Sociology, Department of


Date of this Version



Copyright 2021 Michael R. Hill


Are there rules capturing the meaning of all possible uses (now, past, and future) of the word “chair”? Ludwig Wittgenstein raised this issue in Section 80 of the Philosophical Investigations where he stated: “I say, ‘There is a chair over there’”. Does “chair” in his utterance mean anything? For myself, this question can be approached autobiographically and chronologically. As a youngster, my earliest understanding of “chair” is reflected in the graphic illustration from a Dick and Jane reader (Figure 1) with re-imagined dialog: “This is a chair”. I understood a chair to be a human-made object — usually constructed from wood — in which to sit, and having parts readily identifiable as “seat”, “back”, and “legs”. ...

What we can say is that languages and language usages change from time to time and place to place, sometimes making reference to vastly different circumstances and customs. My earlier Dick and Jane understanding of “chair” was useful at the time, and was in that useful sense “complete” in that I did not then confront other situations or phenomena to which the word “chair” could be meaningfully applied. What is more, that earlier understanding still serves pretty well in the majority of everyday situations (I do know what is meant if someone who is tired of standing asks me to bring them a chair). As humans, we have the capacity for language, speech, and communication (with Helen Keller being an instructive limiting case) and this, if Wittgenstein is taken seriously, is something to examine closely.