterminate. Indeed he
goes as far as to say that we simply could not communicate unless words do in fact refer to
the things they attempt to grasp. After all, why bother to call a spade a spade if no-one
agreed what a spade was? When people talk, they use words which they intend to have
This may seem esoteric but it is not. The use of words to point to things and distinguish them
from other things is of fundamental utility. It is one of the first technologies that us apes
somehow managed to invent in order to get on in the world, with the business of building
homes and societies and all that human history entails. Some of the things we refer to are
abstract, such as love and justice, and others are concrete, such as hammers and sickles.
Words form because there is a thing in the world that we can either point to or conceptualise
and which it is cathartic to name. It is cathartic because to have some unnamed thing
swirling in the consciousness can create a sort of psychosis, or at the very least a mysticism.
So what has the student deconstructed in his skirmish with the professor, with his question?
The professor asks, ”does this chair exist?” to which the student, after either deep
consideration or cynicism asks, “what chair?”. He has put the professor on the backfoot by
asking a direct question.
The professor must answer in some way. He may retort “You know what I mean”, and of
course everybody knows what the professor means in this instance. The chair is so plain
and clear that it may as well be concrete. But imagine that the topic was not something
physical and so universally understood as a chair. Say he asked, “Does my gender exist?”
How ought we get at the thing he refers to, even if we accept that gender and sex are
distinct and that gender is real? Request the professor’s definition of it? Define it ourselves?
Or should we intuit the thing?
If the professor says “you know what I mean”, the student can justifiably and seriously say
“no i do not.” The attempt to reach the thing has failed because the student and the
professor do not share the same intuition, and so the student is within his rights to be
sceptical even of the thing’s existence. We do this all the time when people claim to have
had religious experiences or to have been abducted by aliens. We may politely accept that
the claimant believes the thing has happened, and yet keep our mind open to the possibility
that the claimant is deceived, and that what he claims does not correspond to reality.
Of the chair, the professor can alternatively say “this four-legged thing I am pointing to right
now”. At that point, so long as we agree that we can point to something and refer to it in a
way that everyone understands and agrees upon, then we can and will agree. But when we
cannot point to a thing, such as is the case with concepts, some serious effort of abstraction
is required even for the most universally accepted general ideas. When the ideas
themselves are not clear, nor then is the corollary apprehension and consideration of it.
So this little urban myth contains no small realisation. It illustrates that we can talk about
something only if we know and agree what we are referring to. And further, if what is being
spoken of is not physical, and we cannot point to it, it is harder to apprehend than a physical
thing that we can point to.
For one thing, to conflate these two types of knowing (one by definition, the other by
intuition), and to state that “the thing is defined by my intuition of it” is an inadequate way to
proceed with a discussion. The way of definition is law-bound to being understood in shared
language. The way of intuition must be subjective, and the communication of it is esoteric
unless it is publicly understood. The attempt to leap from the intuitive internal world to the
external world is the source of all great art. But show me a piece of art that is universally
understood in the same way by its audience and I will show you a word with a clear
definition. This is all to say that one cannot define something esoterically: intuition is internal,
and definition is public.
If the meaning of a thing is universally agreed upon, then it is a defined thing, and any
debate about its meaning is the opposite of clarification; it is the job of a sophist, a jester, an
obfuscator or a scoundrel to begin such a debate.