Does the Chair Really Have a Secret?


John Read


Structuralism found its impetus with the societal metamorphosis of the fin de siècle generation, which found itself, on the eve of World War I suddenly questioning the very structures of all formal institutions.  To many, it seemed that the Western world had come under the scrutiny of a paradoxical, scientific and neo-romantic structure that could be detected throughout all analytical disciplines.  This idea of structure would permeate several fields, including biology, language, literature, and eventually filter down to the interpretations of history.  By the post-war era, structuralism had become an identifiable set of theories, focused on the study of the inherent structures within our cultural products utilizing analytical concepts which include the text of linguistics, psychology, history and so on.

Within these structures is where we find our chair.  Its physical structure could consist of a myriad of styles, shapes or materials. From its atomic structure to its atomized finish, it provides a function of interconnected parts which are recognized as a system of structures. Thus, a chair is physically recognized cross-culturally as a system function that has a structure.  Its purpose is to comfortably fit a multitude of derrieres that reside in the here and now, without any perceived metaphysical or aesthetic attributes.

Classifications, however, are of human construct.  The notion of the “chair” was designed solely to convey a set of accessible cognitive signs that easily communicates simple information.  This, too, is a structure of linguistics, syntax and semantics that represents a timeless construct of spatiotemporally.[1]

As the very first humans had discovered, one could sit on rocks or logs; chairs would come later. Nevertheless, the very first idea of sitting on an object and the very first guttural utterances preserved the symbolic structure of our chair. So, it is through the metaphorical relationship of sign that our chair takes life.  No longer do we have to look at it as a cold material object, whose atomic molecules move imperceptibly too slow for existence categorization.  Our chair lives in the here and now, therefore we can submit it lived in the “before now.” The “ideality and living presence in all its forms is living speech, the spirituality of the breath as phŏnĕ; and on the other hand, that phenomenology, the metaphysics of presence in the form of ideality, is also a philosophy of life.”[2]  It is our universal linguistic “difference that preserves language.”[3]

Yet, it is when we explore our chair within the boundaries of the phenomena of communication that meaning can become hidden or subjective. Our internal construct of our sign comes in conflict with the “intimate possibility of a relation to a beyond and to an outside.”[4]  In understanding our chair, we must understand the “essence of the intentional consciousness [that] will only be revealed in the reduction of the totality of the existing world in general.”[5]  Accordingly, the sentence “Does the chair really have a secret?” has no real linguistic meaning.  It is only when we break down this sentence into individual words that we have real or ideal content.  I know what a chair is, so therefore, I can relate my here and now meaning to a timeless understanding.  Conversely, taken holistically in the view of syntax of structure, our sentence on the surface, fails to express a functionality of meaning.

It is here at this point, that I believe Jacques Derrida, the eminent French deconstructionalist, is wrong in refuting Husserl’s concept of sign.  Derrida pronounces that, “we must already have a precomprehension of the essence, the function or essential structure of the sign in general.”  Derrida continues: “Beyond the opposition of ‘idealism,’ and ‘realism,’ ‘subjectivism,’ and ‘objectivism,’ etc., transcendentalism phenomenological idealism answers to the necessity of describing the objectivity of the object.”[6]  Therefore, I submit as an example, if during my historical research of second century China, I view an object which resembles a wheelbarrow.[7]  My initial cognitive attributes, however, assign its meaning as a chair.  Then through further research, I realize that my attaching a precomprehension of a chair was wrong. This must mean that sign and language meanings are transitory. Moreover, the wheelbarrow could have functioned as a chair. Albeit uncomfortable, many jobsite workers still use it as a chair in the here and now.  Thus, sign is an expression of individual noema, intuitive and subjective in origin.  Or, "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet."[8]  Our post-structuralist perspective clearly relies heavily on our concept of selfhood.  If we are doomed to a fictional relationship in discovering a perceived truth between text and self, then our answers come from the structure of the here and now. 

Structuralists continued to wrestle with these questions about the transitive property of signs and argued over the many possible answers. By mid-century, Structuralism faced What's New external challenges of interpreting structures. The field split, producing two other sets of theories: post-structuralism and post-modernism, each developing their own interpretation of origins and functionality. 

The American historian, Gertrude Himmelfarb, has defined post-modernism as “a denial of the fixity of language, of any correspondence between language and reality, indeed of any ‘essential’ reality and thus of any proximate truth about reality.” She continues by stating, “In history, it is a denial of the fixity of the past, of the reality of the past apart from what the historian chooses to make of it, and thus of any objective truth of about the past.” “Post-modernist history, one might say, recognizes no reality principle, only the pleasure principle.”[9]  Post-modernism is an idea that implies a very slippery slope concept in which our modern concept of the here and now is only a relative perspective, and reality is the subjective construct of providing an anarchic demographic and psychographic reduction into absurdity. According to Himmelfarb’s definition, our chair no longer has a secret, for it no longer exists as a chair.  Text of its relevance is a denial of its objective truth.[10]

The British historian, Sir Geoffrey Elton starts the return of our circular journey of conservative, historical chair analysis. Elton states: “People have usually sought in history a justification for their convictions and prejudices; whole nations have over the centuries lived in cocoons of convenient myths the demolition of which they very much resent.” “…but supposed truths proved in historical writings which are in fact probably untrue but have gained their hold by being comforting to some ascendant political or ethnic structure or to some emotional need.”[11]  Our poor chair finally has a champion.  No longer will it suffer the post-modernist categorization or, to be denied.   Our chair exists, for “[i]t is only by providing as truthful an understanding of the past as we can obtain that we can offer to the present a past which can be useful to the present, a past from which it can learn.”[12]

We next turn to Dominick LaCapra, Professor of History and Human Studies, to help us explain our question, “does the chair really have a secret?”  LaCapra would be searching for the textual-contextual nature of the internal dialogue in which our chair originally existed.  It seems likely that he would suggest that the textual nature of our chair sentence is ironic.  He forces us to read and think about our chair as intellectual history, by looking at the structural ways historians themselves are involved in making sense of text and questioning the historians’ right of contextual omniscience in the narrative.

Our chair’s journey will end with the post-modernist views of Hayden White’s contextual discipline of emplotment.  We will start with satire that sees only meaningless change in human life. In the case of our chair, it has changed little since its inception.  Being a chair, its view of human affairs would display no pattern and if it did, it would for the most part, see that they are governed by folly and chance.  Our chair’s mode of argument would be organicist.  For it assumes that individual units are determined by their place in a larger whole and by a common spirit. Our chair’s mode of ideology would be strictly conservative.  Being a chair it could not possibly have any other logical preconceptions, other then that everything must turn out okay in the end.[13]

So in the end, the chair does have a secret, but chairs being chairs and therefore inanimate objects, will not tell their secret. Yet nevertheless, we can only guess that their secret would rest on the metaphoric social representation and interaction with humanity.



[1]  Jacques Derrida, Speech and Phenomena And Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973), xv. .

[2] Derrida, 11.

[3] Derrida, 14.

[4] Derrida, 22.

[5] Derrida, 22.

[6] Derrida, 22-23.

[7] http://www.What's  Visited on 15 Dec. 06

[8] From Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

[9] Keith Jenkins, The Postmodern History Reader. Telling it as you like it: postmodernist history and the flight from fact  (London: Routledge,1997), 158

[10] Jenkins, 164

[11] Jenkins, 174

[12] Jenkins, 178

[13]  Visited on 15 Dec. 06