The Ontology of Everyday Life (1)

Well, “everyday” for me. Yes, believe it or not, this is the first installment in yet another one of my series that never quite sees completion. I have no idea how, or if, this one ends, but it was inspired (or counter-inspired) by a footnote on the definition of “table” in Michael Huemer’s Ethical Intutionism (p. 280, footnote 6, keyed to text in chapter 8, around p. 201). Huemer is not responsible for my wholesale rejection of his views on this matter. But I’ll get to that disagreement in a future installment. This post is mere philosophical groundclearing for the construction of that forthcoming “promenade among the grandeurs of the mind.”*

Here, from the OR where I work, is a photo of a table.

A steel table with wheels. Note the glossy shine on the floor, btw. Guess who mopped it?

This object below, not far from the table–both in proximity and appearance–is a cart.

A cart. The lack of shine on the floor here is an illusion produced by poor lighting, a topic famously discussed by Frank Jackson in From Metaphysics to Ethics.

What’s the difference? Is there a difference that justifies calling the one thing a “table,” and the other thing a “cart”? Because rest assured, the one thing is called a “table,” and the other is called a “cart.” Indeed, my supervisor insists that “That is a table,” and “That is a cart” are truth-apt expressions, with the further implication (tacit, subtle, and yet fully real) that the table/cart distinction is not merely stipulative, but a fact about the furniture of the universe, or at least of the OR. It follows that if I’m asked to bring a table somewhere, and instead bring a cart (or vice versa), I will have done something wrong by his lights. And call me a brainwashed lackey of Late Capitalist Neoliberalism, but I agree with him. What on Earth is going on here?

Now, this is what’s known as a “fracture table.” It’s called a “table,” but it seems more like a big cart to me than a table. So I appeal to my readers: which is it? Cart? Or table? Or is there no right answer?

A fracture table, or perhaps a fracture “table”

Roderick Long (Philosophy, Auburn) has suggested (in a raging debate we’re having on Facebook) that a fracture table is a species of chaise lounge, but that doesn’t quite cohere with my intuitions. Offhand, I can’t think of anyone whose intuitions would cohere with that claim, but I admit to living a somewhat sheltered life.

Instead of tediously explaining what a fracture table is, I offer this video for your viewing pleasure. A few minutes’ viewing should be enough to get the main point across, unless you want a job setting fracture tables up in the OR, in which case I merely ask that you not take my job away from me, given the time and energy I’ve invested in it.

Yes, I’m actually writing a paper on this, and yes, it won’t be published in the Review of Metaphysics. But still. It’s the thought that counts.

All responses will be recorded for quality assurance purposes.

I’m kidding. All commenters will be mentioned in a footnote in my forthcoming paper that no one will ever publish or even read.


*Wallace Stevens, from “Esthetique du Mal.”

4 thoughts on “The Ontology of Everyday Life (1)

  1. I too am not clear on the distinction. It seems that if we want to allow that the distinction is real and not merely stipulative then presumably there are some essential properties that one has which the other lacks, and vice versa, each of which is sufficient to explain why it deserves the name of a cart or a table. But both the table and the cart – in your images – seem to have very similar or identical properties which do not provide clear conditions for each label.

    On the face of it, one might be tempted to distinguish a cart from a table by virtue of its wheels, and presumably easier mobility, but this wouldn’t do, given that both have wheels. Instead, one may opt for a functional difference. The cart is designed to be mobile and move around frequently, even if it doesn’t, whereas the table is designed to be more stable, even if it moved around frequently. But I am not sure if that is sufficient, given that the orders you receive to bring both may suggest they are both intended for easy mobility.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the comment. My post is somewhat artificial and misleading, since it follows Huemer’s discussion (which I regard as artificial and misleading), and it’s intended only to present a bite-sized snippet of the issue I’m discussing in the paper. Obviously, this is a paper that makes an ontological mountain out of a relatively small molehill.

      I think the answer you give in your second paragraph solves the problem. I’m having a parallel discussion on Facebook, and a few people proposed the same or a similar solution, which confirmed my prior sense that it is the solution.

      The cart is designed to be mobile and move around frequently, even if it doesn’t, whereas the table is designed to be more stable, even if it moved around frequently. But I am not sure if that is sufficient, given that the orders you receive to bring both may suggest they are both intended for easy mobility.

      I think your first sentence captures the basic contrast. The contrast is a matter of degree: carts are designed for constant movement; tables may be designed for movement, but are (vis-a-vis carts) relatively stationary. In a sense, one grasps the contrast best by grasping the functional relationship between tables and carts where both are present (as they are in a hospital operating room).

      A cart is something one moves all over the OR. A table has to be movable, but is not meant to be moved far from the room in which it’s located. From this perspective, the so-called “fracture table” is not a table at all, but a cart. One has to move it from the equipment room to any operating theater in the surgical department. But a table stays in a particular operating theater. It’s only moved if it happens to be in the way of something that someone needs, or if the cleaner needs to move it to clean under or around it. At most, a table is moved a few yards. A cart could in principle be moved all over the hospital.

      To answer your second question: the difference in degree of mobility is sufficient because the (valid) orders we get to move each object correspond to its intended degree of mobility. We’re asked to move carts all over the place, but only asked to move a table a few yards here and there.

      Occasionally, one does get an order to move a table in the way one might move a cart, but two things can be said about this. First, in such cases, I think one can say that one is slightly misusing the table so as to transform it into a cart. Second, in extreme cases, I would say that such an order would be illegitimate.

      Example: linen is best transported in a linen cart, but occasionally (for lack of availability of a linen cart) is transported on a table. The problem is, it falls off! Tables aren’t well designed to transport linen. You have to cradle the piles of linen on the table to ensure that they don’t fall off. Why? Because a table is not a cart, and not a linen cart. (Even non-linen carts are better than tables for this purpose.)

      If my supervisor insisted that we use a table rather than a cart for transporting linen even when linen carts were available, that would be an illegitimate directive. It wouldn’t tell us anything about the objects in question, tables and carts. It’s just an idiosyncratic order on his part. (He’s never done this, by the way, in case anyone at Hunterdon Medical Center is reading this. It’s just a hypothetical example.)

      All of that to say that you are right!

      I belabor all of these issues in a paper because I think there are interesting methodological issues at stake, issues to which analytic philosophers (supposedly fixated on analysis, or definition) are often blind.

      Here is just one example of many I discuss in the paper. Huemer is defending ethical intuitionism. His larger point is that many ethical terms are indefinable. To press home this point, he uses the example of tables (not clear why what’s true of “table” should clarify what’s true of ethical terms, but set that aside). He cites a definition of “table” (Ayn Rand’s, in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 41), acknowledges its initial plausibility, then adduces a series of counter-examples to it, intended to show that it doesn’t work. I happen to agree that Rand’s definition doesn’t work, but don’t think that any of Huemer’s counter-examples work, either.

      Rand defines “table” by claiming that tables have a distinctive visual shape: “An item of furniture, consisting of a flat, level surface and supports, intended to support other, smaller objects” (IOE, p. 41). Though the latter clause makes reference to an intended function, Rand’s entire discussion fixates on visual shape. The definition ignores the fact that tables have a function beyond the support of objects. They also facilitate activities.

      The genus of Rand’s definition is “item of furniture.” Though she’s not particularly clear about it, Rand implies that “furniture” is a sort of household good (IOE, p. 22). Yet one of Huemer’s counter-examples is “operating table.” But an operating table is not furniture; it’s not a household good. So it’s not part of the intended scope of Rand’s definition. Beyond that, there is no such thing as “an operating table.” There are many different kinds of things that go by that name. The generic “operating table” is not a table at all. It’s a bed. So “operating table” is simply a misnomer in that case. There are operating tables that are more table-like than the generic operating bed, but those are specialized devices or pieces of equipment (not furniture), and it’s not at all clear why a definition of “table” as an item of furniture would have to apply to, say, a Jackson spinal table in an operating room.

      Perhaps we need a definition of “table” that encompasses both furniture and specialized devices, but that would take argument that Huemer doesn’t give.

      Precisely because “household good” is a vague concept, it seems to me that we ought to accept a certain vagueness in our definitions of household goods. In other words, it is not a defect of such a definition that it admits of counter-examples here and there, as long as it does the job of differentiating fundamentally dissimilar things in a workable way. Nor is there any point in trying to tighten the definition of “household good” to tighten that of “furniture” to tighten that of “table” so as to be counter-example proof. No useful purpose is achieved by doing that. The attempt (and the expectation involved) violates Aristotle’s dictum that we ought to seek the level of precision (akribeia) appropriate to the subject-matter. My view is that Huemer violates that, as do many analytic philosophers.

      One very last point. I don’t remember whether or not you speak Farsi, but there’s a phenomenon on Urdu that I think of as “duplicated genus phenomenon.” In cases like this, you have a genus term, X, which is differentiated into species. Oddly enough, one of the species has the same name as the genus term. The Urdu example I have in mind is “shair” (pronounced “share”), which refers both to the genus of big cats and specifically to lions (as distinct from tigers, leopards, and cheetahs).

      My hunch is that something similar is happening with “table.” There is a generic concept for items of furniture with flat surfaces intended to support things. In this sense, both beds and (ordinary) tables are generic tables. But then there’s the species of generic tables that is to be distinguished from a bed or a bookshelf. It follows that if someone asks, “Is a bed a table?”, there is a sense in which the answer is “yes.”

      Understood in this way, the cart/table distinction may be illusory. It could just be that carts are a specialized sort of table, more movable than the ordinary kind, but ultimately still tables.

      It is hard to believe that I am spinning out a whole paper on this, but I am. There ought to be a word for such endeavors. The adjective is “quixotic,” but I’m looking for a noun.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s extremely impressive that you are capable of spinning a whole paper from this. Your philosophical skills have not diminished at the hospital, or perhaps they have been positively enhanced!

    “To answer your second question: the difference in degree of mobility is sufficient because the (valid) orders we get to move each object correspond to its intended degree of mobility. We’re asked to move carts all over the place, but only asked to move a table a few yards here and there.”

    Excellent, this does seem sufficient and adequately solves it. I do wonder if an Aristotelian distinction between natural kinds and artifacts will also aid in these reflections. We ought not to expect – as you rightly point out – more precision in the matter than the subject allows. Given that artifacts are products of human design, correctly distinguishing between them must first and foremost rely on the functional outcomes intended by the designer.

    If the primary functional intention is to place things on it, then it is a table (admittedly a loose definition), but if it is also designed so that it be extremely mobile, beyond very short distances, it may be helpful to label it with a different name, hence a cart. The cart performs the functions of a table but in a very specific way so it makes sense to highlight this particular function over and above its table functions. This would then fit the exact distinctions you invoked about carts being specialized tables.

    I do speak Farsi and Arabic, and I think such a phenomenon is not unusual in Arabic. For example, السبع, is one of the names of a lion but also used for any ferocious animals with teeth that attack humans and cattle, like lions, tigers, wolves, wild dogs, etc.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for all of your thoughts on this. I haven’t quite spun the paper out yet, so let’s see what happens!

      I have to sit down and brainstorm examples of “duplicate genera” in English. One example I thought of was “stretcher.” Generically, a stretcher is a medical device, wheeled or without wheels, for transporting patients in a prone position. Specifically, a “gurney” is a wheeled stretcher, and the word “stretcher” is sometimes reserved for the version of the device that lacks wheels. A more specific sort of stretcher is a “backboard,” designed for immobilizing the back (in case of spinal injuries).

      But I’d prefer to have more ordinary examples. I know they’re out there, but I can’t think of them offhand.

      Liked by 1 person

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